When it comes to keeping bird cages clean, you'll find plenty of people at the extremes: There are folks who wait until the mess is spilling over the lip of the cage, and folks who instantly sterilize every toy, perch or food dish their birds set foot on.
The first group by far outnumbers the latter. But it's interesting that while those who tolerate mess are putting their birds at risk, those who never met anything they didn't want to sterilize are doing far more than they actually need to for optimum bird care.
Cleaning up after birds is a constant battle, but getting yourself into a routine makes it easier to cope. The good news is that a few minutes a day is all it takes.
Every morning and evening you should replace soiled cage liners. You might find it easier to do this chore after you've been up for a while, so your bird has a chance to get her big morning poop out of the way. Putting newspapers both above and below the grid at the bottom of the cage makes cleaning as you go easier. You can put a few layers at the base of the cage and remove layer by layer throughout the day whenever droppings appear. If you don't want to put newspapers above the grid, you can mist the bars with nonstick cooking spray -- not when your bird is nearby, though -- to help keep droppings from sticking.
You should also change food bowls and water bowls (or bottles) twice a day. Some birds get food or even droppings in their bowls, and you need to constantly check for bowls that need cleaning. If you use a water bottle with your bird, check every morning to ensure that it's not clogged by pressing the ball with your finger. (Birds can become seriously dehydrated very quickly.)
Birds usually prefer to eat after dawn and near dusk, so these are great times to introduce fresh fruits and vegetables -- and remove the leftovers before you go to work or bed. Leftover pelleted foods should be discarded every morning, and replaced with fresh.
Finish off your twice-daily routine by using your cleaning solution and paper towels, and use a handheld vacuum to clean up any other messes in the vicinity. And remember: Your dishwasher is a great tool for cleaning everything from perches to dishes to toys.
While daily attention will keep things pretty clean, you'll need to do a big scrub on a regular basis -- walls, floors, cage and all its contents. How often depends on your bird: Big birds are generally messier, if for no reason than sheer volume of droppings. Some species are really mess-makers too, such as the lories and lorikeets.
If your bird's really good at mess-making, you'll need to do the big clean on a weekly basis. Neater (and usually smaller) species can usually get by on a monthly scrub-down, provided, of course, you're religious about your daily routines. And remove, clean and replace dirty toys on an ongoing basis.
For the big clean, scrub the cage with soap and water, then rinse well in plain water. Soak everything you can't fit into the dishwasher -- big perches, dropping tray and so on -- in a solution of a half-cup bleach to a gallon of water (a bathtub's a good place for soaking) and then leave everything out to air-dry in the sun before setting it in place and putting your bird back in it. If you have a cage that's encrusted with droppings, you may find it easier to take it to a car wash than to scrub it clean. The high-pressure hoses at the do-it-yourself washes will help knock off the mess, but you'll still have to soap it up and rinse it well before you're done.
Cleaning is part of life with birds, and it's not the best part, to be sure. But if you get into the habit of cleaning as you go, you'll find it's not so bad.
PETS ON THE WEB
What does the Munchkin cat have in common with the Dandie Dinmont terrier? They are the only breeds of animal I can think of that are named after fictional characters. The terrier has been around long enough that hardly anyone can remember who Dandie Dinmont was, but the Munchkins of Oz fame are still going strong. So, too, are the cats they were named after, short-legged cuties that caused quite a storm when people started breeding to reproduce the mutation that created them. The Web site of the Get Down Munchkin breed club (www.ticastephens.org/munchkin.htm) offers an introduction to the breed, with plenty of pictures and links to other Munchkin sites.
If you live in an area where your pets might come in contact with skunks, raccoons or other wildlife, they are at risk for exposure to the deadly disease of rabies -- and that means you and the other two-legged members of your family are, too. Make sure to keep all your pets (cats, too) up to date on their rabies vaccinations. You just can't be too careful where rabies is concerned. Dogs are generally vaccinated at the age of 16 weeks, then again in a year, and at three-year intervals after that. Regulations vary, however, so talk to your veterinarian about what the law requires in your area.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: My mother sent me your article about
de-skunking your pet. It was chemist Paul Krebaum's recipe of hydrogen peroxide, baking soda and soap.
Well, it works. It was wonderful to be able to welcome the dog back into the house after the spraying and then the bath. I've sent the recipe to relatives and a friend. I plan to send it to the local greyhound enthusiasts who are always passing along "doggie tips." Thanks to Krebaum, to you and to my mom. -- L.V., via e-mail
A: Every day since that column ran, I've received mail either asking for the recipe again or thanking me for publishing it in the first place. I am blissfully happy to report that I have not once had to try Paul Krebaum's recipe -- and I certainly hope the situation remains that way.
This seems a good time to offer up the magic cure again, for those whose dogs have just been skunked or will be skunked soon:
Take 1 quart of 3 percent hydrogen peroxide (available from any drugstore), 1/4 cup of baking soda (sodium bicarbonate for you science types) and 1 teaspoon of liquid soap, such as Ivory. Mix and immediately apply to the stinky pet. Rinse thoroughly with tap water.
Now remember, you must mix the ingredients fresh each time, because the chemical reaction that occurs when everything gets together will burst any container you put it in. For best results, apply the concoction immediately, while it's furiously bubbling.
While you can't keep the ingredients premixed, you probably ought to keep them on hand if you're in an area where skunks are common. Every minute with a skunked dog is one too many.
Q: On our walk the other night, my Lab mix came across a rattlesnake and was extremely interested in it. I was able to get her away from it and back on leash before she could be bitten, but I'm afraid to take her there again. How can I teach her to leave snakes alone?
A: My area had huge flooding problems a few years back, and after the river settled just beneath the lip of the levee, I decided to go look at the mess with one of my dogs.
I parked the car, and we hiked to the top of the levee, the dog running around exploring all the interesting smells. I was looking in shock at the scene -- uprooted trees tossed about like sticks -- when I heard the telltale sound of a rattler. I don't know how I could have missed it, but I realized the levee was covered with snakes, all trying to warm up after their own flood ordeal. I consider myself very lucky that both the dog and I got out of there unbitten. Thank heavens he was well-trained enough to return on my command.
Dogs can be trained to avoid snakes, and should be, if you're regularly in an area where you run across them. Hunting-dog trainers use an electric collar and captive snakes to teach this life-saving lesson. The dogs are given a shock when they show an interest in getting close to the reptile.
This training is usually set up in clinics so several dogs can be taught over the course of a day. Costs are usually less than $50. Ask your veterinarian for a referral to a hunting-dog trainer in your area. A store that caters to hunters will probably also be able to point you in the right direction.
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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