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by Diane Burroughs October 06, 2021 14 min read

Compulsive behavior affects people and animals alike. For instance, you've probably heard of people that compulsively clean or gamble. Other people count things over and over again or actually cause themselves injury. Anytime a compulsive habit turns into self harm, it's an indication that the individual is facing something that is really stressful.

That includes your bird.

WHAT IS BIRD SELF MUTILATION?

Birds' behavior of self-mutilation is different than bird feather-damaging behaviors. Feather-damaging behaviors are a spectrum of behaviors wherein the bird damages or defaces feathers, or actually removes the feather itself. Self-mutilation, on the other hand, is when the bird nibbles its flesh off. As you can imagine, this could quickly escalate into a life-threatening situation.

As a board-certified psychotherapist and bird behaviorist, I view bird self-mutilation as a sterotypical or compulsive behavior. So what does this mean? Here are the characteristics of compulsive, stereotypical behavior:

  • Repetitively engages in a behavior

  • Repeating the behavior despite harmful consequences

  • A sense that your bird can’t control the behavior

  • Your bird experiences an intense urge or craving to perform the behavior

  • Your bird gets a sense of pleasure from the behavior

WHICH SPECIES OF BIRDS SELF MUTILATE?

While self-mutilation is common among many species of companion birds, there are a few species of birds that seem to have a high incidence of self-mutilation. It is very common in cockatoos and lovebirds. But we also see a high frequency of self mutilation in African grey parrots, quaker parrots, and parrotlets.

Think of these species in the wild, and you’ll notice that most of them live in massive flocks. We call these ‘flock species.’ The brains of flock species parrots have literally been hardwired to depend on flock mates for both physical and emotional security.

Biologists say that these birds develop strong bonds with each other, engage in elaborate feeding habits, and even possess their own distinct dialects. They literally depend on each other for day-to-day survival.

One hypothesis is that when an individual flock species bird is isolated with no flock to rely on, it becomes anxious, lonely, and vulnerable. These uncomfortable feelings cause a perpetual state of stress. That may be one reason a bird would decide to self-mutilate itself through feather plucking and self-harm. But keep in mind, self-harm is far more complicated than that.

Bird self mutilation in flock species

Shutterstock Licensed Image

Parrots become compulsive self-mutilators for a number of reasons. Compulsive behavior is a form of anxiety disorder. Anxiety may be due to the bird’s genetic predisposition, factors such as feeding by hand during childhood, or a traumatic event. We often see captive animals develop compulsive disorders, partly because they are not being provided with enough stimulation.

To learn more about this check out9 Reasons Behind Parrot Self-Mutilation

Yes, anxiety is a mental state many vets believe can cause feather-pulling, self-mutilation, and other stereotypical behaviors like unrelenting screaming, foot-tapping, and pacing back-and-forth.

Plus, science-based research has revealed that when a young chick is removed from its nest and separated from its parents to be hand-reared by breeders, it is extremely vulnerable to develop anxiety and aggression as it grows up. We believe that this traumatizing experience wires the brain to be hyper-anxious for the rest of its life.

Wander through the Amazonian rainforest in South America and you’ll find quite a few Amazons and Macaws wandering about in small groups of only two to four birds, which they call nomadic species.

Nomad bird species aren’t nearly as stressed about being left alone. But, they aren’t immune to bird self-mutilation. They still need environmental enrichment and a range of parrot wellness care in order to thrive as a pet.

HOW CAN I STOP MY PARROT FROM MUTILATION? 

If you’d like to stop bird self-mutilation, you’ll have to start by breaking the self-harming cycle with thick, tough bird collars. If you don’t know what I mean, just compare these two bird collar styles.

The one on the left is for a mild plucker. It’s thinner and more flexible. The one on the right is thicker and more rigid, which makes it harder to get around.

 

Bird Self Mutilation collars

 

When bird self-mutilation is a compulsive behavior combined with a strong, destructive beak, it makes sense to physically curb this behavior by using thick, hard bird collars and vests designed to shield birds from their own powerful beaks. But that’s easier said than done with a bird that can split open a nut faster than you can blink your eyes.

We've developed 3 bird collars and the BeakGuard Bird Vest to support bird self mutilation.  A lot of our customers have reported that they've gotten creative with combining styles for even more protection.  That's why we created the Bird Self Mutilation Combo.

bird Self mutilation Combo

Now let's get down to the root cause of the self-mutilation habit. The problem may be of a medical or behavioral nature. But frequently we find there is a combination of both medical and behavioral underpinnings contributing to an addiction to self-mutilation.

Let's take a look at the common medical and behavioral issues that contribute to parrot self-mutilation and other compulsive behavior in our pets.

POTENTIAL MEDICAL CAUSES OF BIRD SELF MUTILATION

So as previously stated, the root causes of parrot self-mutilation fall roughly into two categories: medical and non-medical (or behavioral).

Your bird veterinarian may perform a series of tests to help determine whether there is a medical reason for the self-mutilation.

WHY  DOES MY BIRD KEEP BITING HIMSELF?

Something that research is beginning to show is that self-mutilation falls squarely within the realm of human psychiatric diagnoses. Take, for instance, a self-harming behavior like Trichotillomania. It’s a condition in which someone cuts off their own hair. People with this disorder are literally compelled to pull out their hair, even though they face social consequences for the behavior.

This is why they're called OCD. Experts used to think that self-harm urges occur because the brain’s chemical signals (called neurotransmitters) aren’t working properly. Now, we know that the amygdala in these people’s brains is hyper-reactive.

The Amygdala is part of the limbic system. We think it plays a huge role in emotion and behavior. It’s best known for its role processing fear, but we’re learning that it plays a huge role in other emotions, too.

Hierarchy of parrot needs

Infographic Developed by Diane Burroughs, LCSW 

WHAT IS PARROT WELLNESS

Non-medical reasons for feather plucking fall into three clear-cut categories. We can group all of these into a concept called “Parrot Wellness.” 

These include:

  • Environmental issues
  • Parrot husbandry issues
  • Behavioral issues.  

When a parrot’s environmental, social and physical needs aren’t being met, its stress levels can spike exponentially. Stress causes the release of huge amounts of adrenaline into the blood stream, which can set off a nasty bout of self-mutilation.

Faced with the frightful issue of bird self-mutilation, many people rush online to do some research and seek help.

Don't entirely rely on support groups of this kind. Members of these groups don't have the vast experience from scientific studies on birds self-mutilating. They can only speak about what is working for their specific bird.

These support group types can be helpful, but they’re just that. Support groups. You’re in the group for support from people who are dealing with the exact same issue that keeps you up at night. 

It’s vitally important to work with a trained and certified bird behaviorist.

Bird self mutilation is treatable

 

 

A lot of people think that parrot wellness involves just diet and nutrition. But, actually it goes much deeper than that. If you want to stop your parrot from self-mutilating it will be very important to incorporate ALL 6 parrot wellness elements into your bird care routines now.

This is what I say because I get phone calls and emails every day asking me how to stop bird self-mutilation. People will try one thing or another, then sort of give up, because just one thing isn’t really going to fix a complex problem like bird self-mutilation.

If you really want to stop parrot mutilation you have to incorporate a“full-blown system” like that described above.  

We literally know that the most effective thing a person can do to turn around challenging behavior in their pet is to provide for their birds' overall well-being. And we mean it. So, you’re going to want to keep providing for all of your bird’s health needs no matter whether they turn the behavior around or not.

Parrot wellness is so important when caring for an exotic pet. Just think about it. When you feel physically healthy and stress free, you’re at your best! 

Researchers from the Richard M. Shubolt Parrot Wellness Program at UC Davis have identified 6 key elements that are critical to birds’ wellbeing, both in terms of their physical and emotional well-being:

  1. Preventative Health Care

  2. Diet & Nutrition

  3. Behavioral Training

  4. Environmental Enrichment

  5. Pediatric & Geriatric Care

  6. Pain Prevention and Management

Preventive Health Care

When you own an exotic pet, prevention is key. Birds cover up illness, injury, and pain as a survival mechanism. Not just physical pain, but emotional pain, too. Routine wellness exams help you catch problems early when they are easier to treat.

A bird feeling poorly is more likely to quit eating. To complicate things even more, birds have uniquely adapted bodies designed to sustain flight. Their metabolisms are extremely high, so they can quickly go downhill if they stop eating.

The reason I am telling you this is that when a bird isn’t feeling well, one of the first signs we see is that it stops eating. Its self-care diminishes. When a sick bird finally succumbs to her illness with noticeable symptoms  – unfortunately, it’s often too late.

Returning to preventative care, Avian Veterinarians have been trained to spot early signs of something being medically off with your bird with one simple exam that may just save your bird's life.

This is why annual preventive bird health checkups are so important, and following your avian vet's advice is key.

Diet and Nutrition

Some parrots are prone to biting themselves out of discomfort, either mentally or physically. A key contributor to many problematic parrot behaviors is inadequate nutrition that causes them to be malnourished. Proper balanced nutrition goes hand-in-hand with good physical and mental health.

 

We recommend feeding the bird high-quality pellets and a diverse range of raw plant-based vegetables, fruits, herbs, grains and essential oils.

Human studies of OCD are quite eye-opening. Did you know that when someone suffering from an anxiety disorder improves their diet, increases exercise, and improves sleep, their anxiety decreases substantially? Those 3 suggestions belong in any successful psychotherapist's toolbox.

These exact 3 health factors were deemed essential for the care of parrots.

quotation mark Appropriate diet, exercise, and sleep should be at the top of your “must-do list” parrot care routines.

Thinking about changing your self mutilating bird's diet? Join the conversation on Facebook! Join the Avian Raw Whole Food Nutritioon Facebook group to learn how to improve your bird's physical and mental health.

Karmen Budai, one of the key contributors to this group, wrote a couple of really eye-opening books to support your efforts towards better-feeding your birds. They're packed with hearty bird recipes you can make from items you can find at your local grocery store. You can buy them right here.

 

Now for the exercises.

Get a bird stand to encourage movement. My birds love their Java Trees. A little pricey, for sure. But a sedentary bird that doesn’t have any opportunities for exercise can rack up some expensive vet bills. So why  not give it what it needs? Daily exercise.

 

 

One more way to help your bird feel his best is to make sure he’s getting the 10-12 hours of sleep that he needs every night. This is why you should get your bird a sleep cage. These are clear, lightweight cages that you can transport to a quiet, dark space so your pet can get the rest they need.

Hint: Travel bird cages can double as a bird’s sleep cage and a hospital bird cage.

The Perch and Go Bird Carrier by Featherland is a great travel, sleep, or hospital cage. This handy cage is ideal for small to medium birds.

 

Bird Behavior Training 

It’s no secret that parrots are some of the smartest animals on the planet. They’re also extremely social, living in the wild in a complex social structure where they’re never truly isolated. Mama and daddy could spend up to a few years teaching their young how to survive and thrive in the flock.

For our domesticated birds, life is much different than it is for their wild cousins. As you’ve probably guessed, their upbringing is drastically different. Unfortunately, there are many bird breeders who take baby parrots away from their parents to handfeed them. These birds never get the chance to learn normal parrot behavior.

A lot of pet owners don’t know how to properly train their feathered friends. So they don’t teach their birds the natural behaviors associated with parrots, such as eating healthy food or taking a bath. They may not know how to teach a bird to groom itself or hunt for food.

 

These are all inborn skills your bird must learn to thrive as a parrot. Teaching your bird these skills is actually pretty simple and really fun because they’re so intelligent and social. It's a great way to bond with your bird. too.

The title is called Clicker Training For Birds. This reasonably priced book has been around for quite some time but it’s an absolute gold mine when it comes to training your bird with positive, scientific approaches. It's clear, easy to follow and implement. And you'll be amazed at how quickly your bird can learn.

When you pair improved bird care with bird-training, you’ll start to notice positive changes in your birds’ behavior. Just think of all the stress relief that your bird will experience.

Bird Enrichment

I mentioned before that birds are extremely intelligent and highly social animals. We will never be able to replicate the enrichment opportunities that native birds experience. But, that does not mean we can't provide our birds with ample enrichment.

One of the best skills we can teach our birds is to forage for food. Foraging is when your bird uses problem-solving skills to get a good portion of its diet. I tell you all about that in this book and this video.

Did you know birds have better hearing than your dog? Or, that they have better vision than just about any other animal. And we should be providing them with some sensory stimulation as well.

Find ways that give your bird some sensory stimulation throughout the day. After all, a bird who is always on the go doesn't have as much time to chew on itself.

 Here are several ways to support your birds sensory needs:

    • Create foraging opportunities for your pet so that it has to figure out how to get their nutrition.

    •  Provide your bird with a rich and varied plant-based diet.

    •  Offer your bird auditory stimulation in the form of music or talk shows. If you have a bird with separation anxiety make an audio or video recording of yourself that you can play for your bird when you're away.

    •  One of my favorite resources is Bird TV For Parrots on YouTube

    •  Offer your bird visual stimulation with a variety of colorful toys and a treasure chest of things to forage through.

Pain Management 

I've already established how birds are innately wired to hide pain in illness. But, that doesn’t mean that they have no pain.

If your bird is one of those who doesn't eat healthy foods and doesn't get enough exercise, it will eventually end up stiff and sore.

You might be surprised to learn that a bird who self-harms may have fallen into a vicious cycle creating physical pain to compensate for its emotional pain.

how to tell if your bird is in pain

 

Try to determine if your bird might be in pain and talk with your vet about it. There are a few avian safe pain medications that your vet can prescribe for you. Take thisBird Pain Assessment to help you understand if this is part of the problem.

Bird-specific CBD oil or bird-specific hemp seed are alternative supplements that can support birds in pain from mild to moderate.

 Both Hemp Seed and CBD Oil support pain, inflammation, cardiovascular health, and so much more. It only takes a little bit for your birds to feel some relief.

Some people have a concern that they're giving their birds something that could cause them to get high, but neither is Hemp Seed or Bird High. CBD Oil contains THC.

Pediatric & Geriatric Care

A lot like a young child or puppy, your bird has different care needs at different stages of life. This is another reason to maintain a regular relationship with your avian vet. Avian vets and veterinary techs can be a valuable resource for coaching you on meeting your parrot’s needs during the various life stages.

HOW A BIRD BEHAVIORIST HELPS WITH BIRD SELF-MUTILATION

We now know that Applied Behavior Analysis is the second most effective approach to stopping bird self-mutilation, after ensuring their complete well-being.

Self-mutilating parrot behavior can quickly get out of hand, so it makes sense to address the issue while consulting a with a bird behaviorist in addition to working with your avian vet.

When you’re working on a potentially life-threatening issue like bird self-mutilation, you need to plan on multiple sessions. I routinely see my clients on multiple occasions. Why? Because behavioral change is science. It’s a process, and it takes time to unravel.

Most people really don’t realize the difference between a bird trainer and a bird behaviorist.

Imagine it as deciding between taking your new pup to puppy kindergarten for some basic socialization vs. hiring a highly-trained specialist who can accurately assess and correct complicated, challenging behavior.

These professionals had a rigorous training in applied behavioral analysis (ABA), and the vast majority of truly great bird behaviorists hold a master’s degree or a doctorate in one of the behavioral sciences.

Don't be afraid to ask the bird behaviorist what their credentials and background are. A good bird behaviorist will tell you about their training.

Don’t be afraid to ask for ‘package deals.’ In other words, pitch in for a discount on follow-up appointments. Some practitioners offer bundle pricing while others urge you to sign up for a year-long package.

A dangerous problem like bird self-mutilation is ultimately about saving your bird’s life.

Psychotropic Medications Used For Feather Plucking and Bird Self mutilation

Sadly, a compulsive mutilation habit that has gone on for a few years may have become so ingrained that it requires psychotropic medications.

The good news is that they tend to work quickly once you and your vet have determined which particular drug the bird tolerates and the right dosage to quiet its behavior, but not make it seem like it is drugged up.

Well...quite literally. Avian Veterinarian Dr. Jeffrey Jenkins claims a 90% success rate in treating difficult to manage birds who self-harm. That's amazing! And your bird might be a successful candidate too. You can see Dr. Jenkins on this video

 Cockatude 14

Some birds’ vets have reservations about prescribing psychotropic drugs as an aid in feather-pulling and self-mutilation in birds. Birds don't tolerate many medications in the same way that mammals do. In addition, research into what bird medicines they tolerate is fairly sparse.

Just like your physician, veterinarians have to abide by the concept of “do way more good than harm.” 

The Merck Veterinary Manual is the Hallmark resource on which psychotropic medications have been researched for birds. 

They identify 5 psychotropic medications for feather plucking (and bird self mutilation) 

  • Amitriptyline
  • Clomipramine
  • Diazepam
  • Haloperidol
  • Fluoxetine

For more information on bird medications, please read this article, The Do's and Dont's of Calming a Stressed Bird 

Bird Self Mutilation

 

Disclaimer Alert. I'm not an avian vet. I'm a clinical psychotherapist with considerable psychiatric hospital experience and a bird behaviorist that specializes in feather plucking birds and bird self mutilation.

In Conclusion,

So, now you've learned about bird self-mutilation treatment options. Bird self-mutilation is not a simple problem like screaming or biting. Your beloved pet could die over this. Develop a partnership with your avian vet and with a bird behaviorist for optimum results.

Related Posts:

The Do's and Don'ts Of Calming a Stressed Bird

10 Ways To Curb Bird Self Mutilation Without Breaking The Bank 

Understanding Parrot Stress and What To Do About It

What Is A Time Study?

References:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TfOCjf6YgV8 (Cockatude 14)

https://www.promisesbehavioralhealth.com/addiction-recovery-blog/compulsive-self-mutilation/

https://zencare.co/mental-health/compulsive-behaviors

Revised 05/25/2021 


Diane Burroughs, LCSW is a licensed psychotherapist trained in ABA therapy techniques. She specializes in avian anxiety disorders and is certified in Nutrition For Mental Health. Diane has written a number of bird behavior books and she offers behavior consultations. She's developed a range of UnRuffledRx Science-backed Parrot Wellness Supplies.

Diane's products have been featured in the Journal of Avian Medicine and Surgery and at Exoticscon, a conference for exotic pet veterinarians. Her bird collars & supplements are stocked in avian vet clinics and bird stores throughout the US. With over 30 years in the field of behavior, Diane has created thousands of successful individualized behavior plans that help pets thrive.

TAGS: #FeatherDestructiveBehavior #BirdSelfMutilation

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