Animal companions are very much a part of our day-to-day. It's our job as humans to ensure that our pets acclimate to family life and that they are equipped to cope with the changes that invariably occur. Over the years, it's been my mission as a writer to empower you to do that by exploring topics like animal behavior, pet health and the power of the human-animal bond.
Fish are commonly kept as pets, though they don't seem to get the same amount of visibility when it comes to their care and overall needs. It doesn't seem fair that they need be inured by that notion.
I was doing research for another piece on aquatic animals when I had the realization that perhaps I should focus on one core facet of their care that seems to be ignored: what they eat (or should be eating). Pet food is something that comes up often when I'm chatting with those that share life with dogs, cats and birds, but with fish, never.
In my research, I discovered that there's a lot of information out there — pet stores, books and yes, the internet — and too much of it seemed questionable, so I decided to dig a bit deeper by seeking a reliable source.
Aquarist veterinarian Dr. Charlie Gregory has always been fascinated by the ocean and what goes on beneath the surface. And in a conversation with him, his enthusiasm about the creatures that inhabit a world that can seem quite foreign to us humans was quite clear.
Gregory, who is owner of Boynton Beach, Florida-based Healthy Aquatics notes that commercially-available pelleted and flake foods besides being easy to find are great for lots of reasons. They do, however, require care in how and where they're stored, and as I learned, you can go further in optimizing your aquatic animal's diet by incorporating variety with other foods — and it's easier to do than you might think.
Flakes and pellets
When comparing brands, Gregory notes that "it all comes down to ingredients."
The first ingredients should include things like salmon, krill, plankton, protein sources such as that. Ideally, a protein content of 45-55% should be listed and good brands include Ocean Nutrition, New Life Spectrum Thera and Tetra. (That said, herbivorous fish, like tangs and blennies, don't require that percentage of protein and benefit from something like Ocean Nutrition 2 diet.)
Pellets have the advantage when it comes to ready-to-feed diets because less food is wasted — which not only saves money and product, but results in a cleaner tank. Don't neglect a detail like the size of pellet that you're offering: large pellets for large fish, medium for the medium-sized creatures and of course, small for the littlest members of the tank. Pellets need to be able to be swallowed whole in one bite.
flickr photo by FromSandToGlass
Flakes are especially helpful where small ones are concerned, as they are manageable for the fishes' smaller size. But in this case, Gregory clarifies, use the big flakes.
The integrity of these two types of food is crucial. To keep the food fresh, appealing and safe to eat, the suggestion is to keep only what you'll need for a week's supply in a resealable container that's airtight, and the rest in the freezer or refrigerator.
Changes in temperature and humidity can adversely affect the quality of the product, and spoilage can result over time.
"Things like the Omega-3 fatty acids break down easily, and aside from that, fungus can grow — and that's not something you want in your tank," Gregory says.
And as he points out, forgoing the super-size containers of fish food is a big help. Purchase smaller containers, and do so more often.
Other healthy choices
Nori isn't just for making sushi — this variety of seaweed is another healthful option. So long as as the nori is plain (no seasonings of any kind, please), you're in good shape. Simply attach a piece to the side of the tank with a suction cup clip made for this purpose.
Skip the store-bought frozen food that you can buy from pet stores and make your own. Because you'll be using human-grade ingredients, the quality is optimal. Gregory encourages people to head to the supermarket for fresh seafood or grab a bag of frozen mix. Shrimp, scallops, squid, clams are perfect choices. A few pulses in a blender or food processor — again, taking into consideration the size of fish in your tank — and adding a little plain gelatin, which acts as a binder and protects the integrity of the food while in the freezer, is all it takes. Spoon the mixture into ice cube trays (think regular size for large tanks, mini cube trays for small aquariums) freeze and store in sealed freezer bags for up to a year.
More food for thought
Live food, like feeder fish should be avoided and for good reason: they are often cultivated poorly and can introduce disease into your otherwise healthy tank.
"Over feeding is a common problem," adds Gregory, who says that not only does wasted food contribute to algae growth in the tank, but unhealthy weight in the fish.
"You would be surprised at how little food fish really need to be healthy."
His rule: in an average-sized tank (5-20 fish) introduce only enough food that the fish can eat in about 10 seconds. To help them — goldfish and triggerfish, most notably — avoid swallowing air as they eat, dip your finger into the water to tap the food and let it tumble down instead of allowing it to float on top.
It seemed important to ask about how to handle having your fish fed while you're on vacation.
"Fish won't starve in 2-3 days," and erring on frugality when it comes to feeding while you're away can help avoid an algae problem, something that seems to happen if someone else is at the helm. For long periods of time, be very specific with your directives on amounts and frequency, and you could always pre-portion and label rations.
Educating the public-at-large
Though helping people understand proper care of their aquatic species is an ongoing passion in Gregory's work — part of his time is spent with residential clients with an average tank to organizations with large public aquariums — he also has his sights set on doing the same with the next generation.
"We're working to ramp up the education side now — working with the schools, including those in Palm Beach."
Aside from the marine biology presentations at local schools, the professional team at Healthy Aquatics also offers hands-on event experiences on marine biology at their facility in Boynton Beach. Educational excursions to local ecological sites and more are also available.
As Gregory emphasizes, these unique creatures are not 'pets'.
"They are living things, and deserve to be treated as such."
No matter if an injury to your dog's paw results in a few stitches, or something more serious, keeping the area dry and protected from the elements is crucial in healing. Doing so can seem daunting, but you need only look to your kitchen to help make muddling through this aspect of the recovery more manageable.
Simply wrap the bandaged area with plastic cling film to make for a temporary, quick water and dirt-repellent shield when they go out to do their business. For a better adhesion, use the press-and-seal type.
Here are more of my life hacks to make your everyday easier:
Exotic birds love fresh food. Some are fussier than others, and keeping their fruits and vegetables appetizing in hot weather can be a challenge. To extend the freshness of their grub, freeze several bowls that have been filled a quarter of the way full with water, then stack one under each food bowl.
Use an office chair mat under a rabbit hutch or exotic bird enclosure to make tidying up around them easier, and you'll protect your floors.
Arthritic bunnies benefit from the having a litter pan that is accessible. Instead of using a traditional pan, consider the Marchioro Kiosk tray. Designed as a feeding or grooming tray, it's perfect to accommodate special needs rabbits as well as being easy to clean.
Before you know it, the dog days of summer will be here and keeping cool can be delicious and engaging. Dogs can delight in the backyard with a yummy treat -- a giant homemade pupsicle -- but backyard chickens can enjoy a cool nosh, too. Chopped veggie/fruit scraps (ditto for leftovers) can be converted into a birdsicles. You'll need a can (or two) of creamed corn, the scraps and a muffin tin. Pop a small handful of the scraps into each muffin tin, fill each halfway with the creamed corn and freeze. Pop them out and toss out for the flock. As they are pecked at and thaw, the chickens will enjoy a cool treat and be rewarded with tasty bits of food.
There are plenty of animals in our community that have jobs: service dogs, certified therapy dogs, those that specialize in search and rescue (including horses) — and those that work in law enforcement and military.
Each have gone through extensive training, and although they use all of their senses to do their jobs, one in particular is essential — their sight. Even if smell is the predominant sense that is used, as in bomb or drug sniffing, these animals couldn't manage without good vision.
An annual event will help the handlers and families of these animals stay on top of things where their animal's ocular health is concerned. Board certified Diplomates of the American College of Veterinary Ophthalmologists and their staff have for the past several years, generously donated their time and services to provide free screening ocular exams to qualified service animals who are currently active.
Rue, a black Labrador trained as a Diabetic Alert Dog (DAD), is a testament to how vital vision is to a service animal. She's been with 16 year-old Katie Krampitz — who suffers from Type 1 Diabetes — for almost two years. Rue's most important job is to monitor Katie’s blood sugar level and alert her when it is too low or high. Optimal vision is key: the dog accompanies the teen wherever she goes, and responds to verbal and non-verbal cues. If her human's blood sugar level is not within normal limits, Rue will locate her testing kit and bring it to her. If Katie's blood sugar level drops too low, the dog can fetch a juice box for her.
“Amazingly, within eight months of receiving Rue, Katie’s A1C was the lowest it has ever been,” said Ed Krampitz, Katie’s father.
(An A1C is the calculation of what numbers a diabetic is averaging for their blood sugar.)
"That’s just one of the reasons we were so pleased to hear that Rue’s eyes looked perfectly normal and healthy at her exam last year. Service animals require a significant investment, so having access to a free eye exam screening is a huge blessing. The screening itself was quick and stress-free. Thanks to ACVO and Stokes Pharmacy for making this service available!”
Rue is also being trained to call 911, if Katie becomes unresponsive.
The ACVO/Merial National Service Animal Eye Exam Event takes place across the North America and includes Ann Arbor and other cities in Michigan.
The eye exams will be provided — free of charge — by ophthalmologists from Michigan Veterinary Specialists and BluePearl Veterinary Partners in Ann Arbor, Auburn Hills, Grand Rapids, Southfield as well as The Animal Opthalmology Center in Williamston. I had the chance to catch up with Dr. Gwen Sila, DVM DACVO, veterinary ophthalmologist with BluePearl Veterinary Partners here in Michigan, about their 6 years participating in the event. "This year, we have 3 board-certified ophthalmologists participating and are able to offer free exams for service dogs in our Ann Arbor, Southfield and Auburn Hills locations. All of us ophthalmologists look forward to the event and love the opportunity to make sure these incredible service dogs stay visual and can keep doing the jobs they love."
To qualify, service animals must be actively working and be certified by a formal training program or organization or are currently enrolled in a formal training program. The certifying organization can be national, regional or local (such as Pet Partners, Therapy Dogs, Inc. or International Association of Assistance Dog Partners).
Once registration is completed, a registration number will be assigned, giving access to a list of participating doctors in the area. At that point, the owner/handler can reach out to a participating ophthalmologist to schedule an appointment.
All event appointments will take place during the month of May, and registration for the event ends April 30.
To date, more than 45,000 service animals have had these free screenings – over 7,000 took place in 2015. Sila added, "I am really excited to be able to participate in this event again this year. I am so astounded by the tasks that these dogs so eagerly perform and very impressed by the incredible bond that develops between these dogs and their owners over the years of working together and relying on each other. Anything that we can contribute to keep these dogs able to do their job for as long as possible feels very rewarding."
Click here to go to the event website, and watch the video below for more on the annual event.
With spring officially here, there's plenty to look forward to. There's the weather, longer days, more outdoor activities – and with windows flung open wide (or is that just my house?), there are more sweet sounds of wild birds greeting the day.
The latter is a joy, no doubt, but we humans aren't the only ones who find our feathered friends interesting. Our cats do, too, which is fine if they are kept indoors.
Outdoors, they often stalk wild birds and yes, capture them and worse. In fact, in many articles that I've written about cats, there have been comments aplenty from folks in the Ann Arbor area asserting their displeasure at the numbers of outdoor cats roaming their neighborhoods and killing vast numbers of wild birds. Their feelings about outdoor cats are understandable, and the banter between commenters can get quite heated.
The problem of outdoor cats offing vast numbers of wild birds is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg, a reflection of a bigger problem. It's one that has plagued communities not just in our midst, but around the world.
A study released in late 2013 notes that free-roaming cats are responsible for the majority of wild bird deaths, with a bulk of those stemming from ferals and strays.
Getting the numbers of cats that comprise feral colonies down would make a significant impact of course, and understanding and dealing with the complex roots of keeping strays from finding themselves in the situation they're in would, too. The fact is that the human factor has the biggest impact on these two groups, for both better or worse. Our cavalier attitude to what keeps feral and stray populations thriving — reproductive success, the strongest biological factor in any species — springs eternal. A collective willingness to let go of the idea that 'it's not my problem' and wholeheartedly striving toward a goal of getting a few hearty strides ahead of feline biology, which, by the way, has demonstrated the ability to adjust and turn on a dime to compensate, is needed.
That said, pet cats are responsible for their fair share of the billion-plus wild bird deaths that are reported to be killed annually, according to the study. These kind of numbers leave bird lovers aghast, and serve as an eye-opener to those typically not as aware of the winged creatures flitting around outside their doors.
A screening of The Messenger on April 27th here in Ann Arbor will surely appeal to both. The documentary, touted for its splendid avian cinematography, examines the dangers that songbirds face around the world — including cats. The movie, promoted by Michigan Audubon and Washtenaw Audubon, will be presented at the Michigan Theatre.
After the film, Dr. Cathy Theisen, DVM will be on hand for a brief Q&A to talk about transitioning felines accustomed to living outdoors to life as indoor cats.
For many people — given a felines tendencies — it seems like a natural thing to allow their cats to roam freely, even if it's just for a short time each day. It feels like a harmless prospect, right? The truth is, it takes no time for any cat to capture a bird and wound or kill them.
(Just the same, a cat can be the unwitting victim of various scenarios: poisoning, accidental or otherwise; becoming the prey of a coyote; being accidentally trapped in a shed and starving to death; getting hit by a vehicle; succumbing to injuries from a tangle with a wild creature or even dog.)
Providing an enriching, stimulating environment is one consideration when helping outdoor cats make that leap to being indoor lifers. That's just one aspect that Theisen will cover in helping to make it successful.
To be fair, feline predation isn't the only threat to wild bird populations. Other factors, including collisions, wind turbines, habitat destruction and climate change are contributors and experts in those areas will also be on hand for a short Q&A after the show.
For more on the event, including reserved ticketing information and a pre-movie meet up with birders from around the state at HopCat, click here.