Veterinarian Dr Sarah Zito answers your pet health questions
Q: I have recently inherited a 6 year old Cockatiel called Barney. I’ve never had a pet bird before and I would like to know what can I do to do to stop him getting bored and give him a good quality of life?
A: It is great that you want to give Barney a good quality of life. A good diet, regular checkups and routine health care are all important for his physical health but his mental well-being is just as important. So it is fantastic that you are asking about this aspect of his care. Captive birds are often bored and this negatively impacts their quality of life but can also lead to the development of behavioural problems such as feather plucking, self-mutilation, destructiveness and screaming.
It is important to provide an interesting and enriching environment for Barney.
- Give him as big a cage or aviary as possible, no cage is too big!
- Make sure that he has plenty of perching places at various heights in the cage and these should be natural (but non-toxic) tree branches. The branches need to be wide enough to prevent Barney’s toes from wrapping the whole way around the perch, should be of different sizes and should be replaced regularly (they will become damaged, soiled or chewed over time). Perches at different heights will encourage Barney to climb and swing on the branches which will provide him with exercise; this is also extremely important for pet birds.
- If possible Barney should also be given the opportunity to explore outside his cage for more exercise and fun, but you will need to train him to do this safely and make sure he cannot escape the area or hurt himself first.
- Barney will also need somewhere he can bath safely; this can be achieved by using a large and fairly flat dish with shallow clean water in it.
- Captive foraging is a great way to keep your bird busy and prevent boredom. Birds in the wild spend 6‐7 hours every day using their beak to forage for food. Captive foraging means offering Barney his food in a way that he has to actively find his food and develop methods for obtaining access to that food source. It is necessary to start with easy foraging methods so your bird can adapt to these new methods of obtaining his food. Then, as he gets the hang of it you can introduce more complex foraging challenges.
- There are many foraging techniques that can be used, here are a few examples:
- Wrapping his food inside a safe material such as butcher’s paper or used envelopes. You can close the ends by twisting and then Barney will need to break into the package to get his food.
- Hiding his food by placing a small amount in a food bowl mixed or buried with a safe material such as paper kitty litter, wood shavings or shredded paper. Barney will then need to dig through and search for the food.
- Covering his food bowl with paper so that he has to remove the paper to get to his food.
- Using foraging toys to put his food in; there are commercially available toys, such as baffle cages, piñatas, puzzles and kabobs, or you can make your own, these can be constructed from basic bird safe materials like untreated wood, leather and paper.
- Last but not least, spend time with Barney; interaction with their human is something most birds really enjoy.
Q: Someone told me that owning a cat has been linked with the development of schizophrenia. Do I need to be worried?
The link that has been reported in the past is an epidemiological association between some human psychoses such as schizophrenia and Toxoplasma gondii infection or cat ownership. However, this just means that humans with certain psychoses were more likely to be infected with Toxoplasma gondii or own a cat; this association does not mean that there is a cause and effect relationship. Almost any animal can be infected with Toxoplasma gondii but cats play an important part in the parasite’s life cycle. Despite this, human infection with Toxoplasma gondii is often not from a cat. Rather it is most often a result of ingestion of undercooked meat that contains the parasite; humans may also be infected though ingestion of the parasite’s oocysts (similar to an egg) from cat faeces in the environment.
Recently a large, well-conducted and scientifically rigorous study from the UK has given some more clarity on the subject. This study followed several thousand children through to early adulthood and found that there was strong evidence that cat ownership during pregnancy or early childhood had no relationship with the development of psychoses during early or late adolescence.
There is the possibility that exposure to Toxoplasma gondii may be linked to certain psychotic disorders but cat ownership does not appear to increase the risk. It is unusual for people to get infected by Toxoplasma gondii from their own cat. Even if a cat has been infected by the parasite, they only shed oocysts for a very short time just after they are first infected and not again (unless they are immunosuppressed in which case some may shed again). It is important to remember that healthy cats that carry the parasite but were not infected recently do not pose a risk of infection to humans. So in short, no you do not need to be worried, I certainly am not and I am in contact with a lot of cats!
Q: I think that Pugs are really cute and am thinking of getting one. Do they have any health issues that I need to know about?
A: Pugs are lovely little dogs but unfortunately they are one of the many pedigree breeds of dog that have exaggerated physical features which cause them considerable health and welfare issues. In particular, most Pugs (and other short nosed or ‘brachycephalic’ breeds such as Boston Terriers and British Bulldogs) have serious difficulty breathing. This is because they have been selectively bred over time to have a drastically shortened muzzle. However, the soft tissue inside the head, such as the soft palate, has not shortened and this blocks the dog’s airways. In addition, brachycephalic breeds often have nostrils and windpipes that are not wide enough and this makes it even more difficult for them to breathe.
The malformations that brachycephalic dogs suffer from have been actively selected for to exaggerate the dogs’ physical appearance and lead to serious consequences. Brachcephalic dogs may pass out or collapse due to a lack of oxygen or they may overheat, even fatally. These problems are particularly likely to occur when the dog exercises or gets excited. Many of these dogs cannot sleep properly because they find breathing so difficult and may even have to sleep sitting or standing up.
These problems are so widespread and serious that they have been formally recognised and named as Brachycephalic Airway Obstruction Syndrome. Many of the affected dogs need major surgery to try to correct the physical malformations, relieve their serious symptoms and improve their quality of life. In addition to these serious breathing problems, many brachycephalic dogs like Pugs also have eye problems due to their protruding eyes, and also have such problems giving birth that they have to have caesarean sections to deliver their puppies. Anyone who loves dogs, owners, breeders and veterinarians need to work together to address and prevent these problems. Dogs deserve better.