Pet birds drop clues to their health


April 23, 1994|By Gina Spadafori | Gina Spadafori,McClatchy News Service

Although humans have kept birds for centuries, many of our most popular birds today are just barely domesticated -- some were born in the wild, and others are only a few generations removed. They are not as familiar to us as are dogs and cats, and so their illnesses may be harder to spot.

Some of it has to do with the fact that wild animals need to hide their illnesses if they are to have a chance at survival, since abnormal behavior is sure to tip off a predator looking for a meal from the ranks of the young, the old and the sick. If a wild bird's to make it to another day, it's best not to be identified as a member of these avian high-risk groups.

But, such survival strategies don't serve pet birds as well, and by the time an owner notices an illness, it can often be dangerously far advanced.

Early detection and prompt veterinary care are the keys to bird health, but you have to know what you're looking for to make it work.

Changes in appearance, appetite and thirst all must be investigated, but one of the most useful diagnostic tools is often removed without a thought -- when the paper in the cage is changed.

Sometimes the best way to find out what's going on inside an animal is to be aware of what's going out.

Birds and reptiles, unlike mammals, eliminate all waste from a single passageway -- the cloaca, commonly called the "vent." The feces -- normally brownish-green in color -- are excreted along with the waste from the kidneys, which is semisolid and white.

Become familiar with what is normal for your pet. Any change in appearance, consistency or volume that cannot be attributed to dietary changes should be checked out by a veterinarian, the sooner the better.

And be sure you preserve that important diagnostic tool for your veterinarian -- bring your bird in its own surroundings, with its cage liner intact.

You may be tempted to spruce things up a bit, but you aren't doing your bird any favors, and you're making your vet's job harder.

What's the difference between a Sheltie and a miniature collie? There are such dogs in our neighborhood -- one the size of a large cocker spaniel, the other not much bigger than a toy poodle. I say the large one's a miniature collie, the small one's a Sheltie. Am I right?

No, but yours is a common misbelief. There's no such thing as a miniature collie, although that's the name some people give to all Shetland sheepdogs, which are commonly known as Shelties.

According to the American Kennel Club, modern-day Shelties and collies trace their origins to the working collies of the United Kingdom. Those dogs, midway in size between today's Shelties and collies, had less coat and a shorter, blunter head than either breed does now. From such a genetic base came quite a variety of sizes, coat types and colors. Collies are proportioned differently from Shelties, and are allowed one additional color type and a different coat variety. Collies come in "sable" (Lassie is a sable), "tricolor" (white and tan, with a black overcoat), "blue merle" (a bluish-gray overcoat) and "white" (predominantly white, with color markings). In addition, the AKC recognizes the "smooth" or short-haired collie, with all the same color patterns. Shelties don't have a short-haired variety, and a white Sheltie is penalized severely enough to eliminate it from the show ring.

Many dog authorities believe, however, that the collie-Sheltie connection is more recent, suggesting that collies were indeed bred into Sheltie lines early in this century to help turn the Sheltie from a working dog into today's show dog and top-winning obedience-trial competitor.

Such interbreeding stopped decades ago, and today's Shelties and collies are different breeds -- with a somewhat different appearance and a distinctly different personality.

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