Can your ferret play basketball? Your rabbit race through weave poles? Your pot-bellied pig complete an obedience routine? Well, why not?
These animals, as well as guinea pigs, rats, mice, gerbils and more, can all learn to amaze your friends and family by performing tricks and other behaviors on cue.
Think it can’t be done? So do most people, until they try it, says behavioral biologist and learning authority Karen Pryor of Watertown, Mass.
Using a clicker, you can teach “pocket pets” to raise a paw, go through hoops, stand up on their hind legs and put their paws on a box, put a ping-pong ball in a miniature basket and play basketball, and pull on a string to turn a light on and off, Pryor says.
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Clicker training involves marking a desired behavior with a sound – made by pressing down on the clicker – and then rewarding the animal with a favorite treat, toy or praise.
Pets learn quickly that the sound of the clicker means they’ve done something you like and that a reward is forthcoming. Teaching the animal to touch or follow a target, such as a wooden spoon or a chopstick, is usually the first step. Hold it out, and when the animal moves forward to sniff it, click and give a favorite treat, something the animal loves that he doesn’t get on an everyday basis.
Even timid animals who aren’t hand-tame can be willing to approach the target.
“Click the instant they touch or sniff or even look at the target,” Pryor says. “Then give them a treat. Don’t make them come to you – just drop it in a little dish so they can get it without having to come near you.
“It’s just temporary because as soon as they figure out what they’re doing is making you click, they’re going to stop being afraid of you.
“As soon as they’ll come to the target or follow the target, you can do anything you want with them. You can teach them to jump over your foot, go through a tunnel – you can have an agility course on the kitchen floor.
“Many people have taught guinea pigs and rabbits to weave through poles,” says Pryor.
Teach tricks that are appropriate for your pet. For instance, ferrets are good with their paws and can learn to pick up things, while guinea pigs and rabbits are better suited to pushing items with their noses or hopping in and out of weave poles.
Your pet can learn to come when called – very useful when a pocket pet has escaped from his cage – to move to a specific place, making it easier to clean his cage, and to be willing to sit still for handling, which comes in handy if you need to trim his nails or take him to the veterinarian.
Contrary to popular belief, pets’ fur coats don’t make them immune to the cold. Protect pets from winter’s onslaught by shortening walks in extremely cold weather and bringing them indoors when temps drop below freezing, even if they have long or thick coats.
Animals who are old or arthritic are more at risk of falling on snow or ice, and pets with conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, kidney disease or Cushing’s disease may have difficulty regulating their body temperature, so it’s important to protect them when they go outdoors.
And cat lovers: Knock on the hood before starting your car to make sure you scare out any cats who may have sought shelter inside your vehicle when the engine was warm.
• Live poultry and tiny turtles were the culprits in three multistate salmonella outbreaks affecting 987 people last year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports. Two outbreaks were linked to contact with live chicks and one with pet turtles whose shells are smaller than the legally permitted size of 4 inches.
Children are at higher risk than adults of salmonella infection. Of the people sickened, 70 percent were children 10 years or younger, and 31 percent were 1 year or younger. Any time you handle live poultry or turtles, wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water.
• Veterinarians at Colorado State University’s James L. Voss Veterinary Teaching Hospital are studying a new stem-cell therapy that could provide a new treatment option for cats with chronic kidney disease. Earlier studies of the approach showed that it could decrease inflammation, promote regeneration of damaged cells and improve kidney function.
Animals participating in the study are not harmed.
– Kim Campbell Thornton and Dr. Marty Becker