Video Blog: Travel Tips

March 14th, 2012


Looking forward to a spring getaway? Make sure your vacation plans include provisions for your pet while you’re away. In this video blog post, The Pet Network’s Melissa walks you through the best options, from posh doggie hotels and spas to professional dog walkers and nannies.


Why Soundness Matters

March 13th, 2012


Posted by Dr. Pamela Barker

So you’ve made the big decision: you’re going to get a puppy. Congratulations! You’ll enjoy unconditional love and lowered blood pressure — and you’ll give total strangers a socially acceptable excuse for striking up conversations with you.

For many of you, your ideal companion will be found at the local animal shelter or adopted from one of the many fine rescue organizations that help provide loving homes for dogs in need. We’ll talk about how to find that perfect match in an upcoming post.

Others of you may have your heart set on a certain breed. Maybe your family had a Doberman Pinscher when you were growing up. Or maybe you’ve long been dreaming of a St. Bernard or an elegant Afghan Hound. If you are interested in a purebred dog (and there are several hundred breeds to choose from), the wisest course is to do your homework first. Dogs have been bred for centuries to perform different tasks, and their behavioural tendencies and activity levels vary as much as their appearances.

Even if you’ve already decided on a particular breed, it’s still important to do some research before shopping for a puppy. Virtually all breeds have a national club with a Web site offering a wealth of information — not only about physical and behavioural qualities, but health concerns as well. No breed is entirely free of genetic health issues, and you’ll want to know what questions to ask. These inherited disorders can spell pain and heartbreak for you and your pet, and may require expensive corrective surgery or lifelong treatment to manage symptoms. Moreover, many — if not most — such disorders don’t become apparent until a puppy has reached maturity. A one-week return guarantee means little if your much-loved family member becomes disabled or develops epilepsy as a young adult.

So how do you know if the breeder you are considering is responsible and ethical breeder or a backyard breeder?

Many people believe that if you have no intention of showing or breeding your dog, it’s not particularly necessary to seek out a high-quality breeder who might have a long waiting list or require a spay/neuter contract. It’s certainly true that high prices and a flashy Web site do not, by themselves, mean quality and health. But there are sound and sensible reasons to steer well clear of backyard breeders.

One reliable way to identify a reputable breeder? He or she will have a long list of questions for you. They will want to know why you chose the breed and what expectations you have for your new dog. They will inquire about your household and the environment where the dog will be kept. They may ask if you have a fenced yard or other pets in the family. They will want to know the ages of your children and what plans you have for the dog when family members are at work or school. They may even ask for references.

Quality breeders will expect you to have questions too. They will be well-versed in the health and behavioral issues associated with the breed, and will be able to produce documentation of health clearances for their breeding animals.

Bear in mind that every breed has issues, and that health screening tests are the only way to definitively identify such potential concerns. Dogs that have’t been tested for health issues aren’t necessarily free of them — theirbreeders simply choose not to know.

Breeders who are taking steps to produce healthy puppies will be proud to explain the process — and, most important, can provide documentary proof that the puppies come from sound breeding stock. Registration papers themselves only signify that a dog is purebred. They give no indication of health or quality of the dog.

A quality breeder will serve as a resource for you throughout the life of your dog. They will always be there to answer questions. And, if for some reason you are unable to keep the dog, they may require that the animal be returned to them. This is one way that responsible breeders ensure the puppies they produce do not end up being abandoned or joining the thousands of purebred dogs that are surrendered to animal shelters every year.

Many buyers don’t realize that they can get a healthy, stable puppy from a quality breeder at a price comparable to what they would pay for an unsound, randomly bred dog from a backyard breeder or a puppy mill. Responsible breeders don’t use puppy sales as a money-making endeavour. They breed their dogs carefully and give great forethought to how these dogs will contribute to the breed. Only a fraction of the puppies they produce will go on to be winners in the show ring. But the remainder will be exceptional dogs puppies, exemplary of their breed: physically and mentally sound, and destined to make a wonderful addition to your family.

Dr. Pamela Barker is a professional veterinarian with more than 15 years of experience, currently practicing in 100 Mile House, B.C. Her special areas of interest include animal behaviour and training, nutrition and condition for canine athletes, and public education about animal health and care. If you’d like to suggest a topic for one of her future blog posts, please feel free to leave a comment below.

Pets and Plants

March 7th, 2012


Posted by Dr. Pamela Barker

With Easter coming up and spring planting to follow soon after, now is a good time to take inventory of the plants in your house and give thought to what you might be growing in the yard or garden this summer.

Cats and dogs are curious creatures, especially the young ones, and some pets just cannot resist a taste of any greenery that may be within reach. Many of the most common houseplants are toxic if ingested by animals. For example: lilies, which are so popular during the Easter season, contain a toxin that is especially dangerous for cats. Ingesting even a few leaves of the plant has been reported to cause fatal kidney failure.

There are dozens of types of houseplants that can be poisonous to pets, and it’s important to remember that some parts of a plant may contain particularly high concentrations of the toxin. Many flowering bulbs fall into this category. When the ground thaws in the spring, some dogs are inclined to dig vigorously to investigate all the wonderful smells and treasures that have been lurking for months beneath the snow. The discovery and ingestion of a newly sprouting flower bulb can result in one very ill canine.

Certain plants may become more toxic as they wilt or dry out, so take care to dispose promptly of any dropped leaves or remnants of pruning. Other plants have non-toxic leaves, but poisonous roots or rhizomes. And many common flower and plant seeds are also toxic to pets. The fruit of the apple, for instance, is perfectly edible — but the leaves, stems and seeds actually contain cyanide. The pit of many fruits, including apricots and avocados, also contain this toxin. Meanwhile, onions and members of the onion family (including garlic) contain a chemical that can cause the breakdown of red blood cells.

Incidentally, dogs and cats are not the only susceptible pets: house rabbits, guinea pigs, birds and pocket pets should all be closely monitored when they are allowed access to areas with plants.

In many cases, the consequences of ingesting a toxic plant are limited to the various forms of gastric upset, such as drooling, vomiting or diarrhea. Irritation of the mouth is also common. In certain situations, however, the result can be heart arrhythmias, seizures and even fatal organ failure. The ASPCA has an extensive Web site that lists both toxic and non-toxic indoor and outdoor plants and flowers. You will likely find nearly all the plants in your house described there in detail. Know what’s dangerous and what’s not: your pet will be safer, and you’ll enjoy peace of mind.

CLICK HERE for the ASPCA’s comprehensive guide to toxic and non-toxic plants.

Dr. Pamela Barker is a professional veterinarian with more than 15 years of experience, currently practicing in 100 Mile House, B.C. Her special areas of interest include animal behaviour and training, nutrition and condition for canine athletes, and public education about animal health and care. If you’d like to suggest a topic for one of her future blog posts, please feel free to leave a comment below.

Wild At Heart

February 28th, 2012


Posted by Dr. Pamela Barker

Our recent online survey has shown that an overwhelming majority of you are opposed to the keeping of wild animals as pets. As a veterinarian and a former zookeeper, I wholeheartedly agree. Regardless of where they live, there are immense differences between a “tame” or captive animal and a truly domesticated one.

Domestication is a long, gradual process that involves far more than the “taming” and keeping of individual animals. In the case of the dog, this evolution has been going on for about 10,000 years. We know from DNA evidence that dogs descended from wolves, but newer theories have changed dramatically our understanding of how this likely happened.

We used to think that early humans must have raised orphaned wolf cubs, and that the descendants of those animals evolved into our domestic dogs. The problem with this theory is that it doesn’t explain why, even after generations of being raised in captivity, wild wolves don’t become domestic wolves. It also ignores the fact that, in primitive societies, food was a scarce and guarded resource. The idea that early humans would have voluntarily added another mouth to feed seems highly improbable. Wild wolves almost certainly represented danger and competition for food, not working companions. Moreover, we know that generations of other wild species raised in the company of humans, such as large cats or primates, do not become domesticated.

Turns out that the ancestors of our modern dogs likely played an active role in the domestication process. It is now believed that some wolves, as a result of naturally occurring genetic variations, were less wary of humans than were their relatives. These wolves probably approached the hunting and living areas of humans more readily, taking advantage of discarded or unattended food sources. More food meant an advantage in the struggle for survival, and a better chance to breed and produce surviving offspring.

Insightful humans may also have seen the advantage of following wolves to find prey. And they may have realized that the protective company of a predator made them less likely to become dinner for other animals.

This helps to explain the significant differences we see today between wolves and dogs. While wolves are predators, feral or semi-wild dogs tend to be scavengers. In a wolf pack, breeding is restricted to only the alpha pair, while dogs breed indiscriminately. And social structure within a dog pack (or a dog and human pack) tends to be flexible. Changes in pack order, or the social position of pack members, occurs readily and usually with little conflict. Changes of status within a wolf pack, by contrast, most often require the death or removal of a pack member.

The special qualities of dogs that make them uniquely suited for life with humans actually represent a genetic retention of juvenile characteristics. That is to say, a pet dog more closely resembles a wolf cub than a “tame” wolf. Interestingly, these behavioural traits are also linked to a number of physical traits that we see in adult domestic dogs but not wild canines: floppy ears, blunt faces, curly tails, and large white patches or a piebald (spotted) pattern. An experiment in Siberia on silver foxes, spanning the greater part of fifty years, clearly illustrated this phenomenon. Researchers seeking to breed tame foxes that were easier to handle succeeded in doing so within a few generations; in the process, however, they also changed significantly the foxes’ physical appearance and biochemical physiology.

When people attempt to keep wild animals as pets, the dramatic impact of that centuries of domestication have had become clear. While things may go fairly smoothly when the animal is young, things often fall apart once the normal changes that accompany sexual maturity begin to manifest themselves. Previously gentle youngsters begin to exhibit typical adult behaviours. In captivity they become aggressive, unpredictable and, in the case of carnivores, highly predatory.

Wild animals will behave this way, regardless of their upbringing, because they are genetically programmed to do so. Domestic animals are a result of genetic changes: selective breeding for not only physical traits, but for the behavioural traits that make them compatible for life with humans.

Each day, millions of us interact with our pets happily and safely. They live in our cities and farms, and share our homes. They ride in our cars, play with our children, and bring comfort to the elderly, ill and infirm. We trust them to carry us safely on their backs, to lead the visually impaired, and to give lifesaving assistance to law enforcement and military personnel. We don’t often stop to think how amazing it is that such different creatures have come together for their mutual benefit.

Dr. Pamela Barker is a professional veterinarian with more than 15 years of experience, currently practicing in 100 Mile House, B.C. Her special areas of interest include animal behaviour and training, nutrition and condition for canine athletes, and public education about animal health and care. If you’d like to suggest a topic for one of her future blog posts, please feel free to leave a comment below.

A Feline In The Family

February 21st, 2012


Posted by Dr. Pamela Barker

Adding a cat to your household can be a joyous occasion  – and a little preparation can go a long way toward ensuring the success of this new relationship. Maybe you’ve been planning for the new arrival for quite some time. Or maybe a lonely stray found her way to your front porch. In either case, a visit to your family veterinarian should probably be your first step.

Stray cats and kittens, as well as cats from a shelter, should be examined for signs of illness before being brought into your household. Problems to watch for include upper respiratory infections (which may look like a cold), eye infections and other diseases. A blood test may also be advisable, to check for Feline Leukemia Virus (FeLV) and Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV). These are diseases that depress the immune system and can have fatal consequences. Cats may carry these diseases for years without showing any outward signs, and mothers can pass on the infection to their kittens. Your veterinarian will also check for parasites such as roundworms, tapeworms and ear mites. He or she can let you know what vaccinations are needed, and can provide information about spaying and neutering as well.

Even if you purchase your kitten from a breeder, it’s still recommended that you make a timely visit to a veterinarian for a physical exam and all the appropriate vaccinations. Be certain to research your breed of choice carefully before buying, as some purebred cats are prone to genetic conditions that may cause kidney, heart or respiratory issues.

If you have no other pets, a new feline friend is pretty low maintenance. Most kittens virtually house train themselves when given easy access to a clean litter box. Keep in mind, though, that individual cats may have different preferences when it comes to the type of litter, and many dislike scented litter. Not surprisingly, cats would rather have their food and water dishes placed away from the litter box. And who can blame them — would you want to eat in your bathroom?

If you do have other animals in the house — particularly other cats — the introduction process can be a little trickier. Keep in mind that cats are territorial by nature, and will identify their personal space by marking — urine being the preferred mode of communication. You can help to avoid turf wars by providing each pet with his or her own feeding and elimination areas. The general rule: have one more litter box than you have cats.

Cats moving into a new environment also need safe resting and hiding areas. Try to provide elevated locations where cats can climb to observe activity from above. This allows them to acclimate more readily, while reducing their need to hide in closets or under beds.

Pheromone products are available that may also help to reduce stress. You can spray these in areas of the house where the cats reside, or buy plug-in dispensers that work much like a household air freshener. Keeping everybody’s claws trimmed short will help to avoid injuries if a newcomer does have a difference of opinion with an incumbent.

Cats and kittens have an amazing tolerance for rough handling from toddlers and younger children. They will endure a great deal of unintentional abuse, and will generally resort to escape rather than defending themselves with teeth or claws. For this reason, it is important that youngsters be taught how to handle their new pet gently and appropriately. With vigilant parental supervision, even pre-school children can take some responsibility for the care of the new family member. (Cats especially like fresh water, so youngsters can perhaps take on the task of replenishing the water dish several times a day.) Make sure the kitten’s needs have been tended to before the child sits down to eat breakfast or dinner.

Finally, remember that cats and kittens are curious creatures, and will investigate anything new and interesting. Be sure to keep doors and windows closed or screened off to prevent escape. Craft materials such as yarn, thread or ribbon can be extremely hazardous if swallowed. Take inventory of your houseplants, and check to make certain that your cat doesn’t have access to any plants that might be toxic. When choosing cat toys, try to find those that are durable, and don’t let your cat play with delicate toys unsupervised — there’s always a risk of ingesting small parts. Interactive battery-operated toys are a great way for your kitten to burn off excess energy, and food-puzzle toys help to channel hunting instincts in a constructive way.

Dr. Pamela Barker is a professional veterinarian with more than 15 years of experience, currently practicing in 100 Mile House, B.C. Her special areas of interest include animal behaviour and training, nutrition and condition for canine athletes, and public education about animal health and care. If you’d like to suggest a topic for one of her future blog posts, please feel free to leave a comment below.


Five Foods You Didn’t Know Were DANGEROUS FOR PETS

February 8th, 2012


A new monthly pets column by Laura Ducharme and Jen Mitchell, host and producer, respectively of The Pet Network original series Fido & Wine, makes it debut in the February issue of On the Go magazine. Congratulations, Laura and Jen! We’ll be reposting their columns here, so check back every month for more great advice and insight on living with and caring for pets.

On the Go is available at TTC and GO Train stations in the Greater Toronto Area. CLICK HERE to check out the current issue.