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by Diane Burroughs October 06, 2021 13 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 self-harm themselves.  Anytime a compulsive habit turns into self harm, it's an indication that the individual is facing something that is really stressful. 

WHAT IS BIRD SELF MUTILATION

As a licensed psychotherapist and a bird behaviorist, I think of self mutilation in birds as stereotypical or compulsive behavior.  What does that mean? Here are the traits of a compulsive, stereo-typical 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 has been seen in most species of pet birds, there are several species of birds that seem to have a high incidence of feather plucking and self mutilation. For instance, cockatoos, quaker parrots, love birds, Eclectus parrots, African grey parrots, and parrotlets are particularly predisposed to this behavior. 

If you think about how these species live in the wild, you’ll notice that most of these parrots live in huge flocks. We call these “flock species.” The brains of flock-species parrots have literally been hard-wired to rely on flock mates for both physical and emotional safety. 

Biologists have found that flock species have intense bonds with each other, engage in elaborate food sourcing skills, and even have a language that is distinctive to their own particular flock.

So, when an individual flock species of bird is isolated from a flock, like a pet bird is, it can feel anxious, lonely, and vulnerable.  All of this leads to a constant state of stress. It’s one reason why a bird may turn on itself with feather picking and self-mutilation. But, keep in mind that self-mutilation is much more complex than that.

Bird self mutilation in flock species

Shutterstock Licensed Image

Parrots start engaging in compulsive self-mutilation for a variety of reasons.   Compulsive behavior is a type of anxiety disorder.  Anxiety can result from the bird's genetic predisposition, hand feeding factors in early life, or a traumatic situation. We commonly see captive animals develop compulsive disorders, in part, due to lack of enrichment.

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

It is true that anxiety is a mental state that many veterinarians suggest can bring about feather plucking, self-mutilation and other stereo-typic behaviors like incessant screaming, foot tapping, and pacing back and forth. 

Research has shown us that when flock species are removed from the nest and their parents and clutch mates to be hand-fed by breeders, they are highly susceptible to developing anxiety and aggression as they mature. We believe that this traumatic event wires the brain to be highly anxious

Head to the rainforest of South America, and you’ll come across a number of Amazon's and Macaws flying around in small groups of just two to four birds. These are called nomadic species. 

Nomadic bird species are not nearly as bothered by being alone, but they're not immune to bird self mutilation.  Nomadic birds still need environmental enrichment and parrot wellness. 

HOW CAN I STOP MY PARROT FROM MUTILATING? 

If you want to stop bird self mutilation you need first, interrupt the self-harm cycle, and second, get to the root cause of the problem. The problem can be medical in nature or behavioral in nature.  However, we frequently find that there are a combination of both medical and behavioral underpinnings that contribute to a self-mutilation habit.

Let's explore common medical and behavioral issues that contribute to parrot self-mutilation and other compulsive behaviors in our pets. 

POTENTIAL MEDICAL CAUSES OF BIRD SELF MUTILATION

As stated above, the root causes of parrot self-mutilation can be broadly divided into two categories, medical and non-medical (or behavioral). 

Your avian veterinarian can perform a series of tests to help you uncover whether there is a medical reason behind the self-mutilation.

WHY  DOES MY BIRD KEEP BITING HIMSELF?

One thing that the science points to is that self-mutilation is similar to human psychiatric diagnoses like cutting on oneself or Trichotillomania, a disorder, where a person pulls out their own hair. People who have these disorders can’t resist self-harming themselves.  It’s wired in their brain. 

We call these compulsive disorders. Experts used to think that the urge to self-harm happens because the brain's chemical signals (called neurotransmitters) don't work properly.  Now, we understand that the amygdala in the brain of these individuals is highly reactive.

The amygdala is a part of the limbic system. We believe that it plays important roles in emotion and behavior. It is best known for its role in the processing of fear, but we are finding out that it plays a huge role in other emotions, too. 

Hierarchy of parrot needs

Infographic Developed by Diane Burroughs, LCSW 

INTERRUPTING BIRD SELF MUTILATION 

Given the compulsive nature of bird self mutilation its best to physically interrupt the behavior with sturdy bird collars and vests designed to protect birds from their own powerful beaks.  That's easier said than done when a birds beak can literally crack open a nut.

We've developed 3 bird collars and a Kevlar 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.

WHAT IS PARROT WELLNESS

Non-medical reasons for feather plucking fall into clear-cut categories. These include environmental issues, parrot husbandry issues, and behavioral issues.  We can group all of these into a concept called “Parrot Wellness.” 

When a parrot's environmental, enrichment, and care needs are not met, the birds’ stress levels increase exponentially. And, stress dumps adrenalin into the bloodstream.

When faced with bird self mutilation, a lot of people jump online to research and get support. 

Don't make the mistake of relyingsolely on forums and Facebook groups for parrot wellness information.  Members of these groups don't have the vast experience with numbers of self-mutilating birds. They can only speak to what worked for their own bird.

While these groups can be supportive, if properly moderated, it's just that.  A support group. You're in the group to get support from someone who's dealing with the same exact issue that is keeping you awake at night. 

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.

I say this because I get phone calls and questions every day about how to stop parrot mutilation. People try one thing or another and kind of give up because just one thing doesn't really address a complex problem like 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 that a person can do to turn around challenging behaviors in their pet is to provide for its wellness.    Thoroughly. You’ll want to continue with all of your bird’s wellness needs regardless of whether it turns 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! 

Experts at the Richard M. Shubolt Parrot Wellness Program at UC Davis identify 6critical wellness elements that all birds need to maintain optimum physical and emotional health: 

  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, preventive health care is critical. Avian vets have gone through, not just veterinary school, but two additional years beyond that to learn the idiosyncrasies of a bird's body and healthy outcomes. 

Now, you've probably heard that parrots are experts at hiding illnesses, injuries, and pain.  Complicating matters, bird's have unique body systems that are designed to support flight. Their metabolism is extremely high which is why you see your bird grazing on food all throughout the day.

The reason I tell you this is that when a bird is not feeling well one of the first signs we see is that it stops eating. It’s self care goes away, 

When a sick bird finally succumbs to its illness enough that it becomes noticeable to a caretaker - sadly, it's often too late.

Getting back to preventative care, avian vets have been trained to spot the early signs that something is medically wrong with your bird with a quick examination that just might save your bird's life. 

This is why it is so important to get annual preventive bird wellness check ups and to follow your avian vet's advice.

Diet and Nutrition

A huge contributing factor to many challenging parrot behaviors is an inappropriate diet which results in malnutrition.  Proper nutrition and balanced brain chemistry go hand in hand.

 

It is suggested that a bird be fed high quality pellets, preferably made using a cold-pressed process, and a diverse range of uncooked plant-based vegetables, fruits, herbs, grains, and essential oils. 

Research on humans with compulsive or other anxiety disorders is very revealing.  

Did you know that when a person with an anxiety disorder improves their diet, increases exercise, and improves their sleep, their anxiety diminishes considerably. Those 3 recommendations are in every effective psychotherapist’s toolbox. 

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

Head over to theAvian Raw Whole Food Nutrition Group on Facebook to join thousands of others who’ve found ways to feed their parrot a more wholesome diet.

Or, better yet grab copies of Karmen Budai’s excellent cookbooks on feeding your bird a healthy raw diet.

Get a bird stand to encourage movement. My birds love their Java trees. They're a little pricey. Sure. But, a sedentary bird that hasn't had exercise opportunities can rack up some expensive vet bills.

 

One way to help your bird get enough sleep is to purchase a sleep cage for it. These are smaller travel cages that you can take to a quiet, dark area to ensure that your pet gets the 10 to 12 hours of sleep it needs every single night.  

Pro Tip: They also double as a bird hospital cage

This bird carrier, a Perch and Go, is perfect for small to medium birds.

 

Bird Behavior Training 

It is known that parrots are some of the smartest animals on the planet. They are also highly social and, in the wild they live in a complex social structure where they're never alone.   Mom and Dad may spend up to a few years teaching their young how to survive and thrive in the flock.

As you can imagine, life is very different for our pet birds.  Many parrot breeders pull young birds from parental care to hand feed them for the pet trade. 

Not only that, a lot of parrot caretakers are unsure of how to properly train they're feathered companion. So they fail to teach their birds how to eat  nutritious foods, or how to take a bath. They may not know how to teach a bird to preen properly or forage for food.

These are all innate skills that your bird needs to learn in order to thrive as a parrot.  Training your bird is actually pretty easy and really fun because they are so smart and social.  

A super easy read to learn how to teach your bird these skills and many other behaviors is called Clicker Training For Birds.  This affordable book has been around for awhile but it's a gold mine when it comes to training your bird using positive, science-backed approaches.

Bird Enrichment

I've already discussed how birds are very smart and very social.  We could never replicate the opportunities for enrichment that wild birds have.  But, that's not to say that we can't provide our birds with plenty of enrichment.

We need to teach our birds out of forage for food. I tell you all about that in this book and this video.

We also need to provide our birds with sensory stimulation. Did you know that birds have better hearing than your dog?  Or, that they have better vision than just about any other animal.

Find ways to offer your bird sensory stimulation everyday. After all, a busy bird doesn't have as much time to mutilate itself

 Here are several ways to support your birds sensory needs:

    • Provide foraging opportunities for your pet whereas it has to think about how to obtain nutritional resources.

    •  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.

Couple the need to hide pain with a hand fed bird who may have never learned how to eat a rich range of nutritious foods or a bird that's a seed junky.  Bird’s that don’t eat well don’t feel well. Or, what about a bird that is a perch potato and just doesn't get the exercise that it needs so it becomes achy and arthritic?

It's highly likely that a  sedentary bird that hasn't had its physical needs met is going to be experiencing some aches and pains. Especially as it ages.

A bird that self-mutilates may have gotten itself into a vicious cycle creating pain to deal with its pain.  That is, it chewed on itself at the site where it is experiencing pain. And, then it's driven to keep chewing that area.

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 hemp seed or bird specific CBD oil are alternative supplements that can support bird’s with mild to moderate pain. 

Some people worry that they are getting their bird something that can make it high but neither hemp seed nor bird. CBD oil contain THC.  Both hemp seed and CBD oil support pain, inflammation, cardiovascular health, and much more. It doesn't take much to bring your birds some relief.

Pediatric & Geriatric Care

Just like a young child or a puppy, your bird has different care needs at different stages of its life. This is another reason to maintain an ongoing relationship with your avian vet. Avian vets and vet techs can be a great resource in coaching you to meet your parrots needs at various life stages.

HOW CAN BIRD BEHAVIORIST HELP WITH BIRD SELF MUTILATION?

We literally know that Applied Behavior Analysis is the second most effective way to stop bird self-mutilation, after ensuring complete parrot wellness. 

Quite frankly, given how quickly bird self-mutilation can get out of control, it makes sense to improve parrot wellness while consulting with a bird behaviorist at the same time.  

For a problem as dangerous as bird self mutilation, plan on booking several sessions. My clients often check in with me numerous times.  That's because behavioral change is a science. It’s a process and it's hard to understand.

Most people don't really understand the difference between a bird trainer versus a bird behaviorist. 

I like to think of it as the difference between taking your new puppy to puppy kindergarten for socialization in basic training versus seeking out a highly trained specialist who is capable of  properly assessing and changing complex challenging behaviors.

Most really good bird behaviorist’s have an advanced master's or PhD degree in one of the behavioral sciences and have studied Applied Behavior Analysis principles under the supervision  of an ABA specialist. 

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

And, don't be afraid to ask for “package deals.”  In other words, advocate for follow-up appointments at a discount rate. Some practitioners offer bulk pricing while others encourage you to sign up for a year-long package.

At the end of the day, with a dangerous problem like bird self-mutilation, your goal is to save 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 figure out which medication the bird tolerates and the proper dosage. 

In fact, one well-respected avian veterinarian, Dr. Jeffrey Jenkins, reports a 90% success rate in hard to manage birds that self-mutilate. That's exciting! Your bird can get better, too. You can watch him on

This video is called Cockatude 14

Most general veterinarians and a lot of avian veterinarians are leery of  prescribing psychotropic medications to support feather plucking and self-mutilation in birds.  Birds don't tolerate many medications in the same way that mammals do. In addition, the research on which medications birds tolerate is rather 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

I work with a number of avian and patients whose vets have prescribed Gabapentin.

Remember, the research is sparse. But as I've mentioned before, Dr. Jeffrey Jenkins is a pioneer in this  field.  He conducts research by volunteering at the Chloe Sanctuary, a bird rescue that specializes in cockatoos, known self-mutilating birds.

Bird Self Mutilation

 Dr. Jenkins reports a 90% success rate with chronic, long-term,  cockatoo parrot mutilation with Haldol

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.

As a licensed psychotherapist and bird behaviorist I'm constantly scoping out the latest and greatest scientific research to support my clients. I've listened to this YouTube video called Cockatude 14 and found it to be impressive!

In Conclusion,

At the end of the day, you wanted to learn about treatment options for bird self mutilation. Bird self mutilation is not a simple Problem Like Screaming or biting. your beloved friend could die over this.

Just like with covid-19, please follow the science.  At BirdSupplies.com, I'm dedicated to providing you with accurate, science-backed research and information about complex behaviors like bird self mutilation.

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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