Close

by Diane Burroughs May 29, 2021 15 min read 1 Comment

Pet birds make wonderful pets, however, we have to remember that they are exotic animals with highly specialized care needs. That means that birds have not been domesticated like more traditional pets such as cats and dogs.  Pet birds still have most of their innate biological instincts and physical needs intact.

That is probably why pet birds tend to have a high incidence of behavioral disorders. One study revealed that about 36% of bird owners describe having behavioral problems with their pet, with the most frequent behavior of concern being feather plucking or worse, self mutilation.  This post is about getting your bird self mutilation problem under control.

WHAT IS BIRD SELF MUTILATION?

Bird self mutilation is when the animal chews up its own skin and muscle tissue. This alarming problem is considered a “stereotypical behavior”. When humans engage in self-harm behaviors, we call it a compulsive behavior.

What exactly is a stereo-typical or compulsive behavior?  Here are the traits of a compulsive, stereo-typical behavior:

  • Repetitively engages in the behavior
  • Repeats the behavior over and over despite harmful consequences
  • There is a sense that your bird can’t control the behavior
  • The bird experiences an intense urge or craving to perform the behavior
  • Your bird may seem to get a sense of pleasure from the behavior

Any form of stereotypical behavior in exotic animals is a sign that the animal is under a lot of stress.  Zookeepers see a lot of stereotypic behaviors. (So do psychotherapists and behaviorists.)

For instance, think of people who cut on themselves or the perplexing problem of pulling one's hair out. These behaviors are similar to bird feather plucking or self mutilation and we can apply human research about the causes and what sustains the behavior to our birds.

WHY DO BIRDS SELF MUTILATE?

Feather plucking or self-mutilation are not really a disease, per se. These behaviors are more of an indication that something is wrong in the bird's life.  

Any deficits in their care causes the bird to experience stress. The bird could be having:

  • Medical problems
  • Experiencing pain
  • Be facing environmental or social issues
  • Experiencing a mental health issue
  • A combination of the above

People often think that there is only one reason that causes their birds’ baffling self mutilation.  They search for “the one thing” that they can fix in hopes that it will solve the problem once and for all.

But in reality, bird self-mutilation usually results from a combination of several stressful factors that overwhelm the bird. And, likewise, why you need to use a systematic approach to get bird self mutilation under control.

bird self mutilation BIRD SELF MUTILATION IS OFTEN A RESULT OF SEVERAL STRESSORS THAT COME TOGETHER - NOT JUST ONE SINGLE ISSUE.

Stress in birds can accumulate
Getty Image Under PicMonkey License

 

Think of bird stress like the air in a balloon. Obviously, the balloon is meant to be blown up. However, problems arise when there is too much air in a balloon. The balloon can't withstand too much pressure and it will ultimately burst. I'm going to walk you through evidence-based hypotheses of why parrots self-mutilate.

Similarly, stress is a normal part of life, but too much can make one "blow up." Too much stress or chronic stressful conditions play havoc on physical and mental health.

STRESSORS THAT CAUSE BIRD SELF MUTILATION

Causes of Feather Destructive Behavior and Self-Mutilation in Birds***
"Feather destructive behavior, which can lead to self-mutilation, is a multifactorial condition with a large number of possible medical, behavioral, and environmental causes. Predisposing factors include:" 

 

  • MEDICAL
    • Hormonal influences
    • Atherosclerosis
    • Dermatitis
    • Ectoparasites
    • Allergies
    • Bacterial or fungal infection
    • Toxin or irritant exposure
    • Trauma
    • Nutritional deficiency
    • Neoplasia
  • ENVIRONMENTAL
    • Lack of physical activity
    • Lack of mental stimulation
    • Presence of a companion (avian or human)
    • Absence of a companion (avian or human)
    • Stress
    • Sleep deprivation
  • BEHAVIORAL
    • Attention-seeking behaviors
    • Abnormal repetitive behavior
    • Poor socialization at an early age
    • Sexual frustration
    ***Berls, J. 2019.
      Hierarchy of Parrot Needs

       Infographic Developed by Diane Burroughs, LCSW

      Maslow's Hierarchy Of Needs was developed for people in the 1940s. The model depicts that when an individual is deprived of its most basic needs it affects other areas of their life as well. We can take Maslow's original model for people and adapt it to our pet birds.

      1.  BASIC BIOLOGICAL NEEDS OF PARROTS

      All living beings must have their basic biological needs met in order to thrive, and parrots are no exception.  

      When a parrots' basic biological needs are met the bird experiences a sense of physical and emotional wellbeing, giving it the sense of safety that it needs to carry on with daily life.

      Being exotic pets and animals of prey, though, it is difficult to ensure that a pet bird gets the proper nutrition, sleep, and exercise that it needs to thrive.  And, these shortfalls leave a bird susceptible to discomfort, angst, and despair. It develops a high level of stress that affects its' daily life.

      bird self mutilation ONE OF THE BEST THINGS THAT YOU CAN DO TO MANAGE BIRD SELF MUTILATION IS TO ENSURE THE OVERALL WELLNESS OF YOUR PET.

      Preventative health care sets your pet up for success. This includes annual veterinary wellness exams by an avian veterinarian as well as daily in-home care that supports your exotic pet.  

      Birds have completely different body systems than mammals. This means that they have different care needs, as well.

      For parrots, that means the following:

      Behaviorist Susan Friedman, PhD and other experts in bird behavior have identified that ensuring parrot wellness is the first step to take when trying to solve  challenging bird behavior.

      By ensuring wellness, you’re relieving physical, emotional, and environmental stressors that come together to create challenging bird behavior.  You are, in essence, setting your bird up for success!

      2.  ENVIRONMENTAL WELLNESS

      Properly caring for your  pet bird is critical for its overall well-being. There is overwhelming evidence that  ensuring parrot wellness in the following 6 areas will help maintain both the physical and mental health of your pet.

      1. Preventative care
      2. Diet & Nutrition
      3. Behavioral Training
      4. Environmental Enrichment
      5. Pediatric & Geriatric Care 
      6. Pain Prevention and Management

      Learn more about how to meet these needs in my video https://youtu.be/VZ0Xaj1Zo8k

      It's also important that you offer our bird plenty of enrichment. Environmental enrichment aims to improve a pet bird's quality of life by supporting its natural instincts and wellness needs.

      Parrots are intelligent problem-solvers with a lot of energy. Avian enrichment involves providing for your birds physical and social enrichment. From a physical perspective, provide a diverse range of foraging activities, sensory enrichment toys, and exercise opportunities. From a social standpoint, provide one-on-one and family time, behavioral training, and visual and auditory sensory stimulation.

      Like all living creatures, parrots develop self-confidence when they believe in their own abilities, choices, and skill-sets. We all know that a person with a strong sense of self-confidence tends to be more productive and more emotionally happy, whereas one that lacks self confidence tends to be depressed and anxious. 

      A parrot whose emotional needs are being met will be calmer and happier. One of the best ways to enhance your parrots’ self-confidence is to use positive training methods to teach foundational behaviors of how to be a parrot and manners and tricks. Bird’s who are trained using positive methods can regain their joy in life. 

      I encourage my followers to teach their bird tricks usingClicker Training for Birds methods.  This training strategy enlists the bird's cooperation; it allows the bird to relax and feel more secure with you. Clicker training Bridges the communication gap between you and your bird by reinforcing desired behaviors with a clicker sound and a desired treat. 

      Bird training has many benefits. First, you'll learn to quickly watch for and reinforce desired behaviors while letting unwanted behaviors go. Any time that you reinforce a behavior it increases the chances that the bird will do that same exact behavior over and over again.  Unreinforced behaviors will eventually go by the wayside.

      Imagine yourself easily teaching your bird "basic manners" like coming and going from the cage on cue, going potty in a certain place,  leaving things alone that it's not supposed to be messing with, staying on a play stand, or returning to a desired place.

      You can also quickly train your bird to allow grooming tasks, such as bathing or toenail filing, allowing its body to be handled, wearing a harness, eating vegetables, and taking medicine. Imagine how much easier bird care will be when your bird doesn't stress out over ordinary  bird husbandry. 

      A secondgreat benefit of bird training is that you'll learn to read your pets body language so that you can tell if an undesired behavior has been triggered. Reading parrot body language is essential for uncovering the environmental factors that cause your bird stress and anxiety.  

      By training for these important skills, your bird no longer has to get all stressed out.  In fact, it look forward to the positive reinforcement and willingly cooperates. Any time that you minimize stress for your pet, you're reducing the chances of self-mutilation.

      3. SOCIALIZATION

      As you probably know, many parrots live in large flocks in their natural habitat. Socialization and enrichment are really important for their wellness. After all, flock members offer protection in numbers and they work together to find food sources, nesting sites and the like.  

      Make sure that you're providing your parrot with plenty of socialization and lots of enrichment everyday. A busy bird has less time or desire to self mutilate. Make sure to reinforce all play and foraging activities.

      Plan on getting your bird out of the cage everyday. A bird play stand is a really great investment and a fun way to allow your bird to just socialize with the family. Try to make sure that everybody in the family socializes with the bird so that it doesn't become overly attached to one particular person.

       

      Also, while you're at work, you can provide auditory and visual enrichment by leaving a television or radio on.  My birds love Bird TV for Parrots on YouTube. They get to see a variety of captive parrots socializing, chirping, and playing all day long.  Make it a point to provide  a variety of bird toys.

      Learn how to provideforaging opportunities whereby your bird has to work to obtain a good portion of its nutrition.  Foraging also encourages exercise, movement, and intellectual stimulation.

      The goal here is to keep your parrot occupied with fun, natural parrot behaviors throughout the day to minimize its sense of isolation or boredom. And, of course, you'll also want to develop early evening routines to allow your pet to socialize with the family before bedtime.

      Parrot enrichment is very important
      Shutterstock Used Under License

       

      What ideas do you have to enrich your pet’s life? 

      Jot them down in the comments section to share with other parrot lovers.

      9 SECRETS THAT CURB BIRD SELF MUTILATION

      1. BE PROACTIVE 

      As soon as you pick up signs of self-mutilation, pack your bird up and take him or her to an avian vet for a thorough check-up to rule out any viral, bacterial or fungal cause as well as physiological causes. Self-mutilation often quickly gets progressively worse.

      Your vet will also be able to check your bird for signs of stress, malnutrition, or other contributing factors and advise you on the best diet, supplements, and enrichment to improve the wellness of your pet.

      During this visit be sure to inquire about pharmaceutical-grade medications. Just like in humans, the prognosis of stereotypical self-harm behaviors tends to be better with medications.

      2. PLAN FOR WELLNESS

      It's important to remember that your bird is probably only one or two generations away from being a wild animal. Exotic pets need specialized care.  and, when they don't get their  physical and  emotional needs met, they can get stressed out to the point of  developing self-harming behaviors.

      Study up on how you can provide for all your parrot wellness needs. It may seem daunting at first, but if you develop a routine you'll find it goes much more smoothly.

       Here is a great blog post on how to routinely meet parrot wellness needs.

      3. DO A TIME STUDY

      It is important to do a time-study so that you can clearly describe the exact behavior that is causing you worry. A time-study will help you understand

      • What triggers the behavior in the first place
      • How frequency your bird self mutilates and at what times of day it is happening
      • Describe the intensity of the problem in a measurable format so that you know for sure if the behavior is getting better or worse
      • Discover how long each episode behavior lasts
      • Figure out what is reinforcing the behavior to continue

      At first, the idea of collecting data may sound somewhat daunting, but it's actually pretty easy.

      The key here is to get measurable data about the complexities of your birds’ habits. Find my blog post on How To Do A Time-study here. 

      Once the time-study is complete you can come up with some goals.IA Time Study Can Help You With Bird Self MutilationImage obtained via PicMonkey.  Used Under License

      You'll want to describe the problem in a SMART goal format. That means you've described the problem specifically, it's measurable, it's achievable, it's relevant oh, and it's time bound.

      Here is an example of a SMART Goal:

      For the next 3 months, I will carry out 6 parrot wellness strategies every day to decrease my bird’s stress-related self mutilation from occurring daily to occurring 3 or fewer times per week.

      S - The statement specifies the action that you will take

      M - Each wellness strategy denotes one unit of measurement

      A - Depending on your birds mutilation frequency, this is attainable

      R - Wellness is a relevant, science-based way to support bird self mutilation

      T - You’ve specified the time you'll work on the goal 

      To figure out problem severity use a Likert scale. Here's an example of what a Likert Scale is: 

       Question:  How many times a week does your bird chew on its chest?

       1 -  Once

       3 - Three - four times  

       5 - Five + 

      The more you understand the complexities of your own bird's self-mutilation problem the more accurately you'll be able to tailor strategies to deal with it.

      By describing the problem in a measurable way, you'll be able to accurately tell if the interventions that you’re using are helping or not. 

      The time-study will also help you to figure out what triggers a self-mutilation episode, when it happens, how severe it is, and even what your bird might be getting out of this behavior. 

      Does self-mutilation happen at certain times of the day? Do certain noises or sights trigger the behavior?  A bird that sees hawks from the window or hears scary noises but can't get away from them may resort to anxious self-mutilation.

      Are you now beginning to see how you can create targeted interventions from the data that you've collected?

      If you know what triggers the behavior you can make sure that your bird doesn't get triggered.  

      If you know when your bird does it, you can keep it busy during those times. 

      If you know what reinforces the behavior to continue, you can remove the reinforcement from the unwanted behavior and repurpose it for desired behaviors.

      If you begin practicing wellness strategies and the problem diminishes, you know that you're on the right track***.

      *** In behavioral sciences, we know that a phenomena called an extinction burst occurs.  An extinction burst, occurs when the reinforcement that caused a behavior in the first place is removed. The unwanted behavior increases for a period of time until the bird learns what it needs to do to get the reinforcement.

      4. KEEP YOUR BIRD BUSY BY DAY

      Our birds have a very high metabolism. Think about it. Wild parrots live in jungles and rainforests near the equator. They sleep 10 to 12 hours at night and are busy all day long with activities such as hunting for food, grooming and preening, socializing, and sliding miles a day.

      It is very important to keep your bird busy during the day. Devise ways to provide your bird enrichment and exercise everyday and generously reinforce the activity to reduce the extinction burst described above.

       

      I'd already talked about how I provide my birds with sensory enrichment everyday. Over and above that, my birds have tree style play stands that are stocked with foraging toys and a variety of other bird toys. Plus, they have ample opportunities for socialization with the family. I want to generously reinforce play and foraging!

      5. MAKE SURE THAT YOUR BIRD GETS ITS' BEAUTY SLEEP

      Just as important Is staying busy during the day your bird needs 10 - 12 hours of undisturbed  sleep each night. its body is just wired that way. 

      If you've ever had a poor night sleep you know how crummy you feel the next day. A bird that doesn't get adequate sleep feels the same way. Now, stack up night after night of inadequate rest and you can imagine the stress that puts on your bird's body. 

      Lack of adequate sleep over time affects your birds physically and mentally. So, it's imperative that you develop a routine that ensures your pet is getting 10 to 12 hours of sleep a night.

      If you don't have a dedicated bird room consider investing in a sleep cage that can be placed in a quiet, dark room away from the family hustle and bustle. Every evening around 7:00 pm I turn out the lights in the bird room and put the television on sleep mode to turn off at dark.

      6. PROVIDE YOUR BIRD WITH OPTIMUM NUTRITION

      Is your bird aSeed Junkie?  A seed diet isn't just unhealthy, it's a bird killer.

      Birds get sick from eating the wrong foods. Just like humans. They have specific nutritional requirements that are designed to keep them lightweight enough to fly while also supplying the energy they need to get to far off destinations.

      That said, pet birds are often fed inferior, fattening diets that cause them to pack on the weight and that leave them lethargic. Sadly, these inferior diets don't meet their nutritional requirements. Vet's report that one of the most common issues they see in their avian patients is malnutrition.

      Just like humans, birds tend to love "junkie foods" and can become addicted to a fattening, seed diet that offers minimal nutrition. 

      Many birds are deficient in vitamin A, which birds need to fuel their immune system. This is more often than not caused by an all-seed diet that your bird will love, but that is full of fat and is nutritionally deficient.

      It's important tofeed your bird properly and don't let him or her convince you that the only food worth eating is a dish of fatty seeds. You should be looking at wholelive foods including fresh vegetables and fruit as well as sprouted seeds.

      7. WORK ON PAIN PREVENTION & MANAGEMENT

      When you have a pet that hides illness, injuries, and pain from you as a survival mechanism, it's really important to stay on top of preventive health care and observe for pain or illnesses. 

      Being in constant pain actually is one of the contributing factors to bird self mutilation. 

      However, it seems that a self-mutilator is causing itself pain in order to cope. Bird self mutilation turns into a never ending cycle that snowballs without a comprehensive targeted approach.

      Even so, it will be important for your vet to run the necessary tests to find out if your bird is experiencing untreated pain from a treatable illness. 

      8. ASSESS YOUR BIRD'S CONDITION EVERY DAY

      Deep and dramatic wounds can get infected or put the bird's life at risk very quickly.   

      Learn the subtle signs that a bird gives off when it isn't feeling well and check your bird daily. 

      •  Fluffed up feathers
      •  Dull, listless eyes
      •  Unable to perch
      •  Unusual droppings
      •  Weight loss

      One of the best things that you can do for your bird is to make sure to take it to the avian vet for routine exams. These exams are critical for an animal that hides illness. Plus, a lot of people who live day in and day out with bird self mutilation might miss the subtle cues that the bird is getting worse. Your vet will pick up on a worsening condition.

      Second, you also want to get into a daily routine assessing your bird's condition. If it shows any signs of being sick like those described above take immediate action to get it care. Check the size of the wound and the amount of blood loss each day.

      Third, keep an eye on your bird's weight every week.  Get an ordinary kitchen scale that weighs in grams for about $25 on Amazon. Choose a day that you can where your bird. For instance, Sunday mornings work great for us. We weigh our birds before their first meal of the day.  If a bird starts losing weight, we get the bird into the Vet so that we can get to the bottom of it.

      A lightweight animal with a high metabolism can go downhill very quickly. If your 400 gm. African grey parrot loses just 10% of its body weight, or 40 gm.  it could be in real trouble. That's why you want to get into the habit of weighing your bird every week.

      9. TEACH YOUR BIRD NEW WAYS TO CALM ITSELF

      A healthy bird keeps itself calm by routinely keeping itself busy with natural parrot behaviors like foraging, exercising, preening itself, and socializing. 

      Get into the habit of focusing heavily on your birds' positive and natural bird behaviors.  Tap into the power of behavior modification! Positive reinforcement for healthy, safe behaviors is your friend. Never encourage or redirect undesired behaviors because your bird interprets that as reinforcement. And, please remember that your bird is not emotionally crippled. You’ll get through this.  But, it will take work.

      Using clicker training, teach your bird natural parrot behaviors to calm itself by recognizing, reinforcing, and rejoicing in its calm, natural behaviors.

      Only reinforce calm, drama-free behavior. Totally ignore your bird until it is calm. At the same time, work on wellness, enrichment, keeping your bird busy, and safe monitoring of its condition each day. 

      Learn more aboutTreatment Options for Parrot Self Mutilation here. 

      In Conclusion…

      Exotic pets need specialized home care and specialized vet care to maintain their quality of life.  if your birds developed a self-mutilation habit it's a sign that something's wrong. Ensuring parrot Wellness is critical. Catching the problem as early as possible is very important, too.  And, knowing how to get to the bottom of a self-mutilation problem is the cornerstone after getting it under control.

       A lot of the strategies that I talked about in this blog post are easy to do once you get in a routine and not expensive. 

      feather plucking workbook

      Image by BirdSupplies.com 

      Do you have some other insights into picking and self-mutilation? Add your comments below.

      REFERENCES:

      Johnson, M. (2004). Getting Started Clicker Training For Birds. Karen Pryor Clickertraining.

      https://azeah.com/birds-cockatiels-cockatoos-macaws-parakeets-parrots/feather-plucking-self-mutilation

      Berls, j. Long-term nursing care of a self-mutilating cockatoo. 2019. https://todaysveterinarynurse.com/articles/long-term-nursing-care-of-a-self-mutilating-moluccan-cockatoo/

      http://katemornementanimalbehaviourist.blogspot.com/2018/01/environmental-enrichment-ideas-for-your.html https://www.facebook.com/groups/UnRuffledRxFeatherPluckingHelp


      1 Response

      Bernadette
      Bernadette

      January 01, 2020

      My 4 year old CONURE has just plucked his head feathers and self mutilated several times since my husband’s shoulder surgery last year this time..but I noticed yesturday that he was rubbing the one side of his face on the wood of his play area on top of his cage..the wood he chewed before or during which made it rough..there us blood on the right side of his face , the wood and dripped onto the metal top of the cage edge which he was standing
      on while doing this…Each time has only been his head??? I have cream from my vet and a cone I put on
      him…DOES HE NEED BLOOD WORK? Can i take him to a regular vet to get this done? Christmas is

      in 2 more days n my vet is closed for a week..The closest Avian vet is an hour away…PLEASE HELP…THANK YOU…

      Leave a comment

      Comments will be approved before showing up.

      Subscribe