Thursday, September 30, 2010

Pug food obsessions: To treat or not to treat?

Liam the pug waiting for his dog treat
Liam adores cookies, treats, leftovers and high-cal chew toys.  Wave novel food in his vicinity, and you will have a friend for life.

Pugs do not have fast metabolisms, as a rule.  Most pugs are overweight now, or well on their way to pudgy in the future.  I know the average dog treat is the caloric equivalent of a candy bar for me:  something I should only have on a special occasion if I have been very, very good.

However, I enjoy watching Liam enjoy himself.  I like watching his eyes widen when he things he's going to get something really, really good.  And I like to be the person who provides that really, really good thing.

So I give him treats and cookies.  Sometimes I let him lick the plate.  I do keep things in moderation, and he is far from fat, but a little voice inside me does say, from time to time, that I wish I could throw caution to the wind.  I'll eat a candy bar every day.  He will eat treats and leftovers whenever he pleases.  And when we get too big to fit through the door, we'll order in.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Spiders: My companions on fall walks with the dogs

Spider hanging from his web
My early morning walk with Liam is usually one of the most enjoyable parts of my day.  I drink my coffee and listen to NPR on the headphones while Liam scampers alongside.  This time of year, however, the morning walks also involve bending, ducking, and alternately, screeching, swatting and shivering. 

Every fall, it seems that our neighborhood is overrun large, striped, fast-moving spiders that like to build webs across our doorways and walkways.  I asked Jean R. Natter, Volunteer Faculty with the OSU Extension Office, if there were truly more big spiders out and about in the fall.  Natter’s response, “I'm not aware of any official numbers, but I suspect not… The spiders are more conspicuous at this time of year because they have grown considerably larger since they hatched either this spring or the spring prior to that.  In other words, when they were younger, their webs were smaller than they currently are, thus were less noticeable.”

My first inclination upon seeing these spiders is to whack them into oblivion.  However, Natter recommends leaving them in the yard.  They do, as she says, “…help limit the pesky insects that annoy us and occasionally damage our gardens and landscapes.”  And I know that killing one spider just makes room for another spider to move in and make a home.  So I have moved a broom by the back door, so I can move the more egregious webs that I can reach, and I am practicing my limbo moves for the morning walks.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

What's it like to care for a feral cat?

running feral cat
I had known Franklin for 6 months before I knew he had blue eyes.  I knew he had lush orange-and-white fur and a full tail, as this was often on display as he ran away from me.  But it took him a full 6 months to meet my eyes without fleeing.

Franklin is completely feral.  I have never touched him.  I don't know that I will ever be able to touch him, even though I feed him, wash his bedding and clean out his water dish.  Even though I take care of him, he is still afraid.

This cat was trapped and brought to our household, to protect him from being euthanized as part of a warehouse "cleanup" program.  My husband and I don't know what happened to him at that warehouse, but it has left him scared and scarred.

Taking care of a cat like Franklin is difficult, to say the least.  We cannot give him any kind of monthly flea treatment, as we cannot get near enough to him to pet him.  We cannot treat him with medications if he falls ill -- we can't even get him to the veterinarian if we wanted to.  And we cannot provide him with intangibles such as love and companionship and security.  He doesn't trust us enough.

What we can do is provide him with a warm place to sleep, with food two times per day and with our promise that we will not exterminate him in the name of cleanliness.  Sometimes, that seems like enough.

Monday, September 27, 2010

4 types of dog toys Liam the pug (and his human) cannot live without

Shopping for dog toys isn't easy, as it seems like there are hundreds of thousands of options out there, and most canines have very specific ideas about what they like and dislike in the things they play with.

I thought it might be helpful to outline a few of the toys Liam the pug really loves, along with some links to replicas, in case you want to buy some of your own.

So here we go: Liam's favorite types of dog toys! (Note that this page contains affiliate links. If you click them, I get a bit of profit at no added cost to you.)

1. Stuffed toys   

pug and stuffed dog toys

These toys allow for vigorous play: head shaking, tug of war, digging to disembowel, and heavy chewing. When Liam has worn himself out, these toys also make great pillows he can rest his massive head upon.

While he loves these things, I do not let him play unsupervised, as most stuffed toys are filled with a polyester filling that can block up an animal's digestive tract.

Good option: Kyjen PP01001 Oakley The Octopus Dog Toys Plush Squeak Flappy Dog Toy, Large, Blue

2.  Chewing toys

All dogs love to chew. And we pup owners should let them do it, too. After all, dogs that chew on toys might be dogs that leave our favorite pieces of clothing alone. Everyone wins!

Study chew toys can also be left with a pup while you're out and running around, as it keeps the wee ones busy without much of a choking hazard.

Good option: Nylabone Just For Puppies Medium Key Ring Bone Puppy Dog Teething Chew Toy

3.  Puzzle toys

puppy and dog bed

Puzzle toys are made to keep a dog's mind occupied while you're out and running around. These toys can be filled with cookies, cheese, liver treats, peanut butter or other snacks, and dog's task is to remove the treat. A teaspoon of peanut butter in a toy like this can keep Liam occupied for at least an hour.

Good option:  KONG Classic Dog Toy

4.  Fetch dog toys

Pug blind cat and tennis ball

Fetch is a favorite game of pugs like Liam. And I prefer tennis balls, because they bounce, they're very difficult to puncture, and they're easy to clean.  Liam likes them because they move unpredictably on hardwood floors, and because he can almost fit one inside his mouth.

Good option:  Penn Championship XD Tennis Balls

Here's to happy shopping for your pups!

Disclosure: Some product links in this post are “affiliate links.” If you click on them and make a purchase, I'll get a commission. Rest assured that I only recommend products that I believe provide real value. This disclosure comes in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Is your cat a furry toy or wild and crazy animal?

cat in a costume
Next to my keyboard at work, I have a picture of my cat in his Halloween costume. I have been known to put him on the phone to talk to his grandparents. At Christmastime, he receives multiple presents that I sprinkle with catnip, so he'll be encouraged to open them. I have one bed; my cat has 4 and I know at least two of them are softer and more comfortable than mine.

I always thought of my cat as a toy somehow come to life--something I could cuddle and snuggle who also had cute and playful thoughts that I could also support.

I'd gone to the grocery store for just a few minutes (the brevity of this visit makes me thankful even now) and came home to find him strung up in my blinds. Somehow the cords that move the blinds up and down had gotten twisted. My cat had probably been jumping down off the windowsill and managed to jump through the perfect loop made by the twist. His front feet were on the ground, but his hips were twisted in the cords and his back feet hung inches off the floor. There was blood, and pee, and he was making a terrible, keening, wailing noise.

I have worked in veterinary clinics for years. I know that rule one is never, ever touch a panicked animal in pain with your bare hands. But, I thought, this is certainly different. This is my own cat, my snugly guy, so the rules must change.

So I ran to him, both hands outstretched. And, shockingly, he bit me. The first bites were on my left hand, a few on the top and a few on the bottom. And then he simply clamped down on my right hand, teeth touching through the meat of the side of my palm. And while he was latched, I shoved his hips through the loop. Only when he was freed did he let go.

Now my hands are bleeding, swelling, throbbing. But I'm not feeling that. I kept thinking: How could he bite me? I was trying to help him.

Somehow, the costumes and the beds and the gourmet food seem to have obscured the fact that I am living with a wild animal--a creature that isn't afraid to lash out with tooth and claw whenever threatened, a creature that would rather injure than ask for help, a creature that is born with weaponry embedded in the fur.

When I went to the doctor the next day, she asked me: "Does this change how you feel about your cat?" And my impulse was to deny: "Of course not! He's just as close to me as ever."

But I wonder. Maybe I have been treating him as a small, furry child whose number 1 job is to please me and need me. Maybe this incident has pointed out my foolishness. Maybe I should treat him less as a child and more like a wild thing.

In the end, things did settle. I had a week of antibiotics and painkillers, but no long-term damage. He lost a toenail and had some sore muscles, both treated with painkillers. And he still sleeps in his many beds, mews into the telephone and looks forward to the new toys I bring home from the grocery store.

But now, when he sits in the window with tail swishing, I look at him with wonder. What does he see? What would he do to that bird, if he could catch it? What will he do to me if I get in his way again?

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Living with a blind cat: Lessons from Lucy

Blind cat Lucy sharing a dog bed with her pug
This is Lucy, and she was born with a condition called anophthalmia.  This means, in layman's terms, that she was born without actual eye globes.  She had functional tear ducts, eye muscles, eye lashes and lids, and she probably even had a working optic nerve, but she had no actual eye globes to see with.

I've been seeing a lot of books and Web sites lately that discuss the "miracle" of blind cats and how much the animal taught the owner about life.  I am skeptical of this idea.  Lucy has been blind since birth.  I do not feel that she overcomes her blindness, just as I don't feel my daily life is proof that I overcome my inability to do nuclear physics.  One cannot miss what one has never had.

Lucy sees with her other senses.  She spends a lot of time doing concentric circles, looking for the edges of rooms and the curves of furniture.  She meows and cocks her head, listening for an echo, to determine how big a room is.  She puts her nose in the air and sniff, sniff, sniffs to determine what has changed. 

Her blindness does mean that she is braver than my other cats.  She cannot see danger, and therefore is pretty resistant to fear.  She is the first to greet new people who come into the house.  She wanders outside if we leave the door open accidentally, without crouching to the ground.  When we moved into this house, she was the first to explore all of the rooms. 

People often congratulate me for owning a disabled pet, as though it is noble, in some way, to have a defective animal as part of your family.  I am, again, baffled by this idea.  Lucy does not demand extra attention or breaks, therefore, it's easy to forget about her disability.  She lives her life fairly normally, and I, in turn, fully accept her without expecting some sort of award for tolerating her.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Working at home with dogs: It's a question of productivity

Pug puppy sprawled out in his dog bed
Starting next week, I'll be working from home at least one day out of 5.  If Liam kept a calendar, I'm sure he'd be counting the days.  After all, in his mind, one more day spent with the boss at home means one more day the boss can spend throwing the ball, fetching chew toys from under the couch, scratching a hard-to-reach itch and going for long walks.  Pugs were bred to be companions, so they want to be actively involved with you -- unless they are sleeping.

Which made me wonder:  How much does an adult dog sleep during the day, on average?  Liam certainly doesn't sleep as much now at 3 years old as he did when he was a puppy.  How much work can I expect to get done?

The answer doesn't seem clear. I've seen estimates from 18 hours in a 24-hour period down to 4 hours in the same period.  This doesn't help me much.

Trainers say I should plan on taking at least two 15-minute "play breaks", where I throw the ball, play tug-of-war and try to wear the little guy out, so I can get some work done.

We'll see how that goes.  I'll keep you posted.

Monday, September 20, 2010

People who get it

It started out with just a bump; a small, pink, anemone on his gums, right in the center of his lower jaw.  At first I thought it was a tooth gone horribly awry, but then I started noticing the blood on his toys and the kibble left in the bowl after dinnertime.  The anemone had grown to the size of my pinkie.

I remember my veterinarian giving me the news over the phone while I was at work:  Seamus had a form of cancer, "acanthamatous amelioblastoma," to be precise.  I learned that it was a cancer that commonly affected older, large-breed dogs.  He told me acanthamatous amelioblastoma is not really considered "cancer" as it doesn't metastasize to other parts of the body.  Technically, it's not fatal as it won't shut down a major body part.  But it likes to grow, and grow quickly.  It grows up and out of the mouth, and down and into the bones and teeth.  Some dogs that don't have treatment starve to death. 

Treatment usually means surgery; removing the tumor itself, along with the bone directly beneath the tumor.  They called this a "mandibulectomy." They don't put in a pin or plate to replace the bone, as the dogs tend to bite with an immense force and pop plates before they have been in very long.  They told me a surgery like this could be considered a cure, but that it would be expensive, and I should see a specialist.  It was implied that I could choose to euthanize him instead.

How could I even contemplate the idea of losing him? Seamus was young, only two years old. It didn’t seem fair that I should have do deal with something so serious in a puppy. And I had big plans for him. I had gotten this dog after a devastating breakup with a long-term boyfriend.  Faced with a gaping hole in my life, I filled it with a small, willful, squiggling puppy.  I no longer had to worry about how to fill up the long, boyfriend-free weekends, because Seamus needed walks, trips to the store to pick up toys, visits to the veterinarian, play dates at the dog park.  Vacations were planned based on places he liked to go. I filled photo frames and albums with his image.  No, euthanasia was not an option.

So I drove my little Boston terrier to the surgeon. After reviewing the X-rays, he told me that he would need to take just a little bone from his jaw in order to cure him. Just a sliver. I remember thinking of almonds, something translucent and thin. I left him overnight, for surgery and recovery.

The next morning, they brought him to me. On the operating table, the little sliver had become an entire almond. He'd lost about a ½ inch of jaw, all of his lower front 6 teeth and some gums. He had a lot of swelling, not surprisingly, and looked a lot like my grandmother did whenever she forgot to put in her false teeth: red, swollen, defenseless.

In the early weeks, I watched him shiver and shake from the pain.  I held him as he screamed after bouncing the edge of his broken jaw on his food bowl.  I cleaned the blood from his face and neck as best I could.

We became a very unified team.  I fought to get him more effective pain medication.  As he improved, I put pieces of kibble on the floor and tried to teach him to tip his head to the side to pick it up.  When that proved too difficult for him to learn, I started cooking his food for him, choosing soft foods like canned pumpkin and cottage cheese and peas.  Sometimes, I fed him his food with my hands.

As he healed, the skin around his missing bone tightened and firmed.  He ended up with an expression of endless mirth – tongue hanging out of his head, eyes wide, head held at an angle.  Oftentimes, other dogs interpreted this expression as one of aggression.  As we went on our walks, we were often met with other dogs growling and thrashing on the ends of their leashes, ready to fight this toothless wonder.  I bought a harness with a handle on the back, and I learned to pick him up whenever we saw another dog nearby.  Eventually, he learned to run and jump into my arms if he saw the other dog before I did.

No one knew that I was working as an ad-hoc occupational therapist for Seamus.  I took no photos.  I told no one of the work we had been doing or the progress we had made, even though I was immensely proud of my little fighter.  I figured no one would understand exactly why I would put my dog through a disfiguring surgery and recovery, especially since I didn’t quite understand it myself.

I found I was more and more comfortable in the veterinarian's office than at work.  In the lobby of the vet’s office, I would find myself surrounded by people who were facing these life-and-death choices for their pets, and we formed a community of sorts.  We asked one another for updates.  “What are you here for?” “Is he better today?” “What are you going to do?”  It didn't seem crazy to see people knitting sweaters for their dogs while they waited.  Nor did it seem odd to sit next to people who had photos of their dogs embroidered on their jackets.  Their dogs were the center of their lives, too.  These were the people who drive for 2 hours on a Saturday morning to go to a Boston terrier meetup; people who had bumper stickers on their cars that said, "My Border Collie is smarter than your honor student." 

There are lots of Americans who feel this way.  Some 95 percent of pet owners bought their animals Christmas presents, according to one study done by Pet Smart.  About 67 percent of those owners even admit to wrapping those presents.  The American Pet Products Manufacturers Association found that three-quarters of dog owners consider their pets members of the family.  Even George W. Bush admitted, on Dateline, that he kisses his dog on the lips.  While I didn’t necessarily want to meet the former president, I did want to surround myself with other like-minded, animal-obsessed people.  Bumping into them at the vet’s office just didn’t seem like enough.  I was looking for a community, both for myself and for Seamus.  So I quit my job and started working for veterinarians full-time.  Seamus's veterinary care was paid for as part of my benefits (so I saved a lot) and was surrounded by People Who Got It.

Seamus came to work with me nearly every day.  We had a large, enclosed reception area that tended to remind people of a bull pen or a boxing ring, and he would cuddle on his bed and sleep through my shift.  When people were deciding what to do with their pets, they would look at him and his prominent tongue, hanging out of that broken mouth, and then they would look back at me, either with recognition or with horror (or sometimes both).  Some clients recognized that I was one of them.  One gave me a book of poems to read to her dog during the day.  One gave me a tape-recorder loaded with lullabies to play to her dog.  Another gave me printed prayer cards to put in her dog's kennel.  I did all of these things, of course.  Even though it may not have helped the dog, it helped the people deal with this situation -- to feel like they were contributing and part of the team.  Looking at Seamus, they knew that I would understand.

Not everyone I met felt this way, of course.  Some people who had animals with minor injuries that theoretically could have been saved with treatments, such as bad abscesses, diabetes, or minor leg fractures, simply chose euthanasia right off the bat.  I never did try to persuade them otherwise.  After awhile, I even stopped trying to connect and empathize.  I held Seamus on my lap, as my visible reminder of what camp I was in, and I said nothing.  And if I felt particularly puckish, I'd bring him in the exam room with me when I brought the owners the forms to fill out before the doctor would perform the euthanasia.  I tried to train him to carry the forms in his mouth, but he never did quite pick it up. 

Seamus had always been very attached to me, very needy, and I saw him start to change, grow and blossom.  He began trusting people again.  Some clients asked to sit with Seamus in the lobby, while they were waiting for their animals to come out of surgery.  He was always grateful for the added attention, and showered them with drool and black and white hairs before settling down in their laps, falling asleep, and deafening them with his snores.

The clinic tended to be on the chilly side, which made Seamus uncomfortable.  Bostons have extremely short coats to begin with, and his open mouth made it harder for him to regulate his own temperature.  Co-workers started bringing him blankets, fresh from the clinic’s dryer, for him to cuddle up in. 

Regular clients discovered that Seamus would sit in rapt attention at the slightest suggestion of food.  He would sit stone still, right in front of the person with food, and drool would drip from his tongue in puddles on the floor.  Long-time clients brought cookies and cheese in their jacket pockets, just for him.

We went to a local dog-friendly bar on Monday nights, and he started to command a hero's welcome.  The regulars would set up a wooden high-chair for him to sit in, so he could see what we were doing (and cadge food, if possible).  Dogs who chose to pick on him were quickly removed from the area, and owners were told not to come back.

It was incredibly rewarding for me to see him grow his own fan club.  He was branching out and connecting with people, separate from me. I think all the added attention is what kept him healthy, as he knew he was protected and adored.  And I found I could let go of some of the overwhelming responsibility I felt for his health and well-being, as I finally had the community and support I had been looking for.

At age 7, Seamus started to slow down a little.  Walks were shorter, and he needed more breaks.  I would sit on the curb and watch the cars go by while he rested in the grass.  At home, he tended to curl in his blanket and sleep most of the time.  At first, I figured these were normal age-related changes.  But then we were hit with more severe symptoms.  He started stumbling and falling.  He had nightmares and would scream, unable to awaken.  He would follow me into the bathroom, and then be unable to find his way out. 

His blood panels were normal on all counts.  But he couldn’t stay awake for the physical exam.  The veterinarian gently told me that this time we were likely dealing with a brain tumor:  This would account for the poor gait and the personality changes and dreams, as well as the loss of energy.  I’ll never really know for sure.  Definitively diagnosing a brain tumor means sedated and expensive tests (such as an MRI), and I felt like Seamus had been through enough at this point.  I declined further testing and took the sleeping dog home. 

While I never told anyone of my decision, his fans knew something had gone terribly wrong.  His buddies at the bar started bringing him homemade cookies that were soft and aromatic, hoping he would eat them.  Clients at work gave him tearful goodbyes after their visits, as they knew he wouldn't be staying.

One evening in March, I came home and found Seamus in his bed, shaking and crying and covered with drool.  He didn’t seem to be able to walk.  So I picked him up, bed and all, and took him to the office one last time.  He was silent and shivering in the car, but when we got to the clinic, he seemed happy to be there, looking around and widening his eyes.  I was in tears, of course, as was our doctor.  He licked all of us in our faces, in turn.  I think he wanted us to know that he was ready to go.

I stroked and petted him as they gave him the injection that ended his life.  I told him he was a good, good boy.  At the very last moment, he put his muzzle right by my ear and exhaled, and gave me one last lick on the cheek.  I often wonder what that meant, what he was trying to tell me, other than simply "Goodbye and I love you."

I had known, of course, that his death was coming.  I had been waiting for this day since the first cancer diagnosis call came through.  But I credit his 7-year survival, and my relative mental health, to the fact that we didn't go through this journey alone.  I had friends.  He had friends.  Sometimes they were the same people.  Sometimes they were not.  We spread the burdens and joys of his illness, his recovery, his life and his death among many, which made all of it more sweet and sad by turns, but always more bearable.  I wouldn't change a thing.