The nation has a new top dog -- the Labrador retriever.
Based on 1991 registration figures, the American Kennel Club's annual ranking of breeds showed America's favorite retrievers pushing cocker spaniels into second place, out of the top spot they'd held for a decade.
Poodles were the third-most-popular breed, unchanged since the previous year. The rest of the top 10 (with their earlier ranking in parentheses): 4) Rottweilers (5); 5) German shepherds (6); 6) golden retrievers (4); 7) beagles (9); 8) dachshunds (8); 9) chow chows (7); and 10) Shetland sheep dogs (11). Labrador retrievers held the second-most-popular spot before moving up to No. 1.
What does this mean to anyone who wants a Labrador -- or indeed, any of the top breeds? In a word: Beware.
Any time a breed becomes popular, it attracts the attention of all kinds of substandard breeders, from cruel puppy-millers to well-meaning pet lovers who think it would be fun -- and maybe profitable -- to have puppies in the house. Such people have less concern for health and temperament problems than the best breeders do, and they generally neither know nor care about breeding to the correct standards of appearance set out by the national breed club. The result can be a flood of poor-quality dogs that have little in common with what made the breed popular in the first place.
If you're interested a purebred dog, you're better off taking the extra time to locate a knowledgeable, reputable breeder. That's true of any breed, of course, but especially so when it comes to dogs that have caught the nation's fancy.
Q: What do you think of pet health insurance?
A: More pet-lovers than ever want top-quality care for their pets, and more veterinarians than ever are prepared to provide it. Better care from better-trained professionals can be costly, however, and veterinary pet insurance is an attempt to bridge the gap between what such care can cost and what people are capable of paying.
Anyone with a pet knows that, like everything else, the costs of veterinary care have gone up in recent years, although certainly not as fast as human medical costs. Routine veterinary care -- exams, lab tests and vaccinations -- can easily run more than $100 a year; specialty care can be even more expensive. A serious illness or major surgery can cost several hundred dollars or more.
There are two major players in the pet health-insurance field -- Veterinary Pet Insurance, based in Anaheim, Calif., and Medipet of Danbury, Conn. Although their offerings differ somewhat, both companies offer plans that pick up a substantial portion of the cost of veterinary care for illness or accident, excluding a deductible that varies according to the chosen plan. The cost of coverage is around $100 a year, less with a higher deductible.
Because the concept is still fairly new, most veterinarians do not accept insurance in lieu of payment. Pet owners pay the bill, and then apply to the insurance company for reimbursement.
"We're set up to work either way," said Scott Henderson of Medipet. "There are vets who say 'I'll wait for the check, or have the check sent to me.' But that's not yet the norm.
"I think that will change in a year or two, as the profession becomes more comfortable with the concept," he said. "Then, just like M.D.s and dentists, they'll send in a package of claims and get a monthly check."
Sacramento veterinarian Tom Kendall is one of the few who handles the paper work for clients, no matter which plan they have.
"Some vets want both -- they want pet health insurance but don't want the hassle," he said. "My personal feeling is that they need to put effort into it."
Is pet health insurance a good idea? Veterinarians certainly think so, which is why Veterinary Pet Insurance was founded by animal health-care professionals, including Dr. Kendall. There's no doubt the existence of such coverage is a no-lose situation for them financially.
But for pet owners and veterinarians, both the promise of pet health insurance is more than just financial. Anyone who has been forced to choose euthanasia over veterinary care that's available but unaffordable can truly appreciate such coverage -- as do the veterinarians who handle the final resolution of such a decision.
For more information, call Veterinary Pet Insurance at (800) 872-7387 or Medipet at (800) 345-6778.
Ms. Spadafori is a newspaper reporter and an animal obedience trainer in Sacramento, Calif. Questions about pets may be sent to her c/o Saturday, The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore 21278.