Andrea Looney, Doctor of Veterinary Medicine, answers readers' questions about animals.
My husband would love to give our friends a puppy for Christmas, and though it seems a great gift, I'm reminded of what my mother used to tell me: "Give a pet only if you intend to take a stake in its care." Is there a way to responsibly give an animal as a gift?
— Patricia Rassi
Puppies, kittens and other pets provide companionship, joy, unconditional love, a sense of safety and often even service. It seems reasonable to suspect that they would be the ultimate present. Yet the pet giving experience must be preceded by taking the time to consider which animal is best suited for your friend's living space, lifestyle and budget. A pet selected on impulse, "for children" or as a gift during the holidays often ends up as one of the millions of unwanted pets needlessly euthanized each year. Caring for an animal is very similar to caring for a child.
Do they have room for a pet? Cats, birds and pocket pets (rabbits, gerbils, ferrets, hamsters, etc.) can adapt to almost any size living quarters, but dogs and larger animals need more space and exercise. For everyone's safety, can potential owners obey leash laws, vaccinate (rabies is the most important) and neuter their pet, observe licensing requirements and clean up after their animal? Will a pet match their lifestyle? Most folks keep pets as companions, while others enjoy breeding, showing and hunting. Will the animal you're considering have the temperament and physical attributes to participate in their type of living, be it work, play or even in their absence? Young puppies and kittens require time for housebreaking, training and feeding. Are they gone all day long? Will they work late? Feeding, exercise, grooming and play are daily commitments that you are wishing upon your friends with this gift. Are they ready for it? Last, consider their pocketbook. All pets need food, shelter and regular visits to a veterinarian for checkups and vaccines, and none of these items are free.
If your friends still seem prepared for all of this, start by consulting a veterinarian who can offer years of advice on physical needs, health and behavior characteristics of animals compatible with their style of living, schedule and time constraints. Other good sources of guidance include kennel clubs, breeders, humane societies and animal shelters. The importance of the latter two institutions in proper pet selection and placement cannot be underestimated. The local SPCA is not only a source of quality animals waiting for new homes, but it is staffed by folks so knowledgeable in animal selection and placement that it would be a shame not to drop in and say hello.
The most important point to remember is that the person or organization you obtain the pet from should allow you to have the animal examined by a veterinarian and allow your friends to return it within an agreed-upon time if the animal is unfit or has health problems. Many states have the so-called puppy "lemon laws" in effect, which guarantee customer satisfaction about the health of the animal within a given time period prior to complete ownership.
We just inherited a small flock of layers. Since we didn't have a place for the birds, one part of the barn became the chicken house. We insulated it as well as possible but have noticed a sizable drop in the number of eggs they produce, and the birds are sneezing their headsoff. Couldthey be allergic to the insulation?
— Claire FosterLexington, Ky.
Probably not. However, the chicken coop or house may be one of two things — too hot or too cold. And believe it or not, even in the dead of winter, a hot barn is the worse of the two evils, especially one insulated with commercial insulation. Many modern types hold in too much moisture and stale air, a dampness that promotes respiratory infections in the poultry.
The chicken house should have a sturdy north wall to ward off cold winds. Double walls and windows are necessary and large drafts should be plugged. Stacking some bales of straw against the outside north wall will provide very effective draft protection. Plenty of clean, dry bedding is also a must, as once ammonia builds up in the urine waste, it becomes a fierce respiratory menace to the birds. The temperature should not vary much between 55 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit year-round.
Calcium Imbalance in Sows
We've had a problem with a couple of our sows sitting down near weaning time. Is this a problem with their feed?
— Dennis ClemenzaBig Fish, Mont.
This problem is commonly seen in heavy milking sows with large litters. In fact, many animals that nurse large litters for lengthy periods may develop similar symptoms. The cause is a calcium imbalance, whereby the sow becomes thin, using most of her available energy and electrolytes to produce milk. Her calcium levels become increasingly low, and if not treated, she may go down on her hindquarters and appear paralyzed.
If caught early in the ailment when she's still weak but wobbly, simply weaning the pigs should be a cure. However, once the sow becomes weaker and begins to sit down, she will usually need treatment of intravenous or intraperitoneal calcium from your veterinarian. Some sows will pull out of this disease if good nursing care is maintained (give her a quiet, comfortable resting area with adequate nutrition).
Is this a feed problem? Well, it is if you're feeding garbage to the herd. Mixed human consumption food extras and compost should not be considered adequate nutrition for a sow near weaning. Garbage-fed pigs are most commonly affected by this paralysis syndrome. Healthy sows benefit from a mixed corn (not sole corn) ration, balanced in its protein and carbohydrates, as well as from good pasture. In fact, most legume hays will provide adequate calcium, but a supplement of vitamins/minerals may be needed.
Cancer Prevention in Dogs
Sam, our 8-year-old female collie, was diagnosed with a mammary tumor recently. Our veterinarian mentioned that this was a preventable tumor.How?
— Michelle AndersLas Vegas, Nev.
Cancer is an uncontrolled growth of cells that may be localized, invade adjacent tissue or even spread throughout the body and become malignant. Cancer is common in pet animals, and while dogs seem to contract cancer at roughly the same rate as humans, cats seem to get fewer — yet more aggressive — cancers.
The cause of most cancers is not known, and therefore, most prevention is difficult. But cancers such as breast cancer in dogs are largely preventable via early spaying or ovariohysterectomy. Published reports say spaying your pet between the ages of six and 10 months may reduce the incidence of this cancer by 200 percent. Spaying your dog after two years of age has little effect on the rate of this tumor formation and its prevention.
Should your dog develop a mammary tumor, take heart in knowing that only about 50 percent of all breast tumors in dogs are malignant. In cats, 85 to 90 percent of all breast cancers are malignant. For both cats and dogs, surgery is the treatment of choice, and alternative chemotherapy is normally not required. However, since cats are more likely to have a malignant tumor, surgery is rarely entirely curative.
Feeding Chocolate to Pets: A Mystery Solved
Our daughter is constantly feeding the puppy chocolate. I overheard a neighbor say that her dog died from this. Is this possible, or is it OK to feed the dog Hershey's kisses?
— Bonnie McCollough
Theobromine is the active substance found in chocolate and cocoa. It is similar to caffeine and substances found in diet pills and fatigue-reducing drugs. What do these substances do once ingested? Well, they are all stimulants. Some act directly on the heart, increasing its rate and force of contraction; others act directly on nervous and skeletal tissues (muscles), causing general excitement, muscle contractions and spasms, vomiting and urination.
Certain breeds of dog and even certain individuals within a breed are more "excitable" than others and therefore tend to be highly sensitive to the effects of the toxins in chocolate and cocoa. Some dogs become so nervous and agitated after ingesting large amounts that they may even have a seizure or convulsion. Although this is a rarity to be sure, it is definitely not a good idea to feed more than a few pieces of chocolate to a dog — especially a puppy — on a regular basis. In addition to causing such severe nervous system problems, the high sugar content of candy promotes dental disease as well as certain bacterial skin and urinary tract infections.