Exotics & Pocket Pets

Bird Care & Health

Parrots, Problems, and the Power of Positive

Dr. Laurie Hess is our resident exotics expert and contributes regularly on the Pet Health Network. For more from Dr. Hess, find her on Facebook!

It happens every year. Birds scream. People scream back. As the days get longer and temperatures start to climb, the screaming gets worse. Some pet parrots scream all year long, but many scream louder when their hormonal clocks get wound up in spring as they are looking to mate.

The fact is that birds in the wild scream. They scream at dawn to wake each other up and to start to forage for breakfast.They scream at dusk when they get back together as a flock to eat dinner. But what may be a natural behavior for them in the wild is a socially unacceptable annoyance to many parrot owners, especially if they and their birds live in small apartments with neighbors who don’t share their love for these feathered companions.Parrot in a cage So, what do these pet owners do when their parrots scream? Unfortunately, they start to scream back, only making the situation worse.

Birds in captivity scream for different reasons. They generally don’t scream to wake others up or to round their flock mates up for food. Rather, most pet parrots scream for their owners’ attention. They scream, and their owners come to them (even if just to scream back at them to stop screaming). And so the cycle of positive reinforcement of the screaming behavior begins. Parrot screams, owner comes, what will happen next? Parrot will continue to scream so owner will continue to come, and so on, and so forth…

Screaming is not the only behavior that parrot owners unknowingly reinforce. Biting is another one. Bird owners will often hold out their hands for their birds to step up; yet, if the birds don’t want to step up at that moment, they may bite the hands. As a result, owners may scream (giving attention to the birds unwittingly) and remove their hands (reinforcing the biting because now the birds no longer have to step up). Another cycle is established.

So, what are pet owners to do if their animals are screaming and biting and driving them nuts? All too often, owners give up on these relationships, either ignoring their birds completely or giving them away to others who are more tolerant. This happens even more after they have owned the birds for a few years, when the birds reach sexual maturity. What is unfortunate is that with just a few minutes a day of work, many of these relationships can be salvaged, and birds owners can learn to enjoy their birds again.

As my mentor, Dr. Susan Friedman taught me, behavior doesn’t occur in a vacuum. All behavior is learned, in part, either to get something good (i.e. attention from an owner) or to avoid something bad (i.e. having to step up on a hand when you don’t want to). This is true for all behaviors performed by both animals and people. Think about it: behaviors are perpetuated because they accomplish something for their performers. Why else would these behaviors be repeated if they didn’t?

What I teach bird owners who come to me with behavior problems is that they can use the principle of positive reinforcement to help solve these behavior issues. Positive reinforcement in this situation means rewarding the pet’s behavior with something uniquely valuable to that pet (i.e. a food treat, a head scratch, verbal praise, etc.).  What is rewarding to one pet might not be to another, so it is essential that an owner try to figure out what makes his particular animal happy. If an owner positively reinforces what he considers a more socially acceptable behavior that his pet already knows (such as tapping his beak on the cage) to get attention or to let the owner know that he doesn’t want to step up, the animal will no longer have to perform the socially unacceptable behavior of screaming to accomplish the same end. Eventually, the screaming behavior will go away if it is no longer positively reinforced, as the beak tapping is; the screaming is no longer as rewarding as the more socially acceptable behavior of beak tapping.

Pet owners also can teach animals new behaviors (such as ringing a bell) by positively reinforcing these behaviors even if they occur accidentally or unpredictably. Eventually, these newly learned behaviors may be used to help replace problem behaviors if these new behaviors can be reinforced in the situations that usually elicit the problem behavior. So, if you own a bird or other pet with a problem behavior and you are willing to work at it, problems behaviors can be eliminated, and the pet-owner bond can be rekindled. Remember, however, that animals aren’t machines; like us, they are allowed to have good days and bad, and when training new behavior, a pet may take three steps forward and an occasional step back. There is no magic pill or overnight solution to problem behaviors, but with a little daily practice and a lot of patience and dedication, you and your pet can learn to live happily together once again.

If you have any questions or concerns, you should always visit or call your veterinarian – they are your best resource to ensure the health and well-being of your pets.

The opinions and views expressed in this post are those of the author's and do not necessarily represent the beliefs, policies or positions of PetHealthNetwork.com, IDEXX Laboratories, Inc. or its affiliates and partner companies.

Bunny Care 101

Dr. Laurie Hess is our resident exotics expert and contributes regularly on the Pet Health Network. For more from Dr. Hess, find her on Facebook!

There's no doubt: bunnies are adorable. In fact, they are maybe one of the most adorable animals there are – so cute and fuzzy. Some of them actually look like toys, which is perhaps why so many people want them as pets. Rabbits can be super pets when taken care of properly, but they are not right for everyone. Unfortunately, many well-intentioned pet owners learn this after they adopt or purchase bunnies that turn out not to be what they expected.

Before you get a rabbit, there are a few very important facts you need to know:

1. Bunnies need an herbivorous (vegetarian) diet.
They eat a lot of hay, a little bit of pelleted rabbit food, and a small amount of fresh vegetables every day. They need a high fiber diet, and they don’t eat grains (like oatmeal) or nuts. Feeding them isn’t as simple as opening a can of food into a bowl, as you would for a cat or dog. If you’re going to own a bunny, you have to be prepared to keep your cupboard well-stocked with these items and to shell out some money each week for fresh produce.

2. Bunnies need attention to be well-socialized.
People get rabbits to be able to hold and cuddle them, yet what they don’t realize is that rabbits are prey species and, as such, most are wired to be high-strung and skittish. With daily handling positively reinforced with food rewards, rabbits can get very used to being held, and many pet bunnies, in fact, come to enjoy it.

3. Bunnies poop a lot!

Rabbits have a high metabolism and are natural grazers. They don’t eat actual large meals but instead pick a little bit at a time over the course of a day. Since they are nearly always eating, they are also nearly always pooping. Rabbit owners have to expect that when their pets are out of the cage, they are going to poop, too. Making sure that bunnies are on a wipeable surface when they are out is important to prevent carpets and furniture from becoming soiled. Plus, since rabbits are constantly soiling their cages, their cage bedding (preferably paper-based and not wood shavings, corn cob, or other indigestible items) must be spot-scooped daily and fully replaced at a minimum weekly.

4. Bunnies need preventative medical care.
Just like dogs, cats, and other pets, rabbits need regular medical attention. This means a trip to the vet just after you get your new bunny to ensure that he/she is healthy and that you are doing all the right things to keep him/her so, plus annual check-ups to ensure he/she remains healthy. Rabbits should have a stool sample checked for intestinal parasites that can be easily treated if they are found, and all female rabbits should be spayed (have their uterus and ovaries removed) after 6 months of age so that they do not develop uterine cancer (which over 50-60% do if they are not spayed by age 3). Male rabbits may spray urine to mark their territory and may “hump” everything in sight – your legs, your furniture, your other pets – when they become sexually mature. These unpleasant behaviors can be eliminated by neutering them. Finally, unlike cats and dogs that can go a couple of days without eating, rabbits cannot. If they stop eating for even a day, regardless of the cause, they can develop a life threatening condition called gastrointestinal (GI) stasis in which they become dehydrated, their GI tracts do not move food through properly, the normal bacteria that help digest food in their GI tracts are overtaken by gas-producing bacteria, and the gas produced makes them more uncomfortable and not wanting to eat, thereby perpetuating the cycle. Rabbits with GI stasis must be treated immediately or may die.

5. Bunnies are not great pets for very young children.
Given that most rabbits are easily stressed and that young children (elementary school age and younger) move quickly and are frequently loud, bunnies and little children generally don’t mix. Very active kids may scare rabbits, causing them to jump and injure themselves. Plus, rabbits have very strong back legs, so their hind ends must always be supported when they are held, or they may kick and break their backs. Thus, children must always be supervised when holding bunnies.

6. Bunnies kept as pets are not the same as wild bunnies.
Domesticated rabbits are not the same species as the hares that live in your yard. Pet rabbits do not know how to protect themselves from predators or how to find food. They do not know how to fend for themselves and will likely die if left outside without food or shelter. Too many people don’t realize this and simply release pet bunnies (especially after Easter) back into “nature” when these animals don’t turn out to be what they expected. Unwanted rabbits should be rehomed or donated to shelters rather than released into the wilderness.

So, if you are considering getting a rabbit this Easter, educate yourself as thoroughly as possible about rabbit care by talking to rabbit-savvy veterinarians and bunny breeders, and read as much current information about rabbits as you can before bringing one into your home. After you’ve educated yourself, if you feel you can be a responsible bunny owner, then go for it. If not, maybe just enjoy a chocolate one.

If you have any questions or concerns, you should always visit or call your veterinarian – they are your best resource to ensure the health and well-being of your pets.

Dr. Laurie Hess discusses why it's important to keep your exotic pet warm as the weather turns cold.


Storms and cold temperatures are never fun to deal with, but if you live any place where the seasons change, you will undoubtedly have to face inclement weather at some point this winter. How do you keep your bird or exotic pet healthy when the temperature plummets? Here are a few tips to help keep your bird or other exotic pet safe.

1. Provide heat!
Many birds and reptiles, in particular, need to be kept warm to remain healthy. Birds (especially  larger parrots) can generally tolerate temperatures as low as the 50s, but once the thermometer drops below that, they may get fluffed up (expending all of their energy trying to trap warm air between their feathers and their bodies to keep warm) and stop eating. Pets burn extra calories trying to stay warm, so it is essential that they keep eating. Reptiles are “cold-blooded;" their body temperatures are determined by their environmental temperatures. If their environments get very cold, their body temperatures drop in turn. Their immune systems do not function well at suboptimal temperatures, and their digestive systems and metabolism also slows down - typically what occurs during hibernation or brumation. Reptiles can safely tolerate living at less-than-ideal temperatures for a few days, but over time, hibernating reptiles can get sick.

Other exotic pets may suffer in the cold, too. Hedgehogs, for example, can go into a state of sluggishness or torpor and stop eating when the temperature falls. Thus, if you own an exotic pet, and your home is cold because you have lost electric power, you should do all that you can to keep your pet warm by wrapping his or her cage with a blanket or towel to minimize air flow, moving the cage near a sunlit window (as long as there are no drafts blowing through it), and placing plastic bottles, bags, or even rubber gloves filled with warm water (if you have access to warm water) wrapped in towels directly underneath the reptile (or under the cage, if you have a bird or small mammal such as a rabbit or rodent that might chew on the plastic or rubber).

2. Offer water!
In bad storms, if you lose electric power or if your pipes freeze, you may also lose your water supply. Given the fact that many exotic pets have very high water requirements due to their small sizes and fast metabolism, these pets can become dehydrated quickly. Thus, if you are trying to keep your bird or other exotic pet healthy during a blackout or severe cold snap, be sure to provide fresh water daily, and monitor his or her water consumption carefully. Stressed exotic pets may pant and may lose moisture through their mouths as a result, plus they may not eat or drink normally and are consequently at high risk of dehydration. Dehydrated pets quickly become sick pets, so ensuring exotic pets drink water during cold weather is very important to try to prevent illness.

3. Prevent trauma!
Many birds and non-nocturnal exotic pets are not accustomed to being in the dark for prolonged periods and may become nervous and stressed if they are without light during a power outage. Birds may flail around in their cages, potentially hurting themselves, breaking feathers or injuring their wings. Worse, they may escape their cages into dark rooms where, if they are able to fly, they can smash into objects or fly out doors. Small mammals such as rabbits, guinea pigs, and chinchillas may get scared, curl up, and hide in tight spaces, making them very hard to find in the dark. If you are trying to keep your exotic pet calm in the darkness, keep a small flashlight near your pet’s cage so that he or she can see you and familiar surroundings; this may keep him or her calmer and less likely to get injured.

4. Avoid fumes!
When faced with power outages, cold, and long periods of darkness, many of us are tempted to burn candles or to keep a propane stove running. However, if you have a bird or other exotic pet and are going to light candles or turn on the stove, you must take special precautions. Several exotic species (birds in particular) are exquisitely sensitive to any kind of fumes, so if you burn candles that emit smoke (or worse, have lead in the wick, which many do), you must keep these far away from these animals, or they are at risk of inhaling potentially toxic fumes and dying. The same is true for propane and other gases; if you can smell it, your pets could inhale it and collapse. So, don’t take chances; move your birds and exotics far away (ideally in a separate room) from the source of any potential fumes.

5. Feed! Feed! Feed!
Nervous birds and other exotic pets, like stressed people, may have a decreased appetite or may not want to eat at all. This is especially a problem when these pets are in cold temperatures, expending lots of extra calories trying to stay warm and alert and potentially sleeping less than normal. In these situations, small exotic pets with normally high metabolisms actually need additional calories to stay healthy. Thus, when exotic pets are exposed to the cold, it’s especially important to monitor their appetites to ensure that they are eating. Tempt your bird or other exotic pet to eat during inclement weather by offering his or her favorite foods frequently in small quantities. Exotic pets that eat less may need to be hand-fed or encouraged to eat, even through syringe-fed special formulas meant for particular species if necessary. It’s great to have these formulas on hand ahead of time in case of emergency. Ask your veterinarian to provide these items to you so you’ll have them ready in a pinch in case you need them.

Living through a hurricane or a prolonged power outage, as many of us in the Northeast have recently, is never easy. But, if you follow these tips and monitor your exotic pets closely, they will be more likely to come out of it just fine.

If you have any questions or concerns, you should always visit or call your veterinarian – they are your best resource to ensure the health and well-being of your pets.

Reptile 101

Dr. Laurie Hess goes in depth on some of the most common reptile pets. For more from Dr. Hess, find her on Facebook

Some people love them. Others fear them. Regardless, most of us would agree that they are at least very interesting to look at.

Reptiles: they can make fascinating pets if you are a reptile fan. Whether they hop, climb, or crawl, have legs or not, there’s a reptile for everyone who is intrigued by these animals. With so many reptiles from which to choose, if you’re considering a reptile as a pet, where should you start? Here is part one of my blog on reptiles. Below are 3 different reptiles commonly kept as terrific pets. Next week, I'll add to the list.

Bearded dragon1. Bearded dragon lizard
These medium-sized (1-2 feet long), yellow/brown/orange to red-colored lizards get their name from their ability to puff up the skin over their throats when they are angry or stressed. They are housed in glass tanks heated with over-the-tank lights so that the temperature in the basking zone should be 90-105°F and in the cool zone in the mid-70s°F. They need a tree branch or log for climbing and full-spectrum lighting with a UV-B/UV-A bulb to help them synthesize vitamin D-3 in their skin so that they can properly absorb calcium from their food. They should be fed crickets, mealworms, pinkie or fuzzy mice (dusted with supplemental calcium powder at least twice a week), plus a variety of chopped vegetables such as collards, kale, mustard greens, yellow squash, zucchini and shredded carrots. They should be sprayed daily with water which they will absorb through their skin and lap up off of their noses. If handled often, captive bearded dragons can be tamed to be quite docile and can live, on average, about 7-10 years.

2. Leopard Gecko lizard
These large geckos (8-9 inches long) get their name from their yellow skin covered with brown stripes initially that fade to spots as they age. They live in heated glass aquariums with rocks on which to climb. Temperatures should range from 90°F in the basking zone to the low 70s°F in the cooler area of the tank. Although they are nocturnal, captive leopard geckos living indoors that are never exposed to direct sunlight fare better when exposed to some UV-A/UV-B rays from an ultraviolet bulb. They should be fed crickets regularly, along with occasional mealworms and wax worms (plus a pinkie mouse, if they are large enough to eat it). To provide better nutrition for the gecko, insects they are offered should be fed a diet containing vitamins (“gut-loaded”) and dusted with calcium powder before being fed to the gecko. Leopard geckos need a shallow water dish in which to soak and should be provided with a hide box containing moss or vermiculite that can be misted to provide a high enough humidity to allow normal shedding of skin. These gentle lizards live 8-10 years, on average, in captivity and make great pets for families.

3. Ball python snake
These snakes get their name because they curl themselves up into tight balls when they are nervous, with their heads pulled into the center. They are curious, gentle snakes
that generally grow to 4-5 feet long. In the wild, they eat amphibians, other snakes, birds, and small mammals and do not typically eat the mice that fed to captive pythons. Thus, many ball pythons can be picky eaters that resist eating for weeks to months, at times. They can be housed initially in 10-20 gallon glass tanks with tightly fitting screen lids to prevent escape and with branches on which to climb. Shredded paper products are best used for bedding. They need a log or upside-down cardboard box in which to hide. Tanks must be heated to provide a 90°F basking zone, an 80-85°F cooler zone, and a 70-75°F overall temperature at night. While ball pythons are nocturnal, many captive ball pythons are healthier when exposed daily to full-spectrum light. They must have a shallow bowl of water in which to soak and should be sprayed daily so that tank humidity is 60-70% to shed properly. Ball pythons should be fed only pre-killed rodents (never live, or they may be bitten by their prey). Young snakes may be fed fuzzy mice, and adults may eat full-grown mice or small rats. Ball pythons may be tamed by frequent handling but should not be touched just after eating or in the middle of a shed, as these are times when snakes may be cranky. If maintained properly, ball pythons can make great pets that can live 20-30 years.

If you’re considering a reptile as a pet, whichever one you choose, remember always to wash your hands after handling them, as all reptiles, in general, carry Salmonella bacteria plus other bacteria and parasites that may be transmittable to people. Also, supervise all small children when they handle these pets, as the quick movements of young children can startle and scare these animals. Finally, once you get your new reptile family member, be sure to visit a reptile-savvy vet to have him/her checked and to make sure you’re caring for him/her properly. Remember, many reptiles are so long-lived that if you take care of them right, they may outlive you!

If you have any questions or concerns, you should always visit or call your veterinarian – they are your best resource to ensure the health and well-being of your pets.

All information provided by Pet Health Network

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