If you are considering a pet - and a dog or cat is neither practical nor appealing - then an ideal option may be a bird.

"A bird chirping away in the apartment gives your space life and colour. And you will be surprised as to how much personality a bird has," says veterinarian Lloyd Kenda, of Valley Veterinary Centre (www.valleyvetcentre.com.hk).

"Like getting any new pet, do your homework before you make the purchase. Different varieties of birds have different levels of care required to keep them healthy and, most importantly, happy."

There are also the different types of food and cages to research before bringing home a feathered friend.

Kenda recommends getting a bird that is relatively young, as this ensures that it becomes comfortable with being handled, can be trained to talk and can spend some time out of its cage. "However, beware of getting a bird that is too young, as rearing a very young bird by hand is best done by someone with a lot of experience."

The next thing to do is to spend time closely observing the bird. "Potential bird owners should look for sneezing, nasal discharge, dull, non-alert eyes, a puffed-up appearance, loss of any feathers or sitting on the bottom of the cage. Any of these signs indicate an unhealthy bird," Kenda says. Birds also have a very rapid metabolism, the vet adds, so if they get sick, their condition deteriorates quickly. This means if a pet bird looks unwell, it should be taken to the vet as soon as possible.

When it comes to the most common problems seen in birds, one of the most prevalent is parasites, of which there are two kinds. "Endoparasites are internal, such as intestinal worms. These will cause diarrhoea, failure to thrive and can be fatal. Ectoparasites are external, such as mites. These will cause feather loss and itchiness to the point that the bird can self-mutilate due to the intensity of the skin irritation," Kenda says.

The next most common problem in birds is self-mutilation due to boredom. "This is more of a problem in the parrot varieties. If these birds are left with no environmental stimulation, they can start pulling their own feathers. Again, this can become so intense that they will literally tear themselves apart." To counter this, it is important to provide environmental enrichment by installing toys and mirrors in the cage, giving your pet the opportunity to interact with people, allowing a view of the action going on around it, or possibly providing it with a mate. "Having a mate can sometimes bring its own set of problems, as many birds will fight. Introduce any new bird to an existing bird gradually," the vet says.

As with any pet, good husbandry is important and, in the case of a bird, it is critical to keep the cage and environment clean for its mental and physical well-being. Kenda says: "If there have been any parasites, either endo or ecto, then a thorough scrubbing and drying of the cage is critical." Also, the cage material must be suited to the type of bird. "The ornate Chinese-style wooden cages look great, but a budgerigar can eat through the wood," the vet says. Some metal cages have rust-resistant coatings that if chewed off by the bird can poison it. "The cage should also be in a well-ventilated area - not too hot and not too cold. And owners who smoke should note that smoking cigarettes close to birds is very detrimental to them."

The correct diet is also crucial - not just for nutritional value, but also to prevent other problems. Kenda says: "For example, parrots can develop an overgrowth of the beak due to eating only soft foods and will not be able to crack open seed shells." In this case, the beak must be trimmed and the bird gradually introduced to a better diet.

If you do your research and provide a pet bird with all that it needs, your efforts will pay off. "Keeping birds is a very rewarding hobby and something that can be done easily in the space restrictions in Hong Kong. Birds can be a little more fragile than a dog or a cat; thus it is wise to educate yourself as much as possible before making a purchase. There is a wealth of information available in books and on the internet, as well as speaking with a veterinarian," Kenda says.

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