The idea that seeds are the perfect diet for birds is so common that you could ask most any group of children what pet birds should eat, and they'll quickly squawk: "Seeds!"
Problem is, common wisdom is wrong.
Avian veterinarians say that an all-seed diet is dangerous or even deadly over the long run for pet birds. Instead, the prevailing wisdom from avian experts is to feed the popular pet parrots, from budgies to macaws, a base diet of top-quality commercial pellets supplemented by a wide variety of healthy "people food."
Pelleted diets are readily available from many reputable manufacturers and can be purchased from any bird shop or from many veterinarians who work with birds. These foods are a blend of grains, seeds, vegetables, fruits and various other protein sources. Manufacturers mix the ingredients, and then either bake and crumble them or extrude them, ending up with pellets of a proper size for any given species (large pellets for large birds, small pellets for small birds).
This process produces a food that is superior to the "smorgasbord" way of feeding -- the bird cannot pick out his favorite foods and ignore the rest. Pellets also are convenient for bird owners. These commercially prepared diets are easy to buy and relatively inexpensive, and can be stored nicely in a cool, dry place.
Pelleted foods should be the foundation of your bird's diet, but they're best when supplemented with fresh, whole foods. Add a wide variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, along with pasta, eggs, breads, rice and unsalted nuts in their shells. Foods that are excessively fatty, sugary, highly salted or overprocessed should be avoided. A good rule of thumb: If it's healthy for you, it's good for your bird, too.
If you're switching your bird to a healthier diet, be gradual and a little sneaky. Start by checking in with your veterinarian to make sure your bird has no health problems that would complicate his conversion to a healthier diet.
Strategies for reforming a "seed junkie" include mixing the old diet in with the new, feeding new foods in the morning when your bird is hungriest, and letting your bird watch and share the good foods you're enjoying.
During the conversion, be sure you observe your bird eating and drinking, make sure that he is passing normal droppings, and check the muscle on both sides of his keel bone (which runs right down the middle of his chest) regularly to be sure he's maintaining weight. Starvation diets don't work with birds.
If you have problems getting your bird to eat properly, ask for help from your veterinarian.
Corn muffins and other avian delights
Adding whole-food variety to your parrot's diet can be as easy as defrosting a bird-sized serving of frozen mixed vegetables. If you want to play with your bird's food a little, though, you can modify people foods to be more attractive to your bird.
For example, if you're making French toast for the family, make one slice for your bird by sprinkling seeds into the egg mixture. Or you can make a batch of treats by mashing a cooked sweet potato with orange juice, dividing into small muffin cups and freezing for storage. Thaw one at a time for a sweet, healthy treat.
Parrot lovers also know a dozen different ways to make bird breads using corn muffin mix. Check out the recipe section on the Birds n Ways Web site (www.birdsnways.com/birds/rbreads.htm) for more. And remember that playing with food is OK for your bird, too: Make eating a challenging game with food puzzles to keep him busy.
Keep pet info close at hand
Q: I'm not a young woman nor a wealthy one, but I'd like to look out for my little cat. I'm facing some surgery, and I wonder about the "what ifs." What should I do? -- B.F., via e-mail
A: It doesn't matter one's situation: There's always a possibility that something could happen. Depending on the circumstances, the situation may be temporary, or our pets may need a new home for good. Either way, we all need to be sure our pets are covered, and I'm glad you asked.
The first step is to make sure that someone (or a couple of people, better yet) knows you have pets, where they are and how to care for them. Trade information with other pet-keeping friends, family or neighbors, along with the keys to each other's homes.
Make a file with all your pet's information. Pictures and a physical description of your pet are a good place to start. Add an overview of your pet's medical records to the folder, including proof of altering and dates of vaccinations. Instructions for any medications should include not only the dosage and where to find the bottle, but also whatever method you use to entice your pet to swallow the pill.
Don't forget the name, address and phone number of the animal's veterinarian. Write down some information about the tricks and commands your pet knows, as well as any unique personality quirks, such as a favorite spot to be petted. As part of your preparation, talk to your veterinarian about setting up plans for emergency care or boarding.
If you're a good long-term client, you should have no problem getting your veterinarian to agree to run a tab if you cannot be reached immediately. I have an arrangement with my veterinarian that if anyone -- absolutely anyone -- comes in with one of my animals, the doctor will take the pet in and do what needs to be done. And he knows that either I or my heirs will settle the bill later. If you are able to make such arrangements, put those details in the folder, too.
The final bit of information for the folder should concern arrangements for your pet if you never come home again. While no one likes to think about this possibility, you have a responsibility to provide for your pets after your death. You cannot leave money directly to an animal, but you can leave the animal and money to cover expenses to a trusted friend or relative. In some states, you can establish a trust in your pet's name. Talk to your attorney about what arrangement is best for you and your pets.
Keep a copy of the file on hand in case you ever need to be evacuated with your pet. Finally, make up a card for your wallet. Note that you have pets, how many, what kinds, and the names and numbers of the people you have designated to care for them should you become suddenly unable to.
Cats and baths
Q: My cat seems to be able to keep her fur in good shape on her own, and she doesn't smell bad. Is there any need to give her a bath? -- G.K., via e-mail
A: If you have someone in your home with allergies, a weekly dousing of your cat with cool, clear water can help make living with one more pleasant. Otherwise, your cat can stay bath-free unless she gets into something she can't get out of without a little help from some soap and water. Brushing is probably more useful than bathing for helping to keep your cat in fine shape, especially for longhaired animals.
(Do you have a pet question? Send it to email@example.com.)
ON THE WEB
Canine agility fun sport for all
Recently I had the chance to watch some of the world's best canine agility teams compete in a three-day event in Northern California. Over jumps, through weave poles, across elevated dog walks and through tunnels -- agility is one dog sport that's equally enjoyable for canine and human competitors and spectators. (It's also the place to spot former Olympic medalist Greg Louganis combining his love of dogs and sports, competing alongside other top teams.)
The rush of agility competition is addictive. And although the sport leans toward rewarding the fittest and fastest in both people and dogs -- a top competition is practically a border collie convention -- there's a place for all, even if your goal is just to have fun training and running with your dog.
The United States Dog Agility Association (www.usdaa.com) is a great place to start learning about agility, as is the dog agility section on the Dogpatch Web site (www.dogpatch.org/agility). Clean Run (www.cleanrun.com) and the American Kennel Club (www.akc.org) also offer resources for beginners.
Cats can get heartworms, too
Cats can and do become infested with heartworms. The cat is not a natural host for the heartworm, which means the migrating larval heartworm is not likely to find its way to the heart, should it make its way into a cat's skin from a mosquito bite. Mosquitoes that carry heartworm definitely prefer to feed on dogs.
The cat's immune system is extremely reactive against heartworms. For this reason, it is virtually impossible to detect immature heartworms -- called microfilariae -- in an infected cat. (The cat's immune system removes them too quickly.) Also, symptoms of infection tend to be more immune-related than heart-failure related. Cats develop more of a lung disease, complete with respiratory stress, and chronic coughing or vomiting. Feline heartworm disease is often misdiagnosed as feline asthma. Sudden death may occur just as it may occur in infected dogs, however.
In areas where heartworms are prevalent, giving a cat heartworm preventive can protect your pet. Talk to your veterinarian.
(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.)
Sense of humor needed with this terrier
Moose, the adorable little dog who played Eddie on the popular TV series "Frasier," died a couple of months ago of old age. His death reminded me, once again, of the impact a single dog can have on the popularity of a breed.
In Moose's case, that breed is the Jack Russell terrier (known by the American Kennel Club as the Parson Russell terrier). Along with the dogs who played Wishbone on the children's series of the same name, Moose took a little-known breed popular with the small East Coast horse set and made the Jack Russell a dog everyone wanted.
Problem is, the Jack Russell isn't a dog everyone should have. The small dogs are known for their brains, athleticism, fearlessness and tenacity. People who happily live with these dogs are known for their patience, tolerance and, above all, an active sense of humor. The latter is especially important, because if you can't laugh at a Jack Russell's antics, there will be days when you'll cry.
The Jack Russell wasn't developed to spend days on the couch quietly, but rather to work hard, killing all pests from bugs to rats to other small predators such as foxes. Modern pest control may have eliminated the need for a four-legged exterminator, but nobody told the Jack Russell.
Today's descendants of those fearless terriers are active dogs who will spend their days digging and barking if not kept otherwise engaged. When living with people who understand them, who keep their minds and bodies exercised, who train them and work them constantly, and who set limits and gently but firmly enforce them, the Jack Russell is an outstanding companion.
They're a happy, bright and utterly adorable dog in a small, easy-care package -- less than 20 pounds -- with either smooth (Wishbone-style) or broken (Eddie-style) coats. If you don't know Jack, though, you're better off with a less lively canine companion.
PETS BY THE NUMBERS
Treat us nice!
The majority of pet lovers make a regular practice of giving treats to their pets. The percentage of people who buy treats, by the kind of pets they keep:
Dog 88 percent
Cat 65 percent
Bird 80 percent
Small animal 75 percent
Reptile 8 percent
Source: American Pet Products Manufacturers Association
Clumping is tops in the cat box
The most common type of cat-box filler is clay. Clumping clay litter has become increasingly popular, both with owners, who appreciate the ease of keeping the box clean, and with cats, who seem to have fewer accidents with clumping fillers. The advantage to clumping fillers is that when wet, they form lumps that can be removed from the box with a slotted scooper. Clumping litters are essential to the operation of various automatic box-raking appliances, which lift out and dispose of the clumps soon after they're formed.
The only problem with clumping litters is a concern some have regarding kittens who might eat the litter and become blocked as a result. While it wouldn't hurt to avoid clumping fillers until your kitten is out of the "taste everything once" stage, no scientific evidence exists that clumping cat-box filler is dangerous for your kitten.
Award-winning writer Gina Spadafori has two new books out, which were co-authored with "Good Morning, America" veterinary correspondent Dr. Marty Becker: "Do Cats Always Land on Their Feet?" and "Why Do Dogs Drink From the Toilet?" 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.petconnection.com.
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