Q: It seems that my 8-year-old son may be having an allergic reaction to the guinea pig we got six months ago. I have read that the allergen may be more the bedding than the pet itself. Any suggestion for hypoallergenic bedding? We love this little guy, and he has been a very welcome addition to our household.
A: I've noticed that most of my clients who keep guinea pigs put a great deal of bedding two or three inches in the cage and then change it only once a week. All this bedding being kicked around by a guinea pig all week long creates a dusty mess, and dumping it out once a week is hard to do without it getting all over the house.
I just spread a few sheets of newspaper on the bottom of my guinea pig cages and then put a sprinkle of bedding on top like sprinkling cheese on top of spaghetti. Every day, I just roll up the used newspaper and bedding into a long cigar and throw it out, then put a fresh sheet of paper with a new sprinkle of bedding. It literally takes only a minute to do this, and the cage is clean and dust-free.
There are many bedding products you can use. I have found that Aspen Wood Bedding and the natural-colored Care Fresh Bedding seem to be the most free of dust.
Q: Yesterday I saw what I thought was a blue jay flopping around on the ground in distress. As I walked closer, I noticed it was not hurt but sitting on the ground with its feathers all fluffed up and picking up something in its beak and then rubbing it all over its plumage.
I just sat there, watching, for a couple of minutes, then the bird stopped, shook out its feathers and flew off. When I got to the spot where the bird had been sitting, I saw that it was an ant hill with lots of busy ants. Am I correct in assuming the bird was rubbing its feathers with ants? Why would it do this?
A: You saw a natural bird behavior that is rarely witnessed. Scientists call this anting. It is an aspect of avian feather maintenance that is imperfectly understood. We do know that ants secrete formic acid. It seems logical that the bird is rubbing the ants throughout its feathers to coat them with the formic acid, thus killing feather lice or other parasites in the plumage. It is one of those mysteries of nature, an instinctive behavior that birds do not need to be taught.
Q: At our vacation house, my son found quite a few little red salamanders crawling in the woods after a rainstorm. We brought five of them back to Long Island and set them up in a terrarium with leaves and moss collected from the area around our house. A pet store sold us pelleted food for newts and salamanders. We sprinkled some in the terrarium, but they just ignore it. Is there something else we can offer them that they might like better?
A: The salamanders you found are the juvenile form of the Eastern newt. As adults, they live in lakes and ponds, but as soon as the tadpoles develop legs and can walk, they leave the pond where they were born and live a terrestrial life in the moist forests, hiding under leaf litter, where they eat very small termites and other live prey. In this life stage, they are called red efts.
The adult newts that live in the water will eat the pellets you bought, but the little red juveniles will not. They need live food. About the only commercially bred insects you can buy for them are wingless fruit flies.
Your life will be a lot easier and the newts will be a lot happier if you just take them back up to the area where you found them and turn them loose. There are very few salamanders native to the United States that can be successfully kept in captivity. They should always be appreciated in their natural environment but left strictly alone.