Finding the purr-fect gift for your pet can be a challenge

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By AJ Vicens

As the post-Thanksgiving shopping frenzy takes hold, dog owners want to be sure they aren’t barking up the wrong tree when it comes to picking a present for their pets.

Meanwhile, finding the right gift for a persnickety feline can be equally challenging.

But pet owners and animal experts alike say safety and practicality should be at the top of the list when it comes to shopping for four-legged friends.

Diana McQuarrie decided to treat Rigo, her 6-year-old black Lab, to a shampoo at Laund-Ur-Mutt Ken Caryl.

"If I were my dog, what would I need?" McQuarrie asked. She said people should put themselves in their pets' place and think about their daily needs. eeMcQuarrie suggested the following pet presents: home grooming supplies, toys, healthy food and treats, orthopedic beds, a responsible trainer and a safe place to exercise.

"They are social beings," she said. "They need social time."

Gifts for pets keep the U.S. economy purring along: More than 37 percent of American households owned at least one dog in 2007, and more than 32 percent owned at least one cat, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association. That translates to more than 72 million dogs and 81.7 million cats in American homes.

A quick hunt on any Web search engine shows hundreds of gift choices for pets, ranging from the practical to the obscure. There are ornate dog collars, beds for cats on road trip, even tiaras for the owner who treats her pet like a princess. There's even non-alcoholic, non-carbonated beef-flavored beer for dogs.

But Dr. Donna Ernst, a veterinarian at the Firehouse Animal Health Center on West Bowles Avenue, said pet owners should be careful when choosing a gift for Fido or Fluffy.

"Some animals can't tolerate rawhide bones," Ernst said. "People should monitor their dog, make sure they're chewing it safely and not swallowing pieces that are too big."

Ernst suggested getting animals toys that don't fray or shred, and avoiding toys that "have little eyes that can pop off." Pieces that come off toys and get lodged in animals' digestive systems have a special name in the vet's office.

"The thing we think about is ‘intestinal foreign bodies,’ " Ernst said. "Then often the animals have to go to surgery."

Gifts don't have to be material things, Ernst said. Pet owners can take a more holistic approach — an annual checkup or a toenail trim are "great gift ideas," she said.

An at-home nail trimming kit is one highly practical gift, but if owners haven't tried trimming Nappy’s nails, they should talk to their vet for a quick lesson.

A quick and easy gift for all pets is to make sure they stay safe during the holidays, Ernst said.

"There are definitely some concerns during the holidays," Ernst said. "There's lots of extra treats hanging around."

She said many people bring in dogs that have eaten chocolate, which is very toxic to canines. Baker's chocolate is the worst, she said.

Pets also shouldn't be given turkey or ham. "It can cause an upset stomach," Ernst said. "It can wreak havoc."

Other bad animal foods include turkey and chicken bones, raisins, onions, stuffing and grapes.

"People think it's OK to give animals drippings and animal skin," Ernst said. "It's too high in fat. All that kind of stuff is very unhealthy."

The holidays also involve decorations that can be lethal to household pets. Poinsettias are extremely toxic for dogs and cats, and Christmas tree decorations are dangerous as well. Cats are attracted to tinsel on trees, Ernst said, and it can obstruct their throats and digestive tracks. A big danger is tree ornaments.

"I've seen dogs that have consumed bulbs," Ernst said. "Make sure they can't get to the tree and pull ornaments off."

Ernst also suggested that dogs on hikes and walks in the cold weather need to be protected.

"Protect their feet," Ernst said. "Make sure they don't get dehydrated."

She suggests booties if a dog will be walking through a lot of snow, and says to bring the dog water and a lunch snack on a long hike. She also suggested bringing a small tarp or something the dog can sit on.

Ernst said it's also easy to forget about how cold it really is outside, and that people shouldn't keep their dogs out in the cold.

"If it's around 40 degrees, they shouldn't be outside too long," Ernst said. "People see huskies and sled dogs and think nothing of it. But those dogs get cold, too."

Contact AJ Vicens at aj@evergreenco.com, and check www.columbinecourier.com for updates and breaking news.