When I started writing about pets 20 years ago, parrots had a reputation for being messy, hard-to-tame pets who'd just as soon bite you as look at you. They never left their cages, and the only reasons most people had for keeping parrots was because they were beautiful and because some of them would pick up a few words and phrases.
What a change today! While constant cleaning is still part of any parrot lover's routine, the change in pet potential from the wild-caught birds of yesterday to the hand-raised birds of today is dramatic. Well-socialized birds from reputable breeders and bird shops can be delightful pets who truly do become members of the family. For many of these pets, cages are where they stay at night, nothing more.
To achieve the full potential of a properly raised parrot, however, you need to set the right tone from the first. You'll need to assure your new bird that you are a wonderful, kind and fun person, but you also need to gently but firmly establish that you are not a mate or a servant, but rather the leader. This is done through consistent handling and gentle training -- never, ever through punishment.
It's not hard if you follow some basic guidelines:
-- Learn when to leave your bird alone. Birds are emotional and sometimes quite moody, and there are times when it's best just to let them be. As you come to know your bird better, you'll be able to identify clearly the times when he wants to be with you and when he wants to be left alone. Give him space when he needs it.
-- Control your bird's comings and goings. Instead of opening the cage door to let your pet out, ask your bird to step up onto your hand and then bring him out. Likewise, give the "step up" command when it's time to put your bird back in his cage. This routine may seem like no big deal to you, but you're sending a message of leadership to your bird.
-- Keep training sessions short and upbeat. Parrots are highly intelligent, but they don't have the longest attention spans. While trick-training is great for keeping them engaged, they get bored easily. Several short sessions a day -- just a couple minutes at a time -- are better than one or two long ones. Always end on a positive note!
-- Don't let your bird ignore a command. If you say "step up," persist until your bird complies, or you'll set yourself up for trouble down the road. Birds are very smart, and if they figure a way around you, they'll take it. Once your leadership starts to erode, you'll have a hard time reclaiming your position and behavior problems will result.
-- Keep your bird at a level lower than your head. In the bird world, higher birds are leader birds. In the beginning, keep your bird's cage and play gyms below the level of your chin. When playing with your bird, keep your arm low, too, and don't let your bird on your shoulder. Keep wings trimmed, too, both for safety's sake, and to control the elevated attitude that sometimes comes with the power of flight.
-- Talk to your bird. Make eye contact and say anything or everything that's on your mind. Birds learn by repetition and by mimicry, so start "naming" things for your bird. For example, when you want to pet your bird, ask him if it's OK, saying something like, "Want a pet?" or "Want a tickle?" or even "Tickle, tickle?" When your bird makes the connection, he'll drop his head to ask for petting -- or he may even use the phrase you've chosen!
Above all, don't ruin any good habits the breeder instilled in your bird by letting your pet become a demanding brat. Set limits and stick to them. Your bird will love you for it -- and you'll get more out of the relationship as well.
PETS ON THE WEB
After I wrote about one guinea pig site, I got an e-mail from the fan of another. Cavies Galore (www.caviesgalore.com) is an offbeat site celebrating the pet better known in the United States as the guinea pig. The site offers computer games with guinea pig themes, message boards and basic care advice. The creators also seem inordinately fond of guinea pig sayings, since the site offers several lists of them. (Example: "You know you're a cavy slave when your don't buy junk food so you can afford more parsley.")
While exercise is important for all dogs, it's important to plan activities during the cooler part of the day to prevent overheating.
Dogs who are overweight, out-of-condition, elderly or pug-nosed are especially at risk. For these dogs, heat stress can quickly turn lethal.
Don't take a chance with your dog's life. Keep exercise sessions short and plan them for early or late in the day. Stop at the first sign of overheating, such as heavy panting. Always have cool water available both for drinking and for wetting dogs down on warm days -- for the latter, concentrate on a constant flow of cool water to the belly.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: I had dogs growing up, as did my husband. Since we've been married, we've been living in apartment and so haven't had space for a dog. We have a cat, Shelly, who is much adored.
We've bought our first home and plan to add a dog after we move in. We want to adopt a shelter dog, but we're at a loss how to choose. Our shelter mentions if a dog is good with cats, but how do they know? And is the information reliable? -- B.W., via e-mail
A: Shelters and rescue groups can find out if a dog is good with cats by asking the animal's previous owners, or by exposing the dog to a cat and evaluating the response.
The latter isn't as awful as it sounds. Shelters don't haul out some terrified guest kitty to test a dog's reaction. The tester cat is usually a permanent resident of the shelter, often a staff favorite who has proven to be calm and disdainfully confident around dogs. Dogs who are aggressive toward the cat (but not people) are so noted, as are those who are too friendly (and will need training to leave a cat alone), are friendly but not intrusive (ideal), or couldn't care less about the cat (also fine). Ask the folks at the shelter how they determine cat tolerance in the case of any dog you're considering.
In general, I'd look for a quiet, gentle and well-mannered adult dog of 3 to 5 years of age or older who falls into the friendly but not intrusive category, preferably one who has lived with cats before. You'll find lots of these dogs in the shelters and rescue groups, if you're patient about looking.
When you find your dog, don't force the pets together. Let the cat decided how much interaction she wants, and always offer her an escape route to a dog-free area. It may take a month or more for the situation to settle down.
Q: I think my cat's an addict! I grew some catnip for him, and I had to hide the plant to keep him from pulling it to bits. When he has catnip, he acts crazy. Should I break him of the catnip habit cold turkey? It can't be good for him, can it?
When I offered catnip to my last cat, she ignored it. That doesn't seem normal, either. -- A.K., via e-mail
A: Since our cats don't need to stay alert on the job, pay the bills, get the kids to school or operate heavy machinery, they can afford to be blissed-out on a regular basis. So if your cat likes catnip, indulge him to his little heart's content. For the good of the plants, though, put the pot where he can't get to them and offer him fresh clippings as often as you like. It won't hurt him.
As for your previous cat not getting a buzz from the herb, that's OK, too. Not all cats like catnip; the ability to appreciate the herb is genetically programmed into some cats but not others. Kittens under the age of 3 months are also unaffected by the charm of catnip.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also read her frequently updated Web log or view her column archives at www.spadafori.com.
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