Pet Connection

People Are Flocking to Birds for Pets

There has never been a better time to have a parrot as a pet. The hand-raised and well-socialized baby birds available from reputable breeders and bird shops today are a far cry from the days when most pet birds were wild creatures torn from their homes overseas.

Today we know more about proper nutrition, more about preventive health care, more about behavior. And as a result, the potential for an incredible relationship with a parrot -- everything from the smallest budgie to largest macaw -- has never been better.

To make the relationship work, however, you need to set the right tone from the first. You need to assure your new bird that you are a wonderful, kind and fun person, but you also need to gently but firmly establish that you are the boss. This is done through consistent, firm handling and gentle training -- never, ever through punishment.

It's not hard, if you follow some basic guidelines:

-- Learn when to leave your bird alone. Birds are emotional and sometimes quite moody, and there are times when it's best just to let them be. As you come to know your bird better, you'll be able to identify clearly the times when he wants to be with you and when he wants to be left alone. Give him space when he needs it.

-- Control your bird's comings and goings. Instead of opening the cage door to let your pet out, ask your bird to step up onto your hand and then bring him out. Likewise, give the "step up" command when it's time to put your bird back in his cage. This routine may seem like no big deal to you, but you're sending a message of leadership to your bird.

-- Keep training sessions short and upbeat. Parrots are highly intelligent, but they don't have the longest attention spans. They get bored easily. Several short interactive sessions a day -- just a couple minutes at a time -- are better than one or two long ones.

-- Don't let your bird ignore a command. If you say "step up," persist until your bird complies, or you'll set yourself up for trouble down the road. Birds are very smart, and if they figure a way around you, they'll take it. Once your leadership starts to erode, you'll have a hard time reclaiming your position.

-- Keep your bird at a level lower than your head. In the bird world, higher birds are leader birds. In the beginning, keep your bird's cage and play gyms below the level of your chin. When playing with your bird, keep your arm low, too, and don't let your bird on your shoulder. Later in your relationship you may allow your bird higher perches if he's not too much of a social-climber. Some birds, though, always need to be kept "down" to prevent misbehavior and aggression.

-- Talk to your bird. Make eye contact and say anything or everything that's on your mind. Birds learn by repetition and by mimicry, so start "naming" things for your bird. For example, when you want to pet your bird, ask him if it's OK, saying something like, "Want a pet?" or "Want a tickle?" or even "Tickle, tickle?" When your bird makes the connection, he'll drop his head to ask for petting -- or he may even use the phrase you've chosen!

Above all, don't ruin any good habits the breeder instilled in your bird by letting your pet become a demanding brat. Set limits and stick to them. Your bird will love you for it.

PETS ON THE WEB

No, they're not really pets, but I can't imagine there's an animal lover out there who doesn't find butterflies appealing. The North American Butterfly Association Web site (www.naba.org) offers a great deal of useful information, including some you might not have thought of on your own. For example, the NABA explains why the current fad of releasing butterflies at weddings isn't such a good idea for the environment or the butterflies themselves. The site also answers questions on butterflies, explains where and how to see them in your area, and offers some useful links to other butterfly-related spots on the Web. Also included is information on how to join this nonprofit group.

THE SCOOP

The end of winter means wet dogs, whether it's from melting snow or the rains that herald the coming of spring. And wet dogs mean wet-dog smell, one of the nastier odors around. I live with wet-dog smell all year-round -- it's part of the deal when you share your life with retrievers -- but find the smell intolerable in the winter only, when the house is closed up tight. The best wet-dog odor-chaser I've found is OrangeMate Mist, a non-aerosol product made from citrus extract. (The same company also makes the product with lime or lemon extract.) I keep a can in the car and two in the house, and find that nothing chases away wet-dog smell more quickly. The products can be found in grocery or hardware stores, or from home catalogs such as The Vermont Country Store (802-362-8440). The 7-ounce size retails for about $10, but it lasts forever.

QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK

Q: People should go to the pound to adopt a pet and forget how wonderfully pretentious they will be with an artificially expensive purebred. We should help the growing pet population by adopting the available dogs instead of getting one from a reputable or backyard breeder. Put these people out of business, I say! - M.R., via e-mail

A: This is where good people can agree to disagree. While I have always supported shelters and rescue groups, I also recognize that some people are going to want a purebred animal. There's nothing wrong with that choice. Purebreds offer predictability in terms of size, appearance and temperament. For some people, predictability is important.

It's important to remember, though, that it's not an either-or situation -- either you get a purebred or you go to a shelter. The facts are quite the opposite: You can find plenty of purebreds in shelters! A good place to find any pet is a shelter or rescue group, always. The shelters are full of animals, purebred and mixed, who'd be wonderful pets and desperately need a second chance.

But if someone wants a purebred puppy, making a careful choice in regard to the breeder is very important. If you buy from a reputable breeder, you greatly lessen the possibility of getting an animal with health or temperament problems. You also send a message to careless breeders and puppy-mill operators.

The bottom line is to take your time, do your homework, and consider all the possibilities. Shelters and rescue groups offer wonderful dogs, as do reputable breeders. As for the rest -- I wouldn't recommend them.

Q: Our 15-year-old male cat died recently, leaving a sister, and we're planning to get another kitten. I've heard lots of the basics about how to introduce a kitten, but wondered if gender makes a difference? -- A.S., via e-mail

A: Because older cats do so poorly when stressed, you should think very seriously before introducing a kitten to your household.

A kitten's playful ways just aren't appreciated by a geriatric cat and may prompt behavior problems such as litter-box avoidance or a loss of appetite -- the latter a serious health concern in all cats, but especially in older ones.

You know your cat best, though. If she's in good health and her outlook is friendly and playful, then a new addition might be OK. I don't think the gender of the new kitten will make that much difference.

The key to introducing cats is to do it slowly and let them have their own space. When you're gone, keep the kitten in a separate room, with food, water, toys, a scratching post and a litter box. That way your older cat can have some peace.

When you're home to mediate, let the pair work things out on their own as much as possible. Don't thrust the new kitten on your old cat. Keep the kitten occupied with play -- chasing a toy on a string is great fun. All the energy you can help the kitten burn in play will be energy not spent pestering your older cat.

If you're not sure your cat will welcome a kitten, don't get one. Let her be the special one for the rest of her life, and consider a new kitten after she's gone.

Gina Spadafori is the award-winning author of "Dogs for Dummies," "Cats for Dummies" and "Birds for Dummies." She is also affiliated with the Veterinary Information Network Inc., an international online service for veterinary professionals. Write to her in care of this newspaper, or send e-mail to writetogina(at)spadafori.com.

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