December 31, 2010 - from Eva Saks
New Year's Eve

My neighbor Suzi noticed that Leslie and I compare our complementary points of view to Parker and Spitzer. She suggests that a more Alternative Pet construction of our partnership would be Barker and Spitz-er. To continue our shameless animal-related punning: Happy Gnu Year!

December 28, 2010 – from Eva Saks
Is He Friendly?

When I was a little girl, I adored dogs. Unfortunately, between my dad’s allergies and the “No Dogs Allowed” policy of our New York apartment building, a dog of my own was out of the question. So I watched “Lassie,” read “Harry the Dirty Dog,” and pined for a puppy. 

Meanwhile, I wanted to cuddle every dog I chanced to meet. My mother was supportive but circumspect. She heartily encouraged my love of canines but taught me never to pet a strange dog without first asking his owner the magic question: “Is he friendly?”

I hadn’t thought of this phrase for years. Then I adopted my older Sheltie, Momo, four years ago. We lived in LA’s Koreatown, and Momo, being a social butterfly, wanted to meet every dog on the mean streets. Pekes and Pit Bulls, Shepherds and Shih Tzus – all were his comrades. Being a protective dog-ma, I worried constantly about Momo’s safety. Suddenly I found a long-forgotten epithet rising to my lips: “Is he friendly?”

During the past few years, I have often employed these words. They seem an eminently sensible approach to meeting any stranger. And they can be modified as needed. In the waiting room at the vet’s, for example, I tailor my inquiry to the environment: “Is he friendly? Is he contagious?”

This morning, I was walking my younger Sheltie, Hobby. The sun was shining and so was he. We came upon a delightful pair of beagles.  Their owner, however, was scowling so terribly that I had only one thought. I wanted to ask the beagles a question about their owner: “Is he friendly?”

December 26, 2010 – from Leslie Crane Rugg and Eva Saks
Boxing Day Transformed

Alternative Pet welcomes an integrative approach to knowledge. In the inclusionary spirit of that holistic collaboration, we salute all holidays. That would include the one occurring every December 26th (yes, that’s a 6) and celebrated throughout much of the English-speaking commonwealth.

Boxing Day should not be misinterpreted as an invitation to go to the nearest fight club and engage in friendly fisticuffs. “Box” actually refers to a gift given specifically at Christmas. In 1871, Boxing Day was declared a legal holiday as part of the British bank holidays. In more modern times, the day has been associated with the start of after-Christmas sales. Isn’t it civilized to have a day off to go spend more money!

Here at Alternative Pet, thinking less of Boxing and more of Boxers, we suggest a further revision of the day after Christmas. Why not make it Boxer Day? A fitting post-Yule honor to a wonderful breed. (Special thanks to Tasha, the boxer whose DNA was used to crack the canine genome.)   

In the interest of fairness to all breeds, we propose that days be designated in honor of other breeds as well, such as Bulldog Day, Retriever Day, Dachshund Day, etc. Official holidays notwithstanding, every day is Sheltie Day at Eva’s house – just as every day at Leslie’s house is Collie Day.

Come to think of it, this tribute should be extended to other pets like cats, bunnies, birds, hamsters, and gerbils…and why not livestock and wild life as well? Perhaps if we all took the time to acknowledge our fellow creatures, the meaning of holiday spirit would be truly ecumenical.

December 22, 2010 – from Leslie Crane Rugg
Water Water Everywhere, and Not a Drop Worth Drinking

The Environmental Working Group (www.ewg.org) provides superior analysis on health and environmental issues. EWG has just released a damning (and dam-ing) indictment of our urban water supply. The study identifies Chromium-6, a known carcinogen, as the culprit. You may remember this insidious contaminant as the villain in the movie, “Erin Brockovich.”

Of the 35 city water systems tested, 31 produced positive results for the presence of Chromium-6. Not just detectable at “acceptable” levels – as if any amount is really acceptable – this chemical compound reaches dangerous levels in a number of US cities. They include (listing the worst first) Norman OK, Honolulu HI, Riverside CA, Madison WI, San Jose CA, Tallahassee FL, Omaha NE, Albuquerque NM, Pittsburgh PA, Bend OR, Salt Lake City UT, Ann Arbor MI, Atlanta GA, Los Angeles CA, Bethesda MD, Phoenix AZ, Washington DC, Chicago IL, Milwaukee WI, Villanova PA, Sacramento CA, Louisville KY, Syracuse NY, New Haven CT, Buffalo NY. Six cities are below California’s definition of a safe limit, and the remaining four cities in the study had no detectable Chromium.

Why is Chromium-6 in our drinking water supply? EWG tells us that it’s used in steel and pulp mills as well as in metal plate manufacturing and leather tanning. Chemical run-off then pollutes our water table and spreads through the land.

What does Chromium-6 do? In manufacturing, it’s used as an anti-rusting agent. What does it do to us? It can penetrate our skin, but we mostly inhale it into our lungs. EWG cites the National Toxicology Program, which has confirmed a direct correlation between Chromium-6 in drinking water with the appearance of gastrointestinal tumors in research animals. In people, it is associated with cancers of the lung, kidney, and intestines. Just rent “Erin Brockovich”  to see the medical horrors that struck the population of Hinkley, CA, where Chromium-6 saturated the local water supply.

What has been done about Chromium-6? After the scandalous discoveries of the chemical in certain California communities, state public health officials suggested an “acceptable” level of .06 parts per billion (ppb). How does that compare to the levels of Chromium-6 in Hinkley? Average levels ranged from 1.19 ppb to 3.09 ppb. At the nearby company, guilty of Chromium-6 pollution, the levels measured from 7.8 ppb to a stratospheric 31.8 ppb. By comparison, Norman OK’s Chromium-6 level is a whopping 12.9 ppb. Second place Honolulu is equivalent to Hinkley at 2.00 ppb.

Where are we today in managing the encroachment of Chromium-6 in our water supply? Pretty much nowhere. Despite its suggested limit, California still has no state policy, but the national Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has determined an acceptable limit of Chromium-6 in tap water at 100 ppb – 1700 times higher than California’s suggested state limit. How can that possibly be acceptable?

What can we do? EWG estimates that a minimum of 74,000,000 Americans in 42 states are at risk. Alternative Pet has to ask how many of those 74,000,000 people are pet owners…and therefore how many dogs and cats (and other pets) are also at risk?

Do you use a home filtration system at your sink? Do you buy bottled water on a regular basis? Are you pouring purified water in your pet’s bowl? There’s still time to buy a Brita or Pur pitcher as a household holiday gift. Make it a New Year resolution to help ensure the health of every member of your family. A votre sante! Bottom’s up! Prosit! Salud!

December 21, 2010 - from Eva Saks
Noah’s Bark

It’s been raining for days in L.A. Unlike many other dogs, my Shelties Momo and Hobby LOVE this weather. Perhaps it evokes their Shetland Island roots. Maybe they’re just tired of tanning. Whatever the reason, my pups perk up at the sound – and, I surmise, smell – of wind and rain. They bark, they grin, they gesture towards the door. In fact, they positively outdo each other with schemes to get me to take them outside. (They need me for any exodus, as we do not have a dog door.)

Momo, due to a back injury, needs help to rise and to walk. No problem. He’s trained me well: when he needs to potty, he just gives his tail a thump. That’s my cue to pick him up and carry him outside. A simple solution. 

Which works fine, except in stormy weather. When it pours, he deliberately feigns the need for frequent potty breaks. Honest. He thumps the royal tail so I tote him outside.  But once there, he has no need to eliminate. No, he merely wants to scent the air, savor the moisture, and watch the roses tremble. No bodily functions, just sensual pleasure. Momo is an elegant esthete. Meanwhile I drip like a drowned rat. 

Hobby also gets me drenched on a regular basis. By nature, he is such a proper fellow that he won’t pee or poop in our yard. Ever. He insists I take him down the block for these unmentionables. That was certainly his position a 5 AM this morning.

I rose begrudgingly. Certainly I would have preferred to stay in bed, not to mention inside. Indeed, I only agreed to walk him after reflecting that I wouldn’t appreciate being denied bathroom access on rainy nights, either. And Hobby’s need was, at least, genuine. Fair enough. What shocked me was his post-potty prance toward the corner. He was ready to set off on a long, brisk, sopping walk! He thinks getting wet is the funnest thing EVER, second only to being toweled off. Worse yet, he’s figured out that one leads to the other, so I’m really sunk…or at least doused. 

Let Gene Kelly stake his claim with “Singin’ in the Rain.” He had Debbie Reynolds, tap shoes, and Technicolor. We dog owners have our own signature song these days: “Poopin’ in the Rain!”

December 19, 2010 - from Eva Saks
Family Ritual

The hot new ritual in my household is the so-called "Small Snuggle." This joyful routine consists of me joining my 14-year-old Sheltie Momo on his giant silken dog bed, calling out "Small Snuggle!" and cuddling Momo and his 2-year-old Sheltie brother Hobby to my heart’s content. This ritual is practiced daily at the appointed time, which means whenever I feel like it.

How did this venerable institution come to be? Like all rituals, it evolved. It may have begun without words but quickly came to encompass the incantatory cry. In fact, initially I didn’t even realize I was hollering "Small Snuggle!" every time I initiated the process. That only became evident one night when I knelt beside Momo, proclaimed “Small Snuggle!"…and a smiling Hobby bounded into the room (and on top of us) in response to my utterance.

My Dachshund rescuer friend, Mary Lou, witnessed our family ritual yesterday and posed the obvious question. "What," she asked, "is the difference between a Small Snuggle and a Big Snuggle?"

I have pondered this profound question at length and here is the answer: The only difference, dear reader, is duration. A Small Snuggle lasts between one and fifteen minutes. A Big Snuggle lasts for all eternity. 

December 16, 2010 - from Leslie Crane Rugg
Blurring the Spirit

From the fields to the backyard, from the barn to the bedroom, from work partner to family member, our pets have always been at our side. They’ve provided us all kinds of support while also symbolizing the values we most prize. I salute that and celebrate it.

I worry, though, about the effortless transfer of status from family pet to substitute child. We may want to parent our pets, but we must remember to honor their animal needs; they are not humans in furry coats. I don’t mean to come off like an old fuss pot. Clearly pets reap some benefits from this new familial status, but negative repercussions can result as well.

Take, for example, contemporary holiday images. When is the last time you saw a commercial depiction of happy kids playing with Tinker Toys or stringing popcorn for the Christmas tree? The representation of sentimental innocence, once the purview of children, has now fallen on the withers of the family dog. It is our dogs who embody nostalgic displays of holiday wonder. We see it on cards, in ads, and with online videos.

Substitution may have its merits…but not when health and safety are sacrificed by the image or with the message.

Yesterday, I received an American Greeting e-video passed along by several dog lovers. It depicts a Jack Russell terrier setting up his own welcome wagon for Santa Claus. The dog decorates his dog house with strings of colorful Christmas lights. He brings forth a plate of cookies and glass of milk for Santa. He sits up and begs, barks a clarion call to the sky, and lies down to wait for his red-suited guest. Time passes and still no Santa. The dog eats a couple of cookies, lies down next to the plate, and never wakes up to receive his beribboned bone from Santa’s hand.

What just happened? Well, first, apparently the 21st century dog house comes with electricity. Even more amazing, this dog must have attended electrician class at his obedience school because he’s dexterous enough to avoid electrocution! If we get out a magnifying glass, maybe we’ll see he’s also been outfitted with opposable thumbs.

And speaking of outfitting, this dog’s house must have its own kitchen, complete with stove and refrigerator. Where else did the milk and cookies come from? While the dog doesn’t sip the milk and experience lactose intolerance, he does eat some of the cookies. Are they adorable dog cookies? I only wish. No magnifier required here to see that these cookies are the chocolate chip or oatmeal raisin cookies you’d find in your pantry.

Isn’t that cute?!?! Only if you want to spend Christmas at the emergency veterinary hospital. That’s obviously where this pooch is headed, if indeed he is still alive. I sincerely hope Santa took a second glance at the inert dog passed out on the icy ground. No Jack Russell I’ve ever known would act as though he were dead to the world – much less Santa and the bone he’s been waiting for – unless he is dead. Merry Christmas.

What’s the matter with this greeting card company and this videomaker? Are they both equally out of it? Surely somewhere along the production line, someone might have mentioned that chocolate and raisins are toxic and potentially life-threatening to dogs. How hard would it have been to tweak the props and still send jolly holiday greetings along with a subliminal message of doing right by your dog?

What’s our Alternative Pet POV? Love thy dog, but don’t anthropomorphize him to his detriment. Protect your pet from holiday dangers – including electric cords, decorations, toxic foods, and poisonous cookies. If you want a delicious cookie that you, your pet, and Santa will drool over, click here for our safe and shareable Holiday Cookie recipe.

P.S. from Eva

When Leslie forwarded this video to me, I couldn’t believe it. Even though I didn’t take it literally, I know how media and propaganda functions. So I shudder to think of kids learning from this video how much fun it is to feed their dog chocolate/raisin cookies and milk. And maybe put a few Christmas lights on him too.

This video isn’t an isolated instance of holiday cards sending the wrong message. This morning, I received an online Christmas card featuring the ostensibly adorable image of a Sheltie chewing on tinsel. A quick Google search of “dog + tinsel + danger” brought up 829,000 results! Meet you at the E.R., and I’ll bring the eggnog.

December 15, 2010 - from Eva Saks
Dog Food Deserts

Yes, I mean “deserts,” not “desserts.” We all know what a dog food dessert is: a raw bone, or a dental chew, or a  T-R-E-A-T (must be spelled not said). So what is a “dog food desert?”

I derive this term from the trendy public health catchphrase, “food desert.” According to a recent editorial in the New York Times Magazine, this term is “generally used to describe [mostly] urban neighborhoods where there are few grocers selling fresh produce, but a cornucopia of fast food places and convenience stores selling salty snacks…[more generally,] places where the market for nutritious sustenance has essentially failed.”

Social scientists, think tanks, entrepreneurs, and politicians are all working to reverse this market failure and create so-called “food oases” for people living in the midst of a metropolis. However, most grocery stores continue to be dog food deserts, carrying dog (and cat) food of the worst quality: grain-intensive, carcinogen-preserved, mystery-meat-based.

Therefore, I was generally pessimistic when I cruised into the pet food aisle at Von’s in North Hollywood last week. And, in fact, I did see primarily “fast food,” like Mighty Dog and Kibbles ‘n Bits, and junk food T-R-E-A-T-S like Hartz and Milk Bones.

But remarkably, a discerning consumer can now find four different kinds of premium pet food on the shelves: Newman’s Organic, Party Animal Organic, Dogswell, and Nutrisca (grain-free). And instead of choosing salty or high-glycemic biscuits, you can get your pet Dogswell’s pure dried duck and chicken strips. It’s a carnivore fiesta!

I think it’s amazing that even a middle-brow chain like Von’s offers these choices. Two varieties of organic pet food, no less! Let's hear it for consumer empowerment.  Supermarkets are dog food deserts no more.

But of course, they never really were. You could always just leave the pet food aisle and go to the meat section. Alas, we were too well trained by Madison Avenue to do so.

December 11, 2010 - from Eva Saks
House Bunnies

Truth be told, I have long pined for a bunny. Yes, I know it’s the wrong holiday. But they’re so darned cute. I identify with the narrator of A.A. Milne’s poem, “Market Square”:

I wanted a rabbit,
A little brown rabbit,
And I looked for a rabbit
'Most everywhere.

My extreme susceptibility to the charm of bunnies emerged when I directed my first short film, “Custody” (2000). The script featured a pair of identical rabbits. The casting process was protracted. After looking for rabbit actors ‘most everywhere, I finally found the perfect ones (non-SAG) at a Greenwich Village  pet store. The owner agreed to rent them to me for a day of shooting the following week. However, our call time was 6am and the pet store didn’t open until 10, so I had to pick up the bunnies the night before. So concerned was I about my fluffy stars that I slept beside their cage on the living room floor, periodically awakening to ensure they had sufficient carrots and water. On set, I reeked of Timothy hay. The bunnies performed admirably and I was very tempted to keep them. But my best friend, who enabled virtually everything, finally drew the line at this. Edward told me in no uncertain terms that bunnies did not belong in my Fifth Avenue apartment, nor did they fit the lifestyle of a freelance film director.

Lately I’ve been longing for a bunny again. This sentiment is not encouraged by Leslie. Apparently as a youngster she had a Dutch Hare named Rover, who was (in her words) the proverbial “dumb bunny.” 

Eager to research the intellectual capability of rabbits, I contacted my friend Kathy, who besides heading Southland Sheltie Rescue has vast animal experience. Kathy diplomatically dodged the bunny intelligence question and instead shared her own rabbit tale.  “Roger was the biggest bunny I had ever seen! He was found hopping down the streets of Ashland, Oregon. The police caught him but he was too big for a cage so they put him in a jail cell. At the time, I was married to the Chief of Police so when no one claimed Roger, I took him home.”

Only Kathy would rescue a giant bunny that had done jail time. 

My neighbor Suzi had a rabbit once upon a time, too. His name was Friday. “It was back in the day when I was in the music business and lived in Laurel Canyon. So Friday was a rock-and-roll bunny. He was even on an album cover.” Suzi feels Friday was most notable for being “stubborn and strong.” Apparently bunnies can pack quite a punch with their back legs. (Should the figure of speech be “strong as a bunny”?) Friday also showed strong paternal instincts, adopting two Mallard ducklings that joined the household.  These foundlings were, of course, named Saturday and Sunday.

Leslie, Kathy, and Suzi harbor no illusions about rabbits. But they’ve all had their bunny fix  I’m still craving mine. Only my friend Laura shares my Hallmark card passion for rabbits. She told me she once pulled her car over to coo at some wild rabbits in a public park – “Wook at da widdle wabbits!” – to the utter mortification of her teenaged children. 

The right bunny will come along one day, and I’ll be a goner. Bunnies may be prey, but they’re hunting me. To paraphrase the Motown song, sometimes the hunter gets captured by the game. 

December 9, 2010 – by Leslie Crane Rugg
The Mother Lode at Sun Valley Food Company

Recently, I met one of Eva’s holistic resources, vendor/consultant Evie Gold (Natural Touch 4 Paws). When I told her I was a raw feeder, creating my own dietary formulas for my dogs, she suggested I run, not walk, to Sun Valley Food Company, a local restaurant food purveyor. This company sells directly to the public as well as to the food service industry. She was certain that the prices were better than those at the markets where I shop and that the restaurant-grade meats and poultry would be of equal or higher quality.

Thoroughly tempted, I first did my research, calling to get a sense of the menu and the price structure. I was pleasantly surprised to speak to a friendly, even encouraging, employee. He knew by my questions that I was a pet owner and welcomed my potential business as much as he might a fine dining establishment. Okay! Check plus for excellent customer service!

Now for the next criterion. The range of protein sources was conventional, no novel delicacies. I had hoped for rabbit but discovered the company had recently deleted it from its inventory. Even so, the cuts of beef, pork, chicken, turkey, and duck were extensive; several kinds of fish were available; and a variety of cheeses were also on the menu. Not bad! I could go to an Asian market (near my Costco) for the special rabbit, chicken feet, and any oddity I might discover as a surprise for my Collies. Another check plus for reasonable menu.

Finally the big bang… make that how much bang for my buck? It was BIG. Dollar and cent signs twinkled in my eyes as I wrote down prices of the items I might order on a regular basis. My savings would be substantial. Here’s a sample: I normally pay 99 cents a pound for a 30 pound box of turkey necks; Sun Valley Food Company charges 75 cents per pound. I buy Trader Joe’s 40-ounce bag of frozen chicken thighs for $6.99. That translates to $2.80 per pound. Sun Valley charges $1.18 per pound for a 40-pound box! I normally pick up several tins of sardines packed in water at Trader Joe’s for my dogs. No sardines at Sun Valley, but fresh pollock fillets at $1.20 a pound for a 10-pound box was a fishy alternative I was willing to try. A double check plus for the money that would stay in my wallet! I was ready to make the trek at the first opportunity.

Eva and I took a break from writing and set off for Sun Valley. While our destination was only a few miles north, the San Fernando Valley landscape changed from residential to commercial to industrial. The drive was a lesson in the ecological destruction of the Valley, once a major agricultural area. Now the occasional lemon tree was a reminder of the fruit of the land that used to drive Southern California’s economy.

The plight of citrus faded away since our minds were fixated on lovely raw protein. I bought two cases of turkey necks, a case of chicken thighs, and a case of pollock fillets. Eva invested in two four-pound tubs of fresh feta for her senior Sheltie (Momo) who loves the Greek cheese as a topper to any meal. She paid $2.55 per pound. The next day she saw the same brand at her market priced at $7 per pound.

When I buy cases of frozen food, my routine is to semi-defrost the boxes overnight in my bathtub. (We’re all shower-people in my family.) The next day I weigh, bag, and refreeze individual meals in our designated dog food freezer. The quality of the Sun Valley necks, thighs, and fillets was obvious to the eye and to the nose. All three of us savored it – the two dogs standing guard and waiting for a possible sample  and me, elbow deep in their food. The ultimate test belongs to the dogs: it’s all about palatability, digestion, and excretion. I want to see Kipling and Kirby relish their meals, have no tummy aches, and produce perfect poop. Triple check plus.

Next month, I’ll be returning to Sun Valley. And heck, I just might shop for the human members of the family too.

P.S. from Eva
Momo is loving the feta cheese. I myself think I may die from an overdose of Greek salad, but I’ll die happy. Opa!

December 8, 2010 - from Eva Saks
Monkey Business

Tonight I watched Billy Wilder's masterpiece "Sunset Boulevard" (1950) on TCM. One of the film's best scenes is when Gloria Swanson, playing former silent movie star Norma Desmond, performs an elaborate nocturnal funeral for her beloved pet chimpanzee.

Now that is an alternative pet.

A propos of chimps, my neighbor Suzi's 92-year-old mother June revealed recently that she used to be a docent at the L.A. Zoo. She took a particular shine to an orangutan named Tick. "I went into the primate cages all the time. I liked them. And luckily they liked me. Because if they didn't like you, they'd pelt you with poop!"

Let's hear it for pets that don't have opposable thumbs.

December 1, 2010 - from Leslie Crane Rugg
Mother Knew Best

Animals are part of my family heritage. My maternal  grandmother spent her teen and young adult years on a farm in the Northwest, and my parents both had pets during their childhood in the urban Midwest. My mother unwittingly – or perhaps with all her wits intact – turned out to be a very early proponent of home cooking and a raw food diet. She fed our pets food that she also put on our table ( lamb chops, hamburger, eggs, cottage cheese, tuna, shredded wheat). Years later, after my brother's family and my family had turned their backs on processed pet food, I asked her how and why she had come to make this monumental switch in the heyday of such marketing ploys as Gainesburgers and Gravy Train. She told me it just felt like the right thing to do. THE RIGHT THING TO DO…. Boy, was she ahead of her time!