Pets: Solutions to common questions

If you think doctors have it tough at cocktail parties, try being a pet columnist. No social gathering goes by without the attendant questions about housebreaking, training or nutrition.

If you think doctors have it tough at cocktail parties, try being a pet columnist. No social gathering goes by without the attendant questions about housebreaking, training or nutrition.

So, in a perhaps fruitless bid to enjoy an uninterrupted Cosmopolitan, here are my most-asked questions, with my cocktail-frank answers:

Q: What brand of food do you feed your dogs?

A: I don't. I am a staunch advocate of homemade dog diets, whether cooked or raw. Ditto for cats, though their finicky habits sometimes makes switching their diet problematic (and, when they go on a hunger strike, life threatening).

I always find it amusing when people expect me to make an argument in favor of feeding "real" food: What does your common sense tell you is optimal nutrition? Well-hydrated, whole, human-grade food? Or desiccated, preservative-laden commercial food made with the "seconds" of the human-food manufacturing process, many of which are considered unfit for our consumption?


The biggest obstacle to a homemade diet is fear. Owners buy into the pet-food industry rap that changing food causes intestinal upset (for most dogs, it doesn't, and if yours is the exception, you should read on about pumpkin. Vets are afraid clients will create nutritional imbalances, or that dogs will choke on a raw chicken wing and they will get sued.

The antidote to fear is knowledge. Invest in a good book on home-cooking or raw-feeding; has a slew of them. If you are considering a raw diet, inform yourself about the down sides: It may not be appropriate for dogs that are elderly or chronically ill, and may not be appropriate in households where the humans fit that description (as well as very young children).

Q: Why isn't my cat using the litter box?

A: As with any question involving behavioral changes, the first order of business is a trip to the vet to rule out an underlying medical problem.

If Kitty has a clean bill of health, think about any changes that have occurred in your household -- especially emotional ones. Rearrange the furniture, have a kid leave for college or go through a divorce -- any of these things can trigger an episode of unhousebrokenness.

Another logical place to look is the litterbox itself: Have you followed the cardinal rule of one box per cat, plus one? Are you using a cover litterbox? (We like them; many cats don't.) And is a territorial dispute in your multi-cat household encouraging a four-footed bully to block litterbox access to others?

Q: What kind of dog should I get?

A: The biggest mistake people make is selecting solely on appearance. Pretty is as pretty does, and a border collie living with a couch potato gets pretty ugly pretty fast.


The American Kennel Club divides dogs into seven groups, based on what they were bred to do. (The exception is the seventh group, Non-Sporting, which is where they put breeds that don't fit in the other six.) Think about your search in terms of these functional categories: Can I live with the high energy of a herding dog? The protective instincts of a working dog? The scrappiness of a terrier? The independence of a hound? Then, within the group that suits your lifestyle and your experience level (in my book, novices can't go wrong with the Sporting group), find the best fit for you.

Finally, realize that all of the above comes into play with mixed-breed dogs, many of which await at your local shelter. If you insist on a purebred, contact the rescue groups available for virtually every breed.

Q: What's the best diarrhea remedy for my dog?

A: Easy. Add a dollop of canned pumpkin to his food. It works far better than that oft-recommended standby, white rice. That's plain pumpkin -- not pumpkin-pie mix, which is loaded with spices. The ultimate all-rounder, fiber-rich pumpkin also works for constipation. I am never without several cans in my cupboard.

Q: Can you recommend a trainer?

A: The problem with trainers is that anyone can hang out a shingle and call himself one.

Attend a training class before you sign on the dotted line. Make sure the trainer uses positive reinforcement (including toy and food rewards), and not "jerk and pop" aversives or electronic collars as their first-line training philosophy.

Also, know when you need more than a trainer. With severe behavioral issues -- especially involving human-directed aggression, particularly when there are children in or around the household -- you need a certified applied animal behaviorist. Don't be taken in by trainers who knight themselves "behaviorists." Make sure the person is a member of the Animal Behavior Society( ).

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