Veterinarian Andrea Looney provides regular advice to readers on animal care.
PHOTO: MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
Most people would agree that animal care is as
educational for children as it is rewarding. Humans aren't
born with the ability to relate well to other animals (this
you may remember from watching your toddler try to pull the
fur right off your puppy). Too many adults don't seem to
realize the limitations of kids and pets when left alone
together. To teach proper handling to youngsters, adults
must first separate the old wives' tales from the facts.
Take babies, for instance. Many families assume that aged
animals are safe when left alone with babies.
realize that, potentially, this is one extremely dangerous
situation. Without supervision, both can behave
unpredictably, especially toddlers and babies, who enjoy
grabbing, yanking, and pulling fur.
Dogs—who are often jealous of new infants to begin with—may
not hesitate to fight back when handled roughly. Even if a
solid relationship between baby and animal develops, the
potential for injury always exists. As a veterinarian, I
can tell you that I've seen multiple cases of small pets
being mutilated by larger children. All could have been
avoided with a little parental protection.
Intentional and repeated animal abuse by older children
should be taken extremely seriously. One of the worst
wives' tales ever propagated is that an animal-abusing
child is simply "going through a phase:' Studies have shown
that children with a history of animal abuse often progress
in this activity and perpetuate abuse to other children,
adults, and even property as they grow up. Make sure that
you, the consenting adult, keep your eyes open to these
scenes and discipline your children if you see abuse
When you sit down to teach your children responsible pet
care, explain carefully the idea of animal dependency. Many
youngsters are oblivious to the degree of dependence that a
dog, cat, hamster, or horse has on them. Young people can
learn best by assisting with feeding and other chores—not
by tackling them alone. There are too many stories of the
tiny finch that starved in a cage even though it was fed
hours ago, or the malnourished turtle who was regularly
fed. The children didn't know that the finch eats every
hour or that the turtle is not a strict vegetarian and
can't survive on lettuce alone. Many adults probably don't
know these things either, but it seems appropriate that we
adults learn basic pet needs first and then teach them to
Last, bear in mind that dogs, cats, and horses can live 10
to 15 years, and that during this time your kids will grow
up and lead increasingly complex lives. You'll be left with
aged Fluffy or Spot still needing a home after all your
children are in school. And contrary to popular opinion,
aged animals are not disposable or simply candidates for
euthanasia. So consider your options before buying a pet.
Q: I came across an article in a medical newsletter on
arthritis that dealt with the positive effects of
glucosamine in reversing arthritis. Is this beneficial for
dogs with arthritis? —Miriam Miller Hyndman, Pennsylvania
Glucosamine is one component of a class of body chemicals
known as glycosaminoglycans, which are found in joint
fluids and anticlotting substances. Several years ago,
articles began appearing regarding drugs composed of
polysulfated glycosaminoglycans and their possible benefit
for arthritis in the horse. However, recent studies have
shown that there may be some benefit to giving dogs these
drugs in the treatment of degenerative joint diseases.
The most common arthritic condition
today in small animals seems to be hip dysplasia. We see this
degenerative disease in many of the small, overweight breeds,
as well as larger breed dogs. While there are many surgical
options for younger animals in the treatment of this disease,
older animals may be treated more effectively using
medication. It is extremely important to have your vet
provide older pets with pain relief for their arthritis. This
medication may consist of aspirin or other non steroidal,
glycosaminoglycans have recently been studied in the horse
and dog to determine if they may have beneficial effects in
treating canine hip dysplasia and similar arthritic problems.
Unfortunately there are still no scientific studies proving
whether there are benefits to the use of these drugs or
documenting what long-term effects they may have on the rest
of the animal's body.
Currently certain nutrition specialists
are experimenting with feed supplements of
glycosaminoglycans. Sources of these substances are
shellfish, plants, and some forms of animal cartilage. I
suspect there are no detrimental effects for short-term use,
but would not advise long-term use because of the lack of
data available. Hopefully within the next two years we will
have gained a better understanding of the absorption, side
effects, and benefits.
Q: I own two Labrador retrievers who love to dig. They
have transformed my backyard into what looks like a mine
field, devastated with knee-deep craters. Any tips on
deterring them from digging? —Don ThompsonSpokane, Washington Dear
A: First of all, understand that digging is destructive
behavior for dogs. A dog left alone may be tearing into the
lawn as an outlet for boredom. Alternatively, there may
have been tangible rewards buried deep within the lawn—an
old bone, food scraps, or animal remains—that the dog is
attempting to find. If the dog appears anxious and digs
only when left alone, it may be a result of separation
anxiety. Regardless of the cause, the problem is extremely
frustrating for many owners.
Let's address boredom first. Silly as it may sound, most
dogs suffer from this affliction in one way or another. A
regimen of exercise, obedience training, and scheduled
daily "interaction" sessions may help deter the digging
behavior. However, exercise or attention sessions should be
scheduled and adhered to as a daily routine—rain or
shine! If you are inconsistent, the digging will probably
get worse as the animal anxiously waits for its "allotted"
If your dog simply hates being alone and suffers from
separation anxiety, you will have to help it get used to
being left alone for longer and longer periods of time.
Design a time schedule of increasing duration in which the
dog will be left by itself.
Punish your dogs for digging only if you can devise a way
that won't be associated with you (such as hitting with a
newspaper). Some owners opt to place loaded mouse traps on
the spots in the yard where the dog digs. Most scents are
unreliable because certain dogs find them attractive and
will dig deeper into the dirt to pursue them.
I am more inclined to go with the reward approach, making
digging constructive as opposed to destructive. For
example, you might condition dogs to dig where you want
them to. Make a sandy digging spot in the corner of the
yard and hide some treats or bones below the surface. After
a while, start hiding the bones sporadically to reinforce
digging only intermittently. Meanwhile, if the dog digs a
hole in a nonacceptable place, you may resort to mouse
If you notice one area taking disproportionate abuse, try
filling the site with rocks or chicken wire. Though
unattractive, it may help discourage digging. I believe the
best approach to your problem is probably a combination of
the above "tricks:' Persevere and allow time (weeks or
months) to change your dogs habits.
Cat Bladder Stones
My cat, Sampson, is an 18-pound, five-year-old,
neutered cat who seems prone to bladder stones. He is on a
special diet with vitamins and has undergone surgery twice
for his problem. What else can we do?
—Barbara Simmons Newport, Rhode Island
Feline urologic syndrome (FUS) is an inflammation of the
bladder and urethra that may slow or stop normal passing of
urine. It's usually associated with crystal and stone
formation and is responsible for 10% of cats' visits to the
vet. If untreated, this disease can be fatal to a cat.
FUS occurs as frequently in male cats as female cats. Yet
because of anatomical differences, actual urine obstruction
or stone blockage occurs more often in the male. The two
primary causes are a high concentration of mineral
magnesium in the urine and an alkaline (high pH) urine. The
increased magnesium can result from cats eating foods high
in magnesium, holding their urine, or not urinating enough.
It can also result from reduced physical activity caused by
indoor confinement and obesity, and drinking too little
water. The high pH urine can come from eating big meals or
many meals (fat-cat syndrome).
My first suggestion would be to have the stones that were
removed from Sampson analyzed. Your vet may be able to send
these away to a urolith (urinary stone) laboratory. Often,
the crystals seen in the urine are not reflective of the
actual crystals at the center of the stone (which started
the problem). By determining the exact composition of the
stones, you may be able to prevent their formation
and not just treat the secondary crystals.
Sampson's weight may be part of the problem. If it isn't a
major concern, let him outside for a few hours a day to get
some exercise and increase his fat-burning metabolism. Once
his activity increases, he will drink more, urinate more,
and the crystals will have less of a tendency to form. Try
changing his litter box too. Some cats hold their urine
because they are too lazy to climb over a too-tall box, or
they don't like the brand of litter you use or the location
of the litter box.
Check to see whether the vitamin supplement that Sampson
takes contains additives that may be contributing to the
stone or crystal formation. Finally, have your vet examine
Sampson's kidneys via ultrasound or x rays to make sure
they are not involved in the problem. Often, long-term
antibiotic therapy is necessary to help reduce the
inflammation associated with the crystal formation. Your
vet may prescribe an appropriate one for Sampson based on a
urine or stone culture.
Llamas as Pets
Q: Recently I was driving through upstate New York and
noticed two llamas standing in a field. Are these pets or
production animals? Would they be suitable for the
—Earl Breckner Dayton, Ohio
The llama, a South American member of the camel family, has
shown some popularity as of late due to its
wilderness-packing attributes and some backyard farmer's
desire for the novel pasture animal. These animals have
long graceful necks, with small refined heads, large eyes,
and long curved ears. Their hooves are very comparable to
our nails, yet cloven with soft pads on the bottom. Adults
weigh 250 to 500 pounds at maturity.
Llamas are used in their native environment predominantly
as a beast of burden or raised for meat. The wool derived
from their coat is not as desirable as many believe. Its
mixture of long hairs and fine undercoat is apparently
painstaking to separate. However, they are a quiet,
inherently thrifty animal that can survive extreme
temperatures—with the exception of high heat and humidity.
Because their behavior is strongly influenced by the herd's
structure of dominance and subordinance, they may be
suitable backyard pets if a breeding pair or small group is
kept. However, in a large herd situation, objectionable
behavior—spitting, charging, pawing, or
striking—may be used to express dominance to other
herd members and also to humans. Bottle-feeding young
animals and developing extremely close contact with cries
(baby llamas) may result in very aggressive, mature
behavior that is inappropriate for human interaction.
Feeding patterns are similar to that of a goat or deer,
with hays and grasses providing the main source of
sustenance. They are basically stock, hardy animals that
can withstand many extremes of feed and climate variations.
With such intense inbreeding currently going on in North
America, they appear to be subject to a variety of
congenital limb and gastrointestinal abnormalities.
Overall, though, they are a naturally healthy pet.
Llamas seem to have an inherent common sense and territory
respect, which makes their initial equipment and housing
requirements low. All you need are a roof to deflect
moisture and provide shade, and some form of a windbreak.
Natural shelter may be sufficient in many climates.
If you think the llama is the pet for you, there's one more
thing you should know—the price. City folks and
trendseekers longing for rural contact will pay exorbitant
prices for these elegant creatures. Females sell for
$15,000 to $20,000; males may sell for anywhere between
$8,000 and $18,000. Believe it or not, the "in" thing is to
purchase a breeding pair. If you're planning on
backpacking, a good mule may be a more economical choice.