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

Pick a Parrot Toy

Rotate a variety of toys for your bird -- and be prepared to replace them often

By Kim Campbell Thornton

Andrews McMeel Syndication

Parrots are incredibly smart, and for anyone who doubts this, we point to the late Alex, Dr. Irene Pepperberg's well-known African grey, who showed his intelligence by matching words to objects. Parrots are anything but "bird brains."

And yet, we too often see these brilliant beings kept as little more than decorative objects, prized for their plumage and locked in cages that are too small, no matter how large. Is it any wonder so many pet birds die young or rip out their own feathers in frustration?

Toys are essential to maintaining the physical and mental well-being of parrots large and small. Playthings help keep pet birds fit while fighting the boredom that can contribute to behavioral problems, such as feather-picking.

Although you can buy toys by major manufacturers from the big chain stores, it's also nice to choose from the variety of playthings lovingly made by a cottage industry of bird lovers and available from independent bird shops, through catalogs and on the internet.

Some basic rules apply when shopping for toys to ensure they are suitable and safe for your bird. Look for the following when choosing bird toys:

-- Materials: Toys are subject to your bird's healthy urge to destroy, which means safe components are a must. Wood, rawhide, plastic or stainless steel chain, rope, cloth and hard plastic are among the more popular materials that make up safe toys. Choose toys that break down into pieces that can't be swallowed. An exception: Toys made to hold food items, such as dried corncobs or fruit chunks. With these, eating is a large part of the fun.

-- Construction: Challenging toys, the best choice for busy birds, feature pieces combined in ways that make it hard for the birds to pull the whole product apart -- but not too hard. Indestructible toys are not appropriate for most birds, because the time and energy used to rip apart the gadget is part of the reason toys fill such a need.

-- Size: Little toys for little birds, big toys for big birds. A big bird can catch and lose a toe in a toy made for a smaller bird, and small birds can get their heads trapped in toys made for their larger relatives.

Some birds are apprehensive of new toys. If yours is one of them, set the toy outside the cage (but within eye range) for a day or two, and then put it on the floor of the cage for another day or two. Once your bird starts to play with the toy, you can go ahead and attach it to the cage.

Don't overwhelm your pet with toys. Instead, keep two or three in the cage, and rotate new ones in regularly.

Shopping for bird toys can be fun, but the costs do add up, especially if you have one of those gleefully destructive parrots. With some creativity, you can make your money go further by complementing store-bought bird toys with alternatives.

The cardboard cores of toilet paper and paper towel rolls are perfect for shredding, especially for smaller birds. Other cheapies include ballpoint pens with the ink tube removed, pingpong balls, old plastic measuring cups and spoons, and plastic bottle tops. Toothbrushes are another bargain toy -- sturdy and colorful. The hard plastic keys on a ring sold for human babies are also a budget-wise buy that birds love. (Wash in hot soap and water, rinse well and air dry before offering such items to your bird.) And magazines are great for shredding.

Keep your eyes and mind open for playthings your bird can enjoy. You may be surprised by the possibilities!

Q&A

Preparation is key

when flying with pets

Q: After the recent case of Muji, a cat who escaped from her owner at a TSA checkpoint in a New York City airport and was missing for 11 days, could you let readers know about the risk of losing a pet in the airport? I discovered this the hard way myself with a cat who hates to be held. People may not realize that if they take a pet in a carry-on bag, they’ll have to take the pet out of the carrier and hold her while the carrier goes through screening. Pets should wear a harness and leash the entire time to prevent or reduce the risk of escape.

A: You're absolutely right. I've flown with a dog in the cabin several times with no problems whatsoever, but any pet can become anxious or nervous in that situation, and a cat in full flight-or-fight mode can create a dangerous scene. That's why your suggestion is important: Make sure you have a firm grasp of harness and leash before removing the animal from the carrier at the airport screening station.

I’d also like to address one myth about flying with pets that just won't go away: the assumption that pets need to be routinely tranquilized for flights. Not only is this not true, it's also dangerous. Tranquilizing limits the ability of their bodies to function normally, and they need all that ability to cope with the stress of flight.

The default mode for pet air travel should be no tranquilizers, although there are exceptions, so a preflight talk with the veterinarian is a must. (You'll need to take your pet to the veterinarian for a preflight health certificate anyway.)

With all precautions in place, air travel with pets should go smoothly -- and it usually does. -- Kim Campbell Thornton

Do you have a pet question? Send it to askpetconnection@gmail.com or visit Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker.

THE BUZZ

Moving with a cat?

Limit his options

If you’ve ever moved from one home to another, you know stressful it can be -- for you and your animals! Cats can be especially nervous when you move into a new house because they are highly territorial.

The best way to help your cat relax is to confine him before and after moving day in a "safe room" outfitted with food, water, a litter box, a scratching post, a bed and toys. Put a “do not disturb” sign on the door.

Confining your cat not only reduces his stress, but also prevents him from slipping out, which is a danger at both the old home and the new. Your cat could easily become scared, take off and get lost.

Your cat should be confined in his safe room the day before packing begins, moved to his new home in a carrier, and then confined again in his new safe room until the moving is over, the furniture arranged and most of the dust settled.

After you arrive at your new home, don't pull your cat out of his carrier. Instead, put the carrier in his safe room, open the carrier door, and let him come out into the room when he wants to. After he's a little calmer, you can coax him out with some fresh food or treats if you want. But don't rush him and don't drag him out, or you may be bitten or scratched. Trying to force a scared and stressed-out cat to do anything he doesn't want to do is hazardous to your health.

When you have the rest of the house settled, open the door to the safe room and let your cat explore his new home, on his terms. You can find more tips on moving with cats at fearfreehappyhomes.com. -- Dr. Marty Becker and Mikkel Becker

ABOUT PET CONNECTION

Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet care experts headed by “The Dr. Oz Show” veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker, founder of the Fear Free organization and author of many best-selling pet care books, and award-winning journalist Kim Campbell Thornton. Joining them is behavior consultant and lead animal trainer for Fear Free Pets Mikkel Becker. Dr. Becker can be found at Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker or on Twitter at DrMartyBecker. Kim Campbell Thornton is at Facebook.com/KimCampbellThornton and on Twitter at kkcthornton. Mikkel Becker is at Facebook.com/MikkelBecker and on Twitter at MikkelBecker.