When Dr. Brian Speer gave up his small-animal practice in 1985 to focus solely on birds, his wife questioned his sanity.
"At the time, only 3 percent of my practice income was based on birds," said the Oakley, Calif., veterinarian. "But I wasn't happy with general practice. Working on birds was challenging. It was fascinating new ground."
Fortunately for Speer and his family -- which now includes three ostriches, two emus, 11 pairs of macaws and a variety of barnyard fowl -- the risk paid off. Speer, one of relatively few full-time avian veterinarians, has a large and loyal clientele, and an influential post as the incoming president of the Association of Avian Veterinarians (AAV). He has lectured all over the world, written countless articles and has co-authored one definitive book, "The Large Macaws" (Raintree Publications).
Which is not to say that all his clients were happy with his decision. Speer likes to tell the story of the people who taped chicken feathers onto their dog as a joke, hoping he'd back off from his "birds-only" rule. If they'd known how just how long Speer has been drawn to birds, they might not have bothered.
"When I was working for an equine veterinarian, before I went to veterinary school, I would get in trouble because I was supposed to be holding the horse and I was looking at the peacocks," he said. "I ended up being driven to being good at one thing -- and that's feathers."
His own interest aside, Speer says it's bird lovers who really made his decision possible, and have pushed veterinary medicine to do more for avian pets. It's a big change in attitude: The AAV itself is only two decades old, and Speer says that in many ways avian medicine is still only where canine medicine was in the '40s. The organization's growth to 3,000 veterinarian members, of which less than 5 percent practice avian medicine full-time, reflects pet-owner demand to improve the situation.
"People are more appreciative of the animals themselves than they were even 10 years ago," he said, adding that today, birds are more likely to be members of the family, not just decorative elements.
"The consumer is less and less happy with 'I don't know what to do -- try this,' from a veterinarian, and because of that, more and more veterinarians are familiar now with avian medicine," said Speer, who singles out preventive care and behavior as two areas of increased knowledge that will make a big difference in the lives of birds and those who love them in the years to come.
When it comes to birds, the years can indeed be many. Some parrots are capable of achieving life spans that match our own, a prospect that gives Speer no end of pleasure, as does further advances in the care of those birds.
"I'm really looking forward to seeing those birds in the next 10 or 20 years," he said.
As our appreciation and understanding of these wonderful companions grows, so does the likelihood that Speer will get his wish.
PETS ON THE WEB
Elizabeth Cusulas' Dog Carols Web site (www.ddc.com/waggers/carols.html) page remains one of my favorites. Even though when I last checked she had yet to put up her 1998 carols, the selections from the last two years are still, er, howlers. A self-described "dog mama" to four cocker spaniels, Cusulas has rewritten holiday song lyrics to be more dog-focused. How can you miss with songs such as "Hark! The Joyous Doggies Call," "O Puppy Tree" and "The Twelve Days of Puppy"?
If you can't remember how the songs go, sound files are there to help you or provide the instrumental background to your best singing effort. As Cusulas writes on the opening page: Point your muzzles to the sky and sing along!
Don't forget those who help animals in this season of giving. It doesn't take much to help your local shelter, now or at any time of year. Gifts of time, services or new or used goods are always welcome and can make a real difference in the lives of animals who aren't as lucky and loved as yours are. Call your shelter and find out what's on its "wish list." Even a gift of litter or pet food can help, as can the donation of old towels and newspapers.
Your local shelter can even make your holiday gift-giving easier: What true animal lover wouldn't warm to a gift membership or donation to help animals?
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: My teen-age children and I have a medium-sized, mixed-breed female dog. I am not exactly sure what breeds she is because she was a dog my children's father had and couldn't keep. She is basically a good dog.
I have had a dog as a pet most of my life, but not a female who was not spayed. I am not sure how to tell if she comes in heat. What I should do? She is outside when nobody is home, but our yard is completely fenced in. Any help you can give me would greatly appreciated. -- C.A., via the Internet
A: My friend Penny Worel, who has as much animal-savvy as anyone I've ever known, helps me out with my sometimes overwhelming daily dose of e-mail. Her answer cannot be improved on, and I share it with her permission:
"Run, don't walk to the nearest vet and have her spayed. She will be happier and healthier, and you will be saving yourself a million headaches. Females usually come into heat every six months. The heat lasts approximately 21 days. It begins with a swelling of the vulva, and then she will begin to have a bloody discharge. Females will try every means possible to find a mate at this time. In addition, males from a 10-mile radius will converge on your house, and no fence ever built will keep out the more aggressive suitors.
"The only safe method of keeping her from being bred is to put her in a crate inside your house. She can only go outside on a leash, and you should be prepared for a few bold suitors to follow wherever you go."
Penny puts it more kindly than I would. Here's the bottom line: Having an unspayed dog is a royal pain in the fanny. You can also add the annoyance factor to the possibility of bringing unwanted puppies into the world and the increased risk of cancer to your dog for every day you delay. Well, what are you waiting for?
If cost is an issue, call the folks at your local humane society. If they don't have their own program, they can direct you to some reduced-cost alternatives in your community.
Q: I read your article on the use of cat collars, and I do agree to some extent. I would just like to state the ultimate responsibility for our pet's safety is in our own hands.
I believe if a cat-owner truly cares for the safety of her animal, it will be not let outside. If so, it is under constant supervision. By doing so, one will not "lose" her lifelong pet, and it will decrease the amount of strays being turned into local humane societies.
Some may say my thinking is like putting my animals in so-called "prison," but when our pets are given the love and attention they need, this is hardly the case. -- C.L., via the Internet
A: Yes, cats can have wonderful lives indoors, when their owners take care to ensure they have environmental stimulation from toys, cat trees, safe plants and sunshine, as well as lots of interactive play and attention.
The idea of indoor-only cats will never catch on entirely, though. Some people don't like dealing with litter boxes (and prefer not to think about in whose garden their cats are digging) and some insist that a short, "free" life is better than a long one indoors. Behavior problems such as scratching and inappropriate elimination are also more common (just more obvious, really) with indoor cats.
The topic will always be a hot one, just as surely as outdoor cats will always be at risk. Anything that reduces that risk is worth it, which is why collars and tags are so important. Thanks for writing.
Gina Spadafori is the award-winning author of "Dogs for Dummies" and "Cats for Dummies," and is the editorial director of the Veterinary Information Network Inc., an international online service for veterinary professionals. Write to her in care of this newspaper, or e-mail to Write2Gina(at)aol.com.
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