Pet Connection by Dr. Marty Becker, Kim Campbell Thornton and Mikkel Becker

GREAT CAGES

No purchase is more important when you get a parrot than the cage.

The cage is where your parrot will spend time when you're not home, when the family is sleeping, or when you can't pay attention to your pet.

The first rule of caging: Buy the biggest cage you can afford. Forget the generic categorizations you'll find in pet stores. Those descriptions represent the minimum size to consider -- a better bet is at least one size bigger. For a cockatiel, get a cage for a small parrot. The bigger, the better, always, as long as the bar spacing isn't so big that your pet could escape.

Dimensions are important, too. Tall and narrow cages may look nice, but they force birds to fly more like a helicopter than in the style that comes naturally for them. Parrots like to fly horizontally as well as climb up and down in their cages, so a cage should be wide enough to accommodate both activities.

Metal is generally the best material for a cage. Wood is too hard to clean and usually won't stand up to the abuse parrots can give out, and some manufacturers are experimenting with acrylics. But while these components can make attractive housing for your pet, they may not offer enough social interaction to keep a bird happy.

With so many cages available, how can you be sure you're buying one of high quality? Here are a few points to consider.

-- Design. You want a cage to be attractive, but even more important, it should be workable for you and your bird. Look for features such as a birdproof latch; dishes that are easy to move, remove and clean; and a droppings tray that takes standard-sized newspapers. Make sure you can easily reach in and make contact with your bird, wherever your pet may be within the cage.

Mess-catchers can be helpful, too. They look like an inverted metal skirt around the base of the cage. The best position for the slide-out droppings tray at the bottom of the cage is under a grid so your bird can't get to it. High-impact, durable plastic or metal is a good choice for a droppings tray. No matter what the material, the tray ought to slide out smoothly and be easy to clean.

-- Sturdiness. You're going to have your bird and the cage for a very long time, so you need to make sure the construction is solid. Check seams, welds and places where wires and corners meet. Is everything smooth and sturdy, with nothing for a bird to chip off and chew? Beware chipping or flaking paint, or welds that can be broken off and swallowed.

Used cages can be a real value, if well-made to begin with. Look for wear and rust. And before introducing your bird to any cage that another bird has used, scrub thoroughly, disinfect with a bleach/water solution, rinse completely, and allow to air-dry.

-- Convenience. A cage stand is great, especially with cages designed for smaller parrots. You and your bird are likely to appreciate having the cage off the ground -- in your case, for ease of access; for your bird's, visual perspective. Some stands come with shelves, which are handy for storing newspapers, food and other supplies. Casters are a blessing, too, because you can easily move the cage and stand out from the wall to clean behind it.

Take your time and shop carefully. Many parrot species live for decades, so you'll want the best cage you can manage since you and your bird will be enjoying it for a very long time indeed.

SIDEBAR

Don't forget gear to go

No matter what cage you end up with, you'll also need a carrier for safe transport of your pet parrot. Choose one made of high-impact plastic with vents on the side and a grid door on the front or top. These are marketed for cats and small dogs, but they're just as helpful for transporting birds.

Sturdy carriers are important for reasons beyond trips to the veterinarian. In times of disaster, a carrier allows you to evacuate with your pet safely and keep him contained until conditions improve.

Q&A

Dalmatian gets a 'hyper' rap

Q: I've always liked the looks of Dalmatians, but the ones I meet seem so hyper! Are they good family pets? -- W.D., via e-mail

A: For an active family with time to train and exercise an active breed, a well-bred Dalmatian can be an excellent companion. If the breed's a bad fit for your family -- or if you get a dog from a source that doesn't breed for good health and temperament -- you're in for trouble.

Remember that every breed is perfect for someone, and no breed is perfect for everyone. Even a well-bred Dalmatian is going to be too high-energy for many homes. These dogs were developed to run with carriages for hours, so it's no surprise they're going to be very unhappy without exercise. (On the plus side: They're great companions for runners.) Unhappy high-energy dogs dig, bark, chew and generally drive their owners crazy.

Dalmatians also have a high potential for deafness and other health problems if the pup comes from a source looking to capitalize on the breed's popularity, which rises every time the Dalmatian gets another burst of movie-related publicity. The Dalmatian is indeed a breed to investigate thoroughly before adopting -- but honestly, aren't they all?

For more information, visit the Web site of the Dalmatian Club of America (www.thedca.org).

Hush, birdy

Q: My sister-in-law has an extremely loud pet bird. I don't know what kind he is, but he has a bright yellow-orange body with green wings. She is going to move in with us while she finishes grad school. Ours is a quiet home, and I'm dreading this horrid bird being in the house.

Any ideas? Don't say get rid of the bird. My wife won't do it, and she says it's only for a year. She and her sister are very close, and she's determined to help her. I'm the odd man out. -- P.R., via e-mail.

A: From your description, I'm guessing your sister-in-law has a sun conure. They're beautiful, affectionate and playful, but it's true that they're among the noisiest of all parrot species commonly kept as pets. If they weren't so overwhelmingly beautiful, chances are they wouldn't be popular at all -- that's how loud they can be.

To a certain extent, you're just going to have to live with the din and tell yourself it's just a year. Covering the cage or turning out the lights at night will keep the bird quiet while you're trying to sleep. Your sister-in-law should also be careful that she doesn't reward the noise with either positive (picking up the bird or giving it a treat) or negative (punishing the bird) reinforcement.

(Do you have a pet question? Send it to petconnection@gmail.com.)

THE SCOOP

Sleeping dogs likely dreaming

When your dog is whining and running in his sleep, is he dreaming? Chances are good that he is.

Dogs definitely remember things, so it makes sense to believe they have the ability to dream, just as people do. After all, dreaming is a normal part of organizing and reorganizing memories.

Like humans, dogs have two kinds of sleep. The deeper kind is characterized by rapid eye movements, so it's known as REM sleep. We know humans dream during REM sleep. We also know the whining, heavy breathing, twitching and leg movements we've all seen in our dogs occurs during canine REM sleep. So it's not far-fetched to believe dogs are dreaming, too.

We may never know for sure exactly what they're dreaming of, but any guess that involves food is a good one.

PETS ON THE WEB

Crazy cat images flood the Internet

It's amazing how popular the seemingly endless variations of cat-picture Web sites are. There's Stuffonmycat.com, where people post images of ... well, stuff on their cats, everything from magazines to empty beer cans to fruit salad. Why? Why not?

Once you get bored with that, you can cruise over to Catsinsinks.com, where you can click on countless pictures matching the theme. The site notes that basins are OK, too, just as long as a cat is in it.

My favorite of these sites is Kittenwars.com, a sort of "hot or not" competition for the feline set. Visit the site, and you'll see two cats. Pick the one you think's the cutest, and you'll immediately be told how many people agreed with you and be offered another pair from which to choose. Top winners of all time are listed as well.

None of these sites will do much for your productivity, but they're entertaining and surprisingly addictive ways to kill a little time.

PET Rx

Fat cat? Ask your vet for guidance

Too much food and too little exercise is doing to our pets exactly what it's doing to us -- making them fat. And with cats, just as with as humans, obesity all too often leads to diabetes, joint diseases, heart problems, increased risk of cancer, and other serious health and behavioral issues.

Weight loss is important, but a crash diet for a cat can be deadly. If overweight cats lose weight too quickly, they can develop a serious liver disorder that can be challenging to treat and is occasionally fatal. It's called hepatic lipidosis, or fatty liver disease.

Hepatic lipidosis isn't just a problem with dieting cats, either. It's also a problem with sick cats who cannot or will not eat. And it can rear its fatty head when people switch cat foods and think, "If the cat gets hungry enough, she'll eat." A cat can and will starve herself into this potentially fatal condition.

To be safe, cats should lose weight gradually, no more than 1 percent of their body weight per week. The goal is to drop the excess over a period of five or six months.

The best approach to weight loss in cats is a combination of moderate calorie restriction -- ask your veterinarian for dietary guidance -- and increased exercise. Try throwing a mouse-shaped toy or playing with a fishing pole-type toy -- anything to get your cat up and moving.

PETS BY THE NUMBERS

Dog-care gear popular

Keeping a dog well-groomed is as much about health as appearance. Fortunately, most dog lovers purchase the basic equipment for the care and grooming needs of their pets. What they own (multiple answers allowed):

Brush 92 percent

Nail clipper 69 percent

Comb 44 percent

Toothbrush 28 percent

Electric clippers 19 percent

Source: American Pet Products Manufacturers Association

PET TIP

Figuring out a cat's age

Here's a rough way to figure a cat's age in human terms: Count the first year of a cat's life as being comparable to the time a human reaches the early stages of adulthood -- the age of 15 or so. The second year of a cat's life picks up some of that maturity and takes a cat to the first stages of full adulthood in humans -- a 2-year-old cat is roughly equivalent to a person in his mid-20s.

From there, a "5 equals 1" rule works pretty well. A cat of 3 is still young, comparable to a person of 29. A 6-year-old cat, similar to a 41-year-old person, is middle-aged. And a 12-year-old cat, similar to a 65-year-old person, has earned the right to slow down a little. A cat who lives to be 20 is the feline equivalent of nearly 100 in terms of human lifespan.

Award-winning writer Gina Spadafori has two new books out, which were co-authored with "Good Morning, America" veterinary correspondent Dr. Marty Becker: "Do Cats Always Land on Their Feet?" and "Why Do Dogs Drink From the Toilet?" 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 petconnection@gmail.com. You can also read her frequently updated Web log or view her column archives at www.petconnection.com.

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