One of the first and most important things we do at your exotic pet’s veterinary exam is take an accurate weight. This is a great way to monitor an animal’s health, and it’s something you can do at home too! If you notice any significant changes in your pet’s weight, it can indicate the need for a visit to your local exotics vet for a checkup. Taking steps like this at home allows us to provide a more thorough and Fear Free visit for your companion.
Types of Scales
The number of scales available for purchase can be overwhelming, but there are a few things you can look for to help determine the best scale for your pet:
- Low to the ground/low center of gravity
It should take as little effort as possible for the animal to step onto the scale. If feasible, you should have the scale level to the animal or its carrier. Another option is to use a ramp so it is not as large of a step up. A low center of gravity helps to keep the scale from shifting or moving beneath the animal, or tipping if the animal is only on the edge. Any movement of the scale may cause a fear response and negative feelings toward them in the future.
This is pretty easy to devise even if the scale itself is slippery. A piece of yoga mat or rubber drawer liner can keep your pet from sliding around or having unsteady footing that may result in negative feelings. Bonus, drawer liners are also easy to clean! These tools can also be used beneath the scale to create traction; we don’t want any instability or movement that may frighten a pet.
- Clear of obstacles
Animals may get uncomfortable if their tails or feathers get caught in crevices or unnecessary parts of the scale.
- Appropriate size and increment
Make sure the platform of the scale is large enough for your entire animal. This can range from a kitchen food scale to a baby scale, but the most important aspect is that the scale weighs in grams. Pets under 2,000 grams (or 2 kilograms) should be weighed on scales that use 1-gram increments.
For some of our smaller, quicker, or wigglier species, it is helpful to have a bowl or container to place them in for taking weight. Scales are available with these built in, or you can use one already in your home! You can either place the container onto the scale and hit “tare” or “zero,” and then place the animal inside, or you can weigh the container separately and then again with the animal inside, then subtract the weight of the container. Just make sure your pet has a little room to move in the bowl or container, and that it isn’t airtight! For birds, there are scales with specially-made platforms including perches, or single perches you can purchase to attach to your own scale.
As with any training, start early! Get your pet used to seeing and touching the scale as much as possible while they are young and more receptive to new things. While it is a misconception that old dogs (or birds or snakes) can’t learn new tricks, animals at certain ages and stages of development can be more amenable to engage in new behaviors. It is beneficial to desensitize your animal to many things a pet may see or experience at a veterinary clinic, such as nail clippers and nail trims, physical exams, towels, and syringes, but here we will focus on training pets to step up onto or stand on a scale.
Choose your positive reinforcement wisely. Favorite food items or toys, or even touch, can be used to reinforce positive feelings and behaviors. You know your pet best–what are they most excited or comforted by? You can try saving high-value food items for training sessions only, such as high sugar or fat treats your pet doesn’t receive on a regular basis. When using preferred food items, it is important to figure out the right size piece of food and determine if and when your pet is open to engaging. Ideally, the bite of food is small enough to eat quickly and then the animal is looking to you for more!
In birds and reptiles, rubbing their bill or mouth against hard surfaces may indicate a low level of interest in the food item being offered, so it may be worthwhile to try a different food reinforcer or try again later. Training before mealtimes is a good way to avoid these obstacles.
As long as your pet is interested in engaging with you and with the positive reinforcement you’ve chosen, training sessions can be up to a half an hour. Even training sessions that last just a few minutes at a time are a step in the right direction; short, frequent sessions are useful for pets that tire easily of interaction or reinforcers. As soon as your pet loses interest in the positive reinforcer, it is time to end the training session. You can always go back to it in a few hours, or the next day. Once a skill is learned and practiced, maintenance sessions every week or two will keep that behavior fresh in your pet’s mind.
There are a couple strategies we can utilize to develop a new behavior. The first is “approximation.” Here, we break the behavior into smaller steps and build upon each one to create more complex skills. For example, the first step to training a bird to stand on the scale could be the “step up” command.
Another strategy is called “capturing” a behavior, and this can help you teach a command like “step up.” Whenever your bird willingly steps up from their perch to your hand, give your positive reinforcer at the same time. This will encourage the bird to repeat the behavior more frequently, and you can begin to pair the command “step up” to the movement.
Returning to the approximation approach, once your bird reliably responds to the “step up” command, you can move to the next step. As discussed above, a perch for your scale can be beneficial for some avian pets like parrots and their relatives. The next step could be to “step up” onto this new perch. New items and perches can cause anxiety, so acclimating the bird to new objects and experiences is crucial!
With these short, easy training sessions at home, your pet can be more comfortable in veterinary settings and have a better, Fear Free visit!
Written by: Lindsay Magill
Avian Fear Free Certification Module 3, Module 6