(a) A silly way to spend money
(b) Generally harmless fun
(c) Another sign of the decline of Western civilization
(d) All of the above
The answer, of course, depends on your perception of what a proper relationship with a companion animal should be. There are some who wince at the way pets are increasingly treated like little furry children, although I suspect most of us don't see the harm in anything that doesn't hurt anyone. Me? I fall into both camps.
Although I admit I'd much rather see a pet spoiled than neglected, I do worry that when some of us refer to our pets as "children" we are not making the distinction about the differences in their pets' needs vs. the needs of their own children. Pets have needs for species-appropriate nutrition and stimulation that are different from ours. (Personally, I don't have to smell every little thing between my driveway and the corner, but this is exactly the kind of olfactory stimulation our dog loves!)
I do worry as well about the amount of money we spend to fully accessorize our pets, especially when there are plenty of pets (and, it must be noted, plenty of people) who are in desperate need of the most basic essentials. But I also know that one of the reasons we keep animals is to lighten our spirits, and if a few dollars spent here and there on silly pet stuff does that, where's the harm?
Which brings us back to Halloween costumes.
Let's face it: When you spend money on apparel for dogs, you're not doing it for the dogs, except in the case of a sweater for an older dog or for a dog with a short coat like the whippet. Your dog doesn't care if he has a biker jacket, sunglasses, an ear-hugging visor or even a colorful bandana. He'll put up with most anything you put on him, as long as it means spending more time with you.
And if putting a costume on your dog means you'll fuss over him and maybe take him somewhere interesting, like the costume contests that are everywhere these days, then sure, it's a no-lose proposition: Dress up your dog and have some fun! But while you have your checkbook out buying the costume, don't forget to send a little of that discretionary income to your local shelter or animal rescue organization.
Not to say that you need to spend much money on a costume, of course. One of the best costume ideas I've seen probably cost less than $5 to pull together. A friend bought round, white stickers at an office-supply store and put them all over their big black Labrador retriever. Outfitted as a "reverse Dalmatian," he won a $50 gift certificate in a pet costume contest, which is not a bad return on the investment.
If you don't want to put any effort into coming up with something, you can find ready-made costumes at many pet-supply stores, in almost as much variety as you'll find in costumes for children. Make sure any costume meets the commonsense standard: It's comfortable and nonrestrictive, inedible, and it doesn't involve anything that could be hazardous, such as dye or paint.
Here are some other precautions to keep Halloween from being a fright:
* Injuries. With the increase in activity on Halloween night, cats and dogs may get nervous or excited, and some will run away if they can. That means an increase in animals lost and hit by cars. Other animals may be a cause of injury: All those costumed young visitors can trigger territorial instincts or fear-responses in some dogs, who may then become a bite risk. To prevent injuries, keep your pets confined inside away from the action, in a crate or behind a closed door. If you do take your dog to a costume contest, be sure to keep an eye on other dogs for signs of aggression, and don't crowd any dog, no matter how friendly he seems.
* Food problems. Candy is a problem more for dogs than for cats, because cats are generally picky about what they eat. Not so for most dogs, who'll wolf down candy - wrappers and all - if given the opportunity, giving many a serious case of what veterinarians call "garbage gut." Any candy can trigger a bout of intestinal upset, but chocolate can do much worse. One ounce of dark chocolate per 10 pounds of body weight in a dog can be highly toxic and result in seizures and even death. To prevent tragedies like that, adhere to this rule: No people treats for pets, and keep candy bowls and trick-or-trick bags out of reach of those animals who may be tempted to help themselves.
--Dr. Franklin Utchen, shown with his dog Tory, has been practicing veterinary medicine in the San Ramon Valley since 1989 and currently co-owns Bishop Ranch Veterinary Center & Urgent Care. For questions or comments e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.