If it's true you are what you eat, then many pet birds would look like turtles, on account of all the shells they have to crack to get at the kernels of the seeds we insist on giving them.
And that's too bad, because seeds alone are not enough to keep a bird healthy. If your pet bird's diet consists solely of seeds, chances are good that if he isn't sick now, he will be in time.
The idea that birds should be fed all-seed diets likely has its basis in two facts. First, birds are uniquely adapted to eat seeds and nuts. They are able to effortlessly crack even the hardest shells and extract the tender insides. Second, birds love seeds.
If birds love seeds and are engineered to eat them, doesn't it follow that they should be eating seeds? You might think so, but that's just not the case. You have to remember that the nutritional needs of birds in the wild may well be quite different from those of our own pet birds, living in luxury in our homes. One thing the experts can say for certain about all-seed diets is that they will make most birds sick over time, denying them the nutrients they need for long-term survival and weakening them to the point where other diseases find it easy to take hold. The fact that they can survive at all on such diets is testament to the toughness of birds.
You'd think birds would know what's good for them, wouldn't you? After all, most pet birds are very intelligent. So are you, but I bet that hasn't stopped you from eating things you know aren't good for you just because they taste good. In the case of birds, seeds are the equivalent of a greasy burger. Junk food. And too many pet birds (and people) are junk-food junkies.
The trend in recent years has been toward pelleted diets, and pet birds are healthier than ever before as a result. Pelleted diets are readily available from many reputable manufacturers and can be purchased from any good pet store or from many veterinarians who work with birds.
Pelleted food is a blend of grains, seeds, vegetables, fruits and various protein sources. Manufacturers mix the ingredients and then either bake and crumble them or extrude them, ending up with pellets of a proper size for any given species (large pellets for large birds, small pellets for small birds).
This process produces a food that has a definite and huge overall advantage to the "smorgasbord" way of feeding -- the bird cannot pick out his favorite foods and ignore the rest. Pellets also are convenient for bird owners. These commercially prepared diets are easy to buy, relatively inexpensive (definitely so when you consider the veterinary trips they prevent), and store nicely in a cool, dry place.
Pelleted foods should be the foundation of your bird's diet, but they're not enough. Your bird also needs a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, along with other "people foods" such as pasta, eggs, breads, rice and unsalted nuts in their shells. Skip the guacamole, though, because avocados can be a deadly treat for birds. Excessively fatty foods should be avoided, too. Most pet birds are perch potatoes, prone to obesity.
In addition to rounding out a commercial diet, fruits, nuts and other people food gives your bird something to keep him occupied and entertained. To that end, leave fresh food as "au naturel" as possible. Clean it, of course, but make your bird work some to eat it. Just be sure pellets and fresh water are available at all times.
Do you really need to deny your bird a treat as appreciated as seeds? The phrase "all things in moderation" definitely applies when it comes to seeds. Given in small amounts, seeds are a wonderful way to help teach your bird tricks or reward him for good behavior. But they should be a treat, not a staple, to ensure proper nutrition for your bird.
PETS ON THE WEB
Ferrets are an ever more popular pet, even in places where they are illegal, such as California. (Isn't it time to stop making criminals out of ferret lovers? When will the state figure out that California has bigger problems than contraband weasels?) A good reference site for both new and experienced ferret fans is Ferret Net (www.ferret.net), with basic health and behavior information, and instructions on how to join a ferret e-mail list. Included are links to breeders, shelters, publications and clubs, as well as to home pages celebrating ferret pets. As the ferrets say, "Dook! Dook!" (Translation: "Way cool!")
Flea-control products have gotten so good in recent years that it might be easy to forget one of the best ways to fight fleas doesn't cost anything more than your time, and it uses appliances you likely already have: a washing machine and a vacuum cleaner. Washing pet bedding on a weekly basis along with thoroughly vacuuming areas where pets hang out is a great way to rid your house of any adult fleas, larvae or eggs. An added benefit: Keeping pet areas clean keeps pets cleaner. Just make sure any pet beds you buy are completely washable or have zip-off covers that are.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: What is the largest breed of cat? I understand cats don't range in size very much, but are there any domestic cat breeds that are larger than normal? -- B.C., via the Internet
A: While you'll never see a pet cat as big as a St. Bernard, there are a few breeds that definitely warrant the heavyweight category. Although most healthy cats -- pedigreed and not -- weigh between 8 and 12 pounds, some of the big cat breeds range between 15 and 20 pounds, especially for the males. Now (BEGIN ITAL) that's (END ITAL) a cat who'll keep your lap warm on a winter night!
The biggest domestic cat is thought to be the Siberian, with some males topping 20 pounds. It's a pretty rare breed, however, so if you're looking for maximum cat, you might want to consider the Maine coon or maybe the Norwegian forest, both a good longhaired chunk of cat. Other longhaired cats with an above-average size include the ragdoll, Turkish van and American bobtail. For a lot of cat without the fur, consider the British shorthair, Scottish fold, American shorthair and the chartreux. The large cats are generally fairly easygoing in temperament and more laid-back than many other breeds.
Q: Have you any tips on taking pet pictures? All our dog's pictures have him looking like a red-eyed devil. -- U.D., via the Internet
A: I can proudly say that after 20 years of trying (and heaven knows how many rolls of film), I now take a pretty decent pet picture. Here are a few tips that might help you:
-- Head outdoors. Natural light (early morning is best) avoids the dreaded red-eye shot, where the flash makes your beautiful pet come out as a monster. Taking pictures outside gives your new pet a more natural, healthy look.
-- Get down and get close. If you want a good pet picture, you're going to have to go where your pet is -- on the ground. Shoot from below your pet's eye level and zoom in as closely as you can for good detail. If getting down isn't something your back will tolerate, bring the pet up. Have someone hold him, which will have the added benefit of keeping him still, or put him on an elevated surface, such as an outdoor table.
-- Watch your backgrounds. I have a wonderful picture of my dear old dog Lance, gone more than a decade now. He's freshly groomed. He's standing perfectly. His ears are up, his mouth smiling, his eyes bright. And he has a telephone pole growing out of his back. Be sure you have an uncluttered background, so your pet can shine.
-- Be creative. If you want your pet to kiss your children, do as the pros do: Put a little butter on your children and let the pet kiss it off. Another professional's trick: Just before taking the picture, rattle keys, squish a squeaky toy or throw something in the air. Your pet will come to attention, splendidly.
Gina Spadafori is the award-winning author of "Dogs for Dummies" and "Cats for Dummies," and is affiliated with 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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