Universal Press Syndicate
Behaviorists love to recommend toys for all pets. Playthings are an important part of "environmental enrichment," a fancy phrase for strategies that keep animals from being bored and turning that boredom into destructiveness.
But as important as toys are for dogs and cats, they're even more essential to those who spend a great deal of time in cages that can never be big enough for a pet whose ancestors had the sky as their home.
No parrot can ever be happy, in other words, without toys.
Playthings are essential to maintaining the physical and mental well-being of parrots large and small. They help keep pet birds fit while fighting the boredom that can contribute to behavioral and health problems such as feather-picking.
Although you can buy toys by major manufacturers from the big chain stores, it's also nice to choose from the variety of playthings lovingly made by a cottage industry of bird lovers and available from independent bird shops, through catalogs and on the Internet. You can even make your own!
Some basic rules apply when shopping for toys, to ensure they are suitable and safe for your bird. Look for the following when choosing bird toys:
-- Materials: Toys are subject to your bird's healthy urge to destroy, which means safe components are a must. Wood, rawhide, plastic or stainless-steel chain, rope, cloth and hard plastic are among the more popular materials that make up safe toys. Choose toys that break down into pieces that can't be swallowed. An exception: Toys made to hold food items, such as dried corncobs or fruit chunks. With these, eating is a large part of the fun.
-- Construction: Challenging toys, the best choice for busy birds, feature pieces combined in ways that make it hard for the birds to pull the whole product apart -- but not too hard. Indestructible toys are not appropriate for most birds, because the time and energy used to rip apart the gadget is part of the reason toys fill such a need.
-- Size: Little toys for little birds, big toys for big birds. A big bird can catch and lose a toe in a toy made for a smaller bird, and small birds can get their heads trapped in toys made for their larger relatives.
Some birds are apprehensive of new toys. If yours is one of them, try to set the toy outside the cage (but within eye range) for a day or two, and then put it on the floor of the cage for another day or two. Once your bird starts to play with the toy, you can go ahead and attach it to the cage. (Stainless-steel split-ring key chains, available at any hardware store, are a safe, secure and inexpensive way to attach toys to cage bars.)
Don't overwhelm your pet with toys. Instead, keep two or three in the cage and rotate new ones in regularly.
Shopping for bird toys can be fun, but the costs do add up, especially if you have one of those gleefully destructive parrots. With some creativity, you can make your money go further by complementing store-bought bird toys with alternatives.
The cardboard cores of toilet-paper and paper-towel rolls are perfect for shredding, especially for smaller birds. String those tubes together on a thick leather cord and hang them in your bird's cage. Other cheapies include ballpoint pens with the ink tube removed, ping-pong balls, old plastic measuring cups and spoons, and plastic bottle tops. (Wash in hot soap and water, rinse well and air-dry before offering such items to your bird.)
Toothbrushes are another bargain toy, sturdy and colorful. You can buy cheap ones new or give your pet your worn ones after running them through your dishwasher. (Or hand-washing in soapy water, followed by rinsing and air-drying.) The hard plastic keys on a ring sold for human babies are also a budget-wise buy that birds love, and real keys can be just as fun, after a scrubbing.
Keep your eyes and mind open for playthings your bird can enjoy -- you may surprise yourself with the possibilities!
Neutering a first step in solving problem
Q: We have a 3 1/2-year-old cocker spaniel. He is pedigreed, so my husband is against getting him neutered because he says he wants to breed him in the future. The problem is that I am finding our dog has some behavioral problems that I believe may be lessened if he were fixed. Primarily, he is aggressive to people who come to our door or walk by our house. He runs and aggressively barks at them.
I am concerned that if he doesn't get fixed, we'll have to find a new home for him. If you have any ideas that could be persuasive with my husband, I would greatly appreciate the help. -- S.M., via e-mail
A: Territorial and protective aggression are normal canine behaviors. We're guessing your cocker spaniel also goes crazy when the mail arrives.
What we think happens in the canine mind in such cases is pretty simple: The dog sees what he interprets as a threat approach the home and tells that threat to back away. The threat leaves, and the dog feels power over the situation.
The dog now feels he can control people who approach, because when he threatens them, they back off. The dog doesn't know they were leaving anyway. Then, in the dog's mind, we guess he thinks something like, "How dare they keep coming back after what I told them?" The dog probably gets more serious to make his point. Your dog's confidence goes up every time a person passes because he is taking the credit for them leaving.
One way to think about your cocker spaniel's behavior is that he has simply found work at home that he enjoys and feels good about. Dogs need outlets for normal canine behaviors. If you don't want your cocker to continue his chosen line of work, you will need to engage him in equally satisfying activities.
Dogs who are housebound build up frustrations. In nature, canines wander (getting plenty of physical exercise) to seek food (getting plenty of mental exercise). At maturity, it is not unusual for aggression to show up in an adult dog when basic canine needs are not being met.
We agree with you that neutering is a good first step, reducing your cocker spaniel's testosterone levels, which do affect aggression. However, neutering alone will not change the behaviors you describe unless you combine the surgery with behavior modification.
Your dog needs a new job to replace his current passion. With help from a behaviorist or trainer, you can learn how to channel that passion into new, satisfying work that promotes desirable home behaviors.
An example is teaching your dog that he gets what he wants by doing what you want. Dogs do very well as indoor members of human families when they work to earn their keep. What motivates dogs to learn good behaviors is learning that specific words such as come, sit, down, stay, wait, fetch, quiet and more are the tickets to everything a dog could ever want or need.
In order for your dog to learn from you, he must be relaxed. Your dog needs daily walks and car rides to new places to help release the mental and physical stress he gets from living an urban life. Your dog cannot cooperate and follow instructions if he is confused. (Instructions are words that tell your dog what to do and replace trying to tell your dog what not to do.)
Be fair to your dog by seeking professional help from a behaviorist or trainer to provide your pet with alternatives to charging people when they walk by. Not only will you and your husband be happier if your pet stops the aggressive behavior, but you will also both discover a relationship with your dog that makes everyone happier. -- Susan and Dr. Rolan Tripp, AnimalBehavior.net
(Do you have a pet question? Send it to email@example.com.)
DNA tests point to poop droppers
-- People can now can now walk without worrying about dog poop in the streets of Petah Tikva, Israel, now that they're using science to pick up where the dogs left off. Veterinary Economics magazine reports that the city has launched a six-month trial that asks residents to take their dogs to a veterinarian to collect DNA. The information is then used in a database aimed at matching feces to dogs and identifying each dog's owner. Owners who pick up their dog droppings and deposit them in specially marked bins will be eligible for rewards of pet food coupons and dog toys. Droppings left in the street could earn the dog's owner a fine. The city is considering requiring DNA samples from all dogs if the trial run is successful.
-- Quick bites: In the last 4,000 years, no new animals have been domesticated. ... A shark is the only fish that can blink with both eyes. ... A snail can sleep for three years. ... A cat has 32 muscles in each ear.
-- Bird flu remains a threat primarily to poultry, not humans, among whom it's poorly transmitted. Since a peak in 2006, the number of confirmed human cases of H5N1 bird flu reported to the World Health Organization has tapered off, with 38 cases in 2008 -- the majority in Indonesia -- leading to 29 deaths. That's a tiny fraction of the number of deaths each year from regular influenza. As reported in The New York Times, a threat remains in the strain's potential to mutate into a truly human disease that the WHO warns could kill tens of millions. -- Dr. Marty Becker and Mikkel Becker Shannon
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 monthly drawing for more than $1,000 in pet-care prizes. Contact Pet Connection in care of this newspaper by sending e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or by visiting PetConnection.com.
Want a better pet? Get moving!
Your dog barks non-stop. Your dog digs, ruining your yard. Your dog chews anything he can get his teeth on. What's missing from this picture? Chances are, it's exercise.
While environmental management (such as removing barking triggers or giving a dog something acceptable to chew) and training your dog are important, these strategies are only part of the solution. When dogs don't get the exercise they need, it causes problems.
If you're thinking of getting a dog, think very seriously about what breed you want and whether you can provide an active dog with the exercise it needs. If you can't honestly say that your dog will get 30 minutes of heart-thumping aerobic exercise at least three to four days a week -- daily is better -- then you really ought to reconsider getting an active breed.
Instead, consider the alternatives. For large breeds, look at the sighthounds, such as the greyhound, saluki or even the massive Irish wolfhound. These breeds were not developed to work all day like the retriever, husky and sheepdog, but rather to go all-out for a short period of time and then chill out. They're big, but they're couch potatoes by choice. Many guarding breeds, such as Rottweilers, boxers and Akitas, also have relatively minimal exercise requirements. All dogs love and need their exercise, but not all dogs will go crazy if they don't get a ton of it.
Most small breeds are easier in the exercise department, too, not because they don't need a lot of exercise, but because it's not as difficult to exercise a small dog with short legs. A Yorkie, pug or corgi can get good exercise in a small yard or on a brisk walk. -- Gina Spadafori
PETS BY THE NUMBERS
Top AKC dogs for 2008
Every year the American Kennel Club releases its ranking of the top breeds registered with the organization. AKC rankings don't reflect the purebreds not registered with the club or registered with another organization, nor do they reflect the popularity of the popular cross-breeds, such as the Labradoodle (Labrador-poodle mix). The top 10:
1. Labrador retriever
2. Yorkshire terrier
3. German shepherd
4. Golden retriever
10. Shih tzu
ON GOOD BEHAVIOR
Surprise your pet for good response
If you want your dog to come when you call without thinking twice, call your dog a few times daily for a fun surprise.
Call your dog to initiate play, to get dinner, to leave home for a walk or car ride, or to enjoy a petting session. Mix up the good stuff, so your dog never knows what to expect but learns that it's all good.
If you never make the mistake of calling your dog and then doing something your dog thinks is unpleasant, your dog will automatically come when you call with a wagging tail and happy look on his face.
Always praise your dog as he's heading toward you, since silence can worry dogs. If he hesitates, squat down to his level with open arms. Good routines become good habits. -- Susan and Dr. Rolan Tripp, AnimalBehavior.net