National Iguana Awareness Day has come and gone without so much as a peep from me. Really, I should be flogged. I will say in my own defense that I'm horrible with all dates, and even Christmas seems to creep up on me when I'm not looking.
But the idea behind a special day of education for people who have or want these popular pets is a good one that should not be allowed to pass without comment. Especially because without the education of their keepers, iguanas just don't have a chance to grow up healthy. So let me do my part to help.
The iguana is a cheap pet to acquire -- usually less than $25 for a hatchling, which makes them a popular pet for children. The problem is they're not exactly easy keepers, and too many pet stores either don't know or don't care enough to properly educate buyers about the care of these pets. The cost of a proper setup alone can set you back a couple of hundred bucks.
People don't want to hear that, though, and retailers don't want to kill the sale. The result too often is improper food and housing, which ends up being a death sentence for the pets.
If you -- or your child -- have an iguana on your wish list, make sure you know what to do to keep your new pet healthy. A good setup is crucial, and so is a proper diet. Calcium requirements are probably the most often ignored; the long-term lack of calcium can leave a pet with a rubber jaw he can't use to feed himself.
Here are some tips to keep an iguana in good shape.
Iguanas should be fed plant matter only, a mixture of vegetation that's high in calcium but low in phosphorus and fat. Choices include mustard, collard and turnip greens, as well as yams, carrots, alfalfa sprouts, alfalfa hay and squash.
Chop the vegetables into a size that can be easily handled by the pet, and mix and store in the refrigerator in an airtight container. Offer small amounts twice a day and sprinkle the food with a calcium supplement, available at a pet store. This diet can be supplemented by commercial foods.
Water should be available for both bathing and drinking. A ceramic dish in the enclosure is a must; spraying mist on the animal is also very pleasing to him.
The bigger the better. Your little green baby is going to grow, after all. Cages or aquariums must be kept scrupulously clean and dry to prevent bacterial or fungal diseases. The iguana's cage should be lined with newspapers, or better yet, clean newsprint. (Roll ends of clean newsprint are available from many newspapers.) Other possibilities include indoor-outdoor carpeting, Astroturf or even paper towel squares. Avoid sawdust, litter, wood shavings or gravel. Silk artificial plants can improve the appearance of the enclosure and are easy to keep clean. Provide your pet with a place to hide, such as a cardboard box, and some branches for climbing.
Uneaten food and soiled areas must be promptly removed. For disinfecting, avoid pine oil cleaners and use a solution of 1 part bleach to 30 parts water. Remember that proper sanitation and handling is essential for your protection as well as your pet's. Salmonella is a risk when proper hygiene procedures aren't followed.
HEAT AND LIGHT
Forget hot rocks -- too many pets have been burned with them. Instead, use a heating pad or under-cage strip designed for use with reptiles, or a ceramic basking lamp, which emits heat but no light.
Captive reptiles need ultraviolet B light from an artificial source. Pet stores sell lightbulbs that provide the proper light for iguanas. It's best to approximate natural conditions by supplying 10 to 12 hours of light per day.
PETS ON THE WEB
National Iguana Awareness Day was Sept. 9, but the Web site to go with it (www.naid.org) is still very much accessible. It's a fabulous site, with pages of information and links, and no-holds-barred trashing of the bad information that gets a lot of novice iguana keepers in trouble. I especially liked the side-by-side comparisons of what buyers are often told they need in the way of food and housing vs. what their pets really need for optimal health and happiness. There's a good discussion of diets, too. Another great site is "Iguana For Dummies" author Melissa Kaplan's Giant Green Iguana Information collection (www.sonic.net/melissk/ig_care.html).
Some pet birds, such as finches and canaries, can make use of an occasional small amount of grit -- and most budgies, cockatiels and other parrots don't need grit at all.
Folks used to believe that grit helps in the grinding organ of the gizzard, assisting in the breakdown of foods. But birds do fine without grit -- and grit has been shown to remove vitamins A, K and B2 from the digestive system. A tiny -- as in a couple of grains of grit every couple of months -- is fine for finches and canaries, keeping in mind that no pet bird needs to have access to all the grit it wants. For parrots large and small, skip grit entirely. Overconsumption of the stuff has led to many life-threatening problems -- grit impaction -- in pet parrots, especially young bird and smaller species, such as budgies or cockatiels.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: Our Lab puppy, Maggie, does not want to be on leash. She bucks like a bronco every time we put it on her. Any suggestions? -- C.R., via e-mail
A. Your puppy can start wearing a buckled collar from the time you bring him home. I like lightweight nylon collars, which are inexpensive to replace when a puppy grows. They come in oodles of fun colors. Quick-snap collars are fine, too, and easy to adjust to larger sizes. Check the collar frequently to ensure a good fit. (And don't forget to attach a small ID tag!)
By the time your pup's 10 weeks old, you can introduce a leash, for a few minutes at a time. Instead of using the leash to get the puppy to go your way, go his for a while, and then bend down and call him to you, sweetly. When he turns and heads in your direction, praise him and then get up and keep going, patting your leg and jollying him along with praise and treats. Introduce a command such as "Walk on" or "Let's go" for him to start associating with the idea of heading in your direction. A few minutes is enough. Try again later in the day, and maybe change direction once, saying "Let's go" and praising when the puppy follows.
A puppy's first leash should be 6 feet long, slender and as light as possible, especially at the clasp. If you've got a heavy leash that you bought for an older, bigger dog, save it for later and get something appropriate for a puppy. Even a length of lightweight cord tied to a light snap is better than a leash that's too heavy.
The leash is a symbol of your leadership, and when you let your puppy chew on the leash, you're letting him chew on your authority. Considering the sharp nature of puppy teeth, you'll also be spending money for new leashes pretty regularly. Neither of these is desirable. So do not let your puppy chew on the leash. Yank it upward an inch or so out of his mouth while delivering a stern "no." And praise -- never, ever forget to praise -- when your pup does what you ask!
Q: We've grown tired of opening the door for our cat, so we put in a cat flap. How can we teach him how to use it? -- W.H., via e-mail
A: After you install your cat door, just leave it be for a week or so until your cat takes its presence for granted. Remember always that cats aren't keen on change.
To teach him to use the door, tape the flap up securely for a few days so that he comes to appreciate the fact that he can conveniently come and go on his own schedule through this magic portal. (And I do mean securely. If your cat gets clobbered by the flap, it takes a long time to coax him near it again.)
Then put the flap down and put a little butter or margarine on the bottom edge of the flap and encourage him with tasty treats and praise from the other side. You can also drag toys on a string through, encouraging him to chase them.
Repeat these lessons in very short intervals over the course of several days, and your cat will get the hang of it, sure enough.
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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