If there's one parrot problem that has both bird owners and veterinarians pulling out their own hair in frustration, it would have to be feather-picking, a bird's willful destruction of his own plumage.
The first thing you need to know about this problem: Feather-picking is a symptom of something else that's wrong with your bird. The only hope you have of "curing" feather-picking is finding out and treating what's behind the behavior.
Feather-picking relates to a staggering variety of problems, and any one or any combination of the following can be at the bottom of your bird's plucking:
-- Health problems. Medical conditions behind feather-picking include allergies, parasitic infections, bacterial infections, abnormal growths (cysts) in the feather follicle, internal health problems, vitamin deficiencies and hormone-associated problems. And that's the short list.
-- Low humidity. Many bird species originally come from extremely humid environments, and our houses can't hope to duplicate the conditions of a rain forest (we'd be miserable). The dry air of most houses can be a factor in feather-picking and can also set the stage for some secondary medical problems.
-- Boredom and pent-up energy. Birds are active and intelligent, and they don't handle well 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 birds need to have their wings 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 broiler-chicken look. 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.
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. Don't wait a few years before addressing a picking problem. When it starts, you need to start looking for a solution.
After your bird receives a clean bill of physical health, start making environmental adjustments to see whether you can ward off the picking. 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.
Sadly, the definitive solution to feather-picking doesn't exist.
The best you can do is be patient, work with an avian veterinarian and be prepared to love your bird no matter what he looks like. 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 pet bird is bound for complete redress in the plumage department.
Is the modern malamute too small for working?
Q: My boyfriend and I recently came across the working-breed competition of a dog show on TV. He grew up with malamutes in Minnesota and loves the breed.
He took one look at the malamute on the show and grunted in disdain. "That's not a real malamute," he said. "He's too small, a runt."
I was surprised enough by his reaction to look at the American Kennel Club's Web site, which said the largest a malamute should get for competing was 85 pounds. My boyfriend told me about one sled dog his uncle had, named King. The dog weighed 138 pounds and used small trees for chew toys.
So why does the AKC want these dogs to be so small? Malamutes were bred for hard work and should be large with lots of muscle mass. What gives? -- S.V., via e-mail
A: What gives, indeed? Are modern Alaskan malamutes "runts"? For the answer, I turned to Charlene LaBelle, whose malamutes compete successfully in the show ring, as sled dogs and in weight-pulling competitions. She's also the author of "A Guide To Backpacking With Your Dog" (Alpine Press, $13).
"The malamute breed standard calls for 85 pounds for males and 75 pounds for females, and this is an ideal," she said. "This is not to say smaller or larger dogs are not good. As a general rule, though, the larger the dog, the shorter the lifespan. With large sizes you tend to get more health and structure issues."
LaBelle says that many people love giant malamutes, and some people breed for the larger size. She's not among them, however.
"The correct sizes tend to live longer than the giant dogs -- and that is still too short for me," she said.
"I personally like malamutes in the 90-pound to 100-pound range. Much over that and they are not good for sledding. They tend to have feet that are not big enough to support their weight and that punch through the surface on packed trails. With too much weight, they also get foot problems, and problems in the shoulders with the pounding their body takes moving that extra weight.
"I have hundreds of miles in harness on many dogs. Bigger is not better. Look at the dogs winning the Iditarod now -- 35 pounds of pure, wiry energetic pulling machines."
LaBelle also notes that weight is hard to estimate on a dog with as much coat as the malamute, and that people often guess at a weight 25 or 30 pounds bigger than the dogs actually are.
For LaBelle, the size of the modern Alaskan malamute makes sense, and she says it made sense to the people who decided what size the breed should be.
"The Alaskan malamute standard was written by people who were working their dogs, by the people who were supplying dogs to the Arctic expeditions in the 1930s and '40s," she said.
Q: May I offer a suggestion about giving pills to pets? While my Saint Bernard is normally very cooperative, there are times when she isn't interested in taking her medicine.
I recently became aware of a product that absolutely eliminates the need to try the old "insert, massage and hope" method of giving Ruby a pill. They're called Pill Pockets, and they are treats with an opening for putting pills inside. Ruby loves them. -- M.B., via e-mail
A: Thanks for the suggestion. I heard from several folks who use Pill Pockets, which are available in flavors designed to appeal to dogs or to cats. For more information, visit the company's Web site (www.pillpockets.com), or call toll-free: 1-888-676-PILL (7455). Prices range from $4.99 for a 45-piece envelope of pill pockets for cats to $5.59 for a 30-piece package for large dogs.
(Do you have a pet question? Send it to email@example.com.)
Ohio on board with pet-friendly plates
Art: Ohio's new pet plate, no credit
Optional caption: Ohio is the latest state to let motorists support spay-neuter programs with the purchase of a special license plate.
Good news for Ohio residents: The state's new pet license plate became available for sale on Feb. 14, with a portion of the proceeds going to spay-neuter programs. For more information, visit www.petsohio.com. Ohio joins the ever-growing list of states with vehicle plates that support spay-neuter efforts, following the lead of New Jersey, which first offered its pet plate in 1994.
Now, more from people who create their own pet-friendly message for their vehicle:
JJPET(HEART)R: My girlfriend has a great pet plate. Her name is Julie, and she runs a pet-sitting business. She loves animals of all kinds. She has two dogs, two cats, a cockatiel and a tortoise. She's a true pet lover! -- J.S., via e-mail
NEWF MOM: I am the proud mother of two Newfoundland dogs, and my car sports "Newf Mom" on the plates. Many people thought it meant "new mom," so I added a decal of a Newfie head to the plate to clear up the confusion. This doesn't seem to explain as much as the drool that tends to be a permanent fixture on the windows!
My Newfies are my kids, so when people misread the plates and ask me about my "New Mom" status, I just grin and say "Yes, I'm the proud mother of 12-year-old Sam and 6-year-old Nell." For a Newfie owner, there's no better thing to be.
Thanks for sharing all the great stories -- it's nice to know other people are as crazy about their dogs as I am about mine. -- P.F., Springboro, Ohio
(Got a pet-related license plate? Send a jpeg image and the story behind it to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Airborne allergens a problem for pets
Spring can mean seasonal allergies for pets, too. The difference is that while sneezing is one of the primary symptoms in people, pets are more likely to get itchy.
In dogs, inhalant-related skin allergies -- called atopic dermatitis -- are typically seen around the eyes and mouth, in the ears, under the legs, around the anal area and on the lower legs and belly. Cats may show allergies on their faces or with hair loss.
Because skin conditions can be a result of many different underlying problems, it's never a good idea to guess at the cause of itchiness, or attempt to treat by throwing different foods at your pet, or adding vitamins or oils to meals.
An itchy pet is in constant misery and needs a trip to the veterinarian for proper diagnosis and treatment. In the case of atopic dermatitis, a short course of steroids or other medication may provide relief. In more persistent or severe cases, an animal may need to be referred to a veterinary dermatologist for care.
(Pet Rx is provided by the Veterinary Information Network (VIN.com), an online service for veterinary professionals. More information can be found at www.veterinarypartner.com.)
Family business booms with its dog treat invention
Is there a 12-step program for Greenies-addicted dogs? I'm sure I'm not the only dog lover to wonder, after watching the lengths my three will go to get one of the green, toothbrush-shaped chew treats.
They stare, pointedly, at the kitchen side table where a package or two of the treats often sit. They run to me, and then back to that table, like Lassie trying to let someone know that Timmy has fallen down a well. (The same behavior, sure, but with far less altruistic motives.) Sometimes, they'll even do that which never, ever gets them what they want -- they'll bark, just one yip or two, a plaintive yap born of pure desperation.
The canine cookie jar, please note, is on the same side table, but never gets this sort of attention. Open it, they'll come running, but for a Greenie, the begging never really stops.
I think I'm going to have to start putting the Greenies in the freezer.
My dogs are in good company. Since the product hit the market a few years ago, I've heard from lots of dog lovers who refer to Greenies by their street name: Doggie Crack. They're happy that their dogs love the treats, but wonder if it's really safe to indulge their pets in Greenies lust.
All things in moderation, I say, which is why for my crew a Greenie is an occasional treat, not the daily one the manufacturer suggests. Still, we seem to go through a $16 package once a month. I can only imagine the hit people who indulge their pets daily are taking in their bank accounts.
I can only imagine, too, the bank account of the Joe and Judy Roetheli, who invented the product and watched it succeed far beyond their wildest dreams. By some industry estimates, Greenies alone account for 10 percent of U.S. dog treat sales. More than 300 million of the treats have been sold since 1998.
Anyway you look at it, that's a lot of green.
ON THE WEB
Keeping up with news on dogs
How much news on dogs is out there? Enough to keep the folks at DoggieNews.com (www.doggienews.com) busy almost every single day. The Web log is constantly updated with news and commentary on dogs -- good news, bad news, sad news and more.
In addition to simply pointing to other articles online, DoggieNews.com publisher Steve Johnson asks some hard and important questions about the role of dogs in our lives. A recent post asks how people can be protected from those who delight in their dogs' aggression, and charges that the standard line that pit-bull bans are "unfair" -- while true -- doesn't offer any solution to some very real problems.
The site also offers some good articles on nutrition, services, products and more. DoggieNews.com -- notable always for its thoroughness and often for its thoughtfulness -- deserves to be on any dog lover's list of must-visit Web sites.
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 email@example.com. You can also read her frequently updated Web log or view her column archives at www.spadafori.com.
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