Rabbiting on

Next to hamsters, rabbits are probably the most-requested small animal in a pet store. They’re cute and furry, and that makes them popular. All of that is true, but there are some other things anyone thinking of a rabbit as a pet should know first.

Rabbits grow. When we buy rabbits in the pet store, we want them to be one-hand bunnies, a handful of fluff with cute button eyes. They don’t stay that small for long. That’s why we like to have dwarf rabbits for sale, because dwarf bunnies stay smaller, and keep more of that cute baby-bunny look. A dwarf rabbit grows to about four pounds – think of your average roasting chicken. A standard-sized rabbit, on the other hand, grows anywhere from six to eight pounds, and some rabbits, like Flemish Giants, can weigh up to 18 pounds.

Rabbits are prey animals. Our most popular pets, dogs and cats, are predators. Predators and prey respond differently to being held. In its most basic terms, when something picks up a rabbit in the wild, the next thing that usually happens is that the rabbit gets killed and eaten. It’s very important to teach a rabbit that being picked up isn’t a threat. This takes a while – rabbits have a brain about the size of a walnut. Gentle handling is very important.

Rabbits are not defenseless. I have scars on one forearm from the hind claws of a rabbit I was holding who was suddenly startled. Those hind claws are like harrows. Even if you keep them trimmed, a rabbit can scratch you painfully. They have powerful hind legs, and know how to use them. Those big front teeth will leave a mark, too, if the rabbit decides to bite you. This is another reason why gentle handling is important.

There are advantages to rabbits as pets. Dwarf bunnies stay small, and, unlike cats, they’re pretty quiet. They can also be litter-trained. They live six to eight years with good care. (One customer of ours had a bunny she said was pushing eighteen years, but that’s an exception. As a rule, you won’t be left taking care of your small child’s bunny when that child goes off to university.) Most rabbits in the pet trade are short-haired as adults, and the grooming isn’t demanding. Neutering is a good idea – male rabbits spray, and females become snippy if they don’t get to breed.

As always, my big advice is to read up on rabbits before you get one, and ask knowledgeable people for advice.

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The parrot cichlid dilemma

Parrot cichlids are one of my favourite freshwater fish. They’re pudgy and rather cute looking – in fact, their nickname in the fancy is “tank puppies”. They’re brightly coloured, and like most cichlids, they’re relatively intelligent. You may have seen a parrot cichlid in the Telus ad with a school of yellow tangs and one bright orange fish. That bright orange fish is a parrot cichlid.

That bright orange is also why I prefer that we not sell parrot cichlids. Don’t get me wrong – I love the colour. I just don’t like how the fish gets it.

Most parrot cichlids are not brightly coloured. The bright ones have been subjected to a procedure called strip-and-dip. In this process, the fish are dropped into a bath that strips the slime coat from their skin, then dropped into a dyebath to dye the skin and scales.

Yes, the slime coat eventually comes back, if the fish survives. A fish’s slime coat is there to keep pathogens and parasites from getting a foothold – or mouthhold – on the fish’s skin and scales. When a fish is stressed, its ability to maintain its slime coat is compromised. A thinner slime coat allows problems like ich to get hold, or fish lice, or fin rot, or any of a number of other problems. I don’t know what the percentage of loss is in a strip-and-dip, but I can imagine it’s rather high, with fish crowded together in less than ideal conditions and stripped of their protective slime coats.

The strip-and-dip procedure is done on small fish. They look fine until they grow – then, of course, the dye is no longer even over the fish, and the new tissue in the larger fish’s skin and scales hasn’t been dyed and is paler. Your really bright little parrot cichlid becomes a much paler fish. Yes, you can affect the colour of the fish to some degree with food – colour foods usually enhance red-orange colour in a fish. You can’t, however, make a pale fish scarlet with colour foods.

The difficulty for a retailer is finding a parrot cichlid that hasn’t been dyed. I once looked through a supplier’s catalogue; of about a dozen “varieties” – that is, dye jobs – of parrot cichlids, there was only one undyed one. I also saw the “heart” or “valentine” parrot cichlid; in this variation, the tail has been removed to make the body heart-shaped.  (“Happy Valentine’s Day, honey – I brought you a mutilated fish!”)

Some other fish. like neon hatchets, are injected with fluorescent dyes, a stressful procedure, to make them flashier in the eyes of an uninformed consumer. Again, those colours will be spread out and the effects diminished with growth.

There are plenty of brightly coloured fish that haven’t been treated with dyes. There are also other reasons to enjoy fish than their bright colours – although I’ll admit that I’m quite fond of the Orange-Blotched Peacock in our home tank.

Only when fishkeepers are informed about some of these practices, and refuse to support them, will strip-dyed and dye-injected fish disappear from the market.

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A new blog

Pet Product News has asked me to write a biweekly blog about the retail pet trade. You can see it, if you’re interested, at http://www.petproductnews.com/ppn-editorial-blog/north-by-northeast/default.aspx

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I wanna iguana…

Actually, you probably don’t. I know people who own iguanas and adore them. I know people who have iguanas who are gentle and good-tempered, at least, so far.

The truth is, those gentle and good-tempered common iguanas are the minority. It’s a little like winning the lottery. It happens, but the odds of it happening to a particular person are low. I say this not because I don’t like iguanas – I actually do rather like them. An iguana is a handsome lizard, but the fact is that they get big, really big. Four-to-six-feet, need-my-own-room big.

Not only that, many of them become bad-tempered up on hitting sexual maturity. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been approached by someone who wants to sell me – nay, even give me – his iguana.

“He’s too big,” is what I hear, “and last week he whipped my kid with his tail.”

Most people who buy an iguana get it when it’s small. They’re very appealing at six or eight or twelve inches. It’s also a great selling point for some that iguanas are vegetarian. There are few lizards in the pet trade that don’t eat meat, and there are always people who want to keep a lizard without dealing with crickets, mealworms, mice and so on.

At six or eight inches, iguanas are babies. When they get that hormonal rush that turns them into adults, they have all the wild sex-and-aggression impulses of a teenager, without a teenager’s firm grasp and unfailing application of polite social behaviour.

Recently I was asked to write a piece for a magazine on what you might need to know before buying an exotic pet. The editor suggested that iguanas should be on that list. I think she suggested it mainly because iguanas are the best-known lizard in the pet trade to those who aren’t particularly keen on reptiles anyway. I suggested a couple of other species instead, and she was happy to take that suggestion.

But just for the record, here’s what you need to know before you buy an iguana.

1) Big. They get big, and it doesn’t matter if you keep them in a ten-gallon tank. That won’t keep them small any more than wearing tight clothes will keep you thin.

2) Wild. Reptiles are always, to some extent, wild. They don’t come to you for help or comfort, the way a dog will. They don’t look to you for protection, or think a whole lot about you at all. They may become docile and habituated to handling, perhaps even enjoy it. After all, we have the one thing that reptiles actually do want in a person – we’re warm. But if your iguana feels that you’re a threat, none of that will stop it from whacking you with that tail, or biting you if it feels it must.

3) Long-term. Iguanas can live into their twenties with good care, perhaps even longer. You’re taking on an animal which will get big and live decades, and you won’t be able to train it.

There are people who can cope with iguanas, who have the space, the time and the understanding of the beast. Keeping a large lizard is definitely not for everyone. Unless you really know what you’re getting into, my best advice – with both your good and the iguana’s at heart – is this.


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Housework, housework…

That’s tank maintenance for you. It’s gotta be done, and just like housework, it doesn’t matter how often you do it, it’s always going to have to be done again.

When you put fish into an aquarium, you’ve crated a really small lake or ocean. Unlike the real thing, your lake has no predators, nothing but you to handle population control. It’s also a much smaller ecosystem than a real lake or ocean, which means that things can go wrong very quickly.

Not to panic – if you do regular water changes and remember not to overfeed, overclean or overstock your aquarium, you’ll have far fewer problems. Regular water changes are the housework of the aquarium fancy. If you don’t do them, it doesn’t really matter what else you do.

During our years in the pet store, we’ve met a lot of people who believe that topping up a tank to replace water lost by evaporation is the same as a water change. It isn’t the same at all. Imagine you’re in a small room and someone has just smoked a huge cigar. Also, everyone in that room has been breathing and producing carbon dioxide. Now suppose someone pushes some oxygen into the room without removing any smoke or any CO2. All that does is dilute the stuff you can’t breathe – it doesn’t improve the air quality a lot.

Fish produce ammonia when they breathe, and the breakdown of fish waste and uneaten food also produces ammonia. The aquarium contains bacteria that eat ammonia and excrete nitrites, which are less toxic than ammonia. There are also other bacteria which eat nitrites and excrete nitrates, less toxic again. But all those toxins are still in the water until you come along and remove some of the water – and some of the toxins – and replace it with clean water.

Here’s the other thing – changing half or more of the water every six months isn’t going to do a lot for your tank. Change 10% once a week, or 25% once a month. Pick one and do it. I’m a big fan of the 10% one. That’s a less-stressful change for the fish, and overall it changes more of the water.

Salt water, fresh water, tropical or cold water fish, they all need that basic maintenance. Do the housework.

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Mouse with Many Legs

Many years ago, when we lived in Toronto, the city passed a bylaw to prohibit the keeping of “certain animals wild by nature”. When the law was passed, pet stores carrying these now-outlawed animals were given a very short time to get them out of the store before they were confiscated and destroyed by the city.

David brought home the single tarantula from the pet store where he worked at the time.  He agreed to take it rather than have it seized and killed. One of our house-mates was afraid of spiders, so David cleared it with her first. She okayed it, and asked to see the spider when he brought it home.

“Oh,” she said when she saw the furry brown critter, “That’s not a spider. That’s a mouse with many legs!” And “Mouse” became the tarantula’s name.

The “wild by nature” laws are pretty selective. Rabbits, for example, are wild by nature, and so are mice, fancy colours or not. The bylaws hardly ever forbid keeping pet mice or rabbits. It’s the so-called “creepy-crawlies” they target.

Tarantulas have a very bad rap, particularly after movie “Arachnophobia”. They’re not venomous enough to kill an adult human, they’re not aggressive, and they’re very fragile. The scene where the spider falls from the air and lands safely, only to wreak further havoc, makes anyone who knows the beasties roll their eyes. The truth is that if a tarantula fell off your coffee table, it might die from the impact of the fall. If it fell off your kitchen table, it almost certainly would be dead when it hit the floor.

Spiders aren’t my first choice of pet, but I’m not afraid of them, either. There’s a tarantula in our house right now, fat and happy with her weekly ration of crickets and doing just fine. Tarantulas can live fifteen to twenty-five years with good care. Mouse, unfortunately, didn’t live that long. If there’s a good reason to ban them from the pet trade, it’s that many people don’t know how to take care of them, and their lifespans are shortened when the keeper doesn’t know his or her stuff.


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Size ten, please…

Those are the size shoes I wear now.

I didn’t always wear size tens. For some years I wore eights. Long before that, I wore size two women’s shoes, and once upon a time my feet were so small and soft that I wore little tiny baby shoes.

Now, what if I’d never taken those little, tiny baby shoes off? What if I’d kept my feet in those smaller shoes, and yet continued to eat all through the growing phases of my life? Would my feet have stayed small enough to be happy in those smallest shoes?

Or suppose that when I was three, my parents had put me in a box three feet wide and three feet tall and three feet from front to back. If they kept on feeding me, do you think I would have stayed small enough to be comfortable in that box?

Or what if I’d lived in a house with high ceilings all my life? Would I now be six feet tall instead of five-foot-four?

I think I can hear most of you saying, “No, of course not, Lizard Lady. What kind of idiot do you take me for?”

And yet, over and over again I heard, “Well, if I just get it a ten-gallon tank, it’ll stay small, right?” I heard it about corn snakes and bearded dragons and fantail goldfish and nearly every other kind of fish, reptile or amphibian I ever sold.

Think about Chinese footbinding, and how the feet of those girls were bound tightly in bandages to keep them small. The end result was a foot that was deformed beyond remedy, and useless for walking.

You can’t keep an animal from hitting normal adult growth by putting it in an environment that’s too small for it. Fish, when they are desperately crowded, secrete a growth inhibitor into the water, but at that point they are already unhappily and unhealthily housed, and need more room.

Reptiles can’t use the growth-inhibitor trick, even when they’re desperately crowded, because it’s difficult, perhaps impossible, to transmit that kind of biological signal effectively through the air.

No, if you put a fish or reptile or amphibian in an environment that is too small and cramped for it to attain normal adult growth, what you’ll get is a cramped, possibly deformed and very cranky reptile, amphibian or fish. And, very likely, the animal will be unhealthy as well, and, shortly, dead.

If you can’t manage the space or money to get a habitat large enough for the animal, don’t get the animal. It’s common sense, and common kindness.


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