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Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Best Guinea Pig Cage

We bought our son a guinea pig for his 11th birthday, but once we got it set up at home I was suspicious that something was wrong. She was kind of feisty so my son named her Scrambles. The problem was that Scrambles wasn’t eating the hay or greens or pellets we offered. Guinea pigs have to eat constantly or they’ll die and I already knew this, but I hadn’t had a guinea pig before and wasn’t sure if she was just adjusting or nervous or what. She died within days. I wanted to bury her like I do all my pets, but Petsmart required that we bring her back if we wanted a free replacement.

While searching for one, I talked myself into getting two because I like having two of a species so they can interact. This time, we got healthy ones, both females. They were named Cheddar and Skye. Once they started eating and pooping, I realized just how sick that first pig must have been because these new ones were like machines. Things went in and came out just at an unbelievable rate. A little research led me to believe the first guinea pig had some kind of wasting disease. So sad.

Cheddar and Skye were youngsters and still kind of small. Guinea pigs (Cavia porcellus), also called cavies, are born ready to go, with their eyes open, teeth, claws and the ability to reproduce within a few weeks. They eat solid food and can readily move around right from birth. I put the two of them in a small, double level rat cage though I knew they would quickly outgrow it. During the day, I’d move them into a gated area that one might compare to a puppy playpen, but they tended to just huddle in one corner rather than walk around.

In my search to find them a better cage, I went to various pet stores but didn’t find anything big enough or reasonably priced. It was actually a manager at Petsmart who suggested I visit the website where one can learn to assemble a cage of any size easily and affordably. The materials can be purchased locally for most people. I could go into detail here about all of that, but it would be easier to just recommend readers visit the website for the best advice. It tells you where you can find the items needed and how much you’ll need depending on the number of guinea pigs you need to house or how much space you have to work with. You can even make cages with multiple levels.

I made a 2x4 grid cage for my two guinea pigs and had planned to add another level, but found this size worked well for us since we also took our pigs out for exercise. This size also fit great on our son’s old Thomas the Tank Engine train table that stood about one foot off the ground. I filled the bottom with Carefresh or similar bedding, added an Igloo shelter and a litter pan and that was it. Since we don’t have dogs or cats, this cage didn’t need a top so we could easily reach in to pet the pigs anytime. It also made cleaning very easy. I highly recommend this type of cage and the best part is it’s so cheap and easy to make if you just take the time to follow the directions. The site offers pre-made cages to purchase, but I think you would still have to assemble it at home after shipping.

In my opinion, pet stores don’t really offer the right type of cage for a guinea pig. None of them are big enough, especially if the animal is spending all his time in a cage. After viewing the various set-up options at, I was excited about building my pigs an easy-to-clean place where they would have room to move around a little. In our case, our pigs spent most of their time in the Igloo and only came out to eat, but they seemed very content and happy. They never tried to climb out, though sometimes the birds would perch on the ends of their cage or forage among their hay. I highly recommend this cage design.

These are our two guinea pigs. Our daughter would sometimes try to dress them up. Skye is pictured above and has hair that goes in different directions. Cheddar, below, has a smooth brown and white coat with a few tiny black spots.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The First Time Trickle Flew Away

Lost Bird

Very light gray

 Very tame

Lost on 4-2-03 near golf course

One unusually warm, sunny April morning, the kids and I returned from an outing and shuffled into the house ready for lunch. On the way in we left our back door open. We lived in an old farmhouse at the time and there was an outer room between the garage and the back entrance to the house. The door was also just a few stair steps away from the basement where the birds were kept. They had only been down there since the previous fall when I moved them from an upstairs room. They had more freedom to fly down there and the mess was easier to clean.

At times, the birds would get spooked by something and we’d hear them whistle loudly or fly around. As the three kids and I relaxed upstairs watching TV that day, I heard them doing just that and remembered the back door was probably open. Since I was kind of dozing, I had my oldest child run and close the door. A while later, we decided to head outside, but soon realized the wind had picked up and the temperature had dropped. That’s when I thought to check on the birds thinking maybe the wind had stirred them up. I didn’t think it likely that one would fly through two doorways to get to the open garage, but when I couldn’t find Trickle I started to worry.

I looked in all the usual perching spots in the basement and he was nowhere. I scanned the yard; I whistled for him and eventually left my number with the office of the neighboring apartments in case he’d flown over there. I tried to listen for his loud whistle and went out walking and whistling for him later that day and again the next morning. I knew he wouldn’t know how to look for food and probably couldn’t handle temperatures below 40 degrees. As I’ve mentioned before, when people would call the animal hospital at which I worked and say, “My bird flew away,” we would console by offering things they could try like setting the cage outside for the bird to fly to or posting signs, but what we really wanted to tell them was, “You should have had your birds wings trimmed and might as well go out and get a new one because that one is not coming back.” Boy, was I really feeling silly (my parenting word for stupid or idiotic) now.

That sunny spring Wednesday just got progressively colder and rainy. The next day was colder still and the rain poured down. As a last resort, I decided to place an ad in the local paper. I really didn’t think it would bring results, but felt I had to try every possibility knowing how tame Trickle is and that he just might fly right to somebody’s shoulder and scare them to death. That night I prayed that Trickle might be safe and dry in some kind person’s warm household, even if I didn’t get him back. I felt guilty about not spending more time with my birds and not checking on them right away after sending my 7 year-old to close the door.

The ad was supposed to come out on Saturday and stay in the paper for a week. On Friday, I drove into Chicago for a funeral. As my girlfriends and I drove home on I-290, through that pouring rain, I watched out the window for the remote chance of spotting my bird, now gone for 48 hours. That’s ridiculous, I know, and we laughed a little about it. Saturday and Sunday came and went and nobody called. I pictured Trickle dead in the grass somewhere having starved and frozen to death. Poor Trickle. I spent more time with the remaining cockatiel, Westin, because he was acting off with Trickle gone; whistling loudly and actually letting us pet him. By Monday, I had written Trickle off, told the kids in so many words that he was dead and not coming back. Since they’re kids and the birds are really my pets, I guess they weren’t too upset.

Well, guess what happened next? Monday morning I get a phone call. The girl says, “Are you the one who lost the cockatiel?” and I say, “Oh my gosh, yes!” When she asked me to describe him, I told her how all gray cockatiels have the same markings; yellow face with orange patches and a white strip on the wings, but that my bird was a very light gray color, almost tan. She relayed how he was found whistling very loudly in a tree in her tiny back yard last Wednesday night. Even her neighbor heard the commotion. As they tried to call him down, he flew to a bush and then to her husband’s shoulder. This gal lived only about a half mile away, in the opposite direction from where I’d gone searching. When she told of how the bird bows his head down for petting, I knew it had to be Trickle. Since she worked two jobs and wouldn’t be home, I wasn’t able to verify until two days later and, sure enough, it was him.

They had bought a cage for him right away, and food and toys and everything. I was so thankful and then some. After all that worrying, Trickle had never even experienced the bad weather aside from the first windy day. I paid the couple for the supplies they’d purchased and extra since she took care of my pet for a whole week. I learned that the night they found him was one of the only nights a week they’re not at work. I brought Trickle home and immediately trimmed his wings. The best part was learning he hadn’t suffered.

I continue to try to give our birds more attention and stimulation. Did I learn anything from this experience? Yes, but it wasn’t anything new. Animals will always find an open door or window and it’s up to us to keep our pets safe. We were very lucky that time and I hate to have to say this again, but it wasn’t the last time.

Another picture of Trickle: He's much lighter in color than the average gray cockatiel which makes him easy to identify.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Unfettered Bird: Part 2

I was lucky enough to get a free canary that was abandoned at the animal hospital. It was my first one and, even luckier, it was a male. For those who don’t know, males have a larger appeal because of their ability to sing. Females are just as pretty to look at and they chirp, but they don’t have the talent for rhythmic trills likes the males. It wasn’t long before I was opening the cage and letting the little guy fly around the room with the cockatiels. I didn’t worry about him because he was fast enough to get away. The rat cage was covered with towels so the birds wouldn’t be in danger of landing on it and getting grabbed from below.
As I’ve mentioned, our birds are housed in the basement due to my husband’s and two sons’ allergies. Every night I take inventory of the animals and get them in their cages before covering them and turning out the light. When I couldn’t find canary, I searched the basement. I noticed the one window that was always cracked was now broken and glass was on the floor. My first thought was that a golf ball came through the window since we lived on a golf course, but then I decided the strong winds from a previous storm had breached the crack and broken the window. I gathered the bird had smelled that outside air and flown the coop, so to speak. The hole wasn’t that big and this didn’t seem that plausible, but I blamed my husband anyway for not having fixed that cracked window a long time ago. It was wrong of me, I know, but I was bummed. I don’t think that window ever did get fixed. I covered it with cardboard or something. No birds ever went out it again and that basement got quite cold one winter, but everyone survived. It wasn’t until weeks later that I figured out that the canary had never escaped in the first place.
Next to the bird room is another room where the washer and dryer sit next to a large utility sink into which the wash machine empties. The sink would fill almost to the top and then slowly empty. I noticed it was emptying more slowly which meant I needed to clean some lint from the drain area. As I did this, odd fuzzy things were floating in the water. Then, near the drain I found a crumpled thing that was mostly unrecognizable until I saw the faded, bright yellow coloration. “Oh noooo,” I whined.
The canary perhaps decided to take a bath in what he thought was standing water when he got sucked into the current or before he realized it was too deep. I don’t know what happened, but I got that immediate feeling that I hadn’t been at my post; that I had let my pet down; that I wasn’t there when he needed me. The birds generally stay in the room designated for them, but I still should have had a curtain or something in that doorway to deter them. Frankly, I never thought the laundry area was a hazard in the first place.
Let this be a lesson to all who read so you won’t make the mistakes I’ve made. This wasn’t the first or the last. There’s a reason why entrances to zoo enclosures and many veterinary offices have two sets of doors. Animals wander, explore and escape; whatever you want to call it. It’s just a primal instinct. Leave an opening and they will go through. Birds are especially at risk with their awesome gift of flight. I can’t count the number of times I fielded calls at the animal hospital from people who’d had their bird fly away and wanted to know how to get it back. We would give them some ideas like moving the bird’s cage outside or sprinkling some seed out on the driveway in case it was nearby, but we couldn’t offer much hope. We would often remind them to have their bird’s wings trimmed as if they didn’t feel bad enough.
I can now offer better advice on the subject because I’ve had personal experience with losing a bird to the wind. We thought that bird was gone for good, but I wasn’t quite ready to give up which proved positive in the end. As usual, it was our best bird, Trickle, who found trouble, though from his point of view it was probably the time of his life. Or should I say times of his life?

This is Trickle. He was born in 1996 or '97. We acquired him from another owner who named him after a favorite Nascar driver, Dick Trickle. His color is called cinnamon, though it's a very light shade. He's the tamest exotic bird I've ever kept, yet he's had some wild times.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Hazards of the Unfettered Bird: Part One

I was once ridiculed by a woman for letting my cats outside. She thought it was inhumane, but I thought the same about keeping them in, so I guess it’s a personal choice. The same could be said for birds. They can surely get into trouble when they’re “on the loose,” unsupervised. Since my birds are all in one room in our basement, their wandering space is limited. If their wings are trimmed, they have to walk or climb places, but they do get to fly as their wings start to grow out. A few times, our favorite cockatiel, Trickle, has gotten into innocent trouble due to having his freedom. Luckily and thankfully, it worked out in the end, but you can decrease the risks by considering the following.

If you have a hand-tamed bird that’s easy to work with, let him out for just an hour or two to start. Then progressively increase the time out of the cage. Clear the room of anything that could be harmful to the birds and things you don’t want them to chew on. Our cockatiels have ruined several picture frames I had tucked away on a shelf. Trickle also got himself stuck to a glue trap we didn’t know was left by the previous owner way up in the rafter of the basement. He also got stuck for a few hours in a long, narrow box that contained rolls of wallpaper. He couldn’t get himself out and became just a little sick, we gathered, from the glue on the paper or the lack of fresh air. He came through these incidents just fine, but neither would have happened if he was caged.

Trickle happens to be our best bird so we’re always regretful when he finds himself in these situations that ultimately could have been prevented by a safer environment. By “best bird” I mean he’s the tamest and easily allows handling and petting. He doesn’t even know how to bite. He just pecks at your hand with his beak if he’s irritated. He’s gotten himself into other trouble too, but those all ended well and each will be mentioned in further posts. For now, I’ll talk about some close calls and actual disasters which will again out me as an exotic pet keeping loser who’s smarter for it now.

As I’ve mentioned, rats are one of my favorite pets and I’ve always given them time out of their cage. They don’t run all over, but are allowed to climb out and wander around some play areas on a long table. I don’t allow the rats and birds out at the same time because I had a close call once. I expected that the birds would naturally stay away from any kind of walking four-legged creature, but I had to learn the hard way that this was an unreasonable expectation. Birds, it seems, are just as curious about play areas on a table as rats. I also thought a rat would be afraid of any flying creature and would quickly retreat. Wrong again.

It happened very fast. The rat and cockatiel ended up on the table at the same time and the rat lunged quickly at the bird’s chest. Thankfully, I was right there and grabbed up that bird quick as a whip. He was uninjured as it appeared the rat got only a mouth full of feathers. From then on the rats don’t come out until the birds are in. At our house, this is usually in the late evening or early morning. We can always take the rats into another room for their exercise, but they generally stick to their nearby territory as do the birds. It’s safe to say we got lucky this time. Other times, not so much.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Uncaged Bird

If one thing was drilled into our brains at Moorpark College, it’s that captive animals must have stimulation. Keeping them fed and watered is not enough. They need exercise and something to do, something that excites them. Modern zoo planners know this and do their best to meet the needs of various species while designing their enclosures. Zookeepers know it too and are always searching for ways to motivate their charges. Anytime I see an empty tissue box or a large cardboard tube, I think of my rats. When conscientious dog owners see a wide open field, they might think about how much their dog would love to run through it, right?

It didn’t seem so unnatural to me that my pet bird should be allowed to wander around a little outside his cage. I started doing this with our mynah bird years ago by simply leaving the cage open and letting him come out on his own for an hour or two. Mynahs kind of hop around like crows so it was fun to watch this bird trip-trap around the hard floors. Later, when we had a cockatiel, I opened the cage in hopes he’d climb to the top and just sit there on a perch I’d set up. He did this, but he also wandered further and further before I’d get worried and have to put him back in.

When I delivered medicine one day to the home of a client from the animal hospital, she showed me her bird room where she housed about 20 finches. There were at least six small finch cages on two or three narrow shelves. Each cage had its door open and the birds were flitting around, resting on other cages or jumping in and out. I was in awe. I never thought it could be done with small birds. Their keeper, Kathy, said they all settle in their cages on their own at night. She hung a sheet in the doorway to keep them from flying out, but it served mostly as a psychological barrier to keep them from trying.

I was inspired that day and would from then on have an open door policy with my birds. It was just a matter of conditioning in the beginning. I now open the cage door in the morning and feed the birds in the evening so they’re motivated to return to their cage. It’s important to note that I don’t give my birds an abundance of food. I only give them enough to last the day. This is one way of getting them to eat their healthier pellet food while limiting the amount of seed, but it also motivates them to go back to their cages at night. Only now and then does one give me a hard time about going back in. Sometimes I have to give one extra time or turn a few lights off to get a defiant one to cooperate.

When I get a new finch or a parakeet, it might take a few days for them to learn how it works from watching the other birds. The worst thing I’ve had to do is catch a small bird in a net once or twice and put it in the cage. They usually get it after that. If you’re going to give this a try with your own birds, start by leaving the door open for an hour or two at first. The bird may not even come out, but he’ll start thinking about it and it may be days before he gets up the courage. Just be patient, but also be home and ready to keep an eye on things. Any animal that has freedom could potentially meet with trouble. In my next post, I’ll share some of the calamities we’ve experienced as a result of giving our pets liberty.

Our cockatiel, Weston, experiencing our Open Door Policy. This is not his cage, but an extra one for climbing on and into.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

How I Killed My First Cockatiel

If the owner of this first cockatiel ever reads this, I’m in trouble. And if enough people keep reading my blog, they’re going to think I’m a real exotic pet keeping loser. I can’t help it. I feel it’s important for people to know that mistakes will be made. It happens in general life and it happens with raising children and pets, especially exotics whose lives are so much more tenuous than those of dogs or cats. For me, it’s often the primary way to learn. Not that I’ve made major life mistakes, but I tend to take chances that sometimes don’t end well. Enough said.

As I’ve mentioned, working for veterinarians affords some advantages. One client indicated she had a hand-fed baby, gray cockatiel she couldn’t keep. She lived in my hometown of Chicago Heights which I suppose made me feel somewhat akin to her so I agreed to help her out. While I normally honor the previous owner by keeping an animal’s given name, I didn’t do that with this one. She hadn’t had the bird long and was calling it Elmo even though, without the bright orange spots on its cheeks, it looked to be a female. On top of that, I’m of the early Sesame Street era and I never really liked Elmo since he arrived late on the scene and started stealing the show from Kermit, Grover, Herry and Cookie. I named the bird Genny and set her up in a nice cage with food, water and toys.

As with all new arrivals, I didn’t bother her much those first few days so she’d have a chance to adjust to her new surroundings in a spare room of the little cottage where we lived at the time. One thing I learned working at Midwest Bird and Exotic Animal Hospital was that an all seed diet was bad for a bird’s health. If you wanted your bird to live a long, healthy life it was best to feed a pelleted diet. Pellets are similar to dog or cat kibble except they’re designed with bird nutrition in mind. They come in various colors and sizes for different birds. This was still fairly new thinking, but I was all in so I started Genny on pellets right away, while still feeding her seed. I could have also offered table food like corn, beans and rice, but I only did that if we had leftovers from our own human meals. The doctors always stressed that it should be a gradual transition from seeds to pellets, adding that it could take weeks or months. You’re supposed to slowly decrease the seed while increasing the pellets. Makes sense, right?

Well, I was so proud of myself because I had that baby girl eating pellets within about ten days. I knew that if an animal was hungry it would eat so we could just do away with the seeds altogether. This was over fifteen years ago and I truly can’t remember what made me think she was eating well, but whatever it was, I was terribly wrong because I found her dead at the bottom of the cage one morning. Of course, I was shocked and bummed and confused all at once. I wrapped her up and took her to work with me so somebody could hopefully give me an explanation.

Without even doing a post-mortem exam, it was obvious to the doctors and technicians that she was very, very thin. Her keel, or breast bone, was very prominent with no “meat” around it. I told them I had recently moved her to a pellet-only diet and thought she was eating fine. The simple fact is that I was wrong. She was still a young bird, maybe only a few months old, and shouldn’t have been expected to eat just pellets. She was dead now and I couldn’t go back. I hate that feeling. For one, I felt I had left the previous owner down. On top of that, my arrogance had made an animal suffer, something I would pay good money to never allow.

The client who gave me that bird came into the animal hospital at least once after that. I never told her what happened and she, for some odd reason, didn’t ask how Elmo was doing. There had been a long time between visits to the animal hospital, so maybe she wasn’t sure if I was the same person who had her bird or maybe she expected me to say something first. I always wondered about this. I’ve never been any good at lying and I’m glad I didn’t have to, but if she would have asked, I would have saved her grief and said the bird was fine, but that I’d changed her name to Genny. I suppose I thought disappointing her just a little with this truth was preferred over disappointing her a lot with the whole truth.

It was a costly, blatant mistake that I’ve not since made again. I’ve made others and I’ll surely write about them, but none that cost an animal its life, so I hope you’ll keep reading. My two current cockatiels are pushing 16 years of age and eat some pellets, but mostly seeds.

This is our cockatiel, Weston. His coloration is called "normal grey." If it was a female, there wouldn't be any yellow on the face and the orange patches would appear dull or faded.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Caveat: Exotics are not for everyone

I feel the need to define “exotic pet,” as this may mean different things to different people. As far as this blog is concerned, it doesn’t include species that would be better served by zookeepers, veterinarians or licensed wildlife rehab specialists. While it is not illegal to own many non-native species like the fennec fox, kinkajou or sugar glider, they don’t necessarily make very good pets for the average pet keeper. Of course, this does not include dangerous species such as bears, various cats, coyotes, wolves, poisonous reptiles and other reptiles beyond a certain size. These are very likely illegal. Every state in the U.S. has different laws regarding pet ownership so if you find yourself falling in love with a baby alligator or coatimundi, you’d better check your state’s laws first. One website I found helpful was the Animal Legal and Historical Center supported by Michigan State University College of Law.

Most of the animals you find in a pet store or with breeders are safe to keep because they’re managed by the
Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES. This is an organization that maintains international government agreements with regard to the trading of plants and animals. Legal transfer of animals to and from the 175 countries partied with CITES requires strict documentation.

I recently read the book, “Life on the Ark,” by Dr. Lester Fisher, former director and veterinarian for the
Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago. He had several stories about “collecting trips” made to Africa and Asia to acquire species from the wild. This usually involved a group of men and a net or some kind of cage. While they intended no direct harm on the animals, it was sad to read because you could just imagine what the chimpanzee must have been thinking or feeling. That was the old days when there were little or no restrictions. Now before pet stores, zoos, collectors and individuals can legally import or export species, they have to meet CITES requirements. This includes souvenir items that might be made from the wood of an endangered tree or the tusks or bones of an animal.

It’s possible I may someday write about coatis or sugar gliders, but that post will likely lean toward providing facts and leaving care to those with experience. Of course, to become experienced, one needs time and a strong sense of commitment not unlike what’s needed to care for a toddler. One must ask one’s self if they’re prepared to make those kinds of sacrifices. So are you?

This is a coatimundi, a term which refers to a lone coati species. It's natural habitat is wooded areas of Latin America though it has been found as far north as southern Arizona and New Mexico. They're in the family of procyonidae along with raccoons and ringtails.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Bye Bye Gecko Tail

When we first brought home our crested gecko, I preached to the kids about not handling him without supervision and to never grab him by the tail. I was determined to make sure this little lizard kept his tail since he wasn’t like other species that can grow one back. We filled gecko’s cage with fake plants and driftwood pieces arranged strategically so he could navigate over and under. There was one tight spot in a corner that he liked, but it appeared he could get in and out fine. The cage was placed on our son’s dresser since this was technically his pet and he could help with the nightly misting.

We tried to handle the lizard only every few days at this point so he’d have a chance to adjust to his new environment. The breeder suggested we let him walk on our hands by moving one hand in front of the other. We found he was very jumpy and could quickly move from hand to arm to shirt. It’s a little freaky at first, but he never tried to bite and we were very gentle with him. There was no need to touch his tail since I could kind of peel him off by carefully cupping my hand over his body.

After about three months, we were getting more confident with him and he was getting used to our periodic handling. One evening when I went to get him out, my eyes fell upon a lone tail lying in the open on a log. It took a second to register that this three inch span of lizard was not attached to a body. “No!” I spouted. “No, no, no, nooooooo.” Picture the scene from Toy Story, near the end when Woody’s match goes out just as he’s about to light the rocket. That was me.

I immediately pointed an accusatory finger, but as usual, “nobody knew nothin.” This time I actually believed them, but was very upset knowing a mistake was made and there was no fixing it. The gecko appeared fine. There was a little pointed stump in the place where his tail would have attached, but it was clean and already healing.

I deduced that the cage position on top of our son’s dresser was probably to blame. Whenever said son would open or close a drawer, the dresser would shake or wobble a little. I think this was enough to jiggle one of the log pieces out of place and the little guy’s tail must have been caught under one. I hadn't been able to locate him the night before and decided to just let him be. I’m guessing he was probably pinned under a log and had to finally pull away when thirst or hunger got the best of him.

I stayed in a disappointed state for a couple days, but felt a little better after reading that 75 percent of crested geckos studied in the wild were observed without tails. I told myself and the kids it was probably best he lost the tail now rather than a year or two from now when it would have been even more traumatizing, to us that is. My self-soothing philosophy said, “That’s out of the way now and we don’t have to worry about it.”

That was over a year ago and there’ve been no problems since. I moved the cage to our bird room where there's special lighting and more appropriate temperatures. The stump never bled or swelled or anything and frankly, the gecko didn’t seem to miss it. That’s a wild animal for you: They don’t dwell on things the way we humans do. Even our domesticated pets still have natural instincts on which they rely. We have much to learn from these creatures with whom we choose to surround ourselves.

Young crested gecko before losing tail. Photo without tail coming soon.

Here's a photo of our crested gecko at nearly two years of age. She's about 4 to 5 inches long without the tail. She's resting on a pot holder, though she doesn't stay still for very long when she's out of her vivarium. 

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Exotic Pet Vet

Sometimes elusive, complex, indefinite: The right exotic veterinarian for your pets can be hard to find. In my case, it was easy because I worked among several leading professionals at Midwest Bird and Exotic Animal Hospital, formerly in Westchester, Illinois. As the first veterinary practice dedicated to treating exotics exclusively, Midwest Bird was a very busy, thriving practice. As a part–time receptionist for nine years, I often just brought my pet to work with me. Once our family moved and I left that position, the search for a new vet began, but it was hard not to make comparisons with the former.

A nearby town had one vet that specialized in exotics, but after a third visit, I found him less than experienced. I had volunteered to take my neighbor’s guinea pig in for euthanasia. She was an older pig with recurring problems, but I was curious to know if she had tooth spurs or something else going on in her mouth. This veterinary practice was good enough to agree to euthanize a pet they’d not seen before and I was grateful for that, so I was probably pushing it by asking them to please have a look in her mouth, now that she was dead, for any abnormalities. Apparently, in order to do that, I was told they'd have to pry her mouth open thereby breaking her jaw. First of all this isn’t true if you’ve got the right tools which I would assume a veterinarian who specializes in exotics has, and second, who cares because she’s dead and it’s not going to hurt. I don’t recall my actual response though I’m sure one raised eyebrow was involved and a resolution to never return.

An ad in the newspaper led the way to the next exotic vet in a small town about 40 minutes away. The doctor was competent, but the place was tiny and cramped. For example, the employee coffee pot was on a small table in the bathroom. I went there a couple of times, but ended it after they wanted to charge me $63 for a routine cremation of a rat.

Oddly enough, I learned there’s a ferret sanctuary in another nearby small town so I had the bright idea, finally, to ask the proprietor what vet she uses. This led me to Dogwood Petcare Center and Dr. Katie Racek-Peters. I first went in with our newly acquired Senegal parrot, Louie, who needed a nail trim. I had tried to do it myself with a Dremel, but it was still tricky and stressful. Other visits followed and I found Dr. Katie was always willing to work within my budget and listen to my ideas. She understands that not everyone is prepared to spend hundreds of dollars on a small animal that has a short lifespan, but she also appreciates my knowledge and respect for her as a professional. I know she needs blood tests or x-rays to support a diagnosis and she never pressures me to go one way or another. She helps me make an educated decision.

There are a number of ways to choose a vet who specializes in exotics. One place to start is the Association of Avian Veterinarians. Many doctors who see birds are qualified to see other small animals. In my opinion, ferrets can be tricky so it would be best to talk to other ferret keepers for recommendations.

Even the finest exotic veterinarian may not always be the best fit for your personality or style of pet keeping. Some will ask you to do more than you’re capable of and even make you feel a little guilty, while perhaps unintentionally. Some will be so sure of themselves they boost your confidence only to get less than anticipated results. Some will make mistakes. The pets we’ve chosen aren’t always forthright with their symptoms and certainly can’t tell us how they feel so treatment isn’t always right on.

The field of exotic medicine is still new and expanding. Great strides have been made in the last two decades and the science continues to advance. Regardless, there ought to be some give and take between you and your exotic pet vet so you can work together for the animal’s benefit, which in turn, will transfer to the pet keeper’s happiness.

This is Louie free climbing up our cabinets. We had to put a stop to this eventually due to nicks from his beak and the trouble he caused once he got to the countertop.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Reptile in the House

Up until two years ago, I had no interest in keeping a reptile. My pet store and veterinary hospital experience taught me how much was involved in caring for a cold-blooded animal. I would need a heat lamp or heat pad or both. I would have to make a salad for the pet every day or provide live or killed food like crickets, mice goldfish or rats. Although I have no problem with snakes and I like watching them, I wasn't interested in having one and I really didn't like watching them eat. I liked the idea of keeping a box turtle or tortoise, but again, wasn't sure if I could provide the best environment. So I stayed away from reptiles even though they were offered to me free numerous times. In fact, most of my animals were acquired free of charge from customers or clients who had to give them up for one reason or another.

In 2007, I was writing a story about the Midwest Museum of Natural History in Sycamore, Illinois. Jack Hanna was to appear and I was given the awesome opportunity of covering the event. At that time, the museum had a special exhibit of live reptiles and I notice a cool looking lizard which I learned was a crested gecko (Rhacodactylus ciliatus). I'd never seen anything like it before and, as far as care and such, was only familiar with leopard geckos. The young man who owned the display said these lizards were fairly new to the pet scene, but were easy to care for because they do fine at room temperature. I made a mental note of this little lizard and decided someday I just might like to have one. I started looking for them in pet stores when I would go in for supplies, but didn't find any until 2010.

Under the guise of a birthday gift for our then 9 year-old son, I made arrangements to purchase one from a breeder. I had seen a crested at Petco, but it had already lost its tail and in this species the tail does not grow back. However, the price was right because it was marked down to $35 from $75.

In my search to find a breeder, I stumbled upon a link for Scott Smith’s All Animal Expo, held twice a month just about a one hour drive from my home. The website had a list of vendors that would take part in the event. I started talking to a breeder on the list by e-mail and made arrangements to buy a young “crestie” from her for $50. She was very knowledgeable and helpful. She raises her geckos on Repashy crested gecko diet which is just a powder that mixes with water and gets set out in a dish. No salad making or cricket feeding necessary. All the nutrition the crested needs, aside from that provided from natural sunlight, is in this diet. That little lizard was handed to us in a small, round, plastic container that measured about 4 inches wide and a little over an inch high. He barely filled the middle of it and a year and a half later he would never fit since he’s more than doubled in length and height.

We started housing him in the largest plastic Kritter Keeper we could buy. There were several nice reptile enclosures for sale at the expo, but I liked the lightweight plastic and secure lid (and the $20 price) of the one we chose. We put some nice driftwood logs in and a bunch of fake foliage. The breeder recommended only paper towels for the bottom of the enclosure so we complied. For one, it makes it easy to see if your lizard is giving off wastes, but it also prevents the gecko from ingesting other types of substrates like sand, soil, bark or litter.

We fed our cute baby gecko the Repashy mix in a tiny food dish from my daughter’s Littlest Pet Shop playset. This worked for a while, but I felt like he preferred to be up high so I looked for something better. I liked the fake rock feeding shelf I found at Pangea Reptile Supplies. It has two spaces for water and food cups and it sticks to the side of any cage with strong magnets. While we’ve observed our lizard on the feeding shelf and have noticed the food level go down in his dish, oddly enough, the whole time we’ve had him, we’ve never once seen him eat the Repashy. We buy him crickets once every 4 to 6 weeks, but he’s so fast, sometimes we can’t see him eat these either. That’s okay because I’m just so proud that he’s doing well and seems to be thriving. I took him to the veterinarian around his one year birthday and he weighed 13 grams. That was an interesting vet visit, but I’d like to talk more about that later, along with the one mistake I made that cost him his tail. Thanks for listening and feel free to ask questions. Here are a few pictures.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

The How and Why of it

How did you become interested in exotic pets? You can learn more about how I ended up with rodents, birds and a lizard for pets by reading my profile, but we all make turns in our lives and I'd like to know what other keepers are into and how it came to be. After all, not everyone wants to make a salad for their tortoise everyday so please share why you chose what you chose. Please refrain from talking about illegal pets. We'll leave that to the professionals with licenses to rehab, but they're welcome to put in their two cents.

As far back as I can remember, I’ve always cohabitated with some kind of animal. Growing up it was mainly cats. While I remember a few strays and even one that had kittens in our house, my dad made sure only one cat was allowed to stay. After all, he and my mom already had nine mouths to feed and it would have been irrational and downright excessive to welcome more. As the older kids started moving out, we were allowed the odd small pet. One of my brothers had a parakeet for a while and another brother raised a handful of pigeons in the garage. The folks eventually allowed a few pet mice and a betta fish. Once out on my own, I adopted two stray cats and later purchased a hamster. Coming from a large and sometimes chaotic family, I suppose I felt the need to be in control of something while receiving unconditional love and acceptance. I soon learned that you cannot control animals so much as respect them and try to work with their natural behaviors.
While I had a pet mouse when I was a teen and a hamster later on, I became more interested in working closely with animals while working in the circus. I was inspired to apply to an exclusive college program that teaches animal training. It took two years of trying, but I was finally accepted and one of our first assignments was to train a rat. I hadn't had a rat before, but was told they were smart and very trainable. Willard, my first rat, was all black and had to be housed in my little rented bedroom with two cats which actually worked out fine. His final performance received the grade of only a "C," but I claim prop failure for that. He had to run through and over some obstacles, then jump over a pool (a kitty litter pan full of water) then push a car over a small, but real explosive. Once the car was in place, he ran behind a protective wall and flipped a light switch hooked to a battery which activated the gun powder and "blew up" the car with a flash and a little smoke for my big finale. Except the small explosive, called a squib, didn't go off and I had to reactivate it for the effect, but it wasn't as cool. Apparently, timing really is everything.
I've had many more rats since Willard, but have stuck with only females for the last few years. More about that later.