Dear Chamois: Why does my goldfish swim upside down? And how do I stop my parrot swearing?

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The Independent Online

Q. I found three kittens in a skip in my road. I think they are about four weeks old. Do they still need bottle feeding? And how do I go about this? Rose, via e-mail

A. First, take them to the vet to get the all-clear. Raising orphan kittens is complicated and time-consuming. If you're not sure you can dedicate the time to this, then it would be kinder to give the kittens to an animal charity. As they are four weeks old they should have their eyes open already and be walking around shakily. To start with, you'll need some replacement formula milk and special bottles. Your vet will be able to give you instructions on how to get hold of and administer the formula. You will still need to feed the kittens about four or five times a day. In addition to this they will soon need to start eating solid food. Mix canned kitten food with the formula and give it to them. At first, they will make a mess and lick it off each other, but this is all part of the learning process. Make sure they are kept warm, as kittens are prone to hypothermia. Keep a hot water bottle wrapped in a towel in their bed but make sure there is enough space so if they feel too hot they can move away from it. They should be weaned by six weeks.

Q. My parrot keeps swearing! I don't know where he learnt bad language from – how can I stop him? Anne, via e-mail

A. It must have been a great shock to have heard your feathered friend using such colourful language! It may seem funny to outsiders, but can you imagine how embarrassing it would be if your parrot insulted an elderly relative or neighbour? First, you need to discover the source of the saucy language; your bird must have learnt it from somewhere. Birds are very intelligent creatures and learn by repetition and praise. If you have teenagers, they might be the culprits; or he could just be copying what he hears on the TV. Be careful about what you watch when he's in the room. When he does use bad language, simply walk out of the room and ignore him. After that, you need to re-train him. Teach him another word that sounds similar to the swear word, give him lots of praise and eventually he will pick up the right habits. Good luck!

Q. I've seen some great-looking puppies on various sites on the internet such as Gumtree and Loot. I'm thinking of buying one, but would like to know whether this is a reliable method of buying a pet. Are they checked? Tom, via e-mail

A. You have to be very cautious whenever you are thinking of buying a dog. The internet has made it far too easy to buy pets. There are so many cases of puppies being purchased online – unseen – and then delivered to your door. This is the wrong way to buy a pooch. You need to see the mother, the father and you also need to witness the environment they've been brought up in. You can learn so much from the way puppies interact with their fellow siblings; you can tell if they are the bossy one or the quiet one. Do as much background checking as you can about the owners. And check out your local sanctuary; maybe they've got a suitable puppy. Or you could do a really worthwhile thing and take on an older dog. The internet is great, but it is producing a surplus number of puppies, especially when there are so many in shelters needing loving homes.

Q. I've noticed that my goldfish is swimming upside down. Should he be doing this? Vicki, Potters Bar

A. This is not an uncommon problem, but you need to take it quite seriously because though it may look funny, it could be life threatening. The most common cause is an affliction of the swim bladder. It's caused when there is pressure on the swim bladder which makes it difficult for the goldies to swim straight. The first thing to do is to put him in a small isolation tank so that you can treat and observe him. Do not fill the water right up; that way there won't be too much pressure for him to swim to the top to get air. You need to feed him de-shelled, defrosted frozen peas, which will help with constipation – the most common cause of swim bladder problems; small poos are a sign that your goldfish is getting better. Continue with the pea diet for seven days in addition to his regular diet.

Q. People keep telling me I've got to let my dog off the lead in the park. They say he's not getting enough exercise, but I'm scared because he keeps running away. Are they right? Gill, Wimbledon

A. He is your dog and you need to do what you think is right for him. If he keeps running off, then it's sensible to keep him on the lead. But remember that dogs need physical and mental stimulation – even if he's on the lead, you can still play lots of games with him. If you want to let him off the lead, start by giving him a training line. This will give you some control. Then teach him to come back – call him and when he comes back give him a treat and lots of praise.

Q. Do you think it's cruel to leave one of those automatic cat feeders down when you go on holiday? How long can you use them for? Jim, East Dulwich

A. Cats are very independent creatures and it's true that they may not need as much care as, say, a dog. But they need as much love and affection, if not more. You wouldn't leave your dog with an automatic feeder overnight, so why should you leave a cat? The main thing I worry about is a potential situation where you might go away and the equipment fails to open. And if you've filled the automatic cat feeder with wet food, then there's also the danger that the food will go off. In my opinion, it's far better to try to get a friend or a professional cat-sitter to pop in and feed him. Having said all that, in emergencies automatic feeders can be useful.

Q. My young kids keep dressing my dog up. Do you think this is cruel? Sarah, via e-mail

A. Firstly, in my opinion, dogs should never be left unsupervised with children, especially if the kids are likely to man-handle them. Your dog could become stressed if your children are winding them up all the time and children can be over-boisterous without realising it. Perhaps you should limit this type of play for when you all go out for a walk together, and then you can use appropriate dog coats to dress him up in – there are so many on the market!

Remember that if an animal shows signs of distress or discomfort an early visit to the vet is always recommended

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