Ask Marty Becker a question about caring for your dog and he not only knows the answer — he lives it. He and his wife, Teresa, who make their home on a horse ranch in Idaho, have four dogs of their own, and on top of that, as Becker, 56, says exuberantly in his new book, Your Dog: The Owner's Manual, "My life is helping pets and the people who love them."
We talked to Becker recently to get his top tips and best advice, knowing, of course, that he brings more than 30 years of experience as a veterinarian to the task and continues practicing veterinary care at the North Idaho Animal Hospital. He has also been a contributor to ABC's Good Morning America for 10 years, writes a syndicated column on pets and is the author of many previous books about animals, including The Healing Power of Pets.
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Also, as AARP's pet expert, he contributes regular columns on pet care, which are widely read. One point he stressed in talking about his new book: There is always something new going on in this field, so it's important to stay current.
Q. What's the No. 1 reason people take their pets to the vet today?
A. It's for skin problems. That's across the country and across all demographics. The dogs are biting, scratching, licking, chewing or face rubbing. The collar's tinkling at night, and it's driving people crazy. It's clear that the pet is suffering, but people don't think the reason for this is excessive shedding.
Q. Yet some dogs shed more than others. What should we know?
A. Well, there's a few things to know that aren't necessarily obvious. Smaller dogs have fewer hair follicles; they have less hair than bigger dogs. And long hair on dogs is genetically triggered to fall out less often than short hair. So if you're interested in a dog that's going to shed the least, get a long-haired small dog and keep the hair trimmed short.
Q. Such common sense! But still surprising.
A. Right. You would never think a long-haired dog would shed less. And you'd think a small dog would shed less than a big dog. My wife, Teresa, and I, practice what I preach. Our two indoor dogs are long-haired dogs, and we keep them trimmed short. A lot of people romanticize a pet. They think of the dog they had when they were a kid, or a dog that just seems, from a distance, like a great dog. You really want to do your homework ahead of time if you're in the market for a new dog.
Q. Your recommendation for best breed?
A. I tend to default to mixed breed dogs. With certain breeds, there's a lot of genetic malfunction. If you look at boxers or golden retrievers, for example, 80 percent of them are going to die of cancer. Then there's Doberman pinschers and schnauzers, who tend to have heart problems. With mixed breed dogs, the genetic defects are diluted out. You're getting what's called a hybrid vigor. They just have a healthier gene pool.
Q. You also like smaller dogs, especially for mature people. Why?
A. They fit into our lifestyle better. They're easier to lift up and down if you're putting them on the counter to brush their teeth or getting them into the car for a trip. They tend to be embraced in the full breadth and depth of our lives, as opposed to spending a lot of time in the house.
Q. We also need to be careful about tripping over small dogs, though, right?
A. It's easy to trip on a pet in the house; it's easiest to trip on a pet when you're walking them. They'll dart across in front of you with the leash if they see an errant squirrel. That's another reason I like smaller dogs. It's a lot easier to control a 10-pound dog than it is to control a 100-pound dog.
Q. How about male versus female dogs?
A. If you forced me to pick, I would pick female. And if you have two dogs, never get dogs of the same gender. You're better off getting a male and a female, and if you have a big dog, you're better off mixing it with a small dog. When they're very close in physical size and of the same sex, that's when you get most of the inter-species aggression.
Q. Is having two dogs a smart thing to do?
A. There's a study out now showing that in multiple pet households, the pets get sick less often. When they're hospitalized, they don't stay in the hospital as long, and, overall, they live longer. That's because they're a social species. They get to express their genetic exuberance around another dog. You and I can't share the excitement of smelling another animal that's flitted across the yard, but they can.
Q. Teaching dogs to walk on a loose leash is critical, you say. Why?
A. A dog pulling out in front, into the pressure of a leash, is really bad manners. It's also an expression of dominance. Only when your dog is on a loose leash and walking beside you — not pulling ahead — should you move forward. Every time the dog starts pulling, stop. Repeat that. You should also have tasty treats in your pocket, and every once in a while feed those to your dog. Reward him for good behavior with lots of praise. Pretty soon you'll see he'll just stay there with you, and you'll only need to reinforce this maybe once in a while.
Q. This can be particularly important for people who aren't walking as quickly as they used to.
A. Exactly, or who don't have the same balance. As you get older, you start getting a weakened immune system. You may have had a medical procedure and you're taking steroids, or you're getting chemotherapy, or you're on cyclosporine, or your immune system is compromised by something. That's where we worry a little more about zoonotic diseases, which are diseases transmitted from pets to humans.
Q. What should we know about these zoonotic diseases?
A. You want to take extra precautions:
- Never mix the dogs' dishes with the human dishes in the sink. Wash them somewhere else, in a utility room or a laundry room.
- Stay current on preventive health care programs. For example, leptospirosis is a disease that can be transmitted from people to pets and from pets to people. When you vaccinate your pet with the DHL vaccine that protects against that, as well as get the other regular vaccinations as recommended by your vet, you're protecting your human family as well.
- By using lifetime parasite control, for internal parasites like worms, and for external parasites such as fleas and ticks, you're keeping heinous hitchhikers out of the house.
Q. Your mantra is, "Maximize the benefits of pet ownership, and minimize the risks." And you stress hand washing, something so simple but vital.
A. Yes. When you're done playing with your pet or handling your pet, it's really important that you wash your hands. And of course after feeding your pet or picking up after them, you absolutely must wash your hands. Frankly, you just can't wash your hands enough these days.
Q. Let's talk about the healing power of pets.
A. The way it works is intimacy. You don't get the healing power from a dog that's out in the backyard most of the time — a dog you only see once in a while. You get it from close physical contact. When you rhythmically stroke your pet, when you're sitting there at night and they're next to you, after just one to two minutes there's a biochemical spa treatment that takes place in your body. You get this release of oxytocin, the hug hormone, and serotonin, the happy hormone or the brain hormone, and prolactin, the active ingredient in chocolate that gives you that kind of rush. The great thing is, the dog gets it, too. So it's reciprocal, not parasitic.
Q. How can we save money when it comes to pet care?
A. I know what people are going through when it comes to cutting costs. We've all made changes to be a little more careful, and you can save money without shortchanging your pet. One of the biggest wasters of money is buying extremely expensive food. Veterinarians don't see nutritional deficiencies when dogs come to the hospital for treatment. Never. But they do see cases of nutritional excesses all the time.
Q. What nutritional excess have you seen recently?
A. I saw a Chihuahua today that should weigh around 10 pounds but weighs 30 pounds. All the dog eats is chicken. Well, that messes up the calcium phosphorus balance, and you get these bones that are just about as brittle as a toothpick. Then there are people who want to buy organic, holistic food that is super expensive. As long as the dog food is nutritionally complete and balanced and has the AAFCO [Association of American Feed Control Officials] guidelines on it, you'll be fine. Ask your vet for recommendations. Otherwise it's impossible to weed through the tantalizing ads and competing claims to know which product is best for your pet.
Q. If we wanted the biggest bang for our buck when it comes to our dogs, what's the one thing we can do to keep them healthy?
A. Keep your pet in good oral health. If you do that, your pet is going to live 15 percent longer. Also, if you keep a pet at its ideal body weight or near its ideal body weight, it's going to live 15 percent longer as well. So the furry fountain of youth doesn't lie in the makeup of the food as much as it does in the quantity of food you feed it, how much exercise it gets, and what kind of regular oral care it gets. Daily or every other day oral care is important.
Q. And regular bathing is as well, you say.
A. Bathe your pet weekly. This is new. This is what veterinary dermatologists recommend now. When you bathe a pet weekly, you're helping to prevent skin problems and skin allergies. If you bathe them weekly, you flush the allergens off, and you're always helping to take good care of yourself, so that you're not exposed to whatever your dog might have picked up. It pays huge benefits.
Q. How about taking dogs to groomers?
A. Most people can't really clean their dogs' ears or the anal glands, and they can't trim their nails. Most pets actually really like going to the groomer and being groomed. They like the physical contact. And groomers also catch things early on, like matting close to the skin. So I recommend it.
Maureen Mackey lives in New York.