Treatment Options for Parrot Self-Mutilation
How Prevelant is Parrot Self-Mutilation?
Did you actually know that more than 50 percent of all pet birds engage in over-preening or some sort of feather damaging bird behavior? As Dr. Jeffrey Jenkins— an avian veterinarian in California--puts it, “feather loss is one of the most frustrating and complex bird problems that avian veterinarian have to shoulder every day as part of the supportive care they give to birds.” It is estimated that 1:10 birds that engage in feather picking progress to self-mutilation.
Washington state avian veterinarian, Cathy Johnson-Delaney, DVM, figures that one out of every 10 feather pickers also mutilates the skin. "Mutilators generally start out as feather pickers,” she said. "There may be a spot on the bird’s body where it is accustomed to picking feathers, and there are no feathers there anymore and so it bites its skin instead. The bird may continually have scabs on its chest because it picks and picks and picks.”1
Many species of captive parrots are prone to becoming feather pluckers. But cockatoos, quaker parrots, love birds, Eclectus parrots, African grey parrots and parrotlets are particularly predisposed to this behavior. Take a good look and you’ll notice that all the aforementioned birds live in large flocks in the wild. If you've ever had the opportunity to see the flock behavior of these species in the wild, it is fascinating. Flock species count on each other for safety and socialization.
Flock species require the social setting as part of their psychological health and social stimulation. So, if by any chance you happen to separate one of these birds from its social group, it is highly prone to developing anxiety problems related to feeling vulnerable and lonely -- a mental state that many veterinarians suggest can bring about feather plucking, self mutilation and a series of other related problems. Couple a flock species bird with being hand reared by human's and you've got a bird that is programmed to be highly anxious.
Quite the opposite, nomadic bird species including amazon parrot species and macaws, are usually not bothered as much by solitude. Head to the rainforest of South America, and you’ll come across a number of them flying around in groups of two to four. As pets, such birds are less likely to be spotted picking features as they are used to being isolated. Bear in mind that the problem may not be completely impossible as thought, but rather uncommon for this group of birds.
Feather picking can take the form of simply chewing off the tips of feathers to literally yanking the entire feather out leaving a damaged follicle that is prone to scabs and infection. An anxious feather plucker may begin picking at the scabs from the follicle damage and progress on to self-mutilation. The bleeding and infection is alarming and scary and warrants a trip to the veterinarian for several reasons. First, you want to prevent more severe medical problems from developing, such as infections, scars, etc. but secondly, self-mutilation mysteriously becomes an addictive process due to the way pain changes the brain chemistry. We'll write more about that later.
Other causes Parrot Self-Mutilation
Causes of Parrot Self-Mutilation can be broadly divided into two categories, medical and non-medical or behavioral. Your avian veterinarian will help you uncover the causes of what is causing your bird to pick. There are a number of medical issues that result in feather picking and self-mutilation, in fact way too many to discuss in this short article, but an experienced avian veterinarian can obtain a good medical history, perform a thorough examination and a few lab tests to pinpoint the cause. Find an avian veterinarian here.
Non-medical reasons for feather plucking fall into a couple of clear-cut categories. These include environmental issues, parrot husbandry issues and behavioral issues. When a parrots environmental, enrichment and care needs are not met, the bird’s anxiety increases exponentially.
From an environmental standpoint, bear in mind, that parrots are an exotic pet that has both mental and physical needs that must be met and when these needs are not met, the parrot becomes anxious and agitated. In the wild, parrots must find food, defend territories, escape predators and build homes and families. Parrots need the opportunity to engage in these natural behaviors. But, that’s hard to do when confined in a cage, all alone with no stimulation. Therefore, you must find other methods to provide the necessary physical and mental stimulation that encourages natural parrot behaviors. Try to mimic your pet’s natural environment as much as possible. Find ways to create a natural physical environment with bird safe plants, climbing stations, full-spectrum lighting, foraging stations and sensory stimulation in the form of natural noises, sights and scents.
Proper parrot husbandry involves day to day personal care such as keeping parrot sleep habits intact, implementing foraging style eating habits, improving socialization opportunities, insuring that your bird feels safe, and adding personal hygiene with frequent baths, a clean cage and perches, and more. When a parrots day to day needs are not consistently met, the bird feels unsafe. A parrots body reacts with anxiety and frustration. The parrot, in essence, becomes “hangry!”
One common behavioral cause of feather picking in parrots is an improper wing trimming. When you use a blunt scissor to trim the wings of your parrot, you risk leaving the wing feather either too short or somewhat ragged. Imagine being constantly poked in the ribs or scratched by a feather shaft. It is not uncommon for a bird to resort to pulling the feather out to relieve itself.
Injury is another factor that may, in one way or another, contribute to self-mutilation. For instance, a bird suffers a severe wing clip that causes her to thud roughly on the floor, injuring her wingtips and chest in the process. If you don't notice the injury and fail to bird a properly treat the injury, the bird may resort to biting and chewing a the wound in effort to alleviate the irritation. Now, couple the true irritation from the injury or wound with the anxiety of boredom or loneliness, and you can easily see how a bird may resort to self-injury.
Being animals of prey, parrot’s are naturally aware of danger. One hypothesis about self destructive behavior in birds proposes that hand-fed chicks have missed out on a important developmental milestones, especially those related to calming oneself. The bird then develops a self-harming pattern of causing itself pain, which in turn releases epinephrine into the blood stream. Epinephrine immediately calms anxiety, for a short period of time. In other words, the parrot learns to self medicate its anxiety by pulling out feathers. Self-mutilating birds need to make the injury bigger and bigger as the nerve-ending die off in order to get relief.
How Do I Go About Making Improvement for a Stimulating Environment?
First, it is very important to keep your veterinarian in the loop when trying to manage self-harm behaviors. Rule out anything medical.
Then, we suggest that you go about thoroughly analyzing three things:
- Your birds environment and opportunities for enrichment
- Your parrot husbandry routines
- What is reinforcing the behavior
Okay, you say. So this is sounding like a lot of work. And, where do I start?
Well, let me assure you, it is easier than you think. Have you heard of The Parrot Feather Plucking Workbook? Written in a workbook style format, this workbook walks you through everything you need to know to start managing your individual parrots self-mutilation problem at your own pace. This book will walk you through contributing factors to plucking, a full analysis of when the bird plucks, why it plucks and step-by-step development of a behavior modification plan. Research tells us that, far and above all other strategies to manage self-mutilation, behavior modification shows the best results. Guess what? It's also the most affordable!
We all need a little help from our friends, so how about joining our growing Facebook Group, UnRuffledRx Feather Plucking Help? The goal of this group is to provide judgement free, moderated support to help you through your parrot recovery journey. The moderate to keep out spammers and keep everything both respectful and informative, but your input is critical. We'd love to share in your recovery journey. Just click here to request to join.
- Diane Burroughs, LCSW