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

GET BEAKY

Universal Press Syndicate

The beak of a bird is a tool with many features. It's a weapon that can put a dent in any enemy or damage the relationship with a friend. It can be a delicate tool for feeding a newly hatched chick or for the precise adjustment of feathers while grooming. With their beaks, birds can pick a lock, crush a walnut or peel the skin off a grape.

Beak shapes and sizes vary widely, depending mostly on the kind of food a certain species eats. The short, straight bill of canaries and other finches is ideal for plucking out seeds, grubs and other edibles. Birds of the parrot family -- including budgies, cockatiels and the larger parrots such as macaws -- are known as "hookbills," because of the shape and function of their beaks.

At its most basic, the beak on our pet parrots consists of two hard structures, the upper and lower mandibles, along with an amazingly agile and strong tongue.

The beaks of most parrots are remarkably well-designed for one of their most important tasks: cracking, crushing, prying or otherwise destroying the protective coatings around many of the foods they like to eat. Like everything else on a creature designed for flight, the beak is surprisingly lightweight considering its strength -- a hard shell of constantly growing material (similar to that found on antlers) placed over a hollow bony structure. (If a beak were made of solid bone, its weight would probably force a bird to spend his life on the ground, and on his nose.)

Lightweight it may be, but the hookbill's beak is also very strong. Although a person would need a hammer or nutcracker to get through hard shells to the nut meat, a bird needs only his beak -- and perhaps a foot to hold the nut in place. A parrot will rotate the seed to find the seam with his tongue, apply pressure to crack it at this weak spot, and then rotate it again to slide the meat free -- all in a few seconds' time.

A parrot has such strength in his beak that owners are often surprised to see even the bars of a metal cage fall victim. Birds have been known to pick off the welds holding bars together -- and sometimes get lead or zinc poisoning as a result -- or even snap the bars themselves. That's why a cheap cage with shoddy construction will turn out to be no bargain when faced with the destructive abilities of a bird.

Contrary to advice that still can be found in books or on the Internet, beak trims should not be a part of routine health maintenance for birds. Although beaks constantly grow at a rate of 1 to 3 inches per year, depending on the species, the beak of a healthy bird will remain at a healthy length with normal chewing activities.

Overgrowth of the beak is frequently a sign of illness, such as liver disease or malnutrition. Any bird whose beak seems to be too long needs to see a veterinarian expert in avian medicine to determine the cause of the problem and treat it accordingly.

Using those beaks often is essential to both the physical and emotional well-being of birds. Even finches and canaries will often have better beak health if you provide cuttlebone or another hard material for them to work with their beaks while in their cage. As a caring bird-keeper, be sure you're doing more for your bird's beak than just admiring its amazing form and function. Provide your pet bird with lots of things to chew on, an unending variety of toys and perches meant to be gleefully destroyed.

Q&A

Anesthesia safer even for old pets

Q: We have a cockapoo with bad breath and, the veterinarian says, rotting teeth and gums. She wants us to put our girl under and remove some teeth and clean the rest. We are worried about the risks of anesthesia at her age, 12. It seems it would be better to take our chances with bad teeth. Cheaper, too. What do you think? -- W.R., via e-mail

A: Would you like to chew with rotting teeth and infected gums? Bet not. It's painful! Not to mention that poor dental health and the shower of bacteria from infections in the mouth deteriorate overall health and can shorten your pet's life span.

In short: Take your vet's advice.

It's true that no anesthetic procedure is without risk. But in the hands of a good veterinarian, anesthesia has become a routine and safe procedure -- with risks so low that you should not be dissuaded from pursuing necessary preventive or other surgical procedures for all pets, even older ones.

Follow your veterinarian's advice on minimizing risks. That may include a complete medical history, physical examination and a few basic tests beforehand, including a laboratory evaluation of blood and urine, and possibly a chest X-ray. Although these tests admittedly add to the cost of a procedure, they enable your veterinarian to fully understand the health status of your pet before anesthetizing her.

During the procedure, placement of an IV catheter and administration of fluids will further add to the safety of the procedure. (We find it interesting that a human anesthesiologist would be sued for malpractice if safety procedures weren't in place, but veterinarians who try to practice good anesthesia protocols are often accused of "padding the bill.")

Be sure to follow your veterinarian's instructions before and after any procedure -- your pet's life may depend on it. If no food is specified, make sure that you deliver your pet with an empty stomach (and 'fess up if you can't so the procedure can be rescheduled if necessary). During anesthesia, the contents of a full stomach can be regurgitated with the unfortunate potential complication of being inhaled into the lungs. In general, you should completely withhold food the night before, but continue to allow free access to water until the morning of the procedure. -- Dr. Marty Becker and Gina Spadafori

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

ABOUT PET CONNECTION

Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by "Good Morning America" veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and award-winning journalist Gina Spadafori. The two are also the authors of several best-selling pet-care books.

On PetConnection.com there's more information on pets and their care, reviews of products, books and "dog cars," and a weekly drawing for pet-care prizes. Contact Pet Connection in care of this newspaper by sending e-mail to petconnection@gmail.com or visiting PetConnection.com.

PET BUZZ

Pet popularity still growing

-- More Americans own pets than ever before, and they're spending more money to keep them healthy, according to a survey by the American Veterinary Medical Association. The number of U.S. households with pets climbed 7.6 million, to 59.5 percent of all homes, up from 58.3 percent in 2001. By comparison, the U.S. Census Bureau says about 35 percent of U.S. households have children. Expenditures on veterinary care also went up, in part, perhaps, because nearly half (48.7 percent) of people considered their pets to be part of the family.

-- Only one person -- a Wisconsin girl who was put into an intentional coma in 2005 -- has ever been known to have survived a rabies infection, reports MSNBC.com.

-- The toe pads of tree frogs and crickets have inspired a new super-sticky -- yet reusable -- adhesive, according to an article in National Geographic magazine. By capturing the physics of how tree frogs and crickets grip, release and grip again, scientists used microchannels partially filled with fluids to increase the surface adhesion of the elastic material by 30 times. The new material might have varied uses -- from keeping a baseball player's glove on to sticking price tags on supermarket goods or even helping wall-climbing robots. -- Dr. Marty Becker

PET TIP

Pumpkin offers hairball help

Dealing with hairballs -- fur ingested as a cat grooms himself, then vomited back up in clumps -- is a normal part of living with a cat. If the problem is severe, however, your veterinarian may suggest the use of a mild laxative preparation or an increase of fiber in the diet to help the hairballs pass through your cat's system. Frequent brushing may also help, especially with longhaired cats.

Canned or fresh pureed pumpkin -- not pumpkin pie filling -- is a good way to increase the fiber in your cat's diet. Many cats enjoy a teaspoon of pumpkin daily if it's mixed with something yummy, such as canned food or the water from a can of tuna or clams.

Don't let your cat become a laxative junkie, however, as daily use may tie up and decrease the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins. Hairball remedies should not be used more than twice weekly except on the advice of your veterinarian. -- Dr. Marty Becker

THE SCOOP

The purr remains the most feline of mysteries

After thousands of years of sharing our lives with cats, isn't it amazing that we are still not sure exactly how they purr?

A vibration, sure. But where? The rattling of skin folds, say some, while others argue that the sound is the movement of air through swollen blood vessels. And why is our cat the only one of his family to manage this lovely sound? Tigers, for example, can rumble and roar, but only the domestic cat can keep the motor running on both inhale and exhale.

When I think of purring, though, I don't think of science. Instead, I remember a day when a little cat saved his own life with the power of his purr.

A friend and I had gone to the shelter to search for an elderly neighbor's lost calico and found ourselves sadly pondering a cage bank full of homeless cats.

And then we heard the purr. It came from a leggy young tabby with a battered look about him. He revved up his motor as we approached, and in seconds we were both smitten with the half-grown kitten. Once out of the cage, he was as charming as his purr suggested, bumping my friend's chin with his head and settling into her arms as if he belonged there. Just that quickly, the purring tabby earned himself a new home.

The neighbor's missing calico wandered home the next day, thinner than when she left but otherwise unharmed. And the ratty little tabby with the big purr grew into a handsome and loving companion, which he likely would never have had the chance to become were it not for his purr.

The purr is the essence of all that is wonderful about cats. And although I am no scientist, I have my own theory of where such a beautiful sound originates. I have no doubt that it comes straight from the heart. -- Gina Spadafori

PETS BY THE NUMBERS

Better care means older pets

A recent study reveals that today's pets are living longer. Services and products for older pets -- everything from therapeutic beds to diapers for incontinence -- are also on the rise, as people choose to make old age more comfortable for their pets. For cats, the shift to a protected indoor lifestyle has also no doubt contributed. From the study:

Dogs older than 6 (2007) 44 percent

Dogs older than 6 (1987) 32 percent

Cats older than 6 (2007) 44 percent

Cats older than 6 (1987) 28 percent

Source: American Veterinary Medical Association

ON GOOD BEHAVIOR

Teach puppies to skip leaves

Stop your puppy from picking up a leaf-chewing habit. The habit may seem harmless, and ignoring it may seem like that lovely path of least resistance. But changing your pup's behavior may save his life.

Many plants are poisonous to pets. If your puppy learns to enjoy chewing on leaves, he will be at risk for chewing a leaf that might be toxic. Doing that might mean a veterinary emergency visit or worse.

If your puppy begins to grab a leaf, raise your voice, drop your tone and say, "Ah, ah, ah!" Praise your puppy for looking at you. Then squat down quickly and call your puppy to you for more loving or toss a toy for a reward.

(Animal behavior experts Susan and Dr. Rolan Tripp are the authors of "On Good Behavior." For more information, visit their Web site at AnimalBehavior.net.)

Pet Connection is produced by a team of team of pet-care experts headed by "Good Morning America" veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and award-winning journalist Gina Spadafori. The two are also the authors of several best-selling pet-care books. Contact Pet Connection in care of this newspaper, by sending e-mail to petconnection@gmail.com or by visiting PetConnection.com.

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