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Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Play Place Results

In my last post, I wrote about the play place I built for our two rats. At first they were afraid and spent their time trying to find a way out. Both were able to jump to the window screen and hold on, but Fiona could actually jump to the top of the largest box and walk around on the inside flap. I had this box held shut with a heavy paint can, but she continued to try to squeeze her way out. So far she has not been successful.

With nowhere else for them to go, I just kept putting them in this box and adding a few nibbles of treats. They eventually explored further to the box on the opposite end. One day I saw Sugar in nowhere near the wheel, yet I heard it spinning around. I was astounded to find that Fiona was running on the wheel. One time I caught her with only her front feet on the wheel and she would make it go around that way. She must have gotten the courage to get on up there because it wasn’t long before she was on a full run. Whether she learned this from watching Sugar or just from shear boredom, I don’t know, but I’m glad she’s getting the exercise she needs because she was starting to get a little plump.

Poor Sugar now has two mammary tumors and may only be with us for a few more months. So far, she’s acting and eating fine, but she’s looking a little thinner than usual. The bigger the tumors get, the harder it will be for her to move around. So sad.

I’m probably going to take a break from keeping rats for a while. I won’t replace Sugar and we’ll likely have Fiona for another two years. It will be hard to have just one rat, but I feel like I need a break from cleaning and Fiona is kind of handful with her need for so much stimulation. We’ll see if I can stick to the plan.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

A Playplace for Small Pets

Our newest rat, Fiona, is really a rascal and we’ve been having trouble keeping her occupied and stimulated. I thought we had a pretty nice set up for our two rats, but it wasn’t enough for Fiona. The large three story cage sets on a long table that also supports a ten gallon glass tank, a large rat wheel and two smaller cages. When they’re let out of the large cage, the rats are allowed their freedom on this long table. Sugar rat has always stayed in the confines of this area and loves to run on the wheel, but Fiona is afraid of the wheel and seems to need more attention from us.

One day, I was trying to clean or something and Fiona was just too clingy so I set her down on a nearby craft dresser where she immediately started exploring. She was only free for about five minutes, but it was long enough for her to realize that exploring is awesome. After that day, we were never able to keep her on the table. We’d walk away and find she had somehow gotten down and was running around the basement. We moved everything away from the table so there was nothing for her to jump or climb down to, but she still found a way. It soon got to the point where we’d open the door to let the rats out and Fiona would be on the floor within 30 seconds. She just leans over the edge of the table and falls down to the cement floor and dashes away.

For a while, I was just letting her run around down there for ten minutes. She would always eventually try to get upstairs so we could catch her easily. Sometimes, we allow her free time in the upstairs living room, but if my husband is home, this is no good because he doesn’t understand our friendship with rats. Also, if Fiona came to a door or anything blocking her way, she would start gnawing or ripping up carpet and we just couldn’t have that. I had to keep the both of them locked up in their big cage more and more. We tried letting just Sugar out to run on her wheel, but she seemed confused as to why she wasn’t being allowed back in her cage. A couple times, we forgot about her and found her curled up sleeping in another cage, but still on the table like a good girl. This made us feel guilty.
My solution was to build a play place for them using cardboard boxes and tubes I’d collected at my workplace. The tubes are wide and made of sturdy cardboard so they were just crying out for me to do something with them. One of the boxes had dividers all through it which I found perfect for making a cardboard maze. I used that box and three others, attaching them all with the tubes using an Exacto knife and duct tape. For two boxes, I had a screen top that I presume once covered a huge, long aquarium.

I first decided to see what Fiona thought of one of the taller boxes. I dropped her in and was surprised to find she could jump out. This box is probably a good three feet tall and she was able to use one side to ricochet off of to get to the top. I was amazed by her stealth, but I think she was mostly motivated by fear. I still went forward with my building plan, but considered adding windows to the tall box so it wouldn’t be so dark in there. For this I borrowed some cage wire from a neighbor and simply duct taped it on.  So here’s how it turned out. I’ll let you know what the girls thought of it after they’ve had some time to try it out.  
 This is the tall box Fiona was able to jump out of. Each box is connected with a tube.

Three sides have a window like this one. Both rats jump up to it and grab the bars with their little hands, not unlike prisoners in jail.

The bottoms of these slats have holes carved in them so the girls can maneuver through.

Here's what the whole thing looks like. The box lids get closed and I put a gallon paint can on to keep them secured.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Another Tip for Cleaning Bird Cages

We used this one every day at the animal hospital. Instead of having to soak or scrub perches to remove bird poop, the technicians simply wrapped them with Vet Wrap. It’s a bandage material that self sticks as it wraps around something, like an animal’s leg. Once the perch is soiled, you just unwrap the Vet Wrap and throw it away.  The perch is ready to go after re-wrapping. Vet Wrap comes in a bunch of colors, but green or dark colors probably aren’t the best choice because they might make it harder to observe whether your bird’s droppings are normal or not. I prefer white. There are plenty of places to purchase Vet Wrap or similar knock offs. Here’s one of them:

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Robo dwarf hamsters

I found a good website for information about Roborovskii dwarf hamsters. They sound pretty cool and I just might have to get one someday. I've been a hamster hater since the one I had briefly chewed his way out and was gone within a week. The other ones I encountered always bit me so I decided they weren't the rodent for me.

In 2010, I met a breeder of Russian dwarfs at Scott Smith's All Animal Expo and she had me convinced they might be worth another try. The one she let me hold just sat in my hand. Most recently, I had to write a fact filled article about Robo dwarfs and that piqued my curiosity. I love that they can be housed in a large, plastic storage container and that they love to run on the wheel. Wheel runners have always been an attraction to me. In fact, that's how our rat, Sugar, won me over in the pet store. She was just running away.

Here's the link for Robo dwarf hamsters:

Note: This above website has apparently expired. The link will get you there, but it's hard to read. If anyone finds an appropriate link, feel free to post in a comment. I never did get a Russian hamster, but I think about it.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

A Tip for Easier Cage Cleaning

Plenty of bird keepers use newspaper to cover the bottom of the cage. It can be used on the tray as well as on the grate above. There’s nothing wrong with this, though I’ve been told not to use colored paper (like that from ads and such) because it can be toxic if your bird ingests it.
I prefer to use a heavy white paper towel on my bird cage bottoms for a couple of reasons. One, I like the neat, bright look of it. I often clean before company comes and the white paper towels make the cages look less cluttered or busy. The second reason is that I can see my birds’ droppings better on the white background and thereby make sure I’m not seeing anything out of the ordinary.

For the bigger birds like my Senegal parrot, I have to layer the paper towels two or three times and put an extra one where I usually find the most droppings. A neighbor gave me some of that gritty, sand paper cage liner she had left after her cockatiel died. I was always told sand paper perches or substrates were bad for birds so I wasn’t planning to use it, but then I discovered if I cut just a mid-sized rectangular piece, I could place it below where the bird most often sits and decrease my need to change paper s. I just cut a new piece and switch it out with the old when droppings start to crowd the area. Easy peasy.

I found I could also do the same thing with a product used for rabbits and guinea pigs. I had bought some absorbent cage liners to spread across the bottom of a small holding cage, but they never really did the trick. The animals would just scratch or pull them up. Not wanting to waste them, I started cutting them into rectangles to use in the same way as the sandpaper. These liners are soft like suede on one side and glossy and water proof on the other.  They work well for keeping the paper towels dry. I can just lift the soiled, cut piece out and replace it with a new, clean one rather than having to change all the papers.  
I found I could also do the same thing with a product used for rabbits and guinea pigs. I had bought some absorbent cage liners to spread across the bottom of a small holding cage, but they never really did the trick. The animals would just scratch or pull them up. Not wanting to waste them, I started cutting them into rectangles to use in the same way as the sandpaper. These liners are soft like suede on one side and glossy and water proof on the other.  They work well for keeping the paper towels dry. I can just lift the soiled, cut piece out and replace it with a new, clean one rather than having to change all the papers.  

My favorite paper towel brand is Bounty, but they’re kind of expensive to just use for turd collecting so I buy a generic form of Bounty at Wal-mart or Sam’s Club or wherever; anything that has that quilted thickness.
I hope you’ll give these products a try. Remember to just use the sandpaper in sections and don’t cover the whole bottom with it. It’s not good for your bird’s feet.  The cage liners I used have a rabbit on the box and are made by a company called LM AnimalFarms.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Circus Days (and the animals)

I was just perusing Facebook looking for some of the old gang from Circus World, where I worked from 1984 to mid 1986. My job as a clown was my first exposure to large animals other than visiting the zoo as a kid. I know I had my picture taken with a baby leopard, a baby elephant and standing next to a tiger separated by the performance cage. I can honestly say, I never saw an animal mistreated there. The trainer and the animals seemed to have an understanding. That's not to say I didn't hear a tiger roar out a complaint now and then as I'm sure they had their bad days.

One sad thing was the death of a female giraffe named Agnes. For some reason, they park decided to sell Agnes to a well known animal collector named Earl Tatum. The gal who took care of the giraffe and other livestock tried to tell the handlers that the procedure might be tricky. While I don't remember her name, I remember that she was quite angry about the whole situation.

Agnes was apparently overweight as a result of having little space to run or get much exercise. A veterinarian was not called to be on hand for the transport. He was only called when she collapsed. I was able to retrieve a news article about this on the Internet. The vet said that her heart wasn't in the best condition and, after she collapsed, it was a mistake to try to get her to stand up again. He added that it would have been wiser to have attempted the move earlier in the day or later in the evening rather than in the afternoon heat of a Florida September day. Unfortunately, there were many spectators, on their way to the big Circus performance, that stopped to watch and became witnesses to the sad event.

Other than that one event, the animals appeared to be well cared for. The elephant barn was open and airy with large viewing areas where the public could look in as they walked by. I know there are folks who are totally against the restraint or training of any exotic animal, but I will always be a circus fan and the animals are a big part of that. There were a few animal acts, however, that I felt just didn't belong. I've never like to see bears in the circus, for one, and Circus World had a chimpanzee act for a short time that I just felt was wrong for the place. It just didn't seem right to see primates wearing collars, and bears too, for that matter. None of our other acts, even some dog acts, required the animals to wear collars.

I hope to dig up some pictures of my circus days so I can scan them to the computer. Until then, May All Your Days be Circus Days!

Friday, June 29, 2012

Carrie was a Good Pet

Sorry that it’s been over a month since I’ve posted. It was a busy time during which I was back at the veterinarian twice; the last visit was to finally put Carolina rat to sleep. After Sugar had her dental incident, I found a lump under Carolina’s jaw. Thinking this was surely a tumor, I made an appointment to have the vet look at her with the likelihood she would be euthanized. If you recall, I had done the same thing a few weeks prior and what I thought was a tumor was a very treatable ear infection.

Once again, this “tumor” turned out to actually be an abscess. We suspected she got it from being bitten by the new, young rat I picked up at the Bird Expo. We named her Fiona after a character on one of our favorite TV shows, Burn Notice. Little Fiona was chosen from a group of about 20 young rats held in a 10 gallon aquarium. She hadn’t learned any manners yet and was rather food aggressive. I had kept her separated from my two rats for only a few days when I probably should have quarantined her longer. Regardless, her sharp little teeth must have punctured Carrie’s skin when they were fed together and the wound festered on the inside and got infected.

The plan was to put her on antibiotics again and allow the abscess to drain. It was a busy Saturday morning at the vet, so I had to wait about an hour for the doctor to numb the area and then open the abscess with a small incision. I was sent home with instructions to use a warm compress on the wound two to three times a day. I knew this was not something I had time for, but I didn’t want to euthanize this rat when she still had so much spirit left. I took her home and put her in a separate cage where she wouldn’t have to climb and could eat unchallenged. She still came out to visit with the other rats, but had to be supervised.

When we treated her abscess, we took her to the kitchen in a little, soft, dog house designed for a stuffed animal. Carrie seemed to really like it in there and would just curl up stay put. What she didn’t like was the warm compresses. This rat weighs less than a pound so I was surprised at how she could push my hand away with her little four-fingered paw. After the compress, her cheek would be wet and she’d want to clean it, but that kind of irritated the area and opened the doctor’s incision up more. It was a long two weeks, but I stuck with the daily compresses and meds and eventually the area healed, but developed a hard, round, pebble size lump. The vet said that was where the abscess had walled itself off and the only way to treat that was surgically. This was not an option for Carolina because she was just too old. She was still eating and alert, but she was losing control of her back legs and wasn’t able to climb up or down very well.

We kept her separated from the other two and gave her as much attention as possible. Sometimes, we would put her in the little dog house and let her sit with us while we watched TV. I don’t normally allow the rats to hang out upstairs with us because they just want to explore, but Carrie just stayed in her little house. She tried her best to groom herself, but she would lose balance and have a hard time. She had also lost a lot of hair at this point and just looked kind of raggedy. As she slept in her cage, we could hear squeaky breathing noises. We finally took her in for euthanasia in early June. She was just short of three years which is the length of a rat’s lifespan. She was a good and gentle rat. As with all of our pets, we took her home and buried her in the yard.

Here's Carrie in her little Coconut house. Coconut is a little white dog that goes with the American Girl Dolls. One of our previous old rats liked to sit in this house when my daughter would take the rats into her bedroom. Carrie did the very same thing and it became her little refuge where she could be out of her cage, but still feel secure.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Another Veterinary Visit

I noticed our rat, Sugar, acting off one day. She was still interested in us and coming out, but she would sit in a hunched fashion and kept pawing at her mouth. It really looked like she was just grooming around her mouth, but this was more than usual and I wondered if she had something stuck in her teeth or what.  Of course, it was a Saturday night and no veterinarians would be available to call until Monday. I wasn’t even sure there was anything wrong since she was so active and eating.

Well, that’s not true. It worried me that she was grinding her teeth. Birds grind their beaks to soothe themselves, often right before they go to sleep. Rabbits, guinea pigs and rodents grind when they’re in pain. I decided to give her a tiny dose of Metacam that I had leftover from another pet. This pain medication seemed to help as she slept soundly that Sunday and came out to visit when we approached later. I only gave the one dose and Monday morning she was still acting off, but I had to go to work. 

I started thinking about what the problem could be. Just two days before I had witnessed her falling off the table on which our rat complex is arranged. She has escaped from the table before so this certainly wasn’t her first time dropping three feet, but since Carolina’s aged and been sick, Sugar has been doing more eating. Maybe since she gained a little weight, the fall was more traumatic or maybe she just hit her head or mouth just right. When she was still a little hunched and grinding the next morning, I made a vet appointment since it was my day off.

While Sugar was investigating the counter top in the exam room, with all its glass jars and the can of Cheez Whiz (probably for ferrets), I stressed to the technician, who always comes in to get the lowdown before the doctor enters, that they might think I'm crazy because this rat certainly didn’t look sick at first glance. I think it took Dr. Katie less than a minute to look in Sugar’s mouth and determine she’d broken her two top incisors. “Oh no,” I said, because I know rat incisors grow continuously and grind each other down. Without the top to grind the bottom, what would happen?

Dr. Katie said I could give her more Metacam as needed and to just watch to see if those lower teeth become overgrown. If the top teeth don’t grow in fast enough, she may have to come back for a tooth trim which must be done under sedation. All I heard was $$$$. While I didn’t like the news, it felt good to know that I wasn’t crazy and there really was something amiss as suspected. It kind of reassured me, as a pet owner, that I still have a clue as to what I’m doing. I didn’t take any meds home and only had to pay the exam fee so it wasn’t too bad. I noticed two little nubs of Sugar’s top incisors coming in within a week so there would be no need for a tooth trim. It later occurred to me how she might have broken her teeth if it wasn’t from falling off the table.
Every morning, I give the two rats a snack as soon as I go to the basement and turn on the low lights. They come out and take their portion and run to wherever. With Carrie slowing down and not feeling well at this time (see previous post), Sugar quickly grabbed two portions. I saw this and said, “No way, you’re not getting both,” and quickly grabbed her up and tugged at the food in her mouth. She’s a gentle rat so I wasn’t worried about getting bit, but I was quite surprised at the strength she had to hang on. Once I retrieved the extra piece, she ran off and ate the one she had. I can’t remember if she squeaked when I grabbed that food or not, but I’m pretty sure that was the moment she broke her teeth because that particular food object was something hard, like a nut or nugget.

Whatever happened, all’s well that ends well. It was another hard lesson learned on my part. I think I mentioned early on in this blog that mistakes have been made. This time it only cost me $45 and some guilt.

Here's our girl having some popcorn. What a face. Sugar is a Dumbo rat so her ears lie sideways rather than pointing up. She's about a year and four months old here, not quite halfway through her life.

Monday, April 30, 2012

The Midwest Bird Expo in Kane County

My daughter and I attended the Midwest Bird Expo at the Kane County Fairgrounds this past Saturday. My main goal in going was to find some cockatiel seed without sunflower seeds in it and I thought I could get some other bird supplies for cheaper than the pet store. One item I found that I wasn't looking for is a metal cage clip for fastening big leaves of lettuce or millet spray or other foods to the side of the cage. These were only 75 cents each. I also picked up cuttle bones for only 50 cents each. They're at least $1.99 in the pet store. We took a few pictures of some of the animals on display such as one very large chameleon. I learned of a bird I had never heard of before called a lineolated parakeet. I thought they were Pacific parrotlets at first. I also thought I knew my bird species pretty well.

We spent several hours there and left with three bags of supplies and one very young and very cute new pet rat. I will post some photos very soon.

Here is the lineolated parakeet (Bolborhynchus lineola). The ones we saw were this color or kind of an subtle olive green. You can see how they resemble a parrotlet of similar coloring.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Carolina Rat Is Still With Us

It was just two weeks ago that I took our pet rat, Carrie, in to the vet to be euthanized. I didn’t feel completely confident with the idea because she wasn’t doing as poorly as other pets I’ve euthanized. She was lethargic, not very responsive and frail looking, but she was still eating and drinking though we had to place food in front of her to get her interested.

While we were in the exam room and waiting for the doctor, I noticed that the lump on the side of Carrie’s face had gone down. I had thought this lump was a tumor, but tumors generally don’t decrease on their own right? Once Doctor Katie started her exam, I soon realized there was a chance I would have to run the errands I had planned with a live rat in the van rather than the dead one that wouldn’t have caused any problems.

Carrie was diagnosed with a pretty bad ear infection and a slight respiratory irritation. The doctor set us up with some oral Baytril and some Baytril drops for the affected ear.  I knew this would likely only give Carrie a few more months, but I was thankful for the chance to make things right by improving how she felt. I also felt more at ease knowing I couldn’t possibly put her down for an ear infection.

That day was the day before my son’s birthday, so I had a lot of running around to do. Since we live in a small town and the vet is in a big, busy town, I still intended to do my shopping. I made Carrie a little tent within her pet carrier and she was just fine to stay in the van on that cool spring day. My kids had been reminded to say goodbye one last time to her that morning so they were happily surprised to see her twittering around in the carrier when I arrived home. They’ll have to say goodbye again some other day.
Carolina is feeling much better now. She’s walking around and investigating things like a good rat. She can’t climb or jump much anymore, but she sure hasn’t given up on life. She’s eating heartily all on her own and still can’t resist anything with peanut butter. To be sure, I’ve never met a rat that could.

This is Carrie. We sometimes call her Blackie though she's more of a dark brown. She'll be three years old in July of 2012.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Crested Gecko Minus One Tail

Back in September of 2011, I wrote about how our gecko lost its tail. I finally added a photo to that post of what she looks like without one. I thought I'd add a couple here as well.

She's nearly two years old here and about five inches long. She's resting on a pot holder. This gecko has great color which is one of the reason's I chose her. We use the plastic container to feed her crickets. I used to put them in her vivarium, but would later find a dead cricket here and another there so I started removing her to this container where we could watch her eat. I think she had a hard time chasing them in the vivarium. She never learned these things from her own mama so I had to make it easier for her. Plus, this way we know how much she's eating and that she's getting her calcium from the dusted crickets. Also, it's kind of fun to watch. 

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Little Joe Photo

One of the staff at Moorpark's Teaching Zoo took this recent photo of Little Joe so here's the real thing.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Little Joe Still Lives

As to my previous post about tortoises, I’ve recently learned that Little Joe is alive and well at 25 years-old. He’s full grown at about 14 inches long and weighs over ten pounds. He’s still used in educational presentations at America’s Teaching Zoo and is scheduled to appear in this year’s Spring Spectacular. He’s also available for adoption through the Zoo. Just visit this link:

Above is a likeness of what Little Joe looked like when I first saw him in 1987. The next picture is close to what he looks like now.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Our Rat has only a Few More Months

Carrie is a black, Rex rat we bought from a breeder ( in March of 2010. Rex rats have curly or crimped hair. She was eight months old at the time and had already had a litter of babies. Her name was Carolina, but we shortened it. I don’t like to change the names people have given their animals even after they’ve become mine. Sometimes we call her Blackie. We had another rat at the time that was in her last months, so Carrie appeared so energetic and fast. Now it’s her turn to be the old one. She has a small growth under her right arm and just the other day we noticed a small, hard, more worrisome lump on the side of her head. She doesn’t seem to be in any pain so we just have to wait for things to change. When she looks like she’s having trouble breathing or acts uncomfortable, I’ll take her to our vet and have her euthanized.

I suspected a few weeks ago that she had lost her vision. She started grabbing food out of our hands in a very rough manner when she used to be so gentle. She also would get startled when we’d go to pick her up. Now we just have to be very gentle with her.

I’ve witnessed the euthanasia of many pets so I know what to expect. It doesn’t bother me anymore. Actually, it’s quite a peaceful transition and I’m comforted knowing my pet won’t have to linger and suffer. It was hard when I had to put my cat to sleep, but I was still grateful to be with her at that time. She could have died in any number of the tragic ways that cats die, but she lived a good, long life as my best girl until her kidneys started to fail and we had to say goodbye.

I’ve never had a rat live past three years of age and Carrie will be three in July. I’m pretty sure she’ll be gone by then. We’ll bury her in our yard as we do with all of our small pets. Then we’ll probably get a new rat to keep Sugar company. Until then, we’ll give Carrie all her favorite things and try to keep her happy and comfy.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Should You Call the Vet?

“It’s a lousy hamster.”

“It’s just a rat.”

“It’s just a parakeet.”

“I only paid twelve bucks for it.”

That’s what I’ve heard so many times from clients at the animal hospital who balked at leaving a deposit to have their little, inexpensive, sick pet treated. Often, this was after we’d already started to save its life. If the animal died ten minutes after arrival, while the doctors and technicians were working on it, the client naturally didn’t want to pay a dime. This used to make me so mad. Even more frustrating was that, most times, an animal was brought in on death’s door which made everyone extra tense.

Here’s the thing. When you have a pet like a dog or cat, you have many years to get attached and grow your human/pet relationship. These pets are considered “more worthy” of the expense of seeing a vet. With the smaller animals, a pet owner may not interact as much as they would with a more sophisticated pet or they’ve had it for only a few months and feel it’s too early to encounter any kind of illness. Maybe they bought it for their kid and didn’t expect any health problems in the first place.

I’m playing devil’s advocate here because the very frugal part of me understands these situations. I don’t like spending money at the vet either and I try not to, but I also can’t watch an animal suffer. The best thing to do is provide the best care in the first place, but even with love, attention and proper care, animals do get sick. Here are just a few tips for trying to determine if your pet needs to see the vet.

With caged animals it’s hard to recognize when the pet is sick. The advice I offer most often to new pet owners is to check your pet every day, at least in the morning and evening. Once you know a pet’s normal behavior, you’ll know better when things aren’t normal or seem out of place. If you suspect your guinea pig is scratching more than usual, he probably is. When he starts to develop a bald spot, that’s further proof and a good reason to call the vet.

Anytime a guinea pig, rabbit or rodent stops eating, it’s serious. Guinea pigs and rabbits have the type of digestion system that works continually. If there’s a stoppage, often called G.I. stasis, medication and syringe feedings may be prescribed. When rats or mice stop eating it’s highly unusual. This is pretty much what they seem to live for so there’s usually an underlying cause.

Birds will sometimes crouch in the bottom of their cage if they’re sick or sit on the perch puffed up. Sometimes, this means nothing, but if it continues for more than half a day, then there’s likely something going on. Small birds are tricky because they can go from just a little sick to dying in a matter of hours. Keep a close watch on a bird that’s acting lethargic and start looking for a vet that sees birds in case you have to take him there in the next 24 hours.

Reptiles, on the other hand, can be sick for weeks without showing any outward signs. You might notice their mouth or eyes looking different or ragged. They might show one eye stuck shut or you might notice less droppings in the enclosure. Iguanas that aren’t getting the proper nutrition in their diet can develop a noticeably crooked spine. The disease process, by this point, has usually progressed too far, but the iguana can still get back on track and continue to live with an improved diet.

I’ve only touched on a few illnesses here, but the point I want to make is that many of these things are treatable when the pet is in the care of a competent exotic veterinarian. Whether you want to spend the money or not is going to be a personal decision.  I try to weigh how veterinary treatment is going to extend my pet’s life. Will it give her a few more months? Is the pet young enough to benefit from treatment?

For instance, I recently had my two and a half year-old rat treated for mites knowing that rats only live three years. This particular rat, named Carrie, didn’t have any other problems, which is unusual for a rat that age. Usually, a rat can have at least one growth or the beginnings of a respiratory condition by then. These are the two things from which they generally die. I went ahead with mite treatment because the other younger rat had to be treated anyway and because I wanted to get Carrie as close to her three year lifespan as I could. It’s kind of a mission of mine. The other thing I had to ask myself was whether I could watch her continue to lose fur and scratch herself so maniacally. I couldn’t. So for my own peace of mind I had to bite the bullet and pay for a vet visit. It was worth it to me.

What will it take for you?

This is our rat, Sugar. While our other rat, Carrie, was showing hair loss and scratching like crazy, only Sugar tested positive for mites. Still, both pets had to be treated along with a thorough cleaning and de-miting of the cages.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012


I’m not big on reptiles, mainly because they need a lot of set up with heat lamps, heat pads, night lights and a special substrate that won’t cause digestive problems. And then there are the salads, crickets or other live food depending on the species.  Since I met my first tortoise, I’ve always been kind of fond of them and would someday consider having one as long as I could provide it with the right environment.

As a new first-year student on a tour of the animal compound at Moorpark College, I remember being shown the littlest leopard tortoise (Stigmochelys pardalis). He was housed in a small drawer that was part of an old dresser or some big, old china cabinet. This and other boxy enclosures were kept in a heated, walk-in shipping container known as “The Reptile Room.”

His name was Little Joe and he probably could have fit in the palm of my hand. I wouldn’t really know because first year students were not allowed to touch or talk to any of the animals. Little Joe was a good eater and sported a pulchritudinous, geometric design on his shell. I also loved his name.

Little Joe grew quickly and ended up having to leave his drawer within the year. After another year, he was big enough to walk around on the floor or sun himself with the other tortoises.  When I visited the compound nearly ten years later, someone pointed to Little Joe walking around in an outdoor training ring used for large mammals. He looked to be about ten inches tall and maybe 16 inches long. I was happy to learn that one of the animals I once cared for was still alive. That tortoise must have had over 500 different students make him a salad over the years.

That’s the thing about turtles. If you’re not willing to make a salad for yourself or your kids nearly every day, an herbivorous reptile like a box turtle, tortoise or iguana might not be the best pet for you. Tortoises also get around fairly well and can move faster than you think.  One of the vets at the animal hospital told us he finally had to paint a bright pink “X” on his tortoise’s shell in order to find him in the yard. That tortoise even got lost in the clinic one day. We finally found him in an office corner, under a desk.

So, after my birds and other animals eventually die off, I will strongly consider adopting a tortoise that needs a good home. Then, maybe we’ll all benefit from eating more fruits and greens. Who has got tortoises out there? What kind?

An adult leopard tortoise (Stigmochelys pardalis) grazing. It's easy to see how they can blend in with the environment. A well cared for tortoise can live up to 40 or more years, depending on the species. 

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

You've Found an Animal that Needs Help. Now What?

It’s very tempting to think about keeping an animal that needs rescuing. I’d like to warn you that it doesn’t usually end well. While I know of a few people who have raised a wild rabbit or a squirrel, I still don’t think it’s a good idea. For one, it’s illegal in most cases that involve native species, but laws vary from state to state.  It’s also very difficult to feed a baby that’s lost its mother because you just can’t replicate the nourishment it would receive. That’s not to say it can’t be done, but there’s definitely a measure of dedication required.

I tried to raise a baby mockingbird once when I lived in Florida, but it lived for only a week because I wasn’t feeding it right. I also tried to hand feed a baby mouse. It died too. This was before all the exotic animal studies. I had success hand rearing four baby cockatiels and two Patagonian conures using the tried and true methods of the time (over 20 years ago) which included syringe feeding a mixture of baby bird hand-feeding formula and Gerber baby foods. This is good training for anyone who wants the experience of having a newborn because those birds had to be fed every few hours around the clock.

When my neighbor came to let me know he’d just found a nest of baby squirrels under the hood of the car he was working on, I already knew I would have to make some phone calls to find the best place for these four little naked babies. My usual policy, and the main thing we used to tell callers to the animal hospital, is to leave the babies where they were found or return them to their nest so the parents can finish their job. In this case, that wasn’t possible. The car had just been towed from a suburb over thirty miles away and it wasn’t going back. The best option would have been to take the nest back to a safe location near to where the car was parked. I imagined a mother squirrel frantically searching for her babies. The next option was to find a wildlife rehabilitator in my area and ask if they’d be willing to take them. You never want to assume they’ll just open their doors to everything. Most of these non-profit organizations have limits to what they can handle depending on how well funded they are.

Our local American Humane Society happens to have an offshoot program for wildlife so I made an appointment to bring the squirrels to their licensed wildlife rehabber. She was gracious enough to let me come to her property. She could have just asked me to meet her somewhere which I would have totally understood because once somebody knows you care for injured or sick animals, cardboard boxes with of moving surprises tend to show up on your doorstep.

The rehabber seemed to already have a plan for the babies as soon as she got a look at them. I’ve forgotten the details, but she said she would do this and that and then they’d be released onto her property which included several wooded acres. It obviously wasn’t the first time she’d had squirrels. I was thrilled to have the foursome in good hands and offered a donation of $35. I knew it wasn’t much, but she seemed satisfied and even a little surprised. I’ve had to leave stray kittens at county animal shelters a couple of times and I always try to make a donation. I know it will go to good use and, frankly, it helps with my guilt for having to pass on a problem. Even if you can’t offer money, you can at least offer to volunteer (and follow through with it) or purchase something on their Wish List.

So off the squirrels went. I never called to check on them, but she was kind enough to send our family a holiday card and a note that said all the squirrels were successfully released. We’re on the mailing list now and get a newsletter every year that chronicles just a portion of the animals they’ve helped over a year.

On the drive home from dropping off the squirrels, I thought about how easy it would have been to keep one. Heck, I’m an exotic animal keeper and trainer. I should be able to handle a squirrel, right? What fun it would be. Well, I quickly came to my senses realizing even just one would be more than I could handle with all my other animals and family responsibilities. I decided to just be grateful for the opportunity to put them in the hands of the right person. I hope you’ll have the same opportunity when it’s your turn to act as an advocate for an animal in need.

I deposited the squirrels and the nesting material with which they were found into this medium sized Critter Keeper. They had just a little fuzz and their eyes were still closed so I'm guessing they were maybe close to ten days to two weeks old.

This is what those squirrels might have looked like a few weeks later. Here in northern Illinois, we have an abundance of fox squirrels. Some folks think they're pests and thiefs and some, like me, enjoy watching them. This looks like it might be a gray squirrel, also common in neighborhoods and parks in Illinois.

Monday, February 20, 2012

The Best Spray Mister Bottle

In 2010, I needed to provide my new crested gecko with a fine mist on a daily basis so I ordered what I thought would be an appropriate spray bottle made by a reputable reptile supply manufacturer. In the mean time, I was using this tiny spray bottle that my husband pulled from the Wiper Wonder kit he’d received as a gift. It’s basically a tool to clean the inside of a car windshield. The little bottle probably held only two or three ounces of water, but the mist it delivered was perfect so I made it my own until I could find something similar, but bigger.  

I was excited to receive my new mister in the mail, but was just as quickly disappointed. The pump handle was on the top of the bottle and had to be pressed more than a two dozen times before I felt any pressure. Then, when I depressed the trigger, a heavy spray came out along with lots of dripping. This is not what I would consider a fine mist and the dripping was messy and annoying. I tried filling the bottle more, filling the bottle less and then I just got irritated with everything having to do with the bottle. It was too big. It was cumbersome. It was hard to pump. It was ugly. It would be a pain to send back. I let my favorite reptile supplier, Pangea, know it wasn’t what I was hoping for and they said to just send it back and they would pay shipping. Awesome.

I went back to the little tiny spray bottle I’d been using, but had to refill it every other day. It also took quite a bit of effort to get out the amount of mist I needed.  When I went to clean my girlfriend’s bird boarding room, which I do every couple of months, I shared my dilemma with her. She didn’t hesitate. She reached into a cabinet and handed me a bottle saying, “Try this.”

I did try it and it was perfect. It’s called Mist’r Wizard and it’s made by Pet Bird Xpress. It can be found on several Internet sites, but the cheapest price I found was at You simply fill it, pump the bottom plunger just three or four times and press down on the trigger on top. The fine mist sprays continually for a good 10 to 15 seconds. This bottle was designed with birds in mind, but it’s great for anything that needs a fine, gentle mist. It’s the perfect product for our needs so I hope it works for you too.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Third Time Trickle Flew Away

For some reason, I just didn’t think Trickle was gone for good this time, even after learning he’d been out in the world for over an hour. I arrived home from work when my husband told me a bird got out while he was bringing in the salt for the softener.  He had the door propped open and Trickle just flew right out. The timing was just weirdly right for this mishap. Trickle had flown up from the basement which happens very rarely. Our daughter had retrieved him on her finger (Remember, he’s the tamest) and was carrying him back to his cage when Bret walked in with two salt bags. This spooked Trickle and he flew right out the open door and through the garage.

Once receiving this news, I dropped my purse and lunch bag on the garage floor and turned around to go right back out. I started walking around the neighborhood and whistling. It was another unusually warm March day that sometimes occurs in the Chicago area. The days were getting longer. The sun was still above the horizon and it seemed every kid in the neighborhood was outdoors contributing to the noise level. My first thought was that Trickle flew to the edge of the neighborhood over the open farm fields to the east. I ventured out a ways before returning to the neighborhood south of our house. I kept walking and whistling, but soon started thinking the bird had flown far, far away and maybe I should just go home and start dinner.

Then it happened. About three blocks from home, I heard a loud, short whistle. I looked to the sky and spotted him flying above the houses as if he’d done it every day. He must have been resting while I was looking because he was so loud I would have surely heard him earlier. I ran toward the area in which he was flying, but it kept changing and I kept running in different directions. People were out and about and I wondered if they were noticing this 40 something year-old woman dressed in jeans and a black vinyl jacket, looking to the sky, running one way and then the other while whistling and calling “Trickle! Trickle!” I put my arm out for him to land on, but he just kept flying and whistling, flying and whistling. I was nobody to that bird. I felt truly ignored as he skimmed the air no closer than about ten feet above my head.

This went on for about twenty minutes. I watched him fly large circles around the neighborhood without ever landing. I was hoping he’d get tired and I could just pick him up off the ground as he rested, but he flew and flew. The whistling stopped as quickly as it began. By this time, several neighbors were looking out for him as I walked around more and whistled more. A half hour went by with no sign of him and I became worried. The sun was setting and it would be a cold night or maybe he’d land in a yard where a dog would pounce on him.
After more silence, he was up again. Thank goodness! He flew far to the west, above the trees along a creek that runs about a hundred or so yards out of the neighborhood. I couldn’t believe it. He looked like he’d been doing this all his life. Since he seemed so sure of himself, it became obvious that he wasn’t going to just fly back to us. I asked the husband to bring Trickle’s cage mate, Weston, out in a cage. I had in mind the little traveling cage we use for vet appointments and such, but soon enough, here comes my husband driving his little Ford Focus with Trickle and Weston’s big cage in the front seat. Unfortunately, Weston wasn’t making a peep (probably traumatized by the abrupt change of scenery) and Trickle was nowhere to be seen.  It was getting colder so I suggested he close the car window for now.         

As he slowly drove off, I heard Trickle whistle in the distance. The husband saw him coming our way and opened the window again. Weston heard Trickle too and replied with a loud whistle. The two birds went back and forth, but Trickle kept flying. We quickly took the cage out of the car and set it on the nearest driveway. As the birds continued to call to each other, Trickle slowly circled above, making smaller and smaller circles until he landed on the winter worn lawn about ten feet from the cage. I crouched a little low and approached him with my hand out. Fighting the urge to just grab him, I instead put my two fingers out for him to climb upon. He stepped right up and then I quickly pulled him to my chest to keep him close.
I was about to open the cage door to deposit him in, but stopped myself. If I opened that door, there was a slight chance that Weston would fly out and then we’d have two birds on the loose.  I chose to hold Trickle close in my cupped hands and began walking home, cutting through a yard or two.  He was quiet and still and I was so very grateful for his return.

Of course, the first thing I did when we got home was trim his wings. He didn’t seem any worse for the wear. He didn’t even look tired. We were all so relieved to have him safe and sound. Darkness overtook the neighborhood just after we got the birds settled at home. We had gotten so very lucky once again. I vowed to be more careful because this absolutely could not happen again.

This is the best photo I could find of a tiel in flight, though it appears to be a model. You can see they have excellent flying capabilites with a long, narrow wingspan and long, pointed tail feathers for good maneuverability, not unlike the flight features of some small falcons.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Ferrets as Pets

I was talking to a 7th grade girl a few days ago about having a ferret for a pet. She said she wanted one, but she wasn’t serious about getting one. I told her she’d probably be better off with a rabbit or rat or something else, explaining that ferrets can be somewhat complicated. I don’t want to discourage anyone from buying one or better yet, rescuing one from a shelter, but one should learn all they can about ferrets before becoming a keeper.

Young ferrets are cute as can be and I understand the attraction, but I personally have never kept a ferret. Having worked at Midwest Bird and Exotic Animal Hospital for nine years, I learned just how popular they had become and how expensive they can be to keep for the duration of their 5 to 9 year lifespan. I remember a veterinarian telling me that it’s almost guaranteed that a ferret will have a major illness or disease after it turns three years. This can certainly cause some grief and a significant monetary investment. Ferrets of this age are actually considered “senior” ferrets by veterinarians.

If you’re thinking of getting a ferret, there is much to consider. These pets love attention and cannot be left in a cage all day. They are very entertaining and loving so they must come out to play and interact. While playing and interacting, there’s a good chance of a ferret getting into trouble so they need to be supervised. We used to see a good many ferrets that came in very sick and ultimately in need of surgery to remove a foreign object they’d swallowed. It’s recommended that a home or designated play area be made ferret proof before any free play or exploration is permitted.

Ferrets bite. Most well handled ferrets know the difference between a nip and an outright bite, but either one has to be tolerated, though there are various non-violent approaches to curb biting behavior. Ferrets are carnivores and require a specialized diet. Ferrets are from the Mustelidae family, which includes skunks, weasels, fishers, martens, wolverines and otters. Mustelids have well developed anal scent glands. This is another aspect of ferret keeping that must be tolerated. There are ways to curb ferret odors, but even a ferret that’s had its anal glands removed (known as descenting) will still produce odor through its skin.

The considerations I’ve mentioned are just a few to mull over. I highly recommend prospective ferret keepers do some research first. While there are numerous websites with good advice about ferret keeping, I visited two that I like for the honest information they provided:

I also recommend visiting a ferret shelter and trying to rescue one. Some ferret shelters are so full that they have a need for foster ferret keepers. In this case, you’re caring for the ferret in your home, but the shelter will incur any medical costs. This also means that the shelter gets the final say on medical decisions. This option is a great way to learn about all that’s involved in ferret keeping. I’ve had ferret owners tell me that once they’ve had one, it’s hard to keep just one and another will often be added. I’ve also been told it’s hard to give up the ferret habit, even after pets have died. I kind of feel the same way about my pet rats, but their life spans are shorter (3 years) and they don’t incur substantial medical costs.

Since I’ve never kept a ferret, I don’t have any good stories to tell. They are smart animals and can be trained if a keeper is dedicated to teaching and shaping various behaviors. This is another facet of what makes ferrets fun and you may have seen such training in a few movies and TV shows. All I ask is that you think things through before taking one on as a pet. Too many ferret shelters have their hands full. And for goodness sake, if you do end up leaving your ferret with a shelter, do make a significant monetary donation then and there because they will need it. I welcome ferret keepers to share their comments or stories.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Cockatiel Saves Family from Fire

My neighbor’s cockatiel died a few weeks ago, likely from natural causes that come with being 16 years old. He might have had a fatty liver or an upper respiratory infection, but they hadn’t noticed any change in his eating or anything. It’s a fact that wild animals and many exotics will mask an illness, making it hard to tell if they’re sick. This is an innate survival mechanism, even in some domesticated pets.

So when my neighbor came over to offer me her remaining cockatiel seed and other supplies, we talked a little about her long-time pet bird, Glister. She and her husband had gotten him well before they had kids so he was like their first child together. They named him after a popular Amway product, Glister toothpaste. When she told me how the bird may have saved their family of four from a house fire, I had to share the story.

She and her husband, Tony, and their two young daughters were in bed for the night when they heard Glister whistling and making distress noises. Of course, this was highly unusual so they went down to check. At that point, Tony smelled smoke and knew something was wrong. Glister’s cage happened to be right next to the television at the time and that’s where the smoke was coming from. Apparently, the cat had a urinary problem and had relieved herself right on the surge protector, on the floor, behind the TV. This started a reaction that caused sparks and heat. When Tony discovered the problem, the cords and surge protector were beginning to melt into the carpet which would have surely hastened the fire’s progress.

While it’s not likely the bird was thinking, “There’s a problem here. I have to warn the others,” it is possible that his natural instinct to warn the flock was at work. What’s more likely is the bird was scared and feared for his own life so he naturally gave a call of alarm since he was trapped in a cage and had no other recourse. The result was his successful rescue and the consequent avoidance of a possible disaster.  

The lesson in this is not to ignore something your pet’s doing that seems out of the ordinary or just weird. At least take the time to study the animal and its environment for a minute before passing it off as just one of those odd things that our pets do from time to time. While exotics can be especially hard to figure, some of them do have a way of demanding our attention.

When a bird is in immediate distress, he'll squawk, whistle loudly, flap his wings and just carry on until something changes. 

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Second Time Trickle Flew Away

Yes, it happened a second time, but this one was very brief. In warm weather, we occasionally bring the bird cages outside onto the driveway so the birds can get a dose of natural sunlight and vitamin D3. Since then I’ve added daylight type bulbs to our bird room in the basement. These lights have a 5500 Kelvin rating which makes them appropriate for the lighting needs of birds.

I’m not even sure what happened this time. I believe I opened the cage to grab Trickle for some reason. His wings were trimmed so I only expected that he might hop down to the ground and that was it. Before I knew it, both birds were in the air. I immediately ran to follow in the direction they flew. Westin quickly landed on the ground in the back yard, but Trickle continued to fly. Thankfully, the homes in our neighborhood were just a few years old at the time and no fences stood in my way. I cut through the yards behind my house running in my sock feet. I had the bird in sight as he kept going down a street to the right before landing on somebody’s screen door at the front of their house. He was making a lot of noise whistling repeatedly so the homeowners were drawn to the front door which was open. I got there about the same time they did and apologized for the commotion. They were surprised of course, but made sure to mention that I should have my bird’s wings trimmed. “We have two cats,” the man added.

I thanked them and walked home quickly with Trickle to return him to his cage with Westin, who had been picked up by one of the kids. Someone told me after this that cockatiels are known to fly well with trimmed wings. Another lesson learned. I was just glad he hadn’t flown very far this time. Another lucky break. How many would we have left?