Dear Dr. Fox:

I have a Maltese, Dixie, who constantly licks and bites on her paws. I have taken her to two different doctors and they both gave her the same medicine, prednisone, which did not help but put weight on her.

I've tried changing her diet, I don't let her go outside on the grass -- I've tried everything. Nothing has helped.

Everyone says it is probably allergies -- but to what? Please help.

-- B.D., Houston

Prednisone is clearly not the solution for your dog's problem. It might provide some temporary relief, but in the long term is likely to cause more harm to her already-impaired immune system.

I am disturbed that neither veterinarian considered what you are feeding your dog, since food-related allergies are very common in dogs today and can cause skin problems and destructive self-chewing.

Your dog needs a thorough clinical evaluation, including liver and kidney function, thyroid and an "elimination" diet to check for possible food allergies.

Ruling out a physical cause is not easy, and a cost-saving approach is to give her some natural food supplements that may help, such as primrose or borage oil, nutritional yeast, vitamins A and C and zinc (which will also help boost her immune system). A holistic veterinarian can assist you in this regard.

To locate such a doctor in your area, check the Web site of the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association at www.ahvma.org for its referral directory.

Dear Dr. Fox:

Recently, I walked down the fish aisle at the local Petsmart. I was appalled to see more than 100 small, clear plastic cups, each with a single betta fish inside. Some were too big to even turn around inside the cups.

I said to the manager that I was aware that bettas are carnivorous and had to be segregated. However, there had to be a better way to do it. His explanation was, "That's the way it's always been done. All the pet stores do it."

I reject the manager's premise that "it's always been done that way so it must be the right way." That theory has been rebuked consistently throughout the history of mankind. Animal lovers the world over have decried poor conditions foisted upon animals who are dependent on their caregivers. Fish should have no less protection.

Petsmart prides itself upon the care it provides animals, even to the point of refusing to sell dogs and cats and promoting adoption instead. I hope that Petsmart and other pet stores would rethink their cruel practice of keeping fish in cups too small to allow them to swim.

-- L.P.T., Friendswood, Tex.

You should contact the Humane Society of the United States, 2100 L St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20037, since it has close ties with Petsmart's animal charity division and share your concerns. Mark your letter to the attention of Wayne Pacelle, the president-designate of the HSUS.

I agree with you that humane treatment is most urgently needed. This includes standards of care established according to species' needs and properly trained staff in order to reduce the stress and suffering of these fish and other animals, especially caged birds and small mammals for sale in pet and variety stores from coast to coast.

Dear Dr. Fox:

My husband and I are expecting our first child, and we are concerned how this will affect our 14-year-old cat and two 4-year-old dogs.

The cat has been around babies and seems happy to avoid them, but the dogs have never been around a baby.

We socialized the dogs with children early in their lives and the dogs like children.

What can we do to best prepare all of

our pets for the new addition to the household?

-- C.M., Annandale

Purchase a lifelike baby doll that cries when tilted. Swaddle it, pretend to nurse it and get your companion animals well-habituated before the real baby arrives.

When that day comes, let them see and sniff the baby, praise them, and always give them extra attention between diaper changes and feedings so that they don't feel displaced.

Let them into the baby's room only when you are there and keep a net over the top of the crib for good measure to keep the cat out.

Some animals do get upset when babies cry, so keep your cool and reassure the animals that the baby is okay.

Never leave the baby (or, eventually, the toddler) alone with any animal, since accidents can happen.

Michael Fox, author of many books on animal care, welfare and rights, is a veterinarian with doctoral degrees in medicine and animal behavior. Write to him in care of United Feature Syndicate, 200 Madison Ave., New York, N.Y. 10016. The volume of mail prohibits personal replies, but questions and comments of general interest will be discussed in future columns.

(c)2004, United Feature Syndicate