If you think your bird is sick, it's almost certain he is very sick indeed. That's because birds, like many creatures who serve as dinner for others, are born with the instinct to act healthy as long as possible. Those individuals who act sick or weak catch the attention of predators, which means a bird will fight to appear normal until he's too sick to act any other way.
A pet bird in such a state needs help immediately.
That doesn't mean surfing the Web for a home remedy or asking a pet-store clerk for advice. Although the advice given in such places can sometimes be fine, it's not worth risking your pet's life on the chance that you'll learn something helpful. A bird who seems sick needs to see someone who can correctly diagnose and treat your pet. And that means a veterinarian, preferably one who specializes in avian medicine.
Caring for a sick bird can often be a struggle for bird-lovers, especially those who are used to giving pills to dogs or cats. You can't give a pill to a bird, and the options for medicating are not as easy as disguising a pill with a little cheese or a piece of hot dog.
You'll need to discuss with your veterinarian which method of medicating your bird is best for you and your pet, and then you'll need to make sure you're comfortable with whatever method you'll be using.
Ask all the questions that come to mind, watch your veterinarian demonstrate, and then practice under the tutelage of the doctor or a technician before you go home with your bird and the medication. If you run into problems at home, don't be shy about calling for help. Above all, don't take your bird home and skip the medication. It won't do your pet any good if only some, or none, of the drugs you're sent home with get into him.
Here's a rundown of the options, pro and con, when it comes to medicating a sick bird:
-- Adding water-soluble medications to drinking water. Adding medication to water is easy, but it has its drawbacks. You have little control over dosage because you can't count on your bird to drink any set amount of water. Some species drink only a little water anyway, and other birds may not feel up to drinking when they're ill.
-- Offering medicated feeds. As with water, it's easy to offer feed with medicine in it, but you have no way of making sure that any of it gets inside your bird. And some medicated feeds apparently taste awful, so even if your bird feels like eating, he may not touch the stuff with medicine in it.
-- Giving medication orally. Accuracy of dosage is one benefit of putting medicine into your bird's mouth -- assuming you get the stuff inside him instead of dribbling it everywhere but down his throat. You can get the appropriate amount in an eyedropper, or in a syringe with the needle removed, and slide the tip into the side of your bird's mouth. The downside, as you've probably already guessed: Your bird isn't likely to sit still for this procedure, so you'll have to restrain him with a towel. Once he's restrained, a bird who has been hand-fed as a baby will usually go along -- the sight of a plastic tip nearing his mouth will usually get him to open up, because it'll remind him of his babyhood, when he was hand-fed.
-- Giving an injection. This has high marks for accuracy and, once you're used to injecting your bird, high marks for ease. As with oral medications, though, you'll likely need to restrain your bird with a towel to inject his medication. Some people get really good at injecting their pets, even after initial reluctance.
One final thing to remember about medications: Don't stop giving them just because your bird seems to feel better, at least not without clearing it with your veterinarian first. It's important to finish the prescription as directed, because as soon as your bird starts feeling better, he'll start acting better -- even if he's still sick.
PETS ON THE WEB
What plants are safe around pets? It's a good idea to know the answer before heading to the nursery to stock up on spring greenery. One place to find some guidelines is Pet Care Forum's "Safe Gardening" Web page (www.vin.com/PetCare/Articles/VetHospital/m01487.htm), which not only lists some deadly and pet-safe plants but also shows pictures of them. Included in the page is a link to the Cornell University poisonous-plants database (www.ansci.cornell.edu/plants), a highly detailed offering that should be bookmarked on every pet-lover's Web browser.
If you're planting vegetables this spring, don't forget to put in the plants your pets love. Fresh veggies of all sorts are perfect for rabbits, guinea pigs and pocket pets such as rats and mice, as well as birds from the smallest parrotlet or parakeet to the largest macaw.
Cats love greenery, too. While the obvious plant choice for cats is catnip, many feline pets also enjoy the mood-altering effects of valerian. Other greens are favored just for nibbling, including tender shoots of alfalfa, rye and wheat grass, parsley and thyme tickle the fancy of some felines, too.
What about dogs? Over the years I've had readers tell me about their dogs' preference in veggies. Common favorites are carrots and tomatoes. (My sheltie Andy loved the latter so much that I had to put fencing around the plants to keep him from stripping every tomato off the vines.)
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: Could you pass along this safety tip? While camping or traveling cross-country with your pet, buy an inexpensive nylon collar in a bright color and print your cell phone number on it with a black laundry marker.
Then, should your pet get lost, turn the cell phone on. If you're lucky, someone will call you almost immediately upon finding the animal.
Of course, other ID is permanently on our dog, with our home phone and also an alternate. Plus, we took advantage of having our pound puppy "microchipped" when we adopted her. Doing all these things should get our wonderful black lab mix safely back to us, should she get lost! -- J.T., via e-mail
A: Great suggestion. For years I've been putting disposable key tags on my dogs' collars when we travel. Every day I write the phone and room number of the hotel where we stay, or the name of the campground and campsite number on the tags.
My dogs are also microchipped, and always have permanent ID tags with the phone numbers (area code included) of a good friend, as well as my home and work numbers. They also have tags from 1-800-HELP4PETS, a round-the-clock service that will authorize veterinary care or emergency boarding if someone finds my dogs and I can't be located. (For more about the service, call 1-800-HELP4PETS or visit their Web site at www.help4pets.com.)
This system of tags, chips and services may seem overkill to some, but I figure it's cheap insurance against losing a pet. Your suggestion has made me realize that I need to update things a bit, so I'll be ordering permanent ID tags with my cell phone number on them.
Q: Some weeks ago you had an article in which you mentioned an anti-bark collar that releases citronella spray. Would that be appropriate for a 3-pound Chihuahua who is a very persistent barker? -- L.B., via e-mail
A: The manufacturer recommends that the collar not be worn by any dog less than 6 pounds in weight, so that's not an option for you. (Larger dogs may benefit from having such a collar as part of a training program. They're available at many pet-supply stores or on Web sites such as Foster & Smith's at www.drsfostersmith.com.)
Many people scream at barkers, throw things or even hit them. These techniques don't work. One good strategy is to train the dog to bark on your command. It works because once you install an "on" switch, you also get a bonus -- an "off" switch. You control the behavior! It also helps to teach the dog a substitute behavior. Instead of barking when someone knocks at the door, teach the dog to sit instead and reward him generously.
For these strategies to work for you, it's a good idea to find a trainer in your area who uses reward-based training techniques and will work with you and your dog specifically on the problem behavior. One source of such trainers is the Association of Pet Dog Trainers, which has a directory online at www.apdt.com.
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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