If there's one parrot problem that has both bird owners and veterinarians alike pulling out their own hair in frustration, it would have to be feather-picking, a bird's willful destruction of his own plumage.
The first thing you need to know about this problem: Feather-picking is a symptom of something else that's wrong with your bird. The only hope you have of "curing" feather-picking is finding out and treating what's behind the behavior.
Feather-picking relates to a staggering variety of problems, and any one or any combination of the following can be at the bottom of your bird's plucking:
-- Health problems. Medical conditions behind feather-picking include allergies, parasitic infections, bacterial infections, abnormal growths (cysts) in the feather follicle, internal health problems, vitamin deficiencies and hormone-associated problems. And that's the short list.
-- Low humidity. Many birds come from extremely humid environments, and our houses can't hope to duplicate the conditions of a rain forest (we'd be miserable). The dry air of most houses can be a factor in feather-picking and can also set the stage for some secondary medical problems.
-- Boredom and pent-up energy. Birds are active and intelligent, and they don't handle well the strain of being forced to sit around in a cage all day. Without things to play with and stuff to destroy, and without being able to get out of the cage and exercise, birds may direct all their energy toward self-mutilation.
-- Psychological problems. Although birds need to have their wings trimmed for safety, a bad wing trim -- too short, with no allowance for an "easy landing" -- can upset a bird so badly that he starts tearing at himself. Obsessive-compulsive disorders can also trigger feather-picking.
-- Attention-seeking. You love how your bird looks. He starts tugging at feathers and you freak, imagining your beautiful bird with the broiler-chicken look. Every time he touches his feathers -- even for normal preening behavior -- you rush over. See how this works? "Aha!" thinks your bird. "All I have to do to get attention is pull a feather!"
What can be done with the feather-picker? First, forget the over-the-counter and home remedy "cures." They don't work, and some might even put your bird at risk.
See a veterinarian with experience in caring for birds as soon as the problem appears. Medical problems need to be addressed before looking at any behavioral strategies. Make sooner, rather than later, your emphasis. In general, the longer your bird has been picking, the greater the probability of an unresolvable pattern of behavior being set. Don't wait a few years before addressing a picking problem. When it starts, you need to start looking for a solution.
After your bird receives a clean bill of physical health, start making environmental adjustments to see whether you can ward off the picking. Prepare for the project to be a long one! Start a diary to record your changes and any effects they may have on your bird's behavior.
Start shaking things up, in small increments. A daily misting with a spray bottle and the addition of a room humidifier may be part of the solution. Also consider different toys, a smaller or larger cage, a new cage location, keeping a radio playing during the day, covering the cage to ensure your bird 12 solid hours of sleep, and more interaction and play with you as possibilities in the war against feather-picking.
Sadly, the definitive answer for feather-picking doesn't exist. The best you can do is be patient, work with an avian veterinarian, and be prepared to love your bird no matter what he looks like. In some cases, feather-picking is for life. In others, the problem is only occasional. Yes, some birds do become full-feathered again, but not every pet bird is bound for complete redress in the plumage department.
PETS ON THE WEB
Exercise and training are an important part of a high-quality life for your dog, and the two pair nicely in the world of dog sports. No matter the size or breed of your dog, you can find a sport you both will enjoy. Your dog will be happier and healthier, and the bond between you stronger for the time you spend together as a team. A good place to start researching dog sports is www.k9sports.com. The Web site has information on all manner of competition, and it has links to the best pages on not only sports, but also on teams and clubs. Are you and your dog couch potatoes? This site may inspire a change!
Indoor cats can be trained to enjoy an outdoor outing on harness and leash. Choose a harness designed for cats, not for dogs, in a figure-eight design. As collars do, harnesses come in many colors, with lightweight leashes to match.
Don't expect your cat to heel like a dog, however. Walking a cat really consists of encouraging your pet to explore, with you following. Never leave your cat tethered and unattended, which leaves him vulnerable to attack or to a terrifying time of hanging suspended from his harness should he try to get over a fence.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: What is the right age to take home a puppy? We are looking at a litter the breeder says will be weaned and ready to go at 4 weeks, which seems young to us. -- A.G., via e-mail
A: It isn't 4 weeks, that's for sure. Seven weeks is the youngest a puppy should leave his littermates. Weaning shouldn't be the trigger for placing the puppies, and the seller who thinks so is ill-informed.
Puppies pick up some very important lessons from their mom and their littermates in their fourth, fifth and sixth weeks of life, learning the complex social language that will not only help him get along with other dogs later, but will also help you to train your new pup.
Some breeders, especially those with small breeds, hold onto their puppies beyond seven weeks, primarily because they're so delicate. That's fine, as long as you've got a breeder who understands the importance of socializing -- safely introducing puppies to new sights, new sounds, and to people of all ages and both genders.
If you cannot convince the seller to keep the puppies together for an extra two weeks, my suggestion is to find another breeder, one well-versed in the developmental stages of dogs. Or go to a good shelter, where young puppies are placed with others of their age and socialized by savvy volunteers.
You want to get your relationship with your puppy started right, and that "right start" happens before you ever bring your new dog home. Choosing the right source for your pup is just as important as choosing the right breed or mix.
Q: One of the vets at the hospital we take our cats to has letters after his name that we don't understand. Most have DVM after their names, which we know to be Doctor of Veterinary Medicine. He has MRCVS after his. What does that mean? -- D.M., via e-mail
A: MRCVS stands for Member of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons and indicates a veterinarian who was accredited -- and probably trained -- in the United Kingdom.
Another interesting set of letters you see from time to time in place of the DVM is VMD. VMD stands for the Latin words for Veterinary Medical Doctor, and is a degree awarded by the University of Pennsylvania's veterinary college. When you see VMD after a veterinarian's name, you know without asking that the person is a University of Pennsylvania grad.
MRCVS, DVM and VMD are the basic certifications for veterinarians, but when you get into specialties, you get a whole new round of alphabet soup. Specialists can either stay in school longer to pick up the extra skills and information they need, or they can learn while in practice, and the titles they are awarded reflect the different paths they take.
Veterinarians who stayed in school longer will be certified as specialists by a governing board such as the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine and will use the phrase "Dipl., ACVIM" after the DVM, often putting the name of their specialty -- such as "cardiology" -- in parentheses at the very end. ("Dipl." is short for "Diplomate.)
Veterinarians in practice can test for specialty certification with the American Board of Veterinary Practitioners, which offers certification in feline and avian practice, among others. ABVP specialists use the phrase "Dipl., ABVP" after their DVMs, with their area of specialty in parentheses at the end as well, such as "Avian Practice."
The whole credential situation got a little crazy at the end of writing my upcoming book, "Birds for Dummies." My co-author, Dr. Brian Speer, received word that he had been accredited as an avian specialist in Europe, making him one of only a handful of veterinarians certified as avian specialists both in the United States and in Europe. This was a triumph for Brian, but a challenge for the folks trying to fit all his letters on the book cover. He is now Brian L. Speer, DVM, Dipl. ABVP (Avian Practice), ECAMS. The last stands for European College of Avian Medicine and Surgery. Whew!
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 send e-mail to WriteToGina(at)YourPetPlace.com.
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