Pets 2010: Free Expert Advice

Speak! We get some free advice from top local pet experts.

Photographs by Jessica Scranton

Photographs by Jessica Scranton

I’d like to get involved in dog shows — where do I start?

Randy Price, Channel 5 news anchor and co-owner of Cutts Island Cocker Spaniels (home to Rudy, the most decorated cocker spaniel in the breed’s history): You really need to learn everything possible about the breed you’re interested in, and you need to talk to breeders — people who show dogs. They will not only help you find a puppy, they will also tell you everything about what is required to be competitive.

The business of showing dogs is all about pedigree. People who show dogs have a very definite track record and they’re very interested in not having health problems. For instance, if I produced a dog that eventually had cataracts, I would be so doomed — it’s a very small world in terms of breeding and showing and reputation is everything. Go to the website of the American Kennel Club, They’ll have a link there to tell you about breeders — it’s called the Breeders Referral Network — and they will also have a link to show you the dog shows in your area. If you’ve seen the movie Best in Show and you still think you’re interested in being one of those odd, quirky people, find out about breeders in your area and start meeting some of those people.

Do I need to buy pet insurance?

Dr. Joel Kaye, chief of general medicine, Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals: Pet insurance has its place — you’ve just got to be careful. Some companies sell policies that cover basic care (vaccinations and routine visits), and I don’t know if it necessarily works out so well financially for that. But it is definitely useful for things like accidents and cancers; certain policies can help you pay large bills in those situations. But every insurance company has its list of exclusions. Just about any hereditary disorder is not going to be covered. Read the fine print, just as with any insurance policy. That’s the key thing people have to do. They don’t want to find out the hard way that their pet has a particular disease but it’s not covered.

Are high-end pet foods worth the money?

Dr. Lisa Freeman, head of the nutrition department, Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University: I place less emphasis on the cost of the food or how it is advertised than on the more important evidence of nutrition and quality control on the label. Ingredients must be listed in decreasing order of weight, and an animal product should be one of the first three. Some owners are concerned about diets that contain grains or potatoes, but those are important nutritional sources, not fillers. Also, people should look for foods that are labeled “complete and balanced” — don’t use ones that say “for intermittent or supplemental use only” — and that have been tested by “feeding trials.” Labels that say they’ve only been “formulated to meet” certain standards haven’t been tested in feeding trials with dogs or cats.

How old is too old for fixing a pet’s behavior problems?

Dr. Amy Marder, head of behavior department, Animal Rescue League of Boston: Old dogs learn a little bit slower than young dogs, but they still learn. I think when people say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, they forget that dogs get into habits that become really strong. It’s easier to change a behavior than break a very strong habit. So, we can talk about excessive barking at the door — the dog barks at the door every day and you want to stop that habit. It’s hard to stop it unless you teach the dog a new behavior, such as going to your bed and staying there while the person is coming in the door. With cats it is a similar process, but people tend not to train their cats to do anything their whole lives. So they might teach them not to be on the counters, but there are many people who don’t do that — as long as they’re using their litter box, that’s all they care about.

How can I take better pictures of my pet?

Joe Keller, photographer and co-owner of Keller + Keller Photography (a frequent Boston magazine contributor): Don’t try to force the photograph. Cats and dogs tend to move a lot, so one of the keys is to try to capture them where they’re comfortable. If you’re putting them in a strange place they’re not going to stay there. You have to be quick, and just like with children you always have to have your camera with you. I usually have somebody else getting the dog to sit, and to whistle to cause their ears to perk up and get them to look at me. Don’t be afraid to go in close — if you want to take just a tight portrait of their head, using a telephoto is easier because you can avoid spooking them with a camera in their faces. Make sure your focus is right on the eyes and, on a point-and-shoot camera turn the flash off and use natural light (shade is usually better than in full sun). You’ve just got to shoot a lot of pictures. Even professionals have to play the numbers to get that one shot.