Monday, January 24, 2011

Man's best friend is worth fetching plague

By Tony Norman, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

My dog is a lovable white pit bull named Leila. She's 5 years old and looks like Snoopy on steroids.
Still, she has managed to maintain a trim, athletic frame even though I throw a lot of doggie treats her way.
Despite her breed's reputation, Leila wouldn't hurt a fly. She's never even been able to catch one, despite many hours of stalking them on lazy afternoons when there is no incentive to do anything but enjoy life.
In winter, she mostly sleeps bunched under the covers of whatever bed is available. During the day, she bides her time until she hears the mailman on the porch or the UPS truck out front, before letting loose with a fearsome series of barks calibrated for maximum intimidation.
These days, Leila wears a pink sweater my wife insists she wear to make Leila's backyard bathroom breaks more bearable.
As a result, what Leila lacks in actual dignity, she more than makes up for with a counter-intuitive fashion sense. "Yeah, I may be wearing pink," she says with her usual brown-eyed stoicism, "but I'm a pit bull. Got a problem with that?"
Leila's best friend is the golden retriever next door who, despite being less than a year old, is already taller. With only a chain link fence between them, they race each other through well-worn paw paths, barking about nothing in particular.
Admittedly, Leila isn't as smart as Chaser, a South Carolina border collie that learned the names of 1,022 objects over three years.
According to researchers, Chaser has the vocabulary of a 3-year-old human, which is unprecedented for dogs and most members of the cast of "Jersey Shore."
Maybe if I took a page from the playbook of the infamous "Tiger Mother" and withheld bacon twists and backyard privileges until she mastered at least 20 words a year, Leila would be classified remedial by the time she's a proverbial old dog.
In the end, I don't really mind that my dog isn't as smart as some scruffy pooch that has the scientific community eating out of her paw because she's memorized the names of more than 1,000 dog toys. Think how materialistic a dog has to be to have that many toys to begin with.
My standards are considerably lower than most. All I ask of my dog is that she continue to greet me with a non-judgmental wag of the tail at the end of the day, defy as many stereotypes about pit bulls as she can and continue to do her "business" outside.
Oh -- and she isn't allowed to bring any parts of the Black Plague into the house with her.
According to a study soon to be published in the journal of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, dogs and cats that are allowed to sleep in their owners' beds often carry a menagerie of dread diseases with them:
"[T]he risk for transmission of zoonotic agents [diseases or infections transmitted from animals to humans] by close contact between pets and their owners through bed sharing, kissing or licking is real and has been documented for life-threatening infections such as plague, internal parasites" and other horrible possibilities.
The CDC estimates that 20,000 people suffer from various "cat scratch" diseases annually, but doesn't have statistics on how many are actually fatal.
Zoonotic pathogens can be transmitted to pets from fleas or picked up from dead bird or rat carcasses that our pets have contact with. Salmonella can fester in contaminated pet food. Pets can pick up viruses just from rolling in the grass.
A Japanese woman reportedly got meningitis after kissing her pet. When a German shepherd licked a cut on its master's hand, it killed him. Although statistically meaningless, the list of tragic anecdotes goes on.
After reading sensationalistic reports about the CDC study, I kept Leila's slobbering kisses at arm's length for a few hours to think through the logistics of how to proceed.
On one hand, her breath sometimes has a whiff of something putrid that could be the plague. On the other hand, she has proven herself far more forgiving than my wife when it counts. Is it worth contracting leprosy or the Black Plague to get that lick in the face at the end of the day?
All right, I guess I'll just have to get the plague, then.

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