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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.