Monday, December 30, 2013

December 2013 BarkBox review: Santa brings sad news for Liam

Liam the pug looking out the window
Every month, Liam stands just like this, eagerly awaiting the moment when the mail delivery person drops off his beloved BarkBox filled with yummy treats and even more wonderful toys for him to destroy. He truly loves his BarkBox, and he happily gobbles up anything that comes out of the box.

Unfortunately, he pays the price in the days that follow.

Liam has a legendarily sensitive stomach, and as a result, I'm careful to provide him with a very specific diet that contains no little ingredients that could even remotely cause either nausea or vomiting. However, when he has a few treats from the BarkBox, all of my planning goes right out the window, and it's not uncommon for him to spend the next few days feeling a little queasy and unwell. He just can't handle the novel foods.

Sinead seems quite happy to nosh away on any treat, and she never suffers any kind of ill effect whatsoever, so it's likely that I'll keep on buying the BarkBox. She needs treats, and the options we get in our boxes seem to agree with her. She also loves the toys that come in the boxes, as this photo clearly demonstrates.
Sinead the boston terrier and her BarkBox toy
But Liam may only get to try just one nibble of the treats that come. It's sad, but the nausea and horrible gas that comes along with a sensitivity reaction is really not pleasant for either him or me. I think it's best avoided.

In any case, these are the items we got in December's BarkBox:
  • Simply Fido reindeer toy. This little bugger has both a rope and a chewy, soft center incorporated into the design, which made it a hit for these dogs. They love to both chew on it and tug on it, and so far, it's held up quite nicely to all that abuse. Unfortunately, I can't find the toy online right now, so it may no longer be available.
  • GoDog Yeti. The design of this toy is a little creepy, as it has only one eye and some pretty big horns. But again, the dogs loved this thing and they've spent hours tugging and chewing on it, with no tears in sight. We may need to get another one of these.
  • Planet Dog chicken pot pie treats. I was surprised that these little treats didn't smell like anything at all, but the dogs really didn't care and they ate them quite quickly. The size of these treats are nice, though, as they're small enough to make for some chewing but not so big that I felt I had to break them in half. 
  • Bistro Bites treats. These little snacks also didn't smell like anything, but they're really small and easy for the dogs to gobble, and they did that happily. These would be excellent training treats, as they're about the size of a piece of kibble.
  • Barkworthies bully stick. Sinead absolutely loves these, and I love them because they don't have a nasty odor associated with them. They also don't disintegrate into a gummy mess after a spate of hard chewing. Instead, they're perfect for an afternoon nibble, and I'll definitely be getting more for her. 
So that's it! Next month's review might be a little truncated, as I'll be giving the treats to only one dog, but here's hoping Liam forgives me when he realizes he won't feel ill the next day.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Go ahead: Adopt a pet for Christmas!

Liam the pug with his Christmas tree
For years, we've all been told that adopting pets around the holiday season was a bad idea, particularly if the pet was slated to become a gift for someone else. There's too much hustle and bustle around the holidays, the experts would say, and some pets lose their novelty when the spring arrives and they become homeless when summer is in full swing.

Hogwash, says the latest research.

In a recent telephone survey conducted by the ASPCA, 96 percent of pet owners got their furry critters as gifts, and about 86 percent of those pets were still living with their original owners (or did so until they passed away). This means that pets given as gifts are no less likely to be homeless than are pets acquired in any other way.

Good news, right?

In addition, some trainers are even recommending that new pet owners take home a wee one when the holidays are in full swing, as most families tend to be at home for long periods of time during this season. Rather than bringing home a pet and then ignoring it as the family goes off to work or to school, a pet brought home during the holidays is more likely to have people around 24/7, and that might prove vital during the first few (crucial) adjustment days.

Now that this thinking shift has taken hold, many rescue organizations are lifting long-standing bans on holiday adoptions. The Oregon Humane Society, for example, is holding a great big "Home for the Holidays" event, in which people are encouraged to look for a furry creature to take home before December comes to a close.

Taking on a new pet during the holiday season isn't for the faint of heart. In fact, there's a significant amount of preparation families might need to do in order to ensure that the home is safe for little pets. Presents and trees pose obvious hazards, but chocolate, fatty foods and even candles could cause serious harm to new pets that might not have their family-friendly behaviors down pat. Sweeping through the home and ensuring that all dangers are safely out of reach is a good place to start, but providing adequate supervision might also be key to keeping wee ones safe.

It's also worth mentioning that some small animals are simply overwhelmed by holiday festivities, and they might appreciate some quiet time. While you might love to share your new puppy with your party guests, that pup might also like a warm kennel to sleep in, far away from the noise and the grabbing hands. Respecting the space, and the mental health, of new pets can make the adjustment period a little less stressful.

So get out there and adopt a new pet! You'll make Santa proud.

Liam the pug and Sinead the Boston terrier and their tree

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

What can we learn from Bubbles the mastiff and her amazing rescue team?

Seamus the Boston terrier in his bed

Before you start reading this piece, head to the cupboard and pick up a 5-pound bag of flour and balance it on the top of your head. Now imagine doubling that weight, and moving it to the side of your face. That's about the size of a tumor that was found on a rescue mastiff named Bubbles.

She had the good fortune of being rescued by an organization that's known for taking in "hopeless" cases and providing the therapies others might never consider. (Read this blog entry about a dachshund with a severe back injury to see what I am talking about.) Rather than euthanizing Bubbles for her tumor, the administrators of this rescue chose to get her surgery. The updates (which you can see here) are nothing short of inspiring.

I've been through this sort of thing before, as the photo I've chosen for this blog entry clearly demonstrates (I've also written about that journey here). I know that helping dogs to recover from a disfiguring surgery that impacts the way they eat and play can be difficult and a little heartbreaking. As a result, I have so much admiration for the work this group is doing on behalf of a dog that clearly needs help.

Typically, coverage of cases like this follows a predictable pattern in which the dog is considered patient and a role model, and the rescue group is considered angelic. That might be true here, but I think there are also more important lessons we can learn from this case.

Firstly, it's important to remember that tumors like this can grow incredibly quickly. When Seamus had his mouth tumor, it grew at about a rate of an inch a week. I have no idea how long Bubbles was left with her tumor, but I feel fairly confident that she hadn't been living with the bump for years and years. She clearly deserved better, but the comments I've seen that suggest that the owner neglected her for a long period might be stretching the truth. There's no need to exaggerate when the truth of the tumor is powerful enough.

In fact, I think some of that exaggeration could actually be harmful. The fact is that many owners with dogs who have tumors choose not to operate, and within months, their dogs might look like this. These owners might have all sorts of reasons for steering clear of the operating room, and financial considerations might play a primary role, but I also think it's rare for owners to find success stories like this.

When your dog has cancer, you're worried and wondering, and there's very little information available about how major surgeries progress and how a dog does after surgery. When trying to research the procedure Seamus had, I hit an absolute brick wall. I could find out typical length of life after surgery and I could read reports in which surgeons suggested that the results were "cosmetically tolerable," but that didn't really mean much to me. I just wanted to know if my dog would live, and if he would be happy. I would have loved to see just one role model dog, just so I could know that I was making the right decision.

Now, if I hadn't done surgery, it might be too easy to blame me as neglectful, ill-informed and hateful. But wouldn't it be more helpful to suggest that people who don't do surgery just don't see how it could help?

That's what makes this rescue so extraordinary for me. This group is proving that even severe tumors are worth working on. With each little update they post, they prove that the surgery was worth it, for this dog. People who are dealing with their own disfiguring tumors in their dogs might be inspired by this story, and they might be willing to take action. By doing the surgery, the organization could be saving the lives of hundreds of thousands of dogs.

So if you're a blogger or you're somehow active on social media (aren't we all?), I urge you to share the Bubbles message. Many people out there might need to hear it.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

5 reasons adult dogs are much, much better than puppies

Sinead the puppy and her toys

Sinead the puppy Boston terrier had her first birthday last week, and as this photo clearly demonstrates, she had a whale of a time. Presents and zucchini cupcakes were hers for the taking, and she even got to skip the dreaded afternoon walk in the freezing cold for a special treat.

Obviously, she had a lot to be thankful for, but I had my own reasons for throwing her a party. For me, this birthday meant the end of the days of the puppy, and I'm really glad about that. While I loved her little puppy belly and intense small dog cuteness, I think older dogs are far superior to the whippersnappers. Here's why:

1. Adult dogs  have potty training figured out.

Sinead potty trained rather easily, as did Liam, but it took an intense amount of vigilance on my part to make it work. I had to supervise each place they went, and be prepared to haul their butts outside if it even seemed as though they might need to go. It's a little exhausting. Adult dogs, on the other hand, usually have the potty business down pat, so there's no need for me to be on high alert around the clock.

2. Older dogs have impulse control. 

When Sinead was smaller, it was hard to keep her from doing something that she wanted to do. She saw a morsel of food, she ate it. She saw a squirrel, she chased it. As an adult, she's more likely to think through her options, and weigh the costs of doing something crazy against the injury she might face. She's also more likely to ask for my input, and listen to me if I ask her not to act on her impulses. This makes living with her much easier.

Sinead the Boston and a cupcake
Sinead waits for the "okay" command that tells her the cupcake
is fair game. 

3. Older dogs have less energy. 

Living with a puppy means living with a creature that has two speeds: on and off. Sinead was hard to pet when she was younger, as any contact I'd initiate seemed like an invitation to play. She ran around the yard at top speed multiple times each day, and she wore my other poor pets out with her constant demands for attention. She was a drama queen, and while it was endearing, I also love the mellow side of her adult personality. Now, she plays and runs, but she also takes time to nap. She loves to snuggle, and she's content to simply sit near me without asking me to throw something or pull on something. As an adult, her energy level more closely resembles mine.

Sinead the Boston terrier will not fall asleep
In desperate need of a nap.

4. Older dogs know basic commands. 

This is a biggie, and it's only true if you take the time to teach a pup the basics, but it's nice to feel as though I have at least a modicum of control over what Sinead will and will not do in a given situation. If I need her to get out from underfoot, I can simply tell her to do so and she complies. When she was smaller, it was a bit like living with someone who didn't speak the language. I'd ask her to do something, and she'd look at me blankly. It's nice to have a dog that can communicate with me.

Liam the pug and Sinead the Boston terrier waiting for a treat
Liam and Sinead demonstrating a nice sit.

5. Older dogs have independence. 

Dogs are pack animals, and I find that small puppies need almost constant physical contact with another living being. Little Sinead was reluctant to sleep on the floor in her warm bed at night, when she first came into my life, and she'd cry until I picked her up and let her into the person bed. I had to throw toys for her, as she wouldn't play with them alone. She always wanted to sit in my lap. I loved this, of course, and she's still a very needy little dog. But, as an adult, she happily sleeps in her own bed and plays with her own toys. Sometimes, she seems to need a little alone time, and she'll head out into the yard to search for fun and adventure. I like to think that she feels more confident as an adult, and that's reflected in her habits.

Sinead the Boston terrier with a toy
Solitary, under-the-couch play.

I got Sinead as a puppy as I wanted my husband to experience puppyhood at least once in his life. But, we're both agreed that Sinead will be our last. As she grows and changes, it's so apparent that we prefer adult dogs. As much as we love puppies, we're really made for adults. So it's adult rescue for us from now on. Hopefully, if you agree with my points, you'll do the same, and give an older dog a chance in your home. Chances are, you won't regret it.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Pet hospice: Not so crazy after all

Eamon the cat snuggled up in his bed

In yesterday's New York Times, the authors covered the pet hospice industry under the somewhat silly headline: "All Dogs May Go to Heaven. These Days, Some Go to Hospice." Predictably, the author compared hospice to other pet expenditures the petless might consider frivolous, including clothing and therapy. I was prepared for that.

But what I wasn't prepared for was the implication that pet hospice was somehow a new idea that is just now catching on. You see, I think most dedicated pet owners are quite familiar with the idea of hospice, and most of us have been dealing with the difficulties of caring for aging pets for years.

The basic idea behind hospice is that the patient isn't expected to improve and live a long and healthy life. Instead, everyone involved knows where this journey will end, and all work hard to ensure that the path is smooth. Medications play a role, but gentle understanding and reasonable expectations are also part of the hospice package.

Eamon, my old guy, has been in what I might consider hospice for well over 3 years. I've chosen not to perform advanced diagnostics on his back problem, as I'm not sure a cat in double digits should go through an orthopedic surgery. Instead, I manage his pain with prednisone and heat, and I'm quick to bump up the application of either if he's painful. (See more about that here and here and here.)

When Eamon goes to the vet, he gets no vaccinations. We don't discuss the years of life he might have left. Instead, we discuss his pain and his comfort. We discuss his appetite and his mood. We keep him comfortable.

I'd bet that pet owners all across the country have these conversations with their medical professionals on a yearly basis. They may not call these visits "hospice visits," but they're discussing pain control and comfort. They're easing the path from life to death, and I'd call that hospice.

Some of the pet owners interviewed in the NYT piece, however, seemed to need just a bit of an extra push. They didn't know if they were making the right decisions for their pets, and they were worried about what would happen in a pet's final moments. These owners seemed to want to cede control, and the companies that were willing to offer supervision called themselves hospice providers.

This is a little new to me, but I must say that I find the concept refreshing. It's difficult to know when you're doing the right thing for aging or ill pets, and I know many pet owners torture themselves when death is near about they could be doing or what they should have done. If hiring a hospice provider allows them to prevent guilty feelings from forming, I'm all for it.

I would say, however, that owners might need to consider this option a little sooner. Calling in hospice 24 hours before a death might not help as much as working with a provider in the last year or two of a pet's life. That's the kind of care that really eases the path, and whether it's called hospice or routine care, it's not frivolous. It's a necessity.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

5 ways to keep your dogs safe and sound this Thanksgiving

Sinead the Boston terrier with pumpkins

This is Sinead's first spin through the fall season, and I'm planning to include her in the festivities. I think she'll enjoy the activity, and the added attention, but there are a few wee dangers lurking out there that I'll need to prepare for. I thought sharing them here might be a good idea, as it might allow you to do the same for your dogs. So here goes!

Skip the leftovers and handouts.

It's tempting to load up a dog's plate with turkey and ham bites, and slather the whole thing with gravy. However, these fatty meals can do a real number on a dog's innards, and sometimes, these meals can even put dogs in the hospital. Dr. Heidi Houchen covers this issue in great detail in a wonderful post she wrote for Spot Magazine, and I'd encourage every dog owner to read that before even thinking about giving a dog a plate from the table.

Keep dog collars on at all times.

Sinead and Liam both have two tags on their collars, and they jingle to beat the band. Often, I take their collars off in the evenings, so I can get a little peace, but I won't be doing that on Thanksgiving. With so many people coming and going, in and out, there are too many chances for little dogs to slip into the night. It's best to ensure that they have tags that can allow them to get home again. (As well as I.D. chips, which I've written about here.)

Watch for dog/kid interactions.

Big family get-togethers can sometimes mean allowing dogs and kids to come together in unusual combinations. Some dogs (like mine) have very little kid experience, and some kids have very little dog experience. Rather than letting the wee ones work it out, vigilance is required. I'll be keeping Sinead on a leash, so I know where she is in relation to my very small nephew, and I'll be on alert when they come within touching distance. Chances are, all will go well and there will be no need for caution. But a scuffle could certainly ruin the mood, so it's best to handle the issue with care.

Allow for frequent puppy potty breaks. 

When my dogs get excited, they tend to drink more water, and that means they need to head outside on a regular basis. Ignoring that signal could mean undoing months (or years) of training, as desperate dogs might just pee where they stand. Watching the clock and taking the dogs out every few hours is the best way to ensure that they get the relief they need, when they need it.

Mind the trash. 

In the evening hours, when the party has been going on for quite some time and the turkey coma has set it, people tend to get a little lax about sanitation. Cups and plates pile up in the sink, and some bones and napkins don't quite make it into the garbage can. Sneaky dogs can pull together quite a meal in a scenario like this, and again, they could get quite sick as a result of this foraging. Taking frequent sweeps through the kitchen can help, as can judicious use of the leash. I plan to take both of these steps.

Thanksgiving can be great fun, but it's best to think ahead avoid any pitfalls that may lie between you and turkey bliss. If I've missed any glaring safety steps, let me know in the comments section.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Canine corneal ulcers (aka, Sinead loses a bet with a coffee table)

Sinead the Boston terrier with a sore eye
Like most puppies, Sinead is a whirlwind of energy. In particular, she loves to run at high speed for tiny, fluffy, squeaker-filled balls. Most of the time, she's like a precision weapon, able to home in on that ball as it moves through the air, and she can snatch it before it hits the ground.

Unfortunately, catching a ball like this means watching the ball while running. This means Sinead is often looking up while she runs, rather than watching the space into which she's running. On Wednesday, predictably, this ended in disaster.

One throw took a bad bounce, and it landed quite close to an antique side table in the living room. Liam and Lucy are posing in front of this table in the photo below, and as you can see, it has a lot of sharp angles.
Liam the pug and Lucy the cat in front of a table
Sinead ran right into one of those sharp angles with her wide-open eye. I saw it happen, and while she didn't scream or cry and there was no blood involved, I knew we were dealing with a pretty serious problem.

Wee dogs like Sinead (and Liam, too), have smashed-in faces and very prominent eyes. Put these two factors together, and they add up to a dog that's prone to eye injuries. There's no muzzle to take the blow, and the eyes are just big and ready for a poke.

Within 2 hours or so, Sinead had been seen by the ER doctor, and her little scratch had been confirmed. With that diagnosis in hand, she was started on antibiotic therapies that could keep opportunistic critters from digging into her cornea and making that original wound yet deeper than it already was. She also had pain control medications on board, so she'd be less likely to cry.

It's been close to 48 hours now, and I'm happy to report that she's doing much better. She can keep that eye wide open, and she doesn't seem inclined to cry or dig at it. But I'm glad I acted so quickly.

In the past, with my first Boston terrier, I allowed minor scratches to fester, hoping they would heal on their own. In one instance, I thought a cut could wait until morning, when my veterinarian's office was open for business. By the time I got there, Seamus already had a bacterial infection complicating his eye injury. That cut took a long time to heal, and it took some of his vision away as well.

I'm determined not to let that happen to Sinead, so I'm vowing to be on top of any and all cuts she might get. And for now, no more fetch in the house!

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

November 2013 BarkBox review: Dog toys and dog treats galore!

Liam the pug with a chew toy from BarkBox

I have big plans for this month's BarkBox. In just a few weeks, Sinead will be a year old, and I was hoping to throw her a bit of a party. I thought I'd set aside a few items from this month's box, along with a few other choice treats, so I could save myself a shopping trip and some added expense. It seems like a great idea, but it also means that I'll have a slightly truncated review this month. But stay tuned for photos and treats from Sinead's birthday, if you want to know the dirt on the items I'm not explicitly discussing here.

N-Bone Pearly Whites are the big winners in this month's Box. Liam is clearly enjoying his little treat from the goofy picture I've posted here, but both dogs seemed to like the idea of a minty chew. They settled right down with their bones, and there was no fighting and no residue left when treat time was over. I like that.

I brush both Liam and Sinead's teeth (which I've discussed here), so I'm not certain I need to add a dental treat to their daily routine. But if I need a few moments of quiet contemplation, it's nice to know that they'll accept these treats without leaving a mess behind. I might need to pick up a few for that purpose.

Bocce's Bakery Truffle Mac & Cheese Cookies had me a little perplexed, at first, as these treats don't have any kind of scent at all. When I opened the bag, I couldn't even smell flour. However, the dogs really loved these cookies, and they asked for more and more of them. In fact, they got more excited about these things than they did about any other cookies we've had in BarkBoxes in months past. So who knew? These are the treats for them.

Happy Howie's Sausages round out the treats the dogs have tried, thus far, and they (predictably) found these little snacks irresistible. Sinead likes them so much, in fact, that she won't eat them in front of either me or Liam. Instead, she takes her tiny bite of meat underneath the couch, so she can eat it in peace. That's a sign of love, in my book.

I like these treats because they're soft. Jerky treats often have a brittle, tough texture that can encourage chewing and work, but I'm always afraid the dogs will try to gobble those treats and swallow huge bits in the process. The soft nature of these treats doesn't fill me with the same sense of terror, and I can even break the treats apart in order to give them bite-sized snacks. I like that a lot.

Etta Says Jerky is a special treat I'm holding back for Sinead's birthday, and as a result, I have no real words of wisdom to share. But I'll be sure to discuss this product in detail when the party has passed!

P.L.A.Y. Zuccchini Toy is this month's plush item, and it's remarkably cute. Plus, it's made quite well, with double stitching and very sturdy fabrics. I hope it'll last a little longer than last month's toy, which had an early death I outlined here. Very sad. Anyway, this will be a special toy for Sinead's birthday, but the toy also came with a bonus that will make her day extra special. Attached to this toy was a recipe for cupcakes for dogs! I'm planning to make her a batch. That's a nice little addition.

All in all, this was a great BarkBox. As usual, I'm anxiously awaiting the next one!

Friday, November 15, 2013

These 4 steps can help you react to pet food, medication or toy recalls

Sinead the Boston terrier and her dog toy
Sinead clearly loves her toys. And I'm not sure I'd know how
to make something like this.
Watching my Twitter feed lately has been a nerve-racking experience. First, there were stories about dogs that fell ill and died after eating jerky treats. Then, there were stories about a common heartworm medication that also seemed to be sickening pets. And then, yet more dog treats were recalled.

It's enough to make any pet owner go pioneer. I started looking up recipes for dog treats I could make in my dehydrator, and I started wondering if my pets really needed to take flea and tick medications.

Thankfully, I regained my senses. After all, if I did create each and every item of food my two dogs and five cats ate, I'd have little time left for work. Plus, there are medications they need, and toys they want, that I simply don't have the ability to make in my residential kitchen. At the moment, I still need suppliers.

But, I did come up with a few commonsense tips pet owners can use in order to protect their pets from, and respond to, the recalls that are sure to come in the future. If I missed any, please be sure to add them in the comments section.

1. Pay attention to the source.

Many of the items that have been recalled in recent days have been made in other countries. China, in particular, has been associated with some of these concerns regarding meat products. China was also linked with the massive pet food recall of 2007.

I'm no chemist, and I haven't had the opportunity to check these products for contamination, but at the moment, I don't feel safe in buying any product that comes from a producer that operates overseas. But sticking to that plan means more than just looking for the "Made in the USA" label, as many producers import their raw materials from overseas and package them in this country, all while sticking to their flag-waving label.

Red-alert words include:
  • Distributed by
  • Imported for
  • Manufactured for
  • Sourced for
These are the sorts of phrases that indicate that some part of the product isn't made here. For now, I just can't buy anything that isn't made in the USA.

2. Buy from the same supplier.

When I lived in Portland, I had at least three different locally-owned pet stores I'd visit on a regular basis. Each had a slightly different product lineup, and sometimes, the price difference between the facilities saved me quite a bit of money.

But, when one of the foods I normally purchased was recalled, it took me several weeks to find out. Why? Because the batch number associated with that recall was only sold in one store and not the other two. Since I hadn't visited in several weeks, I didn't see the warning sign in the store and kept blithely feeding my guys something that could harm them.

Each time there's a recall, a reputable store will put up a big sign about that recall on the shelves where you'll grab your next packet of food. Going to the same store lets you see that sign a little easier.

3. Monitor the recalls.

New recalls are posted on a regular basis, and it can seem annoying to keep track of all of the data, but it's something we pet owners can and should do. The American Veterinary Medical Association keeps separate databases of recalls for animal food and animal products, and newer entries float to the top of the website. Checking the sites weekly can help you to spot problems as they unfold.

I also have my Twitter feed loaded with animal lovers and veterinarians, and that allows me to plug into the hive mind and find out about products that might be making pets sick, even though a recall hasn't yet taken place.

4. Report, report, report. 

If a product you purchase or use on your pets makes those pets sick, it's your duty to report it.

I know, I know. I've mentioned this before when Eamon had a terrible reaction to a flea medication. But still, I know of dozens of people who had food- or medication-related reactions unfolding in their homes, and who never reported the incidents to the FDA, the manufacturer or to a veterinarian. Instead, they just threw the products away.

Each time you report a problem to a manufacturer or the FDA, a tiny report is drawn up. If enough reports come in, the manufacturer or the FDA has a larger incentive to hold a recall or otherwise explain the issue through better product packaging. Staying silent could mean allowing yet more pets to get sick.

I should say here that I'm not a fan of gorilla vengeance, in which pet owners write scathing blogs about the deaths their pets may or may not have endured due to a product. Companies can sue, and unfortunately, they do. The safer bet is to work with the authorities and allow them to do the right thing. Reporting can make it happen.

I'd love it if no recalls took place in the future. But these steps can help us, if they do.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Life lessons from a mouse and a cookie

The issue of persistence, even in the face of defeat, has been on my mind a lot lately. Often, wee Sinead is to blame. As she grows and takes on adult characteristics, she's decided that the Boston terrier should be in charge of the household, and we've had to resort to strict puppy boot camp techniques to force her to accept the authority of the humans. It's tiring work, and it's not always successful.

I've also been doing some intense running in the early morning hours, sans dogs, and as the weather continues to cool, running becomes less and less pleasant for me. I come back from a run tired and wet, and my times aren't really improving, but the dogs still expect their food right on time, no matter what.

I'm also working on blogging more, and driving up readership numbers, and some of my experiments are wonderful while others seem to fall flat. So when I stumbled across this piece produced by Coppyblogger, I was pretty excited. Pep talks about an issue you're struggling with are always wonderful, and the tips provided here seemed pretty straightforward and easy to implement.

And yet, just a few days later, I found a video that had the same message, but it was a little easier to understand. Click on the link above to see what I mean.

This little mouse has a gigantic cracker right in front of his nose, but he can't figure out how to haul that thing up and away. In the space of just a minute or two, he tries more than 50 different methods in order to move his big treat, and he fails each time. In fact, he seems to grow so frustrated that he thinks about giving up and walking away, but in the end, he turns back and tries just one more time. It's that last, persistent gasp that allows him to get the cracker of his dreams.

Talk about continuing to fight in the face of insurmountable odds! It's the same message found in the Copyblogger piece, but it's presented in a much more entertaining way (with fewer takeaway tips, of course, but still....).

Now, I know that I've spent an embarrassing amount of time on this blog taking apart the idea that animals can somehow be inspirational to their human counterparts, particularly when they're doing things that any other similar creature might do.

For example, I've written extensively about Lucy's blindness (examples here and here), and in each entry, I've suggested that her disability doesn't make her either more or less rewarding or inspirational than any other cat. Since she doesn't know about her disability, she doesn't valiantly overcome any challenges. She just is.

I've also written about poor disabled Seamus who had to learn how to eat when he lost part of his jaw bone to cancer. Again, I don't think I found his story inspirational as much as just sad (but feel free to read the piece here and come to your own conclusions).
Seamus the Boston terrier and his missing jaw
Seamus days after his surgery.
But I seem to have had a change of heart this week, and I blame a wee little mouse and his cracker. For some reason, I connected to his struggle with the huge cracker, and several times this week, I thought about his little mouse pep talk. Perhaps if I tried just one more time, I'd think, the same great outcome would happen to me. This isn't the kind of sea change any piece of writing might inspire in me. Only the silly animal video seemed to do the trick.

Don't worry: I won't be writing articles anytime soon about how my animals inspire me to train better, run harder or work more effectively. However, I might read such articles from others with a bit of an open mind.

What do you think? Are your animals inspiring? Share your thoughts.

Friday, November 8, 2013

3 quick ways to keep your dogs safe when you're not there to supervise

Liam the pug and Sinead the Boston terrier sharing a bed

Most of the time, having two dogs is pretty peaceful. My two love one another, and they are even starting to snuggle regularly, which is something I thought would never happen (see my mournful thoughts about that particular topic here).

But any two dogs can get into a squabble, and if one party won't back down, the fight can escalate until one dog is either injured or killed. It sounds unlikely, but these fights can even take place in dogs that have previously spent their lives together in calm companionship. (See this blog entry for a particularly heartbreaking example.)

It might seem depressing to assume that two dogs will always come to blows when left alone, but there are some things we humans can do to reduce the changes of something horrible happening to the wee ones we care for. I'll list them in order of safety, from least safe to most safe.

1. Train the dogs to share, and ensure that they never roughhouse in any way.

Some would claim that teaching their dogs that any sort of rough play is unacceptable can keep them from getting into a tangle when the people aren't around. If the dogs know that they must share, or the consequences will be severe, they might not even try to start something with another dog. In time, they might even forget that it's an option.

I've tried this with my dogs (see a previous post here), and my success has been a little mixed. On the one hand, my two are much less likely to get into a fight in front of me, since I started insisting that all aggressive snarling and growling was forbidden, but I've never been able to keep my dogs from doing a little rough play. And at this point, I'm not sure that I'd want them to be polite with one another 24/7.

My high-energy dogs need to burn off a little steam from time to time, and they seem to enjoy the opportunity to run, jump and play. They like to wrestle with one another, and they seem willing to back off and let the other win from time to time. Here's an example of the fun they'd miss if I banned all rough play.

Sinead the Boston terrier standing over Liam the pug

Sinead is winning here, and they look like they're having a great time.

I think training has a place in ensuring that dogs learn how to settle their differences without flying off the handle, and training can help to ensure that dogs at least begin to get along when people are out of the room. But I don't think training will help to prevent a squabble when the dogs are totally alone for a long period of time (like an hour). There are just too many variables, so this remains the least-safe option.

2. Pick up most dog toys. 

Dogs have specific toys that they seem to gravitate toward, and some are willing to fight to the bitter end to keep the other dog from even touching those items. In this house, high-value toys include:
  • Nylabone keys 
  • Hear Doggy whales 
  • Small, red balls (I have no idea why) 
  • Kongs filled with something tasty, like peanut butter
  • Rawhide anything
As mentioned, training can keep dogs from fighting to the death when you're standing right there, but these toys might be the prompt for a squabble when you're gone. In addition, some fights can even start when there's no high-value toy at stake. For example, one party might want to play while the other is sleeping. This sweet image, for example, might have turned into a fight if Liam wasn't willing to give in and play with persistent Sinead.

Boston terrier and pug playing

If I can't be there to supervise, all high-value toys are put in a toy box with a lid, so neither dog can start a rumble. If I do leave low-value toys out, I ensure that there are at least four available. That way, there should be no resource guarding. It's not the safest option, but it's a start.

3. Keep one, or both, dogs confined. 

When it comes to the safety of my dogs, I don't think you can ever be too careful. That's why I keep one dog confined in a crate when I go out for more than about 10 minutes. Since Sinead is smaller, and she likes to be in small, cave-like enclosures, she's the crated party. Liam is in his bed in the same room, and I keep the door closed.

A crating setup like this allows both dogs to be in the same room together, so they can continue to bond. But, they can both have access to treats and toys, to help them pass the time while I am away. I know they won't fight, because they can't reach one another, but I know they won't be lonely, either.

To me, this is the safest, best option. If you have another technique you're using with your dogs, I'd love to hear it in the comments section.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Don't panic! With planning, Halloween can be safe for your pets

Sinead the Boston terrier and her pumpkin

Creepy ghouls willing to smash the pumpkins of unsuspecting toddlers aren't the only things we need to worry about on Halloween, my fellow bloggers suggest. Now, we must worry about:
  • Cats catching fire on candles 
  • Dogs developing obstructions due to pumpkins or nausea due to chocolate
  • Demonic people who want to torture our black pets
  • Animals running loose in the neighborhood, frightened by the costumed children
We pet owners are encouraged to keep our pets out of costumes and behind locked doors, with their ID collars securely fastened, so they won't be forced to deal with the horrible holiday we choose to inflict on them.

Phooey, I say.

I have animals because I love them and I choose to share my life with them. As such, I'd never consider keeping them away from something I enjoy. In fact, I hope to help them participate in Halloween, and with a little planning, that's easy to accomplish.

Toxic decorations that can cause cats to catch on fire are easy enough to avoid. Just putting them on high shelves is enough to discourage old, arthritic cats like mine. And if I must have something at eye level (like a pumpkin), I can use battery-operated, flameless candles to illuminate the gore. Those disks don't catch anything on fire, and many have a realistic flickering action that can fool almost anyone.

Nosy dogs that like to eat things they shouldn't, including chocolate and pumpkins, are also easily foiled with a little product placement. Few dogs can climb a bookshelf in order to get to candy, and keeping pumpkins on a porch in the front, rather than in the backyard, can ensure that no nibbling takes place. Dogs can also be trained to leave the human food alone, and if they do so, they might be rewarded with treats that are appropriate for them. Planning, not banning, does the trick here.

I've mentioned the black-cat-and-Halloween myth before, but it still seems to persist in cyberspace. It's worth repeating, then, that there's no real evidence that suggests that black cats are at increased risk of dying at the hands of sadists on Halloween, when compared to their risk of same in any other month of the year. That's why shelters like the Oregon Humane Society continue to adopt out black pets throughout the season. We should all take a cue from them and ratchet down the hysteria about our own pets. After all, keeping cats safe at night isn't something we should be doing only in October. It's something we all should do all year long.

As for keeping wee pets safe from running away, training also plays a role here. Dogs can be successfully trained to stay away from the door when the doorbell rings, and if they can't, Halloween provides an excellent training opportunity. I plan to ask hubby to hand out the treats while I mesmerize my dogs with tiny morsels of their own treats. They'll be on leashes, in case they decide to disobey, but they'll also be on display in their costumes, getting good treats, so they'll be part of the fun.

Now I'm not saying Halloween is a hunky-dory holiday made to order for pets, but I do think there's a way to include them in the action while keeping them safe. Banishing them to a dark room, away from everything, might keep them safe, but it also might make the holiday truly frightful for them. If we really love them, why not include them?

At least, that's my philosophy.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

October 2013 BarkBox review

Boston terrier Sinead with a chew stick 
Living in the PNW has some distinct advantages (lovely weather, bike-friendly cities, fabulous wineries, etc.), but when it comes to the BarkBox, my kids seem to get the short end of the stick on a regular basis, waiting days and days for their treats to arrive from the far coast.

While we lucked out this month, getting the box just days after it had shipped, the dogs were picky, and as a result, our review is a little mixed.

Here's what we got.

Superior Farms: Dog Treats

The biggest hit in this month's box was a set of dried lamb's ears. My guys typically don't get treats like this, because I don't like all of the processing dried animal parts go through before they're shipped. I was relieved to see that these ears were just washed and dried, so there were no nasty and foreign-sounding ingredients to worry over. And they seem to taste great, as both dogs gobbled them right up.
Liam the pug with a dog treat

Baker's Best: Dog Treats

These treats get a mixed review, as Liam thinks they're wonderful, but Sinead won't touch them. They're made of goat meat, again with minimal processing, but they do seem to have a lack of scent. Perhaps the smell keeps Sinead eating, while no smell makes her run in fear. I have full confidence that Liam will eat what she rejects, however.

Fruitables: Dog Treats

This product came individually wrapped for Halloween, which will allow me to give snacks to all of my canine neighbors. I absolutely love that. And the small portions make them a wonderful addition for sweet Sinead. However, Liam doesn't seem to tolerate these treats, and tends to retch them back up hours after eating them. I'm not sure what's going on there, but Sinead will have to eat his portions.

Pet Qwerks: Dog Toy

I was excited about this toy, because it's small and therefore perfect for Sinead. It's also just really cute, but just one hour later, the once-cute toy looked like this.
Doy toy with a ripped ear
It seems that this toy isn't quite suitable for heavy-duty chewers, as my guys were able to rip one ear completely off. They still play with it, now that I've taken my sewing kit to the toy, but I'm leery of letting them play too hard with something that falls apart so easily.

Your Dog's Diner: Dog Treats

This product will allow hubby to make a bunch of meatballs for the dogs for their holiday festivities. I love the idea, but haven't yet tried the product. I can't wait, though!

All in all, there's something in here for both dogs. It'll be fun to see what the folks at BarkBox do next month.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Of blind cats and baby gates

Blind cat Lucy behind a baby gate
It seems that I spend most of my life trying to keep my resident blind cat from harming herself, given the number of times I've written about the topic on this blog (see examples here and here). Most of the time, my solutions work quite nicely, and I can pat myself on the back for a job well done. There are times, however, when my safety ideals confuse Lucy. The latest problem concerns a baby gate.

My house has a fully finished basement, which contains the favored litter box for kitties that need a little more privacy than they might experience upstairs. It's in a wee little bathroom, in an out-of-the-way part of the basement, and the box is big and accommodating. For cats who have serious business to do, this is the place in which to do it.

Unfortunately, getting to this box means going down some complicated stairs. There are two small steps down, a landing and then a twisting set of carpeted stairs. Lucy can navigate these steps just fine when she's moving slowly, but if a wee Boston terrier chooses to chase her, she seems to lose track of the number of stairs, and she tumbles head over heels until she reaches the bottom.

In addition, her little deposits tend to be eaten by curious (and disgusting) pugs, and when she comes to investigate with purrs and head butts, she's sometimes bullied. It takes me a few moments to break up the ruckus, and by the time I get there, she's been subjected to a lot of playful mouthing that might make her a little uncomfortable.

Baby gates are an obvious solution to this problem, as they allow acrobatic cats the opportunity to jump over, while dogs are left watching the action through the bars. With a baby gate in place, Lucy can use her box in peace, and she can make her way down the stairs at a slow and steady pace without being chased. Her dog interactions would also involve supervision.

My house doesn't provide a perfect baby gate setup, however, as the landing at one end is small, and the doorway at the other end is too wide to accommodate a gate. I've been forced to put it at the top of the stairwell, which means the cats must jump it and land two steps down. Lucy can handle this part just fine, but she can't figure out how to jump over the gate when she's standing on the landing.

While I know quite well that she can jump over the gate, as the distance is smaller than the distance from the floor to the top of my bed (and she sleeps up there all day). But something about the jump confuses her.

When I first put up the gate, a few months ago, I figured she'd get used to the idea and would figure it out.

No dice.

Now, she just sits on the other side of the gate, patiently meowing until I come and open up the door to let her through. I'm thankful the gate has a hinge, so this is relatively easy to do, but I wonder how long she'll keep it up. I suppose it's the price I'll pay in order to keep her safe.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Where I stand on the great pet insurance debate

Sinead the Boston terrier puppy in her bed
It's been 6 years since I've had a puppy. Since that time, a lot of things have changed. Now, I can do more than just microchip my dog; I can outfit her with GPS. Instead of buying her dog treats at the store, I can hire a company to select treats for her and mail them right to my house. And if she got hot, instead of using a hose to provide relief, I can wrap her up in a nifty cooling towel that will do the job for me.

Innovation is a wonderful thing.

But the changes I've found most impressive have nothing to do with treats, toys and chips. Instead, they have to do with pet insurance.

When Liam was a puppy, I looked into pet insurance, as I knew pugs were prone to all sorts of skin conditions that can result in hefty vet bills. The first plan I looked into, provided by a company I won't name, excluded coverage for any condition that was considered endemic to the breed. In a way, the conditions Liam's pug counterparts endured worked like a preexisting condition for him, even though he was only 3 months old and had no health problems at all.

Needless to say, my searching stopped right there, and from that point onward, I became an intransigent bad-mouther of the pet insurance business (I even wrote up a pretty nasty article about the topic on this blog). These plans are expensive, and if they didn't include genetic conditions, they seemed worthless, as many of the most expensive problems facing our pets have been found in their genetic brothers and sisters. And, almost any condition could be considered a breed-specific problem, as long as just one pet of the same breed showed symptoms.

Many people felt the same, it seems, and modern plans changed in order to entice more naysayers like me. They did good work. I looked at two this week, and here's what I found.

Healthy Paws pet insurance provides lifetime benefits to dogs, and there are no caps on coverage. Everything from prescription medications to surgeries is covered, and there are no sneaky clauses about genetic conditions or breed-specific problems. As long as the dog didn't have the problem when the coverage began, the owner is covered.

Trupanion pet insurance works in much the same way, with no sneaky clauses and full coverage for all sorts of surgeries, medications and procedures. The company even provides a sample policy online, just to ensure that clients know what they're expected to get well before they buy.

Insuring Sinead under one of these plans would lost me about $30 per month, and I'd have a deductible to meet before the company would pay. That deductible is per condition, in most cases, so there would be times in which I'd have to shell out money for the whole bill, even though I had insurance.

However, if Sinead got cancer, diabetes, Cushing's disease or some other horrific medical problem, or if she was somehow injured or wounded, I'd have coverage. Without it, I might spend thousands in order to make her well. Sometimes, I might be forced to make decisions about her medical care based on the cost of that care, and that seems just awful.

It's worth pausing, though, to consider that small point. Some medical conditions that impact our pets, like cancer, can be ameliorated through medical treatment. Chemotherapy, for example, can give a dog months of happy life, in some cases. Surgery for a broken bone can help to save a limb. But sometimes, the interventions we provide our pets with aren't really best for them. Is orthopedic surgery right, when it results in months of crate rest and possible arthritis down the line? Would a cheaper amputation be better for the health of the animal? Should a dog with cancer get an expensive and painful debulking surgery with months of chemo just to get 3 more months of life? I'm not sure.

I would like to think, though, that insurance could help me to make these decisions without the cost of the therapies clouding my judgement. If I could just take the recommendations of a doctor and weigh what's best for Sinead, without taking my finances into account, maybe I'd make better choices.

At this point, I'm still debating. I've seen other bloggers tackle this question by creating spreadsheets of current expenditures and current insurance costs, and while that seems reasonable, it doesn't take into account sudden catastrophes. Those costs are just unknown, and they must factor into the decision.

Anyone have advice or stories to share to help me decide? I'd love to hear your comments.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Protecting birds from outdoor cats

These two pictures, placed side by side, should explain the problem I'm having at the moment.
Bird feeders

Jasper the cat outside

Yep, I'm one of those people that has both bird feeders and cats. I've written about this issue before, when little Jasper killed some small bird in my yard in Portland. At the time, I was devastated, and I put belled collars on all the outdoor cats. My solution at that time also involved making my yard hostile to birds. I had no feeders out, and I was certain to avoid all plants that produced seeds. By belling the cats and removing the birds, I figured I had the problem solved. Even when the outdoor cats took their collars off, there were no birds for them to kill. Smart me, right?

But when I moved here, I started to wonder if I was doing the right thing by banning birds. After all, the Audubon Society suggests that world bird populations are on the decline, due to urban sprawl and pollution. The tiny birds we all grew up with an love are becoming more and more rare, and a lack of food is part of the problem. Additionally, birds in my own corner of the world are struggling to survive during this time of climate change. Just last week, I saw a report regarding a massive die-off of swallows in Oregon, due to the freakish weather we've had this fall. 

Anyone who loves birds can't read reports like this and feel content to go forward with business as usual. Feeding the birds just seems like the right thing to do. 

The cats, however, had other plans. 

Our outdoor cats can't come indoors, for reasons I've outlined here. They're also quite old, and not as spry as they once were. When I set the feeders up for the very first time, the old men did nothing at all. In fact, they didn't even look at the feeders that were swarmed with birds. 

But last week, Beorn found his mojo, and he killed one of my little birds. 

Cats can't wear standardized collars with buckles, as they tend to strangle on them. They squeeze into small spaces, and before you know it, the collar is stuck and the body is not. So we must use breakaway collars. Unfortunately, most breakaway collars are designed to fall apart at the slightest touch, so Jasper and Beorn are adept at pulling them off with just one foot.

Going without a collar isn't an option now, however, as the death of one bird is too many for me. So I bought a breakaway collar for both boys, with a very loud bell, and I chose the collars that had the least amount of give. It's been 4 days, and both boys still have collars on. 

But if they take them off, I'm heading to the pet store to buy in bulk, and I'll put a new one on them each and every morning. It's really the only thing to do. Cats like Beorn and Jasper kill up to 3.7 billion birds each year, according to a recent study, and I just can't be a part of that kind of die-off. Here's hoping the boys will cooperate.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Help for an itching, scratching, dancing, allergic pug dog

Liam the pug in his bed
Poor pug Liam has struggled with allergies for most of his life (and I documented a particularly nasty breakout in a previous post, with a photo that still makes me cringe). Thankfully, I manage to keep his allergies under control with frequent baths, a customized diet and a heavy reliance on the washing machine. By keeping his gut healthy, and the environment clean, I figured I was helping him to avoid all future breakouts.

Recently, however, he's had a terrible case of the nighttime itchies. In the depths of the night, I could hear him licking his feet, scratching his sides or just moaning. A bath didn't do the trick, and when I looked closely at his belly, he had a tiny little rash on his belly button.

This is an important clue, as the articles I've read suggest that food-based allergies manifest with ear and foot symptoms. If his feet were a burgundy color or his ears were gunked up with blackness, I'd likely be out shopping for a new food. However, his ears seemed perfectly normal, and his feet were the proper shade of tan. He only had hives in the one bare spot available on his body, which seems to suggest an environmental allergy.

Reading about these allergies in dogs is a little daunting, as the information seems to suggest that allergies in dogs are a lot different than allergies in humans. For example, I have terrible allergies, and when mine are acting up, I have:
  • Sneezing fits 
  • Hacking coughs
  • Watery eyes 
  • Deep congestion
  • A low voice (this is the only symptom I have that my husband wishes I'd keep)

This article suggests that some 70 percent of dog skin-based symptoms come from allergies. Instead of showing nasal and throat signs, these guys itch and scratch.

My first instinct was to hold off on Liam's daily bath, thinking that I might be stripping away essential oils with his weekly dip in the water. However, experts suggest that allergic dogs need more baths, as they carry their allergens on their fur. A bath helps to wash these away, and it keeps bacterial colonies under control. So the baths stay.

I did add in a fish oil to Liam's diet, as these products tend to keep the skin supple, which might reduce the itchy sensation. I also switched laundry detergents, opting for a product that has no harsh ingredients, fragrances or softening agents, and I'm using no fabric softener in his laundry loads. (This is a step I used to follow religiously, and have abandoned of late. It looks like that was a bad idea.)

I also started reading about the wonders of topical applications of coconut oil. This post contains a significant amount of information about that topic, but in essence, it seems that coconut oil has mildly antiseptic properties, as well as bring a pretty great moisturizer. By applying the product topically, an owner might be fighting the bacteria that causes itching, as well as making the skin just a little healthier. I gave it a whirl, and while Liam did a lot of dancing during the application, as though I was tickling him, he tolerated the treatments with no ill effects.

As a last-ditch effort, I also put him on a dose of Benadryl. (I'm not going to share the dosage here, as I think everyone should talk the use of OTC drugs over with a doctor. In general, the drug is safe, but it's not something that works for all dogs, and the dose can vary pretty dramatically by the weight of the dog.)

It's been about a week, and I'm happy to report that Liam has made a remarkable recovery. He's sleeping through the night, and the little rash is almost gone. Just in case, however, I'm going to stick to my treatment program for the time being.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

September's BarkBox: Fun dog toys and treats for fall

Liam the pug with a shark toy
The last time we got a BarkBox, little Sinead went absolutely crazy for the whale from Hear Doggie. In fact, she loved that toy so much that she wanted to carry it with her almost everywhere, and she was devastated when Liam got a little rowdy and broke the thing. I had to go to Amazon and buy a replacement, as she just wouldn't be consoled with any other toy.

Not surprisingly, then, I was pretty eager to get this month's shipment, as I felt sure it would contain more toys she'd be obsessed with. At this point, it looks like the treats are the big hit in this box, but still, there's something in here for everyone. Here's my (not paid, don't worry) review of this month's box.

The Toy

The all-important toy in this month's shipment comes from Aussie Naturals (this is the toy on patient Liam's back in the photo above). It's a pretty long toy, which is perfect for the head-shaking thing Liam loves to do, but it has no stuffing, so he really won't be able to destroy it. I appreciate the durability of this toy, but I do have some reservations about it. Firstly, it has a little rope insert that's a bit heavy, and I worry that Liam will hurt my other pets with his head shaking moves and a weighted toy. Also, it's just a little big for wee Sinead. They haven't played with this toy as much as they did the whale.

The Treats

There are two types of treats in this month's box, and both are huge hits over here. The first is a dehydrated duck product from Plato that's about the size of a half-dollar. It breaks apart easily, which I like, and it's also low in scent. I can take one treat and break it in half easily, without walking away with stinky fingers. Bonus!

The other treat comes from Wagatha's, and these wee bones smell exactly like cooked pizza. I put them in a jar, and I swear, when I open that thing, I feel an intense need for cheese. The dogs seem to like the treats, too, as I get nice steady sit/stay behavior when I have one of these in my hand. This month's box came with a coupon for future treats, and I may need to cash that sucker in.

Liam the pug and Sinead the Boston terrier and a cookie

The Bonus

In addition to things the dogs might like, this box contained a product they might actually need: a liquid bandage. This spray-on product from VetraCare Pet is designed to dry quickly, producing a quick seal that can stop bleeding in a snap. If my dogs get into a sudden scrape, I can see using this product as a stopgap until we can get seen by our veterinarian. I haven't tried it yet (and hope I don't have to), but I'm happy to have it!

Overall, this was a great little box. We're hoping for more of the same next month!

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Bees and dogs: A garden that's safe for both kinds of creatures

Sinead the Boston terrier looking very tired
Sinead gorked out on antihistamines.
Let me say this upfront: I am a certifiable bee lover. As a pseudo urban farmer, I love the work they do in fertilizing my fruits and flowers, and as an environmentalist, I view bee colony collapse with alarm. In fact, I've been so motivated to help bees in my community that I've planted all sorts of bee-friendly plants, including:
  • Lavender 
  • Sunflowers
  • Dahlias 
  • Marigolds

When I walk through the yard and hear the plants humming with bees, I figure that I've done my part to help the little guys survive.

This week, however, I had a bee-related incident that makes me question my strategy.

Little Sinead is an inveterate sunbather, and at 7 pounds, she can access some stellar spots by crawling beneath flowering plants. These are the spots the chubby outdoor cats and the portly pug just can't reach, so they remain favored spots for a private nap. I've seen Sinead dart beneath these plants hundreds of times, and I've thought nothing of it.

Now that the weather is dipping, however, my flowering plants are shedding their blooms on the ground, meaning that bees are working territory that Sinead uses for travel. This week, she happened to step on a bee that wasn't too fond of the attention, and she got stung. Within 15 minutes of that sting, her front foot had swelled up to three times its normal size, and Sinead was completely unwilling to walk.

Normally, treating a bee sting is pretty simple:
Step 1: Remove the stinger with a credit card or the edge of your fingernail
Step 2: Keep the pet calm
Step 3: Provide ice and/or Benadryl

I've done this with Liam in the past, and he had no ill effects whatsoever. But Sinead wouldn't let me even look at her foot, and the dramatic swelling made me wonder if something else was going on. Since I didn't see the incident take place, I wasn't 100 percent sure that she hadn't fallen or been in a fight of some sort, so I wasn't completely sure that she didn't have a broken bone. So off to the veterinarian we went.

An emergency visit for a bee sting is a pretty routine affair. The vet muzzled Sinead and did a complete exam, and then provided shots of painkilling and anti-swelling medications. In a day or two, she was back to normal.

But I am on a mission to keep this sort of thing from taking place in the future. That might mean fencing, as well as raking of downed blossoms. Sinead might also need supervision when she's in the yard, just so I can ensure she doesn't head down a dangerous path.

Bees and dogs can coexist, and I think they do need to live with one another if we are to grow any kind of food or flower, but it will take a little planning and vigilance. That's the next step I need to take.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The pros and cons of a dog-friendly garden

Liam the pug next to pumpkin flowers
Liam and my pumpkin flowers.
This year was a first for Liam, as he had access to a fully functional garden. I wanted to plant some treats he'd enjoy (including carrots and pumpkins), as I've been worried about the amount of pesticides he might ingest from produce I bought at the store. But, I also had some concerns about planting a garden with two little dogs in the mix. What if Liam and his sister ate things before they were ripe? What if Liam peed everywhere?

Many of my concerns were well-founded, and I never did come up with great solutions (anyone have some?). But there are some good tips and tricks I learned this year that I thought might be helpful for future green thumbs. So, here goes!

Many plants like tomatoes and strawberries need a little boost of fertilizer in order to set fruit. Even if I bought non-toxic fertilizer, I knew the dogs would snorf that stuff off the ground before it had a chance to work into the soil. My (imperfect) solution was to plant these items in pots. Keeping the soil contained in this way allows for more targeted fertilization, but it also keeps curious dogs from doing much exploring.

Not all plants can grow in a pot, however, and those on the ground still need TLC. They need water, for example, and dogs like mine love the water. Keeping the pooches inside for the hour or so that follows watering is the best way to ensure that baths aren't part of the day-to-day action involved in keeping a garden up to par. Using a spray nozzle, rather than a sprinkler, can also be helpful in removing any pee marking the dogs choose to do on the plants.

During crucial growing times, when tiny leaves are just emerging from the ground, my dogs found it fascinating to run and jump through the garden beds. I have no idea why this is the case, but I know they thought it was great fun. I used chicken-wire fencing to keep them out, and I removed those fences when the plants were a little bigger. That way, I didn't crimp the growth pattern, but I kept wee feet from going crazy. When the fruit was about to ripen, I put fences back for a day or so. That keeps the dogs from exploring the beds with their mouths and running off with the fruits of my labor. 

Liam the pug and Sinead the Boston terrier with a pumpkin

On the con side, my plants didn't do as well as I had hoped. My pumpkins were blighted with powdery mildew, and since the dogs spent so much time running through those fields, I didn't feel comfortable using any kind of spray on the leaves. As a result, my haul was pretty small. Additionally, the dogs did trample a few of my plants, and Sinead ate a tomato or two, along with some strawberries. These are little complaints, of course, but they are complaints I'll have to address next year.

But in the interim, we're all enjoying the harvest, and maybe that's enough.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Dog toenail trims: DIY or groomer?

Sinead the Boston terrier looking like a demon
What Sinead looks like when I try to trim her nails.
When it comes to pet grooming, I've always been willing to roll up my sleeves and handle things at home. My pug, Liam, has a weekly beauty session that includes a nail trim, an ear cleaning and a thorough bathing. My cats also have weekly nail trims and long brushing sessions. None of these pets enjoyed these activities when I got them, but in time, they learned to tolerate the things I seemed determined to do to them, and we all got along fine.

After a week of living with me, I decided to integrate Sinead into our grooming plans, and I expected a little resistance. Instead, I got out-and-out terror. She screamed, wriggled, scratched and then finally thought about biting. Holding her down to handle just one nail was so stressful for her that she felt hot to the touch, and my nerves were shot after holding a demon between my hands for minutes.

In the past, I would have continued with her training, working with her each and every day until she learned to accept the work I was trying to do. But instead, I've thrown in the towel and found a good groomer. Here's my reasoning:
  1. She hates it, and when I have clippers, she hates me. 
  2. I might hurt her when she's wriggling, and then she'll hate this yet more. 
  3. She tends to accept authority figures, like a veterinarian or a groomer. 
  4. A groomer can handle all four feet in just minutes. 
Dog owners seem pretty divided on this issue. Some people feel like taking a dog to a groomer for something that can be done at home is a sign of defeat, and that I am somehow allowing this 8-pound dog to rule my household. If I was firmer and stronger, these people suggest, I could somehow make her accept a nail trim.

Those of us who have difficult dogs, on the other hand, love our groomers. This isn't something our dogs seem willing to budge on, and I'd much rather enjoy my little dog, rather than fighting with her on a daily basis. Her life is better, and so is mine.

That being said, if your little dog won't accept a nail trim, you do have options. Sometimes, switching clippers can make a reluctant pooch more comfortable and less likely to lash out. Some people swear by grinding tools, for example, as they don't tend to cause any sort of pinching sensation. I've also heard that rubbing coconut oil on a dog's feet could prepare them for nail trims, as they learn to associate the smell and taste of something wonderful with the act of you touching their feet.

But if your dog never accepts your nail trimming efforts, don't despair. I welcome you into the club of the quitters. You're in good company.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Thoughts on cats and dental care

cat up a tree
I've always thought of cats as wild creatures that don't need much dental help.
Turns out, I was wrong.
For years now, I've brushed Liam's teeth. Since he's a pug, he likes anything remotely food based, so he'll willingly take part in a nighttime session of tooth brushing with beef-flavored paste. Similarly, I brush Eamon's teeth nightly, as he's old and his teeth show his age.

But, as it turns out, I've been engaging in a little discrimination in this house, and it's starting to impact my bottom line. Unfortunately, I don't think I'm alone in this.

When I added a Boston terrier to the family, I started brushing her teeth almost immediately. She has a pronounced underbite, and as much as she chews on toys, I knew her teeth would suffer as she aged. After a few weeks of practice and adjustment, she's learned to love getting her teeth brushed, and she trots right up to me when she sees the brush in my hand.

But my other cats? It never occurred to me to brush their teeth. I feed them kibble, which should clean their teeth, and I've never noticed bad breath when they come up for snuggles. In addition, I've taken Lucy in for one dental cleaning, so I thought she'd be in good shape for several years.

As it turns out, Lucy's teeth were just dreadful, a mere 2 years after her cleaning, and she had to go back in for another bout of sedation and cleaning. She almost lost 2 teeth in the process, and she spent an entire night trembling, crying and acting miserable when the whole thing was through. I was also out several hundred dollars.

So what's going on here?

Much as I hate to admit it, I think I'm one of those owners who has fallen prey to the independent cat myth. Since my cats are more aloof and self-sufficient, I think they don't need as much of my attention. I figure they can fend for themselves, and they might not need anything from me at all, aside from good food and shelter, in order to stay healthy. In reality, they also need daily care, just like a dog does, in order to stay at an optimal level of health.

This scenario seems to play out frequently across the United States, too, as statistics suggest that owners spend less money on vet visits for cats than they do on visits for dogs. Investopedia suggests, for example, that the average dog owner spends $211 per year on routine veterinary care, while the average cat owner spends only $179. That discrepancy could be due to all sorts of things, including size differences and vaccination differences, of course, but it might also be due to the independent cat myth. It's just easier to subtly neglect a cat, when it comes to health care, and both the pet and the owner pay the price.

I, for one, have learned my lesson. Now, every animal in the house has a tooth-brushing session with me at night. I've also made a point to check each cat for pain or discomfort on a daily basis, just to ensure that I'm not missing anything. I'm also working on brushing the teeth of the outdoor cats, although that is going to take time to accomplish (and merits its own blog entry).

I hope, as a result of all of this, that my cats will be healthier. I also hope that they'll live longer. I owe them that much.

Want more information? Check out this later blog post. Turns out, my stance on cats and dental care has "evolved" just a touch.

And if you're ready to do a little cat tooth brushing (and you should!), try this product C.E.T. Oral Hygiene Kit for Cats. This is the stuff I use, and it works great.

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.”