Parrots are incredibly intelligent, and for anyone who doubts this, we point to Alex, Dr. Irene Pepperberg's well-known African Grey, who showed by matching words to objects that he and his kind are anything but "bird brains."
And yet, we too often see these brilliant beings kept as little more than decorative objects, prized for their plumage and locked for nearly all their lives in cages that are too small no matter how large. Is it any wonder so many pet birds die young, or rip out their own feathers in frustration?
Toys are essential to maintaining the physical and mental well-being of parrots large and small. Playthings help keep pet birds fit while fighting the boredom that can contribute to behavioral problems such as feather-picking.
There are toys your bird can hold, toys that hang from the top and sides of the cage, and toys that do double duty as perches and swings. Twirlies, holdies, chewies, puzzles and noisemakers can all keep your bird occupied. 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.
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.
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, pingpong 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!
Don't leave cat home alone for long
Q: How long can my cat stay home alone if I leave plenty of food and water? I don't have anyone to care for him while I am gone, up to four days at a time for business. -- S.W., via e-mail
A: How would you like to be left with food that's getting older by the minute, water that's developing a skin of slime and a bathroom where the toilet's backed up? That's pretty much what you're dealing with if you leave your cat unattended for more than a day.
Even worse, what if the water is spilled, or your cat eats all the food on day one? And what if he gets seriously sick or injured, and no one's around to help?
Although there are some time-release food-dispensers that can keep a cat covered for a weekend in a pinch -- and pet water fountains can keep pets happily hydrated with a freshened supply -- your pet really should have someone check in at least once a day, preferably more.
If you don't have friends, relatives or neighbors who can help, hire a pet sitter to come to your home. PetsitUSA.com, Petsitters.org and www.petsit.com all offer searchable listings, or simply ask friends and co-workers for recommendations (and check references!). -- Gina Spadafori
(Do you have a pet question? Send it to email@example.com.)
ABOUT PET CONNECTION
Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by "Good Morning America" and "The Dr. Oz Show" 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 more. Contact Pet Connection in care of this newspaper by sending e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or by visiting PetConnection.com.
AVMA offers info on pets and H1N1
-- Since the news broke of a housecat in Iowa testing positive for the 2009 H1N1 influenza virus, pet owners and veterinarians have been scrambling to learn more: Can my pet get sick? What would the symptoms of H1N1 in cats be? How is it identified? How is it treated? The American Veterinary Medical Association has put up an information page on its Web site (www.avma.org/public_health/influenza/new_virus) to get the answers out. The page offers continuously updated information on the H1N1 influenza virus (also known as the "swine flu"), how the virus might affect pets, and what veterinarians should know when talking with clients and treating patients. The trade group's response underscores the critical role veterinarians play in the public health system for pets and people alike.
-- Our seemingly insatiable appetite for providing pets with accessories at home is now making the transition to the automobile. LeaseTrader.com, an online car lease swap marketplace, reports a 67 percent increase in the number of customers who shop for a vehicle with pet needs in mind. The company says economics are pushing consumers away from large SUVs and toward dog-friendly smaller crossovers, wagons and hatchbacks.
-- November is Pet Diabetes Month. The disease affects one in 200 cats and one in 500 dogs worldwide. A new Web site, www.petdiabetesmonth.com, offers awareness and information on the disease to pet owners. The owners of diabetic cats can also find advice and support on the Feline Diabetes site (felinediabetes.com), which is run by a doctor whose own cat was diabetic.
-- Max wins out these days as the most popular dog name in the world. And it's not just Max: Pets have a much higher chance of being given a name traditionally reserved for humans than one considered normal for a dog, such as Fido. Fido had a good run, though. Evocative of the loyalty for which dogs are known, Fido gained favor in the 1860s when President Lincoln's so-named dog was the first presidential pet to gain celebrity status recognition after posing for a formal photographic portrait. -- Dr. Marty Becker and Mikkel Becker Shannon.
Clicking with your pet is easy, fun
When you're looking for an easy way to train your pet, it doesn't get much better than clicker training. The no-force technique works on animals of all sizes, ages and abilities. And that's true of the people who would administer clicker training, since it doesn't require strength or much coordination on the part of the trainer.
Best of all: It's fun for trainer and pet alike.
A clicker is a small plastic box that fits in the palm of your hand -- a child's toy that's also called a "cricket." To make the noise, you press down on the metal strip inside the housing and quickly release it -- click-click!
The clicker itself doesn't have any magic powers. What it provides is timing -- it allows a trainer working with a dog who understands the game to let the pet know that the behavior he's doing right now is the one that's being rewarded. And that means the behavior will be repeated. The clicking noise becomes a reward because in the early stages of training, the sound is linked to the delivery of something a dog wants, most usually a tiny treat.
To get started, ask around for clicker-training classes in your area. Many trainers offer them, either as an integral part of their training services or as special "trick-training" sessions. If you can't find help in your area, look online for Web sites, books, videos and more.
Clicker-training even works with people -- your mate, your kids, your boss. But you didn't hear that from us! -- Gina Spadafori
PETS BY THE NUMBERS
People, pets share illness, too
Many of the same problems that make us sick are sources of misery for our pets, too. According to 2008 claim records from Veterinary Pet Insurance (PetInsurance.com), the top 10 human medical conditions that affect pets are:
2. Bladder infection
5. Skin cancer
6. Gum disease
8. Stomach ulcers
ON GOOD BEHAVIOR
SURPRISE YOUR DOG 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
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 email@example.com or by visiting PetConnection.com.