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

FIVE EASY BIRDIES

When it comes to parrots, too many people get in over their heads, choosing a pet who's too large, too loud, too expensive and, ultimately, too much to handle.

Parrots are wonderful pets, although they are much more work than many realize. Before you fall in love with a parrot who's not a good fit for you, consider a few species who may fit the bill better.

-- Cockatiels: When properly raised and socialized, these popular pets like to snuggle and be petted. If you've seen only the gray bird with orange patches, you may be surprised at how many cockatiel color and pattern variations are available these days. Some cockatiels learn to talk, but many are better at whistling.

-- Budgies: Because of their small price tag and easy availability, budgerigars (commonly but improperly known as "parakeets") are often treated as throwaway pets -- easily purchased, easily disposed of, easily replaced. This attitude keeps people from valuing these birds for their affectionate personality. Some budgies even become very good talkers, albeit with tiny little voices.

Budgies are commonly found in two varieties: the narrow American and the huskier English. Many budgies can be tamed by gentle, patient handling and can bond closely with their human companions.

-- Lovebirds: When hand-raised and socialized, lovebirds enjoy being handled. They're very affectionate, not overly loud and capable of picking up a few phrases. The peach-faced lovebird is the most common, and this species also comes in many interesting color mutations. Contrary to popular belief, you don't need to keep them in pairs.

-- Poicephalus: These small parrots are an easygoing bunch. Of the species available as pets, the Senegal is probably the most common, a handsome little bird with a gray head, green back and wings, and yellow-orange underside. Poicephalus parrots are known for their small size -- a little bigger than a cockatiel -- and affectionate personalities. They're not the best talkers, but some will pick up a few phrases.

-- Pionus: Not as flashy as other mid-sized parrots, the pionus is often overlooked. But what they lack in bright colors they make up for with winning personalities. Several varieties of pionus are available as pets, all small enough to be easy to keep and handle. Their personalities are considered among the most sedate of all parrots, and they're not excessively loud.

Those are my top five, but there are other "starter birds" to consider. Among them are the Pyrrhura conures (such as the green-cheeked), the Quaker or monk parakeet (where legal), and the lilac-crowned or other smaller Amazons. The tiny little parrotlet deserves consideration, too.

SIDEBAR

A long-term commitment

Parrots aren't like other pets. They're wickedly smart, relatively high-maintenance and exceptionally long-lived.

That last item in particular should give any prospective bird lover pause. Where will you be in 20, 30 or even 70 years? Are you prepared to provide for a pet who may well outlive you?

Some parrots have outlived multiple owners. My "Birds for Dummies" co-author, renowned avian specialist Dr. Brian Speer, had a scarlet macaw as a patient who was well into his 70s when he finally died.

The current owner had a sales receipt from an Oakland, Calif., pet store that dated back to the 1920s! Since the bird had been caught as an adult in the wild, no one knew for sure how old the parrot really was.

Q&A

Fur coat keeps sled dogs warm

Q: I watched part of the Iditarod on TV, and I just wonder how those dogs can cope with the conditions. Is it really possible for a sled dog to stay warm in a snow bank? -- T.W., via e-mail

A: If you had a coat like a sled dog has, you'd be able to sleep in snow banks, too.

"The sled dog's coat is remarkably insulative," says Margaret Bonham, a veteran of nearly two decades of mushing and the author of more than a dozen books, including "Northern Breeds" (Barrons, $20).

"A few of my dogs have such good coats that the snow would stick to the coat and not melt -- meaning that the coat trapped his body heat remarkably well," she says.

The snow itself helps to keep a dog warm, adds Bonham. When a dog sleeps in a snowbank, the snow insulates the dog and keeps the heat trapped in -- like an igloo. Because the dog's coat works so well, the heat is trapped against his body and isn't radiating into the cold.

"I've had dogs who loved to moonbathe outside in very cold weather -- below zero -- even though they had warm houses full of straw to sleep in," says Bonham.

Cat-box tips

Q: My old kitty kept urinating on the floor just outside the box. We knew she had a bad back, but never connected the two. Finally I got her a litter box with low sides. It was a large acrylic picture frame, emptied out and turned upside down.

Because she no longer had to bend her tail (and therefore her spine) to accommodate the high sides, she was much more comfortable doing her thing inside the box.

Would you please pass this on to people with older pets? -- L.F., via e-mail

A: Thanks for the excellent suggestion. In fact, over the years, people have written in with many suggestions for cat boxes, including using old 9-inch square baking pans (perfect for little kittens), blanket storage boxes (lots of room for a big kitty), and even mixing containers used in masonry work.

Another tip: Melinie diLuck, founder of Happy Tails in Sacramento, Calif., a no-kill sanctuary for cats, says that they've had good results with Cat Attract litter for their cats whose bathroom habits leave much to be desired.

"We use that litter exclusively and keep the cat contained for two weeks," she says. "I don't know what is in that litter, but it retrains the cat."

Cat Attract is available at retail outlets. More information is at www.preciouscat.com.

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

PETS ON THE WEB

Preservation is goal of group

Whatever your interest in marine life and products, the Marine Aquarium Council wants you to understand the impact of your decisions on the health of the oceans and the world's threatened coral reefs.

MAC is an international not-for-profit organization dedicated to conserving coral reefs and other marine ecosystems by setting standards and certifying those who collect and trade in ornamental marine life. Their program starts at the point of collection and ends at the point of purchase, from reef to retail.

"Many tropical marine fish in the Philippines and Indonesia are caught using cyanide, a toxin that destroys coral reefs and is also dangerous to the fish themselves," says John Brandt, MAC's North American Director.

"An easy way for pet owners to be environmentally responsible is to purchase MAC-certified marine life, which has been collected, handled and transported to optimize the health of, and minimize stress on, the coral reefs and the fish themselves," he says.

For a list of MAC-certified retailers, importers, exporters and collectors, visit the Web site of the Marine Aquarium Council at www.aquariumcouncil.org. -- Christie Keith

PET BUY

Neatness counts in water bottle

Traditional water bottles for small pets and birds have a small ball at the end of the spout. These can leak, making it difficult to keep cages clean.

The Water Swiggler improves on the concept, with a dispenser made of heavy plastic and a spout that releases water only when the pet presses the stem of the drinking valve.

The units also feature top-loading for quick refills, wide mouths to make cleaning easier and springs for attaching to the cage. In sizes from 8 ounces to 32 ounces, the Water Swiggler's suggested retail ranges from $8.50 to $14.50. More information is at www.waterswiggler.com.

THE SCOOP

More choices in pet food than ever before

Feeding a dog didn't used to be anything you stayed up nights worrying about. They ate what we gave them. They ate what we left behind. They ate what other animals left behind. They killed things to eat, and they ate the remains of what other animals killed. In other words, they got by as best they could with whatever we gave them and whatever they scrounged up.

Unlike cats, who are what are called "obligate carnivores" -- meaning they need meat in their diets -- dogs are carnivores with some wiggle room. They can survive on all kinds of foods, as do many animals who aren't above scavenging.

The this-and-that approach to dog feeding worked well enough for generations, especially when most dogs lived in rural areas, with access to rodents in the barn, rabbits in the fields, or leftovers in the farmer's kitchen or from the butchering of livestock. But as more dogs became urban and suburban companions -- and as leash laws came into play -- living off the land became pretty tough for dogs to accomplish.

From great societal change always comes great business opportunity -- in this case, the pet-food industry.

Commercial pet foods really took off after World War II, when America was starting to put a premium on convenience just as our country's ability to produce food also took off.

Many pet food companies started off as a way to use leftovers from food produced for people, but that's really not the case today. As pets have gained status in our families, pet-food companies have responded. Today you can find hundreds of product lines at all price levels and with all kinds of ingredients, all based on decades of research into what maintains a healthy pet.

BY THE NUMBERS

Treat me right

Image: Cat pic

Caption: We love to give treats to our cats.

Is it any wonder our pets share our tendency to gain weight? The American Pet Products Manufacturers Association reports that in 2004, we gave an average of 3.1 treats per day to our cats. But maybe we're getting a little more conscious of the consequences: In 2002, the average was 3.5. The kind of treats we buy (multiple answers allowed):

Meat-based 75 percent

Nonmeat 22 percent

Vegetarian 4 percent

Other 13 percent

PET Rx

Get the scoop on bird poop

A good way to evaluate the health of a bird is to pay attention to what your pet leaves at the bottom of his cage. Birds produce feces with three components: the stool, which is semisolid and dark in color; the urates, which are a loose, whitish solid; and urine, which is nearly a clear liquid.

Get to know how these wastes look normally, as well as the usual variations. Some foods can change the color of the stools or increase the amount of urine. Once you know what's typical for your bird, you can spot abnormalities that might be an early indication of a serious illness developing. Early detection is essential in birds, so call your veterinarian if you notice changes you can't explain.

(Pet Rx is provided by the Veterinary Information Network (VIN.com), an online service for veterinary professionals. More information can be found at www.veterinarypartner.com.)

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 petconnection@gmail.com. You can also read her frequently updated Web log or view her column archives at www.spadafori.com.

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