We've come a long way as a society when it comes to recognizing the bond between us and our animal companions. And so, too, in recognizing the grief that accompanies the loss of a pet.
Pet-loss hot lines and support groups are numerous, and it's rare that anyone losing a dog or cat will be told by anyone that it was "just a dog" or "just a cat" and to get over it, already. Some people might still think that way, of course, but a lot more of them know enough to keep their opinions to themselves.
Unless you've lost a pet that isn't seen as quite so "important" by many people - a bird, say, or a rabbit, or an iguana.
I found this out firsthand when my little Senegal parrot, Patrick, died suddenly. Perhaps because I've been writing about pets for so long -- and they are such an important part of my life -- it never occurred to me to belittle anyone's grief over the loss of a pet, even one I might not choose for myself. Sadly, that's not the case with everyone.
Patrick was a joy to me, an affectionate and entertaining companion who kept me company as I wrote by day and watched TV or read with me by night. (OK, so I read; he chewed the pages.) The dogs spend their days on the beds behind my desk, and Patrick spent his on top of the lateral file cabinet at my side, playing quietly, eating nosily and always ready for a head scritch or cuddle.
He came to me with a full load of health problems, self-mutilation most obvious among them. I was his fourth or fifth owner in only three years of life, and he was lucky to have made it even that far. His last owner, frustrated with his health problems and his appearance, had taken him to be put down, but my friend Carla, the veterinarian faced with the task, chose instead to find him a home -- mine.
Patrick made remarkable progress, and after a year looked more like a parrot than a plucked chicken. I never cared about his looks. I saw in him what Carla did when she first met him -- a charming little guy with lots of love to give. He taught me so much, and he made me a true believer: Because of him, I'll never be long without a parrot again.
After he was gone, I realized that even though my friends and family were supportive, some other people I mentioned the loss to thought I was a kook for being upset. I heard plenty of the things I thought people knew better than to say, such as: "Just get another. What's the big deal?" and "Was he valuable?" A couple of people even started into the old Monty Python "Dead Parrot" skit.
Yes, it's funny, but tell me another time, please. And yes, he was "valuable" to me.
I've been writing about pets for nearly two decades, and I've seen so many small cruelties that these thoughtless comments were little more than annoying blips on my radar screen. I considered each slight a chance to educate, gently but firmly. I doubt that anyone who teased me about the loss of my parrot will be doing the same to anyone else.
A bit of kindness and understanding is all that's required, really. And thinking that perhaps there's more of it in the world because of Patrick's death makes looking at his empty cage almost bearable.
PETS ON THE WEB
If the only chicken you ever see is the neatly packaged remains of one in your grocer's meat case, you may be astonished to know that chickens and other poultry can be entertaining and affectionate pets for people who live where they can keep them. And some of these birds are quite beautiful, besides. Oklahoma State University has pulled together information on dozens of domestic birds on its Poultry Breeds Web site (http://www.ansi.okstate.edu/poultry), featuring not only chickens, but also turkeys, geese and ducks. While the focus is on the usefulness of the birds in providing food (one way or the other), the site does mention which birds are mostly "ornamental" -- i.e., kept as pets.
Your dog shouldn't be given unsupervised access to tennis balls, no matter how much he likes them. Tennis balls aren't designed to stand up to chewing, and the pieces can easily be swallowed. Even worse, some dogs have managed to compress the balls and then get them lodged in the back of their mouth, a dangerous situation indeed! Hard rubber balls or Kong toys are better for chewing.
For fetch, though, tennis balls are fine. A couple of manufacturers have developed devices to help you avoid picking up a drool-covered tennis ball. These flingers take their inspiration from the game of jai alai and can even help you throw farther. Look for them in pet-supply stores, catalogs and Web sites.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: When my boyfriend and I broke up, he took our Moluccan cockatoo with him. I wasn't very happy about that, but it was his bird before we got together so there wasn't much I could do. I want a bird of my own. But we had a problem with the neighbors (we live in an apartment) because of the noise that Peaches made. Any suggestions for a quieter parrot? -- S.D., via e-mail
A: Parrots are most vocal at dawn and dusk, a pattern of behavior that goes back to the wild, when flock members would reconnect with each other first thing in the morning and last thing before dark. It's a social behavior your bird still needs today, even if the only flock he's reaching out to is you.
While occasional vocalization -- OK, screaming -- is natural, some species are a lot noisier than others and are probably not well-suited to life in an apartment. Primary among these is the sun conure, a drop-dead gorgeous bird with a real clown streak. But, oh, what a loudmouth! I once visited a bird trainer who had a dozens of the most beautiful birds in his care (macaws, cockatoos, eclectus and more). His sun conures made up a small percentage of the total population but a majority of the noise.
That said, so many parrots are loud that it's actually easier to steer you to the quiet ones than to list the noisy ones. While conures of the aratinga genus (such as the sun and jenday) are pretty loud, those in the pyrrhura genus (such as the maroon-bellied, green-cheeked and black-capped) are generally smaller, mellower and quieter. The pionus parrot is another easygoing bird, as is the Senegal.
Finally, don't overlook budgies and cockatiels. These smaller charmers are popular for a reason. They're great pets, at a reasonable price.
Improper training can turn a well-mannered bird into a spoiled screamer, and that's especially true with the umbrella and Moluccan cockatoos, who absolutely hate being apart from their people. Before you buy any bird, be sure to read up on species and on bird behavior. There are many great books, videos, magazines and Web sites to choose from. A good place to start is "The Pet Bird Report" magazine. You can find copies in many reputable bird shops, or call (510) 523-5303 to buy a sample issue. Subscriptions are $24 for six issues by bulk mail, $34 for first class. The PBR comes out six times a year, and some of its content is available on the Web at www.petbirdreport.com.
Q: Please settle an argument for me. My husband is always giving our cat treats, and I tell him it's a bad idea. Who's right? He does the grocery shopping, and those little Pounce treats always seem to end up coming home with him. -- F.C., via e-mail
A: Giving your pet a little something special now and then isn't going to do any great harm. I say that with the following caveats in mind:
-- Keep treats to a minimum. Obviously this is good advice for anyone with an overweight cat. But even if your cat is svelte, you don't want to throw off a balanced diet with too many treats.
-- Stick to what's safe. Food that's heavily spiced or too high in fat can upset your cat's digestion, leading to diarrhea or vomiting. Onions can also lead to severe blood problems in cats and should be avoided in all forms.
-- Realize that you reap what you sow. If you're in the habit of giving your cat tidbits from your plate, you can't complain that your cat's a pest about begging.
We humans tend to confuse food with love, and we extend this idea to our interactions with our animal companions. Remember always that your cat doesn't really need treats. Some better options for interaction include petting, grooming and playing with your cat.
Gina Spadafori is the award-winning author of "Dogs for Dummies," "Cats for Dummies" and "Birds for Dummies." She is also 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)spadafori.com.
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