When a dog or cat is sick, you'll usually know it. Sometimes you don't know what it is that you know, just that your pet isn't behaving normally. One of my veterinarian friends call this an "ADR" pet -- "ain't doin' right" -- when the owners bring the animal in to find out what's wrong.
When a bird is sick, though, you often won't know it. And when you do notice a problem, you have a very sick bird on your hands -- and maybe, soon, a dead one. Not because birds are fragile -- they're actually pretty tough -- but because by the time their illness is noticed, birds are usually very ill indeed and sometimes too far gone to be helped.
There's a reason why birds struggle so hard to look healthy. The wild ancestors of most pet birds are prey animals, and with animals on the lower rungs of the food chain it's essential to hide any sign of illness. A wild bird who acts sick will attract the attention of a predator and will soon be someone's lunch.
Most pet birds are at most a few generations removed from the wild -- not near enough to give up the survival behaviors of their species. 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 for wellness checkups. 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 health information on these pets.
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 any problems:
-- 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 clinics 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 eye injuries, 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, remember that a "wait and see" attitude is never appropriate for a sick bird the way it is for dogs and cats. 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
Every now and then someone will e-mail me a video clip of someone doing a very elaborate performance with her golden retriever, a choreographed display that looks like nothing so much as a dance routine. That lone clip is just the tip of the iceberg, because the lovely dancers are actually competitors in the relatively new sport of canine freestyle, an entertaining spin-off of classic canine obedience competitions that's set to music. It's fun for competitors and onlookers alike.
The governing body of this sport is the World Canine Freestyle Organization. The WCFO Web site (www.worldcaninefreestyle.org) offers information on the sport for those who'd like to try it, as well as clips of winning performances for anyone to enjoy.
Never give your cat any over-the-counter medication without clearing it with your veterinarian first. That's a good rule to remember in general, but in particular, it takes on deadly significance when it comes to painkillers. Although you can safely give aspirin to arthritic dogs, the smaller size and different metabolism of cats make aspirin a dangerous proposition for them. Acetaminophen, the active ingredient in Tylenol, can kill your cat, as can some of the newer, longer-lasting painkillers available in nonprescription form for human use.
If your cat is in pain, call your veterinarian immediately. Cats can be very stoic, and if you're noticing your pet's discomfort, he's really suffering and needs immediate care. As for chronic pain, your veterinarian can prescribe something that's effective and safe.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: Thank you for the article on rats. We have had five pet rats and dearly loved them. They were some of the best pets ever. Like you, we encountered the typical "ewww, yuck" reaction from people, but we remain to this day staunch rat apologists. We have lost them to the various typical rat problems -- tumors and respiratory ailments. Each time we lost one, it tore our hearts out. We hope to be able to work up the nerve to have rats again someday. For now, we just can't take losing them so quickly. Thank you for brightening our day with the fond memories of our beloved pets. -– T.A., Butler, Ohio, via e-mail
Q: Your article on rats was great! It's hard to be a rat-keeper because so many people dislike them. Once in a while, I'll take a rat to my son's school when I pick him up. The kids love the rats and are very gentle
with them. The parents, on the other hand, sniff at me as they look down their noses at our unconventional pets. It was wonderful to see some positive rat PR. I can't wait to read future columns on rats. -- S.M., Sacramento, Calif., via e- mail
A: I received a flood of e-mail from people who keep rats as pets and love them for their affectionate, clever ways. "We are not children, and our children are grown. And still, we have rats, and always will. They are so much fun!" wrote one rat fan. A friend of mine confessed that she once took her rat to work in a box, so the animal could be monitored after surgery to remove a tumor. Oh yes, we love our rats!
Other readers pointed out some cautions for would-be rat fans. First, rats don't live that long -- two or three years is the norm. Second, rats will live even shorter lives if some other common pets have anything to say about it.
Dogs developed to hunt vermin (notably terriers and dachshunds) are likely to resent the presence of their traditional nemesis and drive you crazy with their desires to kill the smaller pets. In my home, the retrievers and the toy spaniel could not care less about the rats, but the Sheltie is visibly offended by their presence. In his case, a few sharp words were enough to get him to leave the rats alone, but in a stronger-minded dog such as the average terrier, it's probably easier not to mix species at all.
Rats are especially wonderful for people who can't have dogs or cats because of living-space conditions. These pets don't take up much space (although the larger a cage they have, the better) and are very quiet. When socialized, they can be as affectionate as any dog, and will quickly learn not only their names but also any tricks you take the time to teach them. They will do anything for their favorite foods!
Because rats are inexpensive to acquire, they're also considered by many to be "disposable" and are often dumped on shelters or rescue groups, or simply turned loose to die. If you want a rat, please consider adopting a rescued rat -- they deserve a second chance at a caring home.
For rat resources, visit the Web sites of the Rat and Mouse Club of America (www.rmca.org), the Rat Fan Club (www.ratfanclub.org) or Virginia's Rat Page (home.interlog.com/~audiotre/rats).
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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