by Diane Burroughs March 24, 2016 8 min read

Parrot Self-Mutilation is Treatable

Did you actually know that about 10% of parrots engage in feather destructive behaviors and more than 50 percent of all pet birds engage in over-preening? 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 veterinarians 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 self-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

Theories Behind Parrot Self-Mutilation

Some species are more prone than others to developing a parrot feather plucking problem. For instance, cockatoos, quaker parrots, love birds, Eclectus parrots, African grey parrots, and parrotlets are particularly predisposed to this behavior. Think about how these species live in the wild and you’ll notice that most of these species of parrots live in large flocks in the wild. If you've ever had the opportunity to see the flocking behavior of wild parrots, it is fascinating. Flock species literally count on each other for safety, finding food, socialization, and more.  It's no wonder that a lonely flock species parrot self-mutilates.   

parrot self mutilation

Parrots start engaging in self-mutilation for a variety of reasons.  To learn more about this check out 9 Reasons Behind Parrot Self-Mutilation.

The brains of flock-species parrots have been hard-wired to rely on others for both physical and emotional safety. These species have been found to have elaborate food sourcing skills, a language of their own, and intense bonds with each other.

So, if by chance your pet bird has been separated from its social group, it is predisposed to feeling highly anxious. The bird may come to feel vulnerable to danger, lacking the skills taught by mom and dad and lacking a flock for support. This can lead to an anxious state of mind.  

Anxiety is a mental state that many veterinarians suggest can bring about feather plucking, self-mutilation and a series of other stereo-typic problems. Combine a flock species bird with being hand-reared by humans, as opposed to learning life lessons from mom and dad, and you've got a bird that is programmed to be highly anxious.

On the other hand, nomadic bird species such as amazon parrot species and macaws, are usually not quite as bothered by being separated from like species, but they're not immune to this disorder. 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. Nomadic birds may be less likely to develop a parrot self-mutilation habit, however, they still get lonely and bored when held in captivity. Moreover, all parrots are exotic pets that require highly specialized diets, living quarters, enrichment, exercise, and more to thrive.

Is Parrot Self-Mutilation an Accidental Progression of Feather Plucking?

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 any medical causes that may be 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 Causes of Parrot Self Mutilation

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.

Parrot Hierarchy of Needs

Environment Causes of Parrot Self Mutilation:

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, ensuring 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 at the wound in an 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.

Behavioral Causes of Parrot Self Mutilation:

Being animals of prey, parrot’s are naturally hypervigilant of stress and danger. One hypothesis about self-destructive behavior in birds proposes that hand-fed chicks have missed out on important developmental milestones, especially those related modulating the stress response centers in the brain and those related to calming oneself. In other words, these birds are thought to over-react to stress and have poor skills and support to calm themselves.

The bird then develops a self-harming pattern of causing itself pain, which in turn releases epinephrine into the bloodstream which causes the brain to immediately emit epinephrine into the bloodstream.  Epinephrine immediately calms anxiety, for a short period of time.  In essence, the parrot learns to self medicate its anxiety by pulling out feathers or chewing into the skin or muscle tissue.  Self-mutilating birds need to make the injury bigger and bigger as the nerve-ending die off in order to get relief.  This is why we hear from caretakers that the bird spontaneously returns to self-mutilation even though it wants for nothing.

As a licensed psychotherapist, we know that these obsessive, biologically based behaviors respond best to calming medications and behavior modification.  Bird collars and over the counter parrot calming formulas are important components of treatment in that both self-harm and epinephrine addiction are deterred.

What are the treatment options for parrot self-mutilation?

parrot self mutilation

1.  Put On Your Medical Hat

When you're exploring treatment options for parrot self-mutilation, consider that the behavior quickly takes on an addictive and compulsive quality.  The body's reaction to pain produces endocrine spikes in the brain that quickly ease anxiety and are highly addictive. Addictions require ongoing management.

On top of that, every time the behavior occurs, the stress response creates stronger neural connections within the brain. That's why a self-mutilator will automatically go back to self-mutilation anytime it becomes stressed.

Parrot Self-Mutilation

First and foremost, it is very important to keep your veterinarian in the loop when you're trying to manage parrot self-mutilation. You'll need a partner who knows how to pinpoint and treat medical issues, understands species-specific mutilation habits, and can support you and your bird through relapses.

You'll also need to think like a behaviorist. Addictions require ongoing management and the therapeutic treatment of choice for compulsions is behavior modification and medication.

2.  Assess Parrot Husbandry and Environmental Issues

Anything that causes physical or mental discomfort will give a self-mutilator a reason to pluck.  That's why it will be important to carefully analyze your parrot husbandry strategies and environmental challenges that are triggering the behavior. It's tough to know where to start, though. 

Well, let me assure you, it is easier than you think. Have you heard of The Feather Plucking Remedies 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!

Learn More: 9 Reasons Behind Parrot Self-Mutilation

3.  Minimize opportunities for self-harm with bird collars 

A bandaid doesn't heal a cut and a cast doesn't heal a broken bone, but these devices pave the way for healing to occur.  A bird collar protects the bird from further self-harm and the associated brain chemistry that I addressed earlier, but it doesn't stop the behavioral addiction to the problem.

Plus, once a bird becomes accustomed to the collar some birds feel comfort with the collars' sensory-related benefits.  Think of the collar as a weighted blanket or a Thundershirt.

There are several styles of bird collars on the market and each bird responds differently to them, so there are some trial and error involved in finding a style that your bird can get around in and that it tolerates. 

Shop Bird Collars Here

4.  Discover what's reinforcing the behavior and create a behavior modification plan

Many people seek out behaviorists who specialize in behavior modification because it is the most effective way to address an entrenched behavior like parrot self-mutilation.  Behaviorists serve as great coaches in your parrot self-mutilation recovery journey.  Behavior modificationcould involve

  1. A behavioral plan for birds (to help increase their use of more appropriate behaviors),
  2. Enhancing wellness by figuring out what in the environment or parrot care routine is causing the bird stress,
  3. Schedule changes to help remove triggers for problem behaviors (like changing a morning routine to reduce anxiety associated with feeling lonely while you're at work),
  4. Figuring out what is reinforcing for the behavior, or what the bird is getting out of the behavior
  5. Discovering other behaviors that you can reinforce so that the bird does them instead of engaging in self-harm behaviors

When you’re dealing with behavior modification, the complexity is extremely important.  It’s all more than just reinforcing behaviors so that they occur more often. There are a lot of different factors that enter into behavior modification and make behavioral programs effective. So, enlisting the help of a behaviorist either in a group format or in a coaching format is critical.

Join UnRuffledRx Facebook Group

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 a behaviorist moderated support group that is judgment-free. Just click here to request to join.


Join the UnRuffledRx Feather Plucking Help Facebook Group

Leave a comment

Comments will be approved before showing up.