A Texas family is now suing a retail pet chain, saying a disease carried home with a cockatiel the company sold them killed a family member in 2006. While the courts will have to settle the matter, the news likely has many bird lovers looking over at the cage and saying: "What? My cockatiel can kill me?"
Technically, yes. Realistically, not very likely.
In fact, psittacosis, the infectious disease the family says the pet they purchased brought home, is so rare that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control reports fewer than 50 confirmed cases since 1996. That's cases, not fatalities.
Diseases that pass from animals to people are called "zoonoses." And while things like mad cow disease and avian influenza can and should prompt widespread international concern, pets actually post a very small level of risk of passing on an illness. You are more likely to catch something from another person than from your pet.
While it's shocking to hear of anyone sickened or killed from an infectious disease caught from a pet, it's always essential to keep risk in context and be aware that a handful of commonsense measures will reduce most of the risk of contracting anything from your pet.
When it comes to pet birds, the risk is very low, and these preventive measures will reduce it even further:
-- Get pets from reputable sources. For birds, you can ask a veterinarian who specializes in avian care to recommend a rescue group, reputable bird shop or breeder. Failing that, look for a bird from a source that follows the Model Aviculture Program (www.modelaviculture.org), a national voluntary program for the certification of aviculturists through inspection by avian veterinarians.
-- Keep your pet's area clean. Psittacosis can remain viable in dried bird droppings, but regular cleaning and sanitation will kill the bacteria. Change cage papers daily, at least, along with food and water dishes. Wipe down any fouled areas with a damp cloth and sanitizing solution (ask your bird's veterinarian for a product recommendation that's safe for your pet). Wash pet dishes in hot soapy water, rinse and allow to air-dry, and scrape and wash perches regularly as well. Soap and water are your friends! Replace toys on a regular basis as a matter of routine, sooner if they become covered with poop and cannot be cleaned.
-- Wash your hands after handling your pet or cleaning his cage or the area around it. When it comes to staying healthy overall, you just can't wash your hands enough. Don't forget to sing "Happy Birthday" to yourself twice while you soap up to make sure you keep the suds on your skin long enough.
-- Make sure your pet is healthy and stays healthy by working with your veterinarian to be sure all preventive-care measures are taken as recommended. Because they're prey animals, birds will do everything they can to hide illness. (A sick prey animal is supper, since unusual behavior in the wild attracts the attention of predators.) When a bird shows signs of illness, the pet is often very, very sick indeed. Early signs of illness may need the expertise of avian vet and diagnostic tests to spot. Your veterinarian should also review your care routines to make sure they're adequate for you and your bird both.
The bottom line: Get rid of the risk and keep the pet. You'll not have to worry, and you'll both be healthier.
Where to find more information
Because outbreaks of zoonotic disease passed from wild or livestock populations do form a real threat to human health worldwide, many agencies and groups offer excellent information on the risks and prevention.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control has an entire section dedicated to the subject: "Healthy People Healthy Pets" (www.cdc.gov/healthypets). This outstanding resource allows you to search by type of pet or name of disease for information.
The World Health Organization (www.who.int/topics/zoonoses/en) offers a tidy page that lays out the basics and is a good jumping-off point for more research. It's a general site, not a pet-specific one.
The American Veterinary Medical Association has a section dedicated to public health (www.avma.org/public_health/default.asp) that covers health threats from wildlife, livestock and pets. Although they are thought of as "animal doctors," veterinarians are in fact an important resource for human health when it comes to zoonotic disease. -- Dr. Marty Becker
Hybrid VUE delivers space and economy
A monster SUV with four-wheel drive is a great DogCar. Problem is, with gas over $4 a gallon and no relief in sight, it's a DogCar that few people can afford to operate and that fewer still want to use for the daily commute.
So what do you do if you need room for your dogs, their gear and yours, but want to go easy both on the environment and your gas-guzzling? The new hybrid SUVs and crossovers may be the answer for more and more people.
Fresh out of the box and worthy of consideration: the Saturn VUE Hybrid. It's a versatile SUV, with enviable numbers of 26 mpg in the city and 32 mpg on the highway, and a base price starting at a tick over $25,000 (and that includes a year of GM's OnStar service and the first three months of XM satellite radio).
As a DogCar, it's a winner. The seats fold nearly flat, offering more than 56 square feet of cargo space for dogs, crates and gear. The one-piece tailgate is well-balanced for easy flip-up, and although the back deck is higher than those of us with older dogs would like, it's no problem for a young dog to jump in.
On the road, the Vue isn't exactly a muscle car, and it's wimpish on any kind of incline. It's fine on flat roads, although the hybrid drive seems to have a difficult time sometimes deciding which of its systems to engage.
But these technologies are still developing, and even now you can't beat the bottom line -- a week of hauling dogs, supplies and gear with no problem and little gas used.
(The Pet Connection's Gina Spadafori reviews pet-friendly vehicles for the DogCars.com Web site.)
ABOUT PET CONNECTION
Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by "Good Morning America" veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and award-winning journalist Gina Spadafori. The two are also the authors of several best-selling pet-care books.
On PetConnection.com there's more information on pets and their care, reviews of products, books and "dog cars," and a weekly drawing for pet-care prizes. Contact Pet Connection in care of this newspaper by sending e-mail to email@example.com or visiting PetConnection.com.
Can a cat prevent child's asthma?
-- Having a cat may have a protective effect against the development of asthma symptoms in young children at age 5, according to MedicalNewsToday.com. It seems a study released by researchers at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health concurs with others suggesting that a petless environment may be "too clean" for the development of a healthy immune system in children.
-- Let there be light! For pain, that is. According to veterinary researchers, "photonic therapy" offers promise for noninvasive pain management in pets. Visible light in the red range produces a number of biochemical effects and works similarly to acupuncture, researchers say. Besides treating pain, photonic therapy is increasingly being used to improve wound healing.
-- Ever see a horse fly? Lexington, Ky.-based H.E. "Tex" Sutton Forwarding Co. helps equines get airborne in style, reports Sky magazine. The carrier averages five flights a week, with as many as 21 horses on its equine-equipped Boeing 727. Flights have taken off with 12 breeding stallions worth a total of $400 million. Stalls on the plane can also be configured to allow for foals to nurse and lie down just as they would in the field.
-- From a list of approximately 40,000 threatened species, one in four mammals now faces extinction, as well as one-third of amphibians and one in eight birds. What to do? Species survival plans are at the heart of a strategy to maintain and breed endangered species in captivity throughout the United States in hopes of staving off extinction. -- Dr. Marty Becker
Reforming the cat who lashes out
There's nothing like a purring lap cat, but some cats just seem unable to take the attention. Here's what makes your cat go crazy, and how to change the situation:
-- Overstimulation. You're petting your cat, and suddenly he grabs you with his claws and teeth. Don't struggle or fight back, or you may trigger a real bite. Sometimes smacking your other hand hard against a hard surface -- a tabletop, for example -- may startle your cat into breaking off the attack. If you stay still, however, he will usually calm down and release you.
Become familiar with your cat and his body language, and stop petting him before he becomes overstimulated. Cat lovers often think such attacks come without warning, but they've missed the warning signs of a cat who has simply had enough. The tail is the key. If your cat starts twitching his tail in a jerky fashion, it's time to stop petting. Do this with regularity, and your cat will learn to tolerate petting for longer periods.
-- Play aggression. The cat who pounces on your feet and then careens off the wall isn't trying to hurt you -- he's playing. Redirect his energy with play sessions to help your cat burn off his excess energy before you try for a quiet petting session. Use toys as the object of his prey-playing behavior. Wrestling bare-handed with your cat or kitten is a no-no, because you're setting up a bad precedent.
What if he persists in seeing you as a plaything? As with an overstimulated cat, stop the behavior by freezing. Don't give him a reason to continue the attack. You can also inform him that attacks on you are not permitted by letting him have it with a shot of water from a spray bottle as he's heading for your ankles. -- Gina Spadafori
BY THE NUMBERS
Rabbits prove popular
When it comes to small mammals as pets, rabbits are the most popular, followed by hamsters and guinea pigs. All small mammals are common children's pets, but most have considerable followings among adults as well. Among those households with small mammals as pets, here's how the animals ranked in popularity (more than one answer allowed):
Rabbit 43 percent
Hamster 36 percent
Guinea pig 20 percent
Mouse/rat 8 percent
Ferret 7 percent
Gerbil 5 percent
Chinchilla 4 percent
Source: American Pet Products Manufacturers Association
ON GOOD BEHAVIOR
Whisper to your pet instead of yelling
Pets are not hearing-challenged. Shake the treat jar or say "cookie," and your pets will come running. But if you love talking to your pet nonstop, she may learn to tune you out.
Yelling to get your pet's attention only creates tension, since pets respond to tone. A happy tone engages pets; an angry tone repels them. Clap or make another sudden noise to get your pet's attention. As soon as your pet looks up, praise, then whisper an instruction.
Train your pet using a whisper voice, and your pet will listen more intently. When your pet learns a few words that always mean a good time, it will be easy to get your pet's attention with a whisper.
(Animal behavior experts Susan and Dr. Roland Tripp are the authors of "On Good Behavior." For more information, visit their Web site at AnimalBehavior.net.)
Pet Connection is produced by a team of team of pet-care experts headed by "Good Morning America" veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and award-winning journalist Gina Spadafori. The two are also the authors of several best-selling pet-care books. Contact Pet Connection in care of this newspaper, by sending e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or by visiting PetConnection.com.
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