For parrot lovers, there's not much worse than having a pet who plucks out his own feathers. After all, their beautiful plumage is one of the reasons we love having birds around. It's hard to appreciate the appearance of a bird who looks more like a plucked chicken than a lushly and colorfully feathered parrot.
It's harder still to cope when you find out that feather-picking can be very difficult -- if not impossible -- to change.
Feather-picking isn't a disease, but rather a symptom of something else that's gone wrong. The only hope of "curing" feather-picking is finding out and treating what's behind the behavior. And that can be difficult, since any number of underlying problems can be triggering a bird's need to destroy his own plumage. Here are some of the most common:
-- Health problems. Medical conditions behind feather-picking include allergies, parasitic infections, bacterial infections, abnormal growths such as cysts in the feather follicle, internal health problems, vitamin deficiencies and hormone-associated problems. And that's the short list!
-- Low humidity. Many pet bird species come from extremely humid environments, and our houses surely can't duplicate the conditions of a rain forest. The dry air of most homes can be a factor in feather-picking.
-- Boredom and pent-up energy. Parrots are active and intelligent, and they don't deal well with 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 parrots need to have their flight feathers 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 look of a broiler chicken. 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. You should 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.
After your bird receives a clean bill of physical health, follow your veterinarian's advice and start making environmental adjustments. 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.
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 problem parrot is bound for complete recovery in the plumage department.
Sometimes the best you can do is be determined to love your bird no matter what he looks like. And that's only fair, considering that he'd do the same for you.
PETS ON THE WEB
The editorial vision behind the wonderful Cats magazine, which folded a few months ago, is now driving a new Web site. Everyone who fancies felines should be sure to check it regularly. The Daily Cat (www.thedailycat.com) is packed with first-class information on feline health and behavior, as well as lots of just plain interesting content about domestic cats and their wild relations.
Dig a little deeper into the well-organized sections, and you'll find a calendar of events, breed profiles and trainings tips. The site has been designed for ease of use, with smooth navigation, colorful, fast-loading pages and snappy writing throughout.
If a rabies shot isn't required by law for your cat, should you ask your veterinarian for one? If your cat ever goes outside, the answer is yes.
Even in urban areas, outdoor cats are at risk of being bitten by rabid wild animals, such as skunks, foxes, raccoons or bats. Rabies is so dangerous that, if he were to contract it, your cat would need to be euthanized, and you would need to have a series of inoculations for your own protection.
Rabies is nothing to take a chance on. If your cat goes outside, talk to your veterinarian about protecting your pet and your family with a vaccination against this deadly disease.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: We have a 4-month-old Lab-mix puppy and an 11-year-old cat who aren't getting along after nearly six weeks. We understand the cat is a little overwhelmed by the large bouncing animal who wants to play, but even when the puppy is quiet she growls and swats at him. Do we try to force them together or just hope it works out in time? -- R.H., via e-mail
A: Do not, under any circumstances, force your pets together.
Instead, make sure your cat is able to get away from the puppy whenever she needs to. A good way to accomplish this is to set up a baby gate across the entry to a bedroom where she likes to sleep. Her food and water should also be in an area the puppy can't get to, perhaps on top of the washer or dryer, or other elevated spot. And certainly make sure she can use her litter box in peace -- no one likes to be disturbed in the bathroom!
If you allow her to feel safe in areas where the puppy can't reach her, she should settle down, especially as the puppy matures. Realize, though, that there's a chance she may never warm up to this interloper. Sometimes the best you can hope for when older cats are introduced to new pets is an armed truce.
Q: Our male, neutered Jack Russell terrier turned a year old yesterday and continues to be very aggressive toward children and strangers.
I'm sure this is pretty normal for this breed, but my wife was hoping to have a pet who could be taken to Little League games, etc., and would be more docile around others. He's great with us, but he usually growls, lunges and barks at those with whom he's not comfortable.
I have heard of a puppy boot camp in Wisconsin. Do you know about it, would it be good for him, or should we just send him back to his breeder? -- J.W., via e-mail
A: Aggression is not normal for any breed, although some dogs do show a greater tendency toward developing it if the owners don't catch the signs early.
The aggression is a real concern, and I don't mean to downplay it. But don't be in such a hurry to pack off your pup, either to boot camp or back to the breeder. You need professional help to evaluate your dog: how aggressive he is (as in, does he act tough, or is he actually prepared to bite?), what you have done unwittingly to reward the behavior, and what you can do to extinguish it.
Contact your closest school or college of veterinary medicine and get an appointment with a veterinary behaviorist. (If you live in a large urban area, there might be one in private practice as well. Ask your veterinarian for a referral.) A veterinarian specializing in behavior can evaluate your dog and can prescribe medication that will help with the behavior either permanently or transitionally. He or she will also set out a program for you to follow to work on changing the problem. If, in the behaviorist's opinion, the dog is dangerous and has no reasonable chance of being made safe, you'll be able to work with this specialist to figure out your "what next?"
A Jack Russell will never be a laid-back dog -- and the people who fancy the breed love their energy and spark. But by working with a veterinary behaviorist, you may be able to turn him into a dog who'll happily and safely enjoy Little League games with your family.
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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