Rebecca Wallick, a long-time Bark contributing editor, resides with her two dogs in the mountains of central Idaho.
News: Guest Posts
Charming huckster or disturbing stereotype?
March 13 2013
In an effort to sell a new line of products—the “Wild Collection”—Old Spice has created a character they’re calling Mr. Wolfdog.
Mr. Wolfdog, a wolf, is supposed to know a lot about the wild as well as marketing. He wears a clunky metal collar that translates his vocalizations into English. He sits at a desk, covered with Old Spice products and other decorations.
Mr. Wolfdog has the head of a real canine (hard to tell if it’s a dog, a wolf, or a hybrid) and a puppet body, so that he appears to be sitting at his desk, arms moving, like a human.
The style is cheesy, a riff on Mad Men’s bygone era of marketing that includes touches like a 10-key calculator and an ancient intercom system on the desk, as well as Mr. Wolfdog’s complete disdain for his assistants.
In fact, Mr. Wolfdog eats his assistants.
Yes, wolves are the epitome of wild. I get that. The target male audience for Old Spice products—the original cologne debuted in 1937—probably doesn’t include many wolf-huggers. But that doesn’t justify a high profile company that has hit some home runs with prior ad campaigns perpetuating a myth that contributed to the eradication of wolves across the West and continues to confound their successful reintroduction today.
Adding to my concern is another ad in the new campaign. It’s called “Irresistible.” An elegant man descends the stairs into an opulent party room with…a wolf growing out of each shoulder. I guess he’s a man-wolf hybrid. The man never speaks. The wolves, however, snarl and threaten a pretty woman who says she’s afraid, then intrigued, then drives off with the man and the wolves. “I never had a chance,” she says. I guess because they man-wolf smells so good, with his “wild” scent by Old Spice.
[“Irresistible” ad video on YouTube]
I asked some friends with dogs for their reaction to the Mr. Wolfdog ad.
From Tina: “Ooookay. Wow. At first I thought it was just really, really stupid. Then it got to the part where the wolf just can't resist the urge to eat his staff members. When so much has been done to get people to understand that wild animals (especially the highly feared ones like wolves, bears, sharks, snakes) are NOT living for the day that they can consume a human being, what Old Spice is doing is very wrong.”
From Shelle: “I thought it was stupid, revolting and couldn't figure out what the hell they are trying to say. I hated it. The poor dog looked hot and uncomfortable. The copy was nonsensical. Did I say I hated it? Where's the sexy black dude. Loved him.”
Shelle is referring, of course, to Isaiah Mustafa, who gained sudden fame in February 2010 as the bare-chested actor in the popular “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” advertising campaign for Old Spice. Women who buy Old Spice products for their men were the target audience, and the ads worked.
My informal poll shows males responding slightly more favorably to the Mr. Wolfdog ad than females, although none of them liked it.
What do you think? Love it or hate it?
News: Guest Posts
Overcoming fear, Learning to trust again
March 12 2013
Many dogs, rescued from the trauma and abuse of puppy mills or hoarders, need lots of extra TLC before they're ready for their forever homes.
Lacking social skills, having lived with fear, pain, and hunger, some remain overwhelmingly fearful even after being removed from their deplorable conditions and given physical, medical and emotional support. Their psychic wounds can cause them to cower, retreat from a loving touch, pee submissively, even growl or bite to keep humans and other animals away.
Such behaviors, while understandable, make them a challenge for shelters already overwhelmed with dogs needing homes. Fearful dogs often become part of a revolving door problem, being returned to shelters by adopting families ill-equipped to deal with the behaviors. Or worse, they may be euthanized because they can't be placed.
ASPCA (American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) has created a flagship program that will attempt to fill the gap between rescue and placement for the most severely traumatized dogs, the fearful ones. The ASPCA Behavioral Rehabilitation Center at St. Hubert's Animal Welfare Center in Madison, N.J. opens this week.
"For some animals, the reality is that after a lifetime of neglect and abuse, the rescue is just the beginning of their journey to recovery," said Dr. Pamela Reid, vice president of the ASPCA's Anti-Cruelty Behavior Team. "The ASPCA recognized the need for a rehabilitation center that will provide rescued dogs customized behavior treatment and more time to recover, increasing the likelihood that they will be adopted. We partnered with St. Hubert's Animal Welfare Center and identified the unique opportunity to utilize their space and collaborate with their behavior and care experts for the rehabilitation of victims of cruelty and neglect."
To start, dogs rescued from animal cruelty investigations will be eligible. To help reduce these dogs' fears and anxieties, the rehabilitation team will gently introduce them to unfamiliar sounds, objects, living spaces and real-life situations that a normally socialized dog handles with aplomb, but can induce trauma and extreme stress in this special population of dogs.
The ASPCA has funded this project for two years. The work done at the Center will become part of a research project, studying and evaluating methods for rehabilitating undersocialized, fearful dogs. The findings will be shared with animal welfare organizations and other researchers nationwide with the goal of helping shelters and rescue organizations rehabilitate abused and fearful dogs coming into their own facilities.
Science and storytelling make compelling reading
February 11 2013
In Merle’s Door, Ted Kerasote explored the canine-human bond–its when, how and why. Readers learned how wolves likely joined humans in a symbiotic relationship that enriched both, ultimately leading to the rich diversity of dog breeds we have today. Kerasote also explored animal consciousness—how allowing dogs to be free-thinking enriches their lives and partnerships with us.
Readers of Merle’s Door flooded Kerasote with letters about their own dogs and the relationships they shared. Many also mentioned that their dogs had died far too young, often from cancer, and asked why some breeds seem to be more prone to certain health issues than others. These intimate revelations and immediate questions prompted Kerasote to write his most recent book, Pukka’s Promise: The Quest for Longer-Lived Dogs (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).
Because we take such joy in the bond, we want to maximize our canine companions’ health and life spans, allowing that bond to flourish as long as possible. Kerasote is no exception. After Merle’s death, he went on a quest, not just for a puppy, but more importantly to readers, for answers to two basic questions: why do dogs die so young, and what can we do about it?
Pukka’s Promise picks up where Merle’s Door ended, and is similar in style—heartfelt stories of life with his new dog Pukka (and the other freeroaming dogs of Kelly, Wyo.) mixed seamlessly with detailed reporting on cutting-edge research into canine health. The book is dense with information, insights and investigations into matters that affect the health and longevity of our four-legged co-pilots. It’s also full of the personal, evocative stories of the human-canine bond that made Merle’s Door a national bestseller.
Kerasote takes nothing as gospel and nothing for granted. He challenges current dog breed standards and breeding practices, and the clubs that promote them. He questions veterinary-care dogma, especially when it comes to what we feed our dogs, how we vaccinate them and how we regulate their reproduction. He digs deep into veterinary literature and writings of progressive thinkers in veterinary medicine, talks to animal-welfare advocates, and provides historical context for the current trend of breeding for looks over function and health. In the process, he offers some rays of hope for positive changes in breed standards.
Digging deeper, he also chases down the truth behind the hype when it comes to topics like food choices, toxic toys, too-frequent vaccination schedules and spay/neuter. In some instances— for example, dog toys—he pays for lab tests to find out what something is really made of. He asks experts uncomfortable questions and parses true wisdom from traditional thinking. In a heartwrenching section, motivated by his desire to fully understand the challenges shelters face, Kerasote takes us with him into an animal shelter as unwanted dogs are euthanized.
Throughout Pukka’s Promise, we peek over Kerasote’s shoulder as Pukka grows and learns about the world and as Kerasote applies what he learns—from choosing Pukka’s breeder and deciding how many diseases to vaccinate him against (and when) to what to feed him, among other things. Glimpses of Pukka’s charmed life are interwoven with vast amounts of important information based on the latest research, all of which is presented in a very accessible and engaging way, one that encourages you to draw your own conclusions and make the best choices for you and your dog. By distilling years of in-depth research on a wide array of canine health topics into a provocative, thought-provoking book, Kerasote has done us all a huge favor.
Q&A with Ted Kerasote, author of Merle’s Door
January 31 2013
In 1991, while rafting Utah’s San Juan River, award-winning writer Ted Kerasote came upon the dog he would later immortalize in Merle’s Door. According to Kerasote, Merle, an adolescent stray who had been surviving on his own in the high desert, told him, You need a dog, and I’m it. It didn’t take Kerasote long to agree with him. Heartbroken after Merle died in 2004, Kerasote vowed to do all he could to ensure that his next dog— Pukka—would enjoy a long and healthy life from the very beginning. His quest began before Pukka was born— researching genetics and how to choose healthy parents, finding a breeder willing to rethink standard early vaccinations—and continued after Pukka came home, delving into quality-of-life concerns for all dogs, such as food, birth control and routine health care. Pukka’s Promise is the culmination of Kerasote’s extensive research. Bark contributing editor Rebecca Wallick recently spoke with Kerasote about some of his experiences and observations.
Bark: On your quest for longer-lived dogs, what were some of the more encouraging things you learned?
B: What did you find that disturbed you?
B: If someone wants a dog of a particular breed, what should they think about?
B: Of all aspects of canine care and companionship, are there things you feel are happening too slowly?
B: You spent a lot of time at shelters, investigating what makes some successful in becoming no-kill, while others can’t seem to reach that goal. What do you think makes the difference?
B: In Pukka’s Promise, you take on some big players in the dog world—breeders, veterinarians, dog-food and toy manufacturers. Are you concerned about their reactions?
B: What is the big take-away you want readers to get from Pukka’s Promise?
For the full interview, see The Bark, Issue 73, Feb–Apr 2013.
News: Guest Posts
January 7 2013
Recent news reports about house fires with dogs trapped inside are a keen reminder how valuable a pet oxygen mask can be to firefighting crews. Check if your local fire department has these tools, and if not, consider donating one to them. They're not expensive.
In Lima, Ohio, a house fire broke out the morning of January 3, 2013. An adult occupant escaped from an upstairs room, but the family dog Cola hid in the basement. Nearly fifteen minutes after firefighters started attacking the fire in the freezing cold, they discover the dog-apparently lifeless-and bring her upstairs and out onto the snow. Luckily, the Lima Fire Department had been the recipient of a gift: pet oxygen masks, made to fit the long snouts of dogs and other pets. Firefighters worked on Cola for nearly five minutes, giving her oxygen, until she started breathing again. Her emotional owner, anxiously watching nearby, cried tears of relief and gratitude.
The house fire was caught on video; toward the end, near the 16:00 minute mark, you can see the firefighters bringing Cola out of the house and laying her on the snow to start resuscitation efforts. Unfortunately the video does not extend to her successful recovery.
Nearby Delphos Animal Hospital had donated the pet oxygen masks to the Lima Fire Department just a week earlier. According to news reports, they plan to donate two more, soon.
Also on January 3rd, firefighters responding to a house fire in Forth Worth discovered two dogs inside. One was alright, but the other was unresponsive. Using an oxygen mask, the firefighters were able to revive the dog.
The fire department's spokesperson noted that firefighters attempt animal rescues several times a year, and that some of their trucks are outfitted with animal oxygen masks. Otherwise, they use those made for humans.
Wouldn't it be nice if all fire trucks and other first responders were equipped with animal oxygen masks?
News: Guest Posts
December 2 2012
Final exams at college are always stressful. You’re studying far into the wee hours, cramming facts and formulas into your tired brain, worrying about grades, neglecting your nutrition, sleep and exercise needs, and counting the days until your last exam is done and you can go home. Add to all of that stress the fact that you’re away from the comforts of home, including your beloved family pet.
Dalhousie University, in Halifax, Nova Scotia, has come up with a creative solution for some of its students: Puppy Room. As the Dalhousie Student Union Facebook page poster says, “Yup, it’s a room full of puppies.”
Or more accurately, the students will hang out with some certified therapy dogs, coordinated by the local chapter of Therapeutic Paws of Canada. That program places therapy dogs with people suffering from high blood pressure, depression and loneliness.
Now they can add final exam-related stress to that list.
As soon as the Student Union posted about the idea on Facebook, it went viral. The therapy dogs will be on campus for several hours on three separate days during exam week. All of the dogs are at least a year old, so while they might not technically be puppies, I doubt any of the students will care.
My thought? Other universities and colleges should jump on this wagon. They could use therapy dogs, or better yet connect with local shelters which might actually have some real puppies that could use the socializing and play time with the students. The puppies gain people skills; the students do better (we hope) on their exams. A big win-win.
News: Guest Posts
October 23 2012
Daylight is quickly disappearing as we head into the long months of winter. When you live in the northern part of the country, the days eventually become so short that exercising our dogs in the dark is impossible to avoid. Add rain to the darkness, and something as simple as a stroll with our dogs becomes downright dangerous along city and rural streets, drivers barely able to see the road let alone you and your dog on the shoulder.
Lights—for your dog and you—make you more visible. There are several lights that attach to collars and harnesses on the market. Some flash, some strobe. There are entire collars that light up as well.
If you have a northern breed dog, or any dog with a very thick and long coat, you know that lights don’t work well for you. They get lost in all that fur. And drivers are often confused by small lights (if they notice them at all), not sure if they’re coming from a bicycle, a walker, or something else.
My solution? A reflective vest for my dogs, much like vests worn by joggers. I discovered VizVest Dog Safety Vest a few years ago, and love them. I’ve never found a better vest for dogs, and I’ve tried a few. VizVests are easy to put on your dog. Their broad overlapping Velcro closures across the back make them easily adjustable. They actually fit and are comfortable for your dog to wear—walking, or running. The vest covers the entire torso, so that, from the side, your dog literally lights up like a holiday tree in a car’s headlights or another walker’s flashlight. The vest also covers the chest, so that there’s a better chance of light reflecting on the vest from the head-on position.
Added bonus: the bright yellow color works well in daylight, for situations where you want your dog to be visible to you or others from a distance (like when I take my Alaskan Malamutes into Idaho forests, where I don’t want them mistaken for wolves).
The vest comes in small, medium and large. Each has lots of adjustment designed into it. The large size is perfect for my Malamutes. The medium size fits my 45 lb Aussie.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Dog-specific GPS takes the worry out of exploring
October 22 2012
Early one morning as I was running trails with my Aussie Finn MacCool and my friend Suzanne, the three of us rounded a bend and were greeted by a woman who said the words I always dread hearing: “Have you seen a dog?” We were in the heart of Cougar Mountain Regional Wildland Park outside of Seattle, a 3,100-acre protected area with 36 miles of trails winding throughout its thickly wooded and hilly landscape. The dog could be anywhere.
As we gathered details from the woman — the dog’s name (Boone) and description, if he was tagged with current contact info, where he was last seen, where her car was parked — Finn sat patiently beside me. Around his neck was a bright neon-orange collar with an antenna extending from it. It made him look kind of like an enormous bug.
Finn was sporting a Garmin DC 40 dog-tracking collar, which uses GPS to transmit information to my Garmin Astro 320. This snappy bit of technology lets me know where Finn is, whether he’s moving or stationary and, if moving, which direction and how fast — all via an on-screen display. While I didn’t pile guilt on top of the poor woman’s distress, I thought to myself, If Boone had been wearing one of these, she’d know exactly where he was.
Initially, the Astro seemed like just a really cool, high-tech toy, similar to the gadgets many of my running friends wear on their wrists to track their own mileage. Faced with the lost-Boone scenario, though, I realized its broader and more critical value for those of us who take our unleashed dogs out into the big world: being able to find them quickly if they become separated from us. Whether you’ve had your dog for years and she normally stays close, or you’ve recently added a new dog to your household and aren’t sure how he’ll react off leash, this “toy” can prevent hours, even days, of misery.
GPS-enabled dog-tracking devices aren’t new; there are several types on the market, all designed to do one straightforward thing: help you find your lost dog. But with most of those products, you pay a monthly fee (roughly $15, depending on the product) to access the GPS signal, and the only information you’re given is where your dog is at that specific moment.
The Garmin Astro 320, on the other hand, will track both you and your dog (up to 10 dogs, actually), recording tons of fun data along the way. It logs distance, speed, stopping time, elevation change and map coordinates — as well as a number of other optional variables that you can program in — all while creating a track, or map, of your movements. You can toggle back and forth between your own information and your dog’s while the two of you are out walking, hiking, horseback riding or cycling (you, not the dog), or running. Then, after saving the tracks, you can upload them to your home computer and view them either in one of Garmin’s programs or in another, such as Google Earth (which is free). The Astro 320 retails for $599, but you never pay a monthly fee for GPS signal access. In three years of use, the unit will pay for itself over the other GPS tracking options.
The Astro is also more reliable and accurate than smartphone GPS apps, which rely on a combination of cell towers and satellites. Garmin Astro’s 12 parallel channel receivers quickly lock onto satellites, and they maintain those locks even in dense foliage or urban settings with tall buildings. Also, smartphone GPS apps have an accuracy of about 50 feet, while the Astro’s is generally accurate to within three feet. I tested this out while running with a friend; he used his smartphone app and I used the Astro. My distance data closely matched the Green Trails topographic map of our route; my friend’s data was off (short) by about 20 percent. (Besides, the smartphone app can’t track your dog.)
Back to the question I really wanted answered: How far does Finn actually travel? I was surprised to learn that he typically runs only 10 to 20 percent more than I do, which was much less than I expected. Apparently, training him to stay close has been successful. But I was even more surprised by the difference in our respective elevation gains. I’ve always joked that Finn is part gazelle, and it turns out I might be right. According to his GPS data, on a run during which I cover 6.7 miles with 1,399 feet of elevation gain, Finn covers 9.0 miles with 5,651 feet of elevation.
The brain of the device — the GPS receiver — is housed in a small black box from which a long, thin VHF antenna extends and transmits signals to the Astro hand receiver. The antenna curves with the collar so that it’s positioned above the dog’s neck. Finn, a small Aussie, weighs about 45 pounds, but the collar and its antenna don’t bother him or slow him down as he crashes through thick undergrowth in enthusiastic pursuit of ever-elusive squirrels and chipmunks. He associates the collar with fun!
The Astro 320 is designed for use with hunting dogs, and it took me a little while to get used to the terminology. For example, when I start a run, I select “New Hunt” and mark the starting point as “Truck” (although I could change that if I wanted to take the time). The factory default settings include various alarms to let you know if, for example, your dog has stopped moving; the first time I used the Astro with Finn, the only settings change I made was to customize it with his name. Another bit of hunting terminology came up after a run with friends, as we returned to our cars. My well-trained friends always offer treats to the dogs in the group. Hearing a chirping alarm on my Astro, I looked at the screen. It said, “Finn MacCool has treed his quarry!” Indeed: His quarry was Tracy, who was holding out a treat!
“When the GPS has said ‘Pukka has treed quarry,’ I’ve been able to bike over to where he is and spy on him: lying on a friend’s deck waiting for them to come out and play fetch; over at Buck’s house, taking a snooze; or at the Kelly Café, hoping for a handout from the tourists.” (Ted’s new book, Pukka’s Promise: The Quest for Longer-Lived Dogs, is due out February 2013.)
While my passion is trail running, there are many uses for GPS with dogs — driving to and touring new places, geocaching, even kayaking, for example. Cecil Moore, who works for Garmin and cheerfully answered all my questions, said he once put the Astro GPS collar on his small dog Jack at the start of a 5K race and handed the receiver to his wife. Because his family knew exactly when Cecil and Jack were nearing the finish line, they were able to jump in and run the last several yards together. He also uses it on family vacations to the Lake of the Ozarks State Park, a large area where dogs are typically allowed off leash in campgrounds and on trails.
Finn wore the Astro during a recent session of my Maian Meadows Dog Camp, which offers a weekend’s worth of off-leash fun: hiking, swimming, lots of games, stick-chasing and playing. Campers were intrigued by the Astro, and impressed that the collar was waterproof (although the GPS antenna on the collar will lose satellite reception if it’s totally submerged). The final tally at the end of the weekend: I covered 10.9 miles; Finn covered … 54.3! Each morning, we did a hike of about 3.8 miles to a nearby lake. Romping with the other dogs and fetching sticks in the lake meant that Finn covered nearly four times my distance. No wonder he’s tired. Finn’s “route” on Google Earth from that weekend of dog camp looks like a child’s wobbly drawing of a lollypop (swimming and playing in camp) on a stick (the morning out-and-back hikes). Garmin, headquartered in Kansas, is known for its personal product support. Friends who use Garmin’s running and mountain-biking products rave about its customer service. I found that also true with the Astro, which has lots of bells and whistles. Availing yourself of their customer service will help you get the most out of it (plus, they love dogs at Garmin).
And Boone? Within half an hour, a hiker found him and called the phone number on his tag, and the woman’s husband drove to the park to pick him up. They were very lucky. With the Astro, I can relax while running through the forest with Finn, knowing that if one day he disappears after a deer, I can at least track him until we’re reunited, eliminating guesswork, worry and dependence on Boone’s sort of luck.
For more info on the Astro 320, go to sites.garmin.com/astro
News: Guest Posts
Just what are they smelling?
September 25 2012
Here’s what I want: a device on the end of a long stick that detects scents on the ground, displaying on a smart phone-like screen in my hand what the scent is, breaking it down like a dog’s brain does. In other words, I want to know what my dogs’ noses know, without using my own nose to figure it out.
This idea came to me recently after observing a common set of behaviors while walking my dogs. We’ve all been there: we’re walking along and want to keep moving, but our dogs come to a screeching halt to smell something on the ground, the grass, a tree, a fence, a hydrant. You tug on their leash and encourage them to come along, but they dig all four paws in, refusing to lift their noses away until they’ve fully investigated the scent, learning all information each particle imparts.
Here’s what happened on that walk. First, I take Maia and Meadow, my two Malamutes on what I call The Old Ladies Stroll through my neighborhood. After passing a man near a bank— “Whoa! Awesome dogs!” he says after being startled by us—both dogs pull me toward a shrub in the bank’s parking lot landscaping. Earlier on this walk, I marveled how these two dogs will put their noses side by side to smell something interesting. Normally, they rarely invade each other’s personal space (it’s a Malamute thing), but when there’s a scent to detect, those rules go out the door and they’ll literally go nose-to-nose to get to the richest source of a scent.
This bank shrub held more than normal appeal. The girls pull quite forcefully to get to it. First they sniff high, noses on the small leaves. Then they simultaneously work down to the trunk, angling their heads under the lowest branches and spending a good 30 seconds inhaling deeply and repeatedly. Finally they sniff the dirt about four inches from the trunk, where a couple of old cigarette butts litter the space.
I observe this much detail because I’m aware that the man in front of the bank is watching us closely. I want the girls to keep moving, but this particular scent source is just too compelling.
After thoroughly inhaling all important scents on or near the shrub, the girls—as one—lift their heads and take a few steps along the sidewalk. Then Maia steps back onto the dirt and pees.
This sort of behavior fascinates me. I always wonder what the scents they’re attracted to are telling them about the world. Surely there’s information I might also be interested in, if only I could discover and interpret it as they do.
An hour later, I’m walking my Aussie Finn along the same route. We pass the bank (the man is gone), and Finn pulls me over to the same shrub, almost as forcefully as the girls did. He gives it an identical work over—first high up, closely scrutinizing the leaves, then moving down to the trunk, really inhaling deeply, finally coming to the spot on the dirt where the cigarette butts are. Finn doesn’t live by his nose to the same extent that the girls always have, so I realize that this particular shrub has some very interesting scent stories to tell. I’m really feeling left out.
Finn finishes collecting data and steps away from the shrub. A couple of strides down the sidewalk, he stops, briefly sniffs the adjacent dirt, and pees—right where Maia had.
I don’t want to actually smell everything my dogs find olfactorily fascinating. I have no interest in the scent of canine hind ends. Sometimes I’m aghast at the scents my dogs find so appealing that they smear them on their cheek or shoulder like a slimy version of dog perfume: dead and decomposing animals or fish are perennial favorites. (Why, oh why do they like having those particular scents – that are so awful to our sensibilities—on their coat? Depending on locale of application, the freshly applied perfume can make for an excruciatingly long and odiferous car ride home!) In other instances, the girls follow their noses to deer or elk bones strewn in the forest by scavengers, the bones clean enough to be odorless to me but sufficiently smelly to them to be prized treasure hunt discoveries they delight in showing off.
And I will be forever grateful that Maia can detect the scent of bears in the woods wafting through the air, warning me with her body language to change direction so that we see them only from afar.
No, what I would really love to know is what my dogs are detecting and discerning when they stop to smell an interesting scent on the ground in our neighborhood, something I can’t see or smell but tells a local story. Imagine how much richer our own experience of life would be if we could obtain the same information our dogs do on our walks—the gender, health and mood of neighborhood dogs and people and how recently they came this way; whether a cat, raccoon, coyote or other critter has recently been through; how long that road kill squirrel has been dead—simply by hovering a small electronic smelling device over a spot on the ground and reading an interpretation of the information on a screen in our hand. Of course, unless my fantasy scent sensible device works like a metal detector, pinging as it gets near certain odors, we’ll still need our canine companions to lead the way, showing us with their own noses where the good stuff lays.
What interesting smells—good, neutral, or horrible—have your dogs led you toward recently?
Wellness: Healthy Living
September 3 2012
A year ago, one of patty Glynn’s three dogs, a five-year-old Chinese Crested named Merry, became ill and very nearly died. It turned out that she had inflammatory bowel disease and required transfusions, among other care. Blood work, emergency vet-hospital treatment and after-care expenses brought the total close to $5,000; luckily for Merry, Glynn and her husband, Stew Tolnay, were able to handle the bills.
However, that experience convinced Glynn that it was time to buy pet insurance for all three of their dogs. When she checked into it, she discovered that approximately 10 companies now offer pet insurance in the United States.
By asking friends and doing her own research, she eventually decided which was best for her situation. Of course, Merry’s earlier condition was considered preexisting and excluded from coverage. Still, the insurance allows Glynn and Tolnay to rest easier, knowing that if their pets develop a serious medical problem in the future, some of the costs will be covered.
By the Numbers
But what about the unexpected, like Merry’s illness, or the puppy who swallows a sock? Plus, specialty veterinary care is now available — ophthalmologists, oncologists, neurologists — which means that the costs of care are steadily increasing. Even the average cost of a typical corrective surgical procedure, for dogs in this case, are enough to give one pause: gastric torsion (bloat), $1,955; foreign-body ingestion (small intestine), $1,629; pin in broken limb, $1,000; cataract (senior dog), $1,244.
You’d think that, faced with these numbers, everyone who has pets would also have pet insurance. Yet less than 1 percent do. Should you buy pet insurance to cover your pet, and your bank account? Unfortunately, like many things in life, there’s no clear yes-or-no answer.
Some are fortunate in that they have the resources, or the willingness, to go into debt for their pet’s care if necessary; they are, in effect, opting for self-insurance. Others, perhaps without extra resources or who just want to sleep better at night, like Glynn, prefer paying a monthly insurance premium of anywhere between $20 and $60 (depending on the age of the animal and the coverage) in the hope that it will cover expensive vet bills down the road.
Like all insurance, pet insurance is, at its most basic, a gamble. We pay the premiums hoping we’ll never need to use the coverage. If we do, our gamble has, unfortunately, paid off.
Before You Buy
Before you sign on the dotted line and write that first check, do your due diligence.
Read the policy very, very carefully.
Understand co-pays, deductibles and caps.
Know the policy’s exclusions.
Following are some of the terms included in policy exclusions that you should understand thoroughly before you purchase.
(Note that some conditions fall into two categories. For example, cleft palate can be congenital or developmental. Deafness can be considered a hereditary congenital condition.)
According to Karp, in all policies, unless an additional rider is purchased, “congenital conditions are deemed preexisting and not covered. Some policies bar hereditary and developmental conditions as well, unless additional coverage is purchased.” Karp notes that a policy he recently reviewed was one of the few to define a “chronic condition” to mean “not curable.”
“Thus, even if the condition went into remission for a year, if the initial onset preceded the effective date of the policy, it will be deemed an incurable and preexisting condition,” he says.
Make sure your current vet qualifies under the terms of the plan you choose.
“Another concern,” says Karp, “is that [few] policies cover experimental, investigative or non-generally accepted procedures, as determined by the veterinary medical community.” That is the sort of language lawyers love. Does it mean the AVMA? The HSVMA? Or some other more vague, local medical community?
Have a headache yet? Believe me, this is just the tip of the insurance-lingo iceberg. It’s complicated, confusing and a little terrifying, because the financial investment you make when you purchase insurance is significant and you want to be sure it pays what you hope and need it to pay. Each company’s policy includes numerous terms, conditions and exclusions, as well as dispute- resolution provisions. You need to understand them all.
Rolling the Dice
Here’s an illustration that makes this issue very real.
In 2002, Dana Mongillo, dog trainer and owner of Fuzzy Buddy’s Dog Daycare in Seattle, Wash., purchased pet insurance with a cancer rider for Mango, her healthy young Boxer. It initially cost her $20 a month. Over the next few years, Mango remained healthy and no claims were made on the policy. Then, the premium increased to about $50 a month. “Paying $600 a year for nothing is a little indulgent,” says Mongillo, “and I remained on the verge of canceling the policy for months. But then a vet visit for a slight limp ended up with the worst diagnosis possible: Mango had cancer.” The diagnosis came in 2008. Mango received treatment and care for two years before he finally succumbed in 2010, at age eleven. “While I helped Mango through the final weeks of his life, the insurance was suddenly very wonderful,” says Mongillo. “Every time I got a quote for treatment options, I knew the final amount I would pay would be less. That made it easier for me to consent to treatments that might help Mango, or at least help us find out the extent of the problem. In the last six weeks, he had a whirlwind of vet appointments, two sets of X-rays, an MRI and weekly acupuncture. Insurance removed the huge burden of the financial, leaving me able to focus on what was best for Mango and not what was best for my wallet.”
Here’s the tally for Mango’s insurance and vet expenses: Total premiums paid (2/2002–3/2010): $3,098. Total vet bills paid (3/2008–4/2010): $4,802. Total amount not covered (3/2008– 4/2010): $2,705.
For Mongillo, it was worth every penny, and she would do it again. She recognizes that in her case the insurance gamble paid off and Mango received the level of care she wanted him to have. Had he not developed cancer, she would have paid for insurance that she never used, but insists she would have been happy to “lose” that particular bet.
The second is CareCredit. This is a line of credit specifically for use at participating veterinary clinics. Stacy Steele, DVM, of Ocean Shores, Wash. (profiled in “World Vets” in the Sept/Oct 2011 issue) recommends this to her clients, almost none of whom have pet insurance. Like a credit card, this line of credit can be used for routine care and/or extraordinary care. There are no up-front costs and you select the monthly payment option you can handle. Depending on the amount put on the card, you can take from six to 60 months to pay off the balance (check the annual percentage rate before you sign up).
The bottom line: choose the option that will allow you to sleep well, knowing that if your beloved companion requires expensive diagnostics, treatment and care, you have the resources available to pay for them. If you choose pet insurance, read every word of the policy very carefully and understand what the terms mean before you purchase. Then, go have fun with your pup!
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