Friday, February 27, 2009

The red-eared slider

What's Wrong with this Picture?

Dear Labby,
I recently was pet sitting a water turtle, and his shell is peeling. Is that normal? 
Reptile lover

Dear Reptile Lover,
This water turtle is a red-eared slider. Many of you will remember getting a little tiny one from the pet store when you were kids. So many were neglected that pet stores quit carrying them many years ago. I have seen them living in lakes in Minnesota, and ponds in California (where they are NOT a native species). 

I asked Liz Palika, a friend and reptile expert, what could be going on with this turtle. Here is her reply:

1. There could be decaying plants in the water, releasing fats into the water which cause the scutes to peel.
2. The new growing scutes underneath could be causing the old ones to peel.
3. There may be too much fat in the diet, thereby releasing fats in the water - see #1.
4. There could be an infection in the shell - such as shell rot.

If the turtle is otherwise okay and there are signs of new scutes underneath the shedding ones I wouldn't worry. However, if bone is showing under the scutes, then vet care is needed. 

Thanks Liz! I hope this helps you all.

The red-eared slider I care for eats worms, and canned dog food. In other words, protein. He has his own man-made pond with circulating water, and lives with some goldfish that help keep it clean. He is able to get out of the water up on the bank, and has rocks so he can bask in the sun. He sometimes has managed to get out of the one foot fence surrounding his little world, but I have never seen him escape-- I can't believe he can do it! 

He is protected from dogs, but one time, a predator tried to get him, and when I arrived in the morning, his entire rubber pond was dumped. He was hiding underneath, which probably saved him. Common predators include racoons, hawks, and coyotes. 

Thanks for asking!

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Pet sitters: Beware the Nanny Cam

A client recently sent me a link so I could see how their “Natecam” works. Nate the Lab spends the day in his dog run, and while the owners are at work, they can check in and see what he is doing (Usually sleeping).

We’ve all seen stories on the news where a nannycam has caught a caregiver abusing babies or elderly people when they think no one is looking. Anyone can buy this technology, and it’s not impossible that you will show up on someone’s candid camera one day.

With this in mind, all pet sitters should do a quick ethics check. Are you doing anything in a client’s house you wouldn’t want them to see?  Do you say things out loud you wouldn’t want them to hear? Do you snoop?

I sure hope not. 

I thought of this possibility this morning when I was caring for a group of five cats in a large home. High arched ceilings and hardwood floors make the hallways an echo chamber, and I was filled with the desire to sing.

I have an awful voice, and jump from octave to octave, key to key, trying to adjust my alto voice to the high notes. I let fly with my own pathetic version of the Star Spangled Banner while I cleaned litter boxes and refilled water bowls. It was invigorating, and I stood taller, my lungs full of fresh air, and felt refreshed when I was done. No mirrors broke, no windows shattered, and the cats ignored me.

I really pity my poor clients if they have it on video!

The art above is my painting of two cats that I call "Window Watchers." It is available as a signed and numbered limited edition print. Contact me for details.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Chained and neglected

Twice a day I fed them, changed their water, picked up their waste, cuddled and petted each of them, and let them off their chain to run and sniff for half an hour. Each day, I got a little angrier with their owner, Mike. It wasn’t always this way for Dakota and Max. Before Mike moved, they had a back yard and never tried to escape. I walked them twice a day, and I only got irritated when it rained, because they had no doghouse. But in his new home they could see the hills outside the chain link fence, and Max was up and over as soon as Mike went in the house.

In June, my friend Sandy was horrified to visit the dogs in their new home. I was on vacation, so she filled in for me for a week. Mike had built a gorgeous new home on a hilltop overlooking all of the city. Nothing was fenced yet, so Dakota and Max were on chains. When Sandy arrived she read the riot act to Mike’s daughter. The dogs were chained in the 90-degree heat, and had dumped their water. They were tangled in each other’s chains and couldn’t retreat to a nearby bush or even move. She called the humane society, who came out and lectured Mike when he returned from his trip.

A few weeks later, Mike called me, complaining about Sandy and how she upset his daughter. He was ready for me to pet sit again, and the dog run was built, but he still had the dogs chained because they were jumping the fence and digging out. Big surprise, a Malamute digs…

I set up a shade area for Max with a tarp tied to a PVC pipe frame.  Dakota could get to the shade under a low growing palm, and she had dug a nice hole to sleep in. Several of my visits, I had to untangle their chains. Summer in Poway is like living in the desert: hot, dry and dusty. I brought over a water bucket that could be fastened to the fence with a hook, so they couldn't dump it as easily, and a big plastic doghouse for Dakota.

I always assume people don’t purposely mistreat their dogs. It’s just that they are ignorant and don’t know better. I went to great lengths to suggest ways Mike could keep them in their dog run:

• Switch to solid fencing instead of chain link so they can’t see out.

• Cement around the bottom so they can’t dig.

• Hot-wire the top and bottom

• Build a digging pit for them to play in- with tasty buried bones etc, renewed regularly.

• Let them run for awhile every day so the get enough exercise and mental stimulation.

Were the dogs abused? Malamutes love cold weather and many experts think they are happier living outside in the cold. Once he provided water and shade during the heat, the only neglect was leaving them chained. People tie up their dogs all the time all over the United States, though most dog experts disapprove because it causes behavior problems, and often, injury.  The dogs were clean, brushed and well behaved. They weren’t aggressive or obviously frustrated; in fact they seemed really happy. I felt I was guilty of imposing my idealistic standards of pet care on someone else. 

If the humane society seized the dogs, they’d be euthanized in the shelter, and what would that accomplish? Mike would go buy more dogs, sue Sandy and me, and NEVER ever fix up the dog run. I wasn’t happy with the way this was working out, but at least I could see Max and Dakota occasionally and monitor when (if) he ever set up a better living situation. His last Malamute lived 13 years, so he figures he’s doing something right. 

The Good News

The dogs have a nice big dog run today. They can't escape, they have shade, a doghouse (same one) and their water bucket (same one)  and lots of room to dig to their hearts' content. They still don't get to come in the house, but I do think they are happy. Mike lets them out to run in the yard when he is outside, so they get some attention and exercise. Both are older now, but have no serious health problems.

What can a pet sitter do?
Aside from calling Animal Control, there's not much you can do. If the owner meets the minimum standards of food, water and confinement, there's nothing they can do. If you absolutely can't stand the way someone cares for their pets, quit. Let them find another pet sitter. But in this case, I felt I could benefit the dogs by staying on, and for over 5 years now they have been my clients. I'm not happy with their living conditions, but I don't think the dogs suffer. They just don't have the life I would want for them. 

Pet sitters are employees, not the animal care police. We don't have the right to force people to do things our way. From the brand of food they choose to whether they let the dogs in the house, it's not our call. Sometimes I hate it, but that's the way it is. 

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Caring for Box Turtles

I own two box turtles, Fred and Ethel, and I’ve had them for almost 20 years. In the past I’ve also owned California desert tortoises and African Sulcata tortoises. I also care for red-eared sliders and Greek tortoises that belong to pet sitting clients.

All turtles and tortoises are reptiles, but their care varies greatly by species. Box Turtles are small, about 5 inches in diameter, and protect themselves by closing up their shells so you can’t get to their feet, tail or head. The bottom of the shell is hinged, as you can see in the photo at right. In the top photo, one turtle has the back of her shell closed to protect her legs.


They need to be confined in a small pen because they will dig under a patio deck or bury themselves in the mud and you’ll never see them again. In cold climates they will hibernate unless you provide heat lamps. I keep mine in a large 60 gallon fish tank (with sterile reptile bark from Petco in the bottom) with a heat lamp set to 85 degrees on a thermostat at one end.

Because reptiles cannot regulate their body temperature, they need a place to get away from the heat. They will self-regulate by moving close to or away from the heat source. You could use this same heat lamp set-up outdoors as long as the turtles are protected from predators (more on that later). They also like to dig under piles of hay or grass.

Food and water

Box turtles will eat protein (meat) and plants. Live mealworms, crickets or night crawlers and canned dog food are great sources of protein. Fruits and vegetables for box turtles include: bananas, melon, berries, peas, corn, lima beans, and cooked carrots (soft enough to bite easily). Nothing with seeds! I keep frozen mixed veggies on hand, and just defrost a handful now and then to give the turtles. I keep the live worms in the refrigerator. Some people squirm at the thought!

They are turtles, but they are not swimmers. Box turtles need fresh water to drink and soak in, but it shouldn’t be more than 1 1/2” deep or they will drown. A ceramic saucer designed to go under a flower pot works well.

Their beaks and toenails grow continuously. Those long toenails on the back feet are meant for digging. A cuddle bone (like you give to birds) may help them wear down the beak. If not trimmed, it may interfere with their ability to eat, and cause malnutrition. I take my turtles to the vet about once a year for a beak and toenail trim. 


A box turtle that does not get enough warmth will get sick. When I lived in Seattle, I didn’t know this, and one of my box turtles got a cold – Yes, a runny snotty nose just like a little kid! I took him to the vet and he propped open Ethel’s shell with a pencil so she couldn’t close it. He smeared her runny nose against a slide and looked at it under a microscope. An antibiotic shot and powdered antibiotics on her food for a few days and Ethel was as good as new. The vet helped me set up the heat bulbs and thermostat system described above. My turtles have been healthy ever since, and do not hibernate.

Box turtles can get worms, and can also transfer salmonella to people, so wash your hands thoroughly after handling. An infestation of worms can be treated by your vet.


Dogs love turtles: they dig them up, carry them around in their mouths, and unfortunately, crush the shells and eat them. The only way to guarantee your reptile’s safety is to keep predators out. A pen made out of concrete blocks and covered with hardware cloth is fine if the dog can’t figure out how to open it. My box turtles are safe in their terrarium, though an occasional dog will stand in front of it and bark at them.

Raccoons, coyotes and bobcats are other predators that threaten your turtles’ safety.

Learn more

As a pet sitter, this is the basic information you need to know, but of course, there is tons more you can learn. Your clients will give you a feeding and care schedule. Maybe you will educate them! I recommend Liz Palika's book, Turtles and Tortoises for Dummies, available on Amazon. She is a reptile expert and owns many species and breeds of reptiles.