A sick bird too often means a dead bird. Not because birds are fragile -- on the contrary, most bird species are quite hardy -- but because by the time their illness is noticed, birds are usually very ill indeed and sometimes too far gone to be helped.
In the wild, a bird's best chance to survive is to hide illness. If you look sick in the wild, you'll attract the attention of a predator and will soon be someone's lunch. Even without the threat of predation, pet birds can't help but behave as wild birds do and hide all signs of illness until they're too sick to manage it. That's why some birds who seem fine one day are found dead the next. They were likely ill for a long time, but they managed to hide the symptoms.
The best way to catch an illness before your bird gets too sick to be helped is to have your pet see a veterinarian regularly. Your bird will be better off with a board-certified avian specialist, if there's one available in your area, or with a veterinarian who is comfortable treating birds and who keeps up with the latest available health information on these pets.
An avian veterinarian will go over your bird carefully, and will ask you questions meant to reveal any problems in your bird's health or behavior and in how you care for your pet. The veterinarian may suggest a couple of basic diagnostic tests. The idea is to correct any current problems and change anything that could become a risk in the long term, such as an improper diet.
If you suspect your bird is sick, call your veterinarian. Remember that a bird who appears ill may be in mortal danger, even if he seemed fine just the day before. Never try to treat your bird yourself. You may be misreading the symptoms and making matters worse.
It's sometimes difficult to judge what needs immediate attention and what can wait until tomorrow. Here are some guidelines in determining how best to respond to your bird's illness:
-- Life-threatening emergencies. These need to be dealt with immediately by a veterinarian. They include bites or deep cuts, bleeding that can't be stopped, burns, poisoning, difficulty breathing, collapse, blood in droppings, or straining to defecate or pass an egg. In these situations, you can't get help fast enough. If it's after hours and your regular avian veterinarian cannot be reached, you'll need to visit an emergency clinic. Not all of these treat birds, so take time now to explore your options so you'll know where to go in an emergency.
-- Urgent situations. Problems that should be seen by a veterinarian within a few hours of your noticing them include an eye injury, or a lack of interest in eating, especially if your bird also seems "puffed up." Sudden swellings also demand relatively fast care, as do broken bones and diarrhea. Direct contact with dog or cat saliva, regardless of whether or not the skin was broken, is also an urgent matter -- your bird will likely need to be started on antibiotics right away.
Everything else falls into the category of not-so-urgent, but even then, don't get complacent. If there's a problem, your pet should see your veterinarian the next day. And if any of the more urgent symptoms pop up, get help sooner.
No matter what, bear in mind that a "wait and see" attitude is not appropriate for a sick bird. When in doubt, you should at the very least call your veterinarian. Your bird's life may well depend on your prompt attention.
PETS ON THE WEB
Seattle Purebred Dog Rescue is arguably the finest group of its kind, an organization that helps to coordinate the efforts of dozens of volunteers who find new homes for unwanted purebred dogs. The nonprofit group's Web site (www.spdrdogs.org) mirrors the work of the organization itself, with information on what rescue is, what dogs are available, how to bring one home, and why you should. A nifty feature is the link to a breed-selection calculator that allows you to click off what you like and don't like in a pet and then recommends a list of suitable breeds.
Never hit your cat. If you need to correct your pet's behavior, try instead to startle him with noise or some other unpleasant, nonharmful sensation. If your cat is on the counter, for example, a blast from a squirt bottle will help to persuade him to keep his paws on the floor. Noisemakers that prove effective with cats include pennies in an empty soda can, a squeaky dog toy or an air horn. Counter-hoppers may also be trained through the use of a product called a Scat Mat. The plastic mat, which can be placed on a counter, is wired to give off a slight shock (like a carpet shock) when a pet touches it.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: If you are going to write about so-called "unprovoked biting," you should also talk about the serious consequences of approaching unknown dogs and their owners, especially on a bike or skateboard.
I currently drive 50 miles a week to take my three dogs out to play ball in secluded places, only to have adults or children go out of their way to watch, participate or bring a dog. They are surprised when there are problems! I go to closed industrial complexes, and this is for a reason -- we want to be left alone.
Wake up, America! Virtually all dog-biting incidents are the fault of the intruder, not the dog. Will you please mention something about approaching unknown dogs? We will all be safer and happier. -- C.V., via e-mail
Q: Will you set the record straight on aggressive dogs? I have two of them, and I love them that way. I don't want just anyone to walk into my yard, and my dogs should use every measure to keep trespassers out. Aggressive dogs should be obedient to their owners, but otherwise there is nothing wrong with an aggressive dog. -- M.R., via e-mail
A. Your letters are typical of those I received after writing about my zero-tolerance view on canine aggression. I'm sorry, but I can't agree with either of you.
If you know you have an aggressive dog, you should never let the animal off leash in public, no matter how isolated the area you choose. Yes, it's true that people are better off avoiding dogs they do not know, but that does not relieve you of your responsibilities where your pets are concerned.
What if, out in that isolated area, your unleashed, aggressive dogs take off after and attack a jogger, skateboarder or bicyclist? Without a leash, are your dogs controllable? A friend of mine was walking her small dog -- on leash -- down a rural lane near her home when two off-leash dogs who were playing fetch with their owner in a nearby schoolyard ran over and killed the little dog right at her feet. The owner of the animals was screaming at them to come back when they ran for the little dog, but they ignored him completely.
If your dog is aggressive, you must keep him secured with a leash or behind a fence. I do know people who have dogs who like to get into fights at the dog park, and they bring their pets in muzzled. It's a good compromise: The dog gets the exercise he needs, but he isn't a threat to anyone.
As for keeping aggressive dogs for protection, I can't tell you how many times that plan has resulted in a serious or deadly attack on an innocent person. Are there children in your family? Do grandchildren come to visit? Has a neighborhood child or a delivery person ever walked into your yard? What would happen if an emergency medical team had to get to you? Have your dogs ever broken out, or has the gate ever been left open? Each of these scenarios has ended up in newspapers as part of stories on horrific dog attacks.
No one needs an aggressive dog as a pet, and those who end up with such animals unintentionally need to take responsibility to ensure the safety of others. Make sure the animal is secured at all times, and seek the advice of a trainer or behaviorist to help turn around your pet's anti-social behavior.
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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