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Keeping Pets Safe, Healthy, Happy over Holidays

The holidays can create a unique set of issues for pets.

On "The Early Show" Friday, resident veterinarian Dr. Debbye Turner Bell answered a host of questions submitted by viewers:

My dog and I travel by car to visit and stay with family over the holidays, so what advice do the pet experts have for making the car ride easier on my pet?

You are not alone in your plans to travel with your dog. According to the Travel Industry Association of America, an estimated 29.1 million Americans say they have traveled with a pet in the past three years. Canines are the most popular travel companions. As estimated 78 percent travel with their parents while felines take second place at 15 percent.

There are some steps you should take to make sure you, your family, and your pet have a good time.

First of all, call ahead to make sure that your family members know (and is okay with) you're bringing your pet. In advance, talk out all the concerns and limitations before you show up on their doorstep with Fido. If there are parts of the house, furniture, or rooms that your relatives would rather keep your dog out of, know that in advance. Also, ask if there is a yard or nearby park to walk your dog while you are visiting. Make sure you know where the dog will be allowed to sleep and eat. And inquire about allergies. If anyone is allergic to pet dander, then you might want to reconsider taking him along. It's a good idea to let your veterinarian give your pooch a quick exam before you take the trip. And don't feed your dog immediately before taking off. It's usually best for Fido to travel on an empty stomach.

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Once all those preliminary issues are settled, there is some pet travel gear that will make the trip smoother. Bring along a blanket or seat cover to protect your vehicle upholstery from hair, stains, and "accidents." You should plan to restrain your dog in either a doggie seatbelt or a carrier. A free-roaming pet in a moving car is a huge danger to you and the pet. In the unfortunate event of an accident, a free-roaming pet becomes a missile and can hurt or even kill passengers. Also, bring along a portable water bowl and food dish. The pet should have frequent access to clean water, so pack some water too to offer during rest stops. If the trip is short, you may want to hold off on feeding your dog a meal until you arrive at your destination. Many pets suffer from motion sickness, so eating and riding are not a good mix for them. If the road trip is a long one, then also bring along your pet's favorite toys and chews to give them some entertainment and exercise during your stops.

Finally, bring along your dog's bed and favorite toys to have on hand at your relative's home. Plus a T-shirt that has your scent on it may help relieve any stress he feels because of being in an unfamiliar environment.

How do your prevent a three-year-old kitten from eating plants? I would love to have some poinsettias but I am worried that our kitten, who loves to eat plants, would go after them.

The berries of holly and mistletoe are extremely poisonous to your pets if eaten. And, while poinsettias may not be truly poisonous, their leaves and sap can cause gastric distress. With so many hybrid varieties out there these days, it's probably best to keep all holiday plants out of your pet's reach. Hang them from the ceiling or put them on high surfaces that the cat cannot jump up on.

There are a few techniques to use in order to deter your pet from eating and chewing on plants. There are sprays and repellents available from pet stores that are safe for the plant, but the unpleasant taste deters cats from chewing on the leaves. Household items like Tabasco sauce or juice concentrate to keep pets away from plants. And some pet owners condition their animals by spraying them with a water bottle every time the owner catches them chewing on a plant. Eventually the animal will realize that every time it goes near the plant, it will get sprayed.

Outside of holiday chocolate, are there other foods that are dangerous to your pet?

Don't feed your pets scraps from the table! High-fat foods, which are typically found on holiday menus, can upset your pet's stomach. Instead, keep your pet's favorite treats on hand and offer them when the rest of the family is enjoying their meal. The following foods are commonly found around many homes during the holidays, and can be especially hazardous to your pet:

Bones: The holiday turkey or chicken will provide lots of tantalizing bones, but don't feed them to your pet. Small bones or bone chips can lodge in their throat, stomach, and intestinal track. Beware of steak bones, and ham bones, too.

Onion and garlic: These contain sulfides, which can cause the destruction of red blood cells, and are toxic to animals. Foods spiced with onion and/or garlic should not be given to pets.

Raisins: Many people use them while baking during the holiday season. But, they could pose a choking hazard, so keep them out of reach. Raisins are particularly problematic for cats.

Chocolate: What would the holidays be without boxes of chocolate and warm cocoa? And, though it may be tempting to sneak your pet a little piece -- don't! It can be toxic, or even fatal, to dogs and cats (chocolate poisoning occurs most frequently in dogs, but other animals are susceptible, too). The amount of toxicity depends on the amount of a substance called theobromine in the chocolate. Unsweetened cocoa is usually the most toxic, and milk chocolate is usually the least toxic (the amount found in white chocolate or chocolate flavored dog treats is usually negligible - see attachment). Chocolate poisoning requires emergency medical treatment. So, always keep chocolate well out of reach.

My kids want a pet but I don't. What do you tell them without hurting their feelings?

Let's face it: No matter how many times children promise to take full responsibility for a pet, the parent always ends up doing the lion share of the work. So, if you as the parent, are not ready for the commitment of having a pet, then you shouldn't get one. No matter how intense the begging is! Having a pet is a big commitment that requires time, money, patience, affection, and love. In many cases, that pet will live for 15-20 years. When the kids go off to college, you'll still have the pet! So wait until it's right for everyone.

Many veterinarians and pet experts will agree that the holidays ARE NOT an ideal time to bring a new pet into the home. It's a hectic, frenzied, busy time. Most families are gone a lot, hosting parties and get-togethers. So there is just not enough time left to give a new pet the attention that is essential to forming a bond and relationship. Also, with lots of people in and out of the house, the chance of the pet escaping increases dramatically. In many cases, the pet is already stressed out from being in a new place. Add to that a constant stream of new people and smells and that could be enough to send the pet racing out the front door the next time you open it to greet a guest. A puppy needs a lot of time and patience for socialization and behavior training. Cats need calm and predictability. So the craziness of the holidays is not the time to bring a four-legged friend into the family.

For those who are bent on giving a pet to a child or loved one as a gift, wrap a box filled with pet toys, collar, and food bowls and give that on Christmas day. Then in January after all the dust has settled, go shopping for a pet leisurely. Then you'll have time to evaluate your lifestyle, family structure, and needs so that you choose the right pet for you. Most of us will be stuck inside for a couple of months during the dead of winter. That is a perfect time to acclimate a pet to their new surroundings.

So, to get to the question at hand, tell your children what a big responsibility it is to have a pet. Perhaps let them volunteer at the local shelter so that see what caring for a pet is really like. Then when the time is right, be open to adding a furry family member to the clan. Having a pet is a wonderful and rewarding experience. But it should be the right pet, at the right time.

How do you keep your cats out of the Christmas tree?

Cats are naturally curious. Anything new in their environment sparks a session of thorough sniffing and inspecting, and climbing in the case of the Christmas tree. Cats not only like to become well acquainted with their environment, they also want to "own" everything. Cats also love heights. This vantage point in the wild aids in their hunting skills. Altogether, these behaviors help explain why our feline friends love to be where we don't want them. Now many think cats cannot be trained. But that is most certainly not true. They are extremely intelligent beings. And they do have the capacity to learn acceptable behaviors. All cats are not alike. So some deterrents might not work on all cats. You will have to use trial and error to determine what works best with your kitty. The following is a list of things cats do that don't usually please their owners and ways to teach then to discontinue that offense. Many of these tips can be found at www.hsus.org.

One of the most sensitive places on a cat's body is the pads of their feet. They are very sensitive to what touches their feet. So an effective way to keep a cat off of or out of an area that you don't want them to explore is to change the FEEL of the surface. Here are some ways:

Wallpaper, sticky side up: Cats won't like the feel of their paws sticking to the paper. Once they jump on it once, chances are they won't try again. You could line the floor under and around the tree with the wallpaper.

Upside down plastic carpet runner: If you put down a plastic carpet runner with the prickly side up, your cat will most assuredly avoid this area

Strong smells: A cat's sense of smell is powerful. So if there is an area you don't want your cat trafficking, just soak a cloth or cotton balls in one of the following: cologne, muscle run, or aloe gel. These substances may stain your expensive furniture or carpet, so you can place the soaked cotton balls in a bowl in the area that you want to keep off limits.

An effective way to get a cat to stop doing something that you don't like is to distract or alarm her a bit. You don't want to scare the living daylights out of her.

This may lead to other problems. But good distractions are: a squirt bottle or water gun filled with water, air horn, whistle, soda can filled with coins or beans. Also, never underestimate the power of your voice spoken with a loud, authoritative tone. The drawback from these methods is your cat will learn to not commit the offending behavior while you are there, but go back to her bad ways when you are not around. That is when the sticky surfaces, bad smells, and bad tastes may serve you better.

Finally, remember you must be consistent with any of these measures. Don't forget to give your cat plenty of love and attention. This positive reinforcement may be all she needs to shape up and fly right.

One final point, hitting a cat with your hand, stick, or any heavy object is absolutely not acceptable! We don't know our own strength. Even what we think is a gentle tap can do real damage to your kitty, including kidney damage. NEVER HIT YOUR CAT.

Make sure your tree is well-secured. If you have a tree-climbing cat or large dog that likes to wag its tail, anchor the top of the tree to the wall using a strong cord or rope to prevent pets from knocking it over.

Our Year old Beagle still loves to jump up and affectionately jumps up on our family & guests. With people coming over for the holidays, how can I get her to stop? She's so sweet & very affectionate but sometimes a little too much.

Many dog owners can relate to your concern. Jumping is a very common complaint amongst dog owners. Of course the first way to solve the jumping problem is to prevent it in the first place. We think it's adorable when a puppy jumps on us but when that puppy grows into a 120 pound dog, that jumping is not so cute anymore. So behavior training your puppy in what are good and acceptable manners is the best and most reliable way to avoid bad behaviors later. For the already expert jumper, there are some methods that you can employ to reduce or rid the problem. First of all behavior train your dog. Every dog should be trained to obey a few basic commands: come, sit, down, stay, heel. Just teaching these commands will provide the foundation that is necessary to train your pooch to do almost anything else.

When your dog jumps on you or a guest, gently push them down, say "off", "no", or "down" firmly. Then give him a sit or down command. When he has obeyed, reward him with a small treat or a big praise. Clicker training would be particularly effective in this situation. This is where you give the dog a "click" or short sound immediately upon compliance with the command, then give a reward. Another technique is to take a quick step backwards just when your dog starts to jump. This will cause the pooch to miss his target and land on the floor. Say "no!" firmly as you do this. Or try going completely still when you dog jumps on you. Don't move a muscle. Don't look at him. Don't talk to him. Nothing. Once your dog calms down and has all four feet planted firmly on the floor, give him lots of praise and love. Hopefully your dog will eventually get the message that jumping is not cool.

Also, make arrivals at home a calm event. When you walk in the door, don't speak to or make eye contact with your dog. Go about your business. When the dog finally calms down, THEN give him attention and say hello.

If you can't accomplish all of this before holiday party time arrives, it may be best to put the dog away in a room or separate part of the house while guest are arriving. This will guarantee your pooch won't greet your guest with too much gusto.

I have a Standard Poodle (dogs notorious for being picky eaters). She will eat a dog food really good for two to three days and then won't eat. Is it ok to switch her food that often or is there something else I should try?

Generally with dogs, picky eaters are made, not born. In other words, most dogs are not particularly discriminating about what they eat. (There are some breeds and small dogs with picky palates) Dining out of cat litter boxes and garbage cans are cases in point. So when your dog is refusing food, investigate. First of all, have her checked out by your vet to make sure that there is not a medical issue going on. Lack of appetite can be a sign of something going on physiologically. After ruling out a medical problem, my guess is your picky eater is picky because you've indulged her. Changing a dog's food frequently can encourage picky eating. It is good to find the best, most appropriate food for your dog and stick with it. Dogs don't need variety in meal plans like we do. Now, they are omnivores, like humans, which means they get their nutrition from a variety of sources (meat, plants, grains). But if you change a dog's food often, bad habits are not far behind. Plus, dogs are no dummies. When you give her treats from your plate (like bacon, steak, or anything else practically), she wants to stick with the yummy stuff. Who wants to go back to doggie chow when there's a possibility for a hot dog! So, first of all, cut out all human food. Only give your dog dog food and dog treats.

Most dogs will not starve themselves to death. So settle upon a food and serve it. Keep serving it. Eventually your dog will get hungry enough and eat it. (Don't try this technique with cats. Starving a cat can be deadly.) Be sure to consult your veterinarian for help with choosing the right food and feeding schedule for your pooch.

If you need to change the type of brand of food your dog is eating, do it gradually. Add a small portion of the new food to the old food. Gradually increase the amounts of the new food while decreasing portion of the old food until you've made the complete switch.

The three pets on the set with Debbye are up for adoption.

They are:

-- Kingston, a 2-year-old tan, male Chihuahua with a cute little apple head!!

-- David, is a 4-and-a-half-month-old black and white, three-legged kitten, very soft and extremely friendly and playful!

-- Winny, a 6-month-old brown Guinea Pig, SO CUTE!!

They're all for adoption from the Humane Society of New York, whose Adoption Hotline is (212) 752-4842.

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