Toys are essential to maintaining the physical and mental well-being of parrots large and small. Playthings help keep pet birds fit while fighting the boredom that can contribute to behavioral problems such as feather-picking.
There are toys your bird can hold, toys that hang from the top and sides of the cage, and toys that do double duty as perches and swings. Twirlies, holdies, chewies, puzzles and noisemakers can all keep your bird occupied. Although you can buy toys by major manufacturers from the big chain stores, it's also nice to choose from the variety of playthings lovingly made by a cottage industry of bird lovers and available from independent bird shops, through catalogs and on the Internet.
Some basic rules apply when shopping for toys, to ensure they are suitable and safe for your bird. Look for the following when choosing bird toys:
-- Materials: Toys are subject to your bird's healthy urge to destroy, which means safe components are a must. Wood, rawhide, plastic or stainless steel chain, rope, cloth and hard plastic are among the more popular materials that make up safe toys. Choose toys that break down into pieces that can't be swallowed. An exception: Toys made to hold food items, such as dried corncobs or fruit chunks. With these, eating is a large part of the fun.
-- Construction: Challenging toys, the best choice for busy birds, feature pieces combined in ways that make it hard for the birds to pull the whole product apart -- but not too hard. Indestructible toys are not appropriate for most birds, because the time and energy used to rip apart the gadget is part of the reason toys fill such a need.
-- Size: Little toys for little birds, big toys for big birds. A big bird can catch and lose a toe in a toy made for a smaller bird, and small birds can get their heads trapped in toys made for their larger relatives.
Some birds are apprehensive of new toys. If yours is one of them, try to set the toy outside the cage (but within eye range) for a day or two and then put it on the floor of the cage for another day or two. Once your bird starts to play with the toy, you can go ahead and attach it to the cage. (Stainless steel split-ring key chains, available at any hardware store, are a safe, secure and inexpensive way to attach toys to cage bars.)
Don't overwhelm your pet with toys. Instead, keep two or three in the cage and rotate new ones in regularly. Shopping for bird toys can be fun, but the costs do add up, especially if you have one of those gleefully destructive parrots. With some creativity you can make your money go further by complementing store-bought bird toys with alternatives.
The cardboard cores of toilet-paper and paper-towel rolls are perfect for shredding, especially for smaller birds. String those tubes together on a thick leather cord and hang them in your bird's cage. Other cheapies include ballpoint pens with the ink tube removed, ping-pong balls, old plastic measuring cups and spoons and plastic bottle tops. (Wash in hot soap and water, rinse well and air-dry before offering such items to your bird.)
Toothbrushes are another bargain toy, sturdy and colorful. You can buy cheap ones new or give your pet your worn ones after running them through your dishwasher. (Or hand-washing in soapy water, followed by rinsing and air-drying.) The hard plastic keys on a ring sold for human babies are also a budget-wise buy that birds love, and real keys can be just as fun, after a scrubbing.
Keep your eyes and mind open for playthings your bird can enjoy -- you may surprise yourself with the possibilities!
PETS ON THE WEB
Is pizza OK as an occasional treat for iguanas? How big will my kid's little iguana get? The answers to these and many other questions can be found on The Iguana Pages (www.baskingspot.com/iguanas), a collection dedicated to keeping people who can't or won't care for these pets from getting one, and helping those people who already have one. The site is well-organized and the writing is wonderful -- you'll find yourself smiling as you read along. A little pizza, by the way, is fine, as long as your pet's nutritional needs are met with the rest of his diet. And that little pet won't remain so small -- iguanas can grow to 5 or 6 feet in length.
Small birds such as finches are able to travel in the cage they live in every day, but that's not an option for bigger birds whose larger cages aren't designed for portability. For the bigger birds, a separate cage or carrier for travel and emergencies is well worth the investment.
While you can find small cages designed for the purpose of transporting birds, your bird will do just as well with a carrier designed for cats or small dogs, the kind made of high-impact plastic with vents on the side and a grid door on the front or top. For short trips, no perch is necessary -- just put down a clean towel to give your bird solid footing.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: I am facing relocation from Sacramento, Calif., to the Orlando, Fla., area at the end of September. I have two cats, neither of whom likes riding in the car. One particularly hates it and has to be tranquilized to get from my house to the veterinarian (a 15-minute ride).
My choices for taking them are car or air. If I went by car, I think the trip would take four to five days. Any advice? -- C.C., via e-mail
A: If you're up for the drive, you may be surprised at how well your cats will cope with a long trip. Ideally, set them up in carriers large enough to hold a bed and a small litter tray. Alternately, secure them in their regular carriers and allow them breaks in the car every few hours when you stop for your own needs. Cover the carriers with towels to increase their feelings of security.
Because your pets are small enough to fly as carry-on baggage, air travel isn't a bad option. (I'm not so keen on sending pets by air when it means putting them in cargo.) Because of the one pet per passenger guidelines, you'll need to bring a friend along to carry the second cat, but since there are plenty of theme parks at the end of the trip, it shouldn't be hard to find someone who's willing to go. Check with your airline well in advance to reserve space, as there are limits to how many pets can be in the cabin on any given flight.
If you do take your cats as carry-on baggage, you'll need soft-sided carriers that fit under the seat. I like the pet carriers made by SturdiProducts (www.sturdibag.com; 800-779-8193). These have flexible cloth-covered ribs that form a dome over the pet, giving the animal some breathing room.
No matter how you travel, make sure your pets are comfortably fitted with collars and ID tags. They should also be wearing cat harnesses and leashes for safety whenever they're out of their carriers. Talk to your veterinarian about tranquilizers: In most cases they're not recommended, but your cats may be an exception.
Q: Will garlic keep my pet flea-free? -- F.W., via e-mail
A: There's no scientific evidence that garlic (or brewer's yeast, which I'm often asked about) will control fleas on pets. The best advice I can offer is to ask your veterinarian for one of the topical products that control fleas. These products are considered to be generally safe when used as directed on healthy pets.
If you're determined to control fleas without chemicals, your best bet is to wash your pet's bedding and vacuum pet areas frequently to remove eggs and developing fleas. Use a flea comb to catch the adult pests on your pet. You can flick adult fleas into a bowl of warm, soapy water, and pour the drowned pests down the drain when you're done. You'll likely still have fleas using these strategies, but if you're diligent, you might be able to keep the infestation down to tolerable levels.
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. You can also read her frequently updated Web log or view her column archives at www.spadafori.com.
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