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OPEN-DOOR PET POLICY

It used to be that pet owners didn't have much of a choice: Either get up and open the door each time their cat or dog wanted out, or leave the door cracked open, inviting in insects or other animals.

Consider, instead, giving your pet a door of its own, ranging from the simplest clear-plastic flaps to a high-tech electromagnetic door triggered by a magnetic key on the animal's collar.

The variety is endless: If there's a door, there's a way. Correctly installed, these entrances are safe for pets and provide little security risk for homeowners.

Among them:

A door that mounts directly into the screening of any door or window. Designed for a dog or cat of up to 30 pounds, the swinging screen door requires only a hammer and knife for installation. Simply cut an 8-by-10-inch hole in your screen. The door frame, made of light, durable plastic, snaps directly into place.

"It's a fair-weather convenience for when the cat wants to go in and out without scratching up the screen and driving you nuts," said Eleanor Winters of Borwick Innovations, the manufacturer. Cost: $21, with $3 shipping and handling.

A door that fits into a sliding-glass patio door without a separate aluminum panel that blocks the view. "Aesthetically, people just didn't like the panel. The doors didn't close properly," said Richard Herman of Ani Mate, the manufacturer. A sheet of unbreakable, clear-plastic Lexan fits inside the patio door frame in place of the glass and accommodates the opening of the pet door. Cost: $150 for the Lexan, $32.99 for the pet door.

An electromagnetic door, powered by a 9-volt battery, which opens when it senses a magnetic tag, or "key," worn on the collar of a cat or small dog.

This door will "keep nature out in general," said Herman of Ani-Mate. He recalled a woman who was awakened in the night by two cats fighting in her bedroom, neither of them hers, that apparently got in through a swinging pet door. The electromagnetic door was invented to avoid just such a situation. Price range: $75-$90.

A door with "paw pads" pressed by the pet to trigger a motor that raises the door. An electronic circuit holds the panel open for an adjustable time period. Sold by PetDoors USA of Bradenton, this door is available in medium and large sizes and sells for $160 to $190.

Saloon-style swinging doors for dogs. PetDoors makes them of two panels of shatter-resistant Plexiglas. Cost: $84 to $220. Installation requires only a saw, screwdriver and drill. "You just need to be able to saw a hole," said partner Diana Bradfield of PetDoors. "Any average do-it-yourselfer can do it."

If you don't know how to install the door, have it professionally fitted, advised Lori Rae Snelling, president of Dog Works Inc., an obedience school in Pinellas Park. Any rough or unfinished edges could scrape and snag a pet as it runs through the door.

Training and teaching your pet to go through the door doesn't require obedience school, said Snelling, "but some do need a lot of coaxing to encourage them to go through the door. You never want to force them through the door." Many owners reward pets with toys, food and lots of praise on the other side of the door.

Paula Davison of St. Petersburg, owner of three dogs, taught her pets with some help from her daughter. "At that time, my daughter was 3 and she would crawl through it and they would follow," said Davison. "They seem to get the hang of it rather quickly."

Parents should be aware of the safety hazard pet doors can present to children. Last year, in St. Petersburg and Tampa, two children drowned after they crawled through pet doors and got into family swimming pools. Small children should not be left unattended around a pet door.

Veterinarian John Smith of Seminole cautions owners that before their pets are allowed to go freely in and out, they should be vaccinated against viral diseases they are likely to pick up outside. Smith also cautions that if owners aren't supervising their pets' comings and goings, they may be unaware of the animals' urinary problems.

A second, and perhaps peskier, problem is fleas. "Outside, they are much more prone to fleas," said Smith, who is also the bookkeeper of the Pinellas Animal Foundation, "creating a much bigger flea problem in the home." Smith says he has treated some rare injuries of feet and toes caught in swinging hinge doors but had only one freak accident: Two Labradors collided as one was going in, the other going out. (See-through doors can prevent this type of accident.)

For owners like Maureen Cabello of Seminole, the doors are a convenience worth the money. Cabello, the owner of three Labrador retrievers, said, "To me, it was very inexpensive compared to having someone there all the time to open and close the door." She was a little wary of the door at first, never believing that the dogs could fit through the hole designed for dogs up to 100 pounds. "My son, 6-foot-1 and 175 pounds, crawled through just to prove me wrong," said Cabello.

A common consumer mistake is misjudging door size. "A 60-pound dog can go through a hole the size of a sheet of paper" _ 8{ by 11 inches, said Dan Gray, owner of the Doggie Door Company in St. Petersburg, which sells and installs various types of pet doors. "The average consumer will say "There's no way my dog will fit through that.' It's very deceptive of what they need. Most people end up buying a door much larger than they need," said Gray, who also installs the doors.

Another consumer tip from Gray: "Don't scrimp on quality. Once you cut a hole to install a certain pet door, you are commited to that brand." Different manufacturers use different sizes and scales, and parts aren't interchangeable. Make sure the door fits and is the one you want, says Gray, because you'll have it for your pet's lifetime or for as long as you own your house.

For insulation, most hard doors have a weatherproof seal and close securely. Almost all doors are designed with some type of lock. In most cases, a steel or wooden panel can be inserted in the grooves of the door to close it off from outside entry. More expensive doors also have options like "in-only" and a key lock.

The panels are effective for controlling access to the door, providing a security option for homeowners. At night or when the family is not home, the panels can be slipped into the grooves to close up the door. As Maureen Cabello's son proved, it is possible for a person to use a pet door. Paula Davison, who has had her pet door for 10 years, said, "With a German shepherd in the house, I'm not really worried about anyone coming through."

WHERE TO FIND PET DOORS

Here is a list of manufacturers and the variety of doors they offer. Many can be bought at local pet, home improvement and hardware stores, or by mail directly from the manufacturer. Call or write for free catalogs.

Ani Mate Inc., Route 21, Box 1165, 3020 Old Highway 105 E, Conroe, TX 77301 (409 760-4333.) Lexan sliding-glass door replacement ($150) is custom cut to fit the size of your sliding patio door and accommodates a hole for the pet door ($32.99). The weather-proof pet door is round with a transparent flap. Also sells the Cat Mate electromagnetic door ($89) that allows entry only to your pet, which wears a magnetic "key" on its collar, triggering the door to open as it approaches.

Borwick Innovations Inc., P.O. Box 30345, Santa Barbara, CA 93130 (800 365-5657). Offers an 8-by-10-inch door that mounts on any door or window screen. Accommodates pets up to 30 pounds. Pre-installed magnets prevent it from swinging in the breeze. (Cost: $21, plus $3 shipping and handling.)

Clearthru Petdoor, P.O. Box 820424, Dallas, TX 75382 (214 363-0968) For cats and toy dogs, this model fits in window openings. (Cost: $49.95, plus $5 shipping and handling.)

The Doggie Door Company at 2340 22nd Ave. N in St. Petersburg (521-2122) carries a variety of brands and can help with questions about installation, door size and type.

PetDoors USA at 4523 30th St. W in Bradenton (800 749-9609) carries a number of brands, including the Plexidor, a double-panel saloon-style door (Cost: $84-$228); the Petway, with a self-opening "paw pad" (Cost: $1600$190); and the Staywell (see below).

Reigning Cats and Dogs, 818 Harrison St., Port Townsend, WA 98368. (206-385-2016.) The Cat Indicatdoor (Cost: $30, plus $5 shipping and handling) uses a red-and-white indicator to indicate whether the cat is in or out. Includes a built-in four-way lock and see-through flap. Also sells an electromagnetic door with in/out indicator ($75, plus $5 shipping and handling).

Staywell manufactures a variety of hard plastic doors with see-through flaps and magnetic closures. Cost: $19.95-$27.95. They are sold through the JCPenney and Sears catalogs, through some pet stores and through PetDoors of Bradenton, above. To obtain a catalog, call (800) 521-5294.

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