Pet birds make amazing pets, but we have to remember they are exotic animals with extremely specific needs for care. This means they were not domesticated like more traditional pets like cats and dogs. A large portion of their natural biology and physical needs remain intact.
This is likely one of the reasons that pets birds tend to have a high rate of behavioral problems. A study revealed that approximately 36% of bird owners report experiencing behavioral issues with their pets, with the most prevalent behavior cited as concerns being the removal of feathers, or worse, self-mutilation of birds. This article is all about getting your bird’s self-mutilation problem under control.
Bird self-mutilation is when the animal eats into its own skin and muscle tissue. This alarming problem is termed a “stereotypical behavior.” When humans engage in self-harm behaviors, we call it a compulsive behavior.
Do you know the traits of a compulsive, stereo-typical behavior? Here are the traits of a compulsive, stereo-typical behavior
Zookeepers often see a lot of 'stereo-typical' behaviors in animals that are under a lot of stress. These behaviors are signs that the animal is suffering mentally and physically. Luckily, zookeepers can use some of the same tactics that psychiatrists and behaviorists use to get the animal out of their negative routine.
People can adopt these maladaptive behaviors, too. For example, think about people cutting themselves or the bewildering problem of pulling one's hair out.
These behaviors resemble those seen in birds performing feather picking or self-mutilation, and we can apply human research to determine the causes and what supports this behavior in our birds.
Feather plucking or self-mutilation are not really a disease, per se. These behaviors are more of an indicator that something is amiss in the bird’s life. Deficits in its care can cause the bird to feel stressed.
The bird could be experiencing the following issues
Understanding the root cause of a problem is key when trying to come up with a solution for the issue. People often believe that there is only one reason why their birds do this puzzling self-mutilation. They are searching for ‘that one thing’ they can fix, hoping it will solve the issue once and for all.
Often times though, bird self-mutilation boils down to a combination of several stressors overpowering the bird. Here’s why you’ll need to take a systematic approach to getting bird self-mutilation under control.
Imagine stress in a bird being like the air in a balloon. Obviously, the balloon is meant to blow up with air. Problems come about however when there’s too much air in a balloon.
The balloon cannot handle too much pressure and ultimately it will explode.
A little bit of stress is a normal part of life, but too much can “crash” someone. Too much stress or chronically stressful conditions could be wreaking havoc on your bird's physical and mental health.
Infographic Developed by Diane Burroughs, LCSW
Maslow's Hierarchy Of Needs was developed for people in the 1940s. But today, even pets deserve a life full of fulfilled needs. The model depicts that when an individual is deprived of its most basic needs it affects other areas of their life as well. So we can take Maslow's original model for people and adapt it to our pet birds.
Each of life’s creatures requires that they fulfill their fundamental biological needs in order to survive, and parrots are no exception. When a parrot’s fundamental biological needs are met, the bird experiences a sense of physical and emotional well-being, which gives him the sense of security he needs to move through his daily routine.
Pet birds are exotic pets. It's difficult to make sure they receive the proper nutrition, sleep, and exercise required for them to thrive. And these bird-care deficiencies expose the bird to discomfort, anxiety, and despair. He develops a high level of stress that impacts his or her daily routine.
An annual veterinarian checkup is part of preventative care that will help set up your exotic pet for success. Another thing you can do is establish daily in-home care routines to support your pet's wellbeing.
This is so crucial because birds have completely different body systems than mammals. That means that they require different care requirements, too.
For parrots, that means the following
Dr Susan Friedman and other bird behaviorists have determined that ensuring parrot health is the first step in dealing with difficult bird behaviors.
When your bird is happy and healthy, you’re removing the physical, emotional, and environmental stressors that can all add up to create unsettling bird behavior. In other words, you’re setting your bird up for success!
Taking good care of your pet bird is vital to its overall well-being. There is overwhelming evidence fromThe Richard M. Schubolt Parrot Wellness and Welfare Program that taking care of the following 6 areas will help maintain both their physical and mental health.
Learn more about how to meet these needs in my video on parrot wellness.
The purpose of environmental enrichment is to improve a pet bird’s quality of life by supporting its natural instincts and needs for well-being, so providing plenty of it to him/her is crucial.
Parrots are smart problem-solvers with a lot of energy. Avian enrichment involves providing your birds with physical and social enrichment. From a physical standpoint, provide a wide array 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 stimulation.
Did you know that healthy feathers are vital to your bird's overall health? You know, like every living creature. When birds feel good about themselves, they're more productive and more emotionally happy.
A parrot that has its emotional needs met will be calmer and happier. One of the best ways to increase your parrots’ self-confidence is to use positive training methods to teach the foundational behaviors of how to be a parrot, plus manners and tricks. Birds trained with positive methods can regain their joy in life.
This training strategy draws the bird into it; it allows the bird to relax and feel moreateasearound you. I encourage myfollowers to teach their birds tricks with Clicker Training for Birds. Clicker training bridges the communication gap between you and your bird byreiteratingdesired behaviors with a clicker sound and reward.
Positive bird training has many benefits. First of all, you’ll quickly learn how to spot desirable behaviors and reinforce them while letting unwanted behaviors slide. If you reinforce one behavior, it increases the chance that the bird will do that exact behavior repeatedly. Reinforced behaviors will eventually fall to the wayside.
Birds get their self-worth from learning the “flock rules.” Picture yourself easily teaching your bird ‘basic manners’ such as coming out of the cage on cue, going poop in a specific place, leaving certain items alone, staying on its play stand or returning to its preferred spot.
Plus the clicker-training method makes training your bird to accept grooming chores like bathing or trimming nails, touching their bodies, wearing a harness, eating vegetables, and taking medication a breeze. Imagine how much easier bird care will become when your bird stays calm and untroubled with important daily bird care tasks.
A second great 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.
When you train your bird to perform these essential skills, it won’t have to get all stressed out. In fact, it will be looking forward to receiving positive reinforcement and being willing to comply. Every time you reduce stress on your pet, you are reducing the risk of him/her self-mutilation.
A lot of birds live in large flocks in their natural habitat. As you may or may not have already guessed, socialization and enrichment are actually very important to their well-being. After all, flock members provide some sense of safety in numbers, and often they work together to find food sources, nesting sites, and so on.
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.
Consider bringing in your bird outside of the cage each day. A bird play stand is a really great investment and is a fun way to get your bird to just socialize with the family. Try to ensure that everybody in the family socializes with the bird so it doesn't become overly attached to one specific person.
Plus while you’re away, you can add a little extra audio and visual stimulation by leaving it on TV or radio. My birds absolutely LOVE watching Bird TV for Parrots on YouTube. This video series features a variety of captive-bred parrots socializing, chirping, and playing all day long. It's a great way to teach your bird natural, safe parrot behaviors.
Learn about the many ways you can feed your bird from foraging toys. Foraging toys require your bird to actively figure out how to retrieve desired food and treats from puzzles and bowls, keeping your pet engaged and entertained. They promote physical activity, movement, and mental stimulation.
The idea in this case is to keep your parrot entertained all day long with fun, natural parrot behaviors to minimize any feeling of isolation or boredom. Plus, of course, you’ll want to work in some early evening routines so that your pet can socialize with the family before bedtime.
Immediately after picking up signs of self-mutilation, pack your bird up and take it to an avian vet for a thorough checkup to rule out any viral, bacterial, or fungal cause, as well as any physiological causes. Self-mutilation often goes from bad to much worse in just a few days.
Your Vet may also be able to look for signs of stress, malnutrition or other contributing factors in your bird and give you tips on what would be the best diet, supplements, and enrichment to improve your pet’s health.
Just like in people, the prognosis for stereotypical self-harming behaviors tends to get better with drugs when asked about during this visit. Ask your vet about which medications are safe for birds.
We all know this isn't normal behavior for your bird and it needs to stop. So, put a stop to the self-mutilation process by wearing strong bird collars as soon as you notice any signs of self-mutilation.
Strong bird collars can block access to the skin, reducing the likelihood that your bird comes into contact with its own flesh, resulting in serious and deadly wounds.
Keep in mind; self-mutilators will do anything to remove or avoid a bird collar, but often times they are necessary for your pet’s safety. Self-mutilation is a disease. Consider trying bird collars made specifically for self-mutilation the minute you begin to notice signs of self-mutilation and using positive reinforcement to teach your bird to accept the bird collar.
It's crucial to do a time study to figure out the root cause of why your parrot is engaging in this potentially deadly behavior. A time study will help you understand the following:
The idea at first might seem a bit daunting, but it’s actually quite simple.
The point is to get measurable data that will point out why and when your bird is performing the mutilation.Find my blog post on How To Do A Time-studyhere.
Once the time study has been completed, you can set some achievable goals for changing the problematic behavior.
That means you have described the issue in a SMART format. This means that it’s specific, it’s measurable, it’s doable, it’s pertinent, and it’s time-bound.
Here is an example of a SMART Goal:
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 comprehend the complexities of your own bird’s self-mutilation problem, the better you’ll be able to create strategies for dealing with it.
If the problem is described in a measurably way, it will help you accurately assess whether the interventions you are employing are helping or not.
It will also give you a better understanding of what triggers an episode of self-mutilation, 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***.
We know about the phenomenon known as an extinct burst. An extinction burst happens when the reinforcement that caused the behavior in the first place is cut off. The bird appears to get worse at first, until they are taught new ways to get the reinforcement it needs.
I previously wrote about how I give my birds sensory enrichment each and every day. Over and above that, my birds have tree-like play structures stocked with foraging toys and a vast array of other bird toys. Plus, they get plenty of opportunities to socialize with the family. So I’m going to be super generous with feeding reinforcers and foraging toys!
Your bird should get 10-12 hours of uninterrupted sleep per night. His body is just wired this way. If you’ve ever had a poor night’s sleep, you know how it makes you feel the next day. A bird that doesn’t get adequate sleep does the same thing. Now, stack night after night of inadequate sleep and you can imagine the stress it puts on his body.
Over time poor sleep impacts both your birds’ physical and mental well being. Therefore, it’s critical to establish a routine to make sure your bird gets at least 10-12 hours of sleep per night.
If you don’t have a dedicated bird room, consider investing in a bird sleep cage that can be placed in a quiet, dark room away from the family's bustle.
One of the most common issues vets see with their bird patients is malnutrition. Birds can get sick from eating the wrong foods just like people do. They have specific nutritional needs to remain healthy.
But, pet birds are often fed inferior, fattening diets which cause them to put on weight and leave them in poor health. Unfortunately, these inferior diets make them physically ill and affect the brain. health.
Birds love junk food and can become addicted to a tasty, fattening diet of only seeds with minimal nutritional value.
Many birds have major deficiencies in essential nutrients that they require to fuel their immune systems. More often than not this is the result of a high-grain diet that your bird will love, but is packed with fat and 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, healthy fruit, sprouts, essential fatty acids, and more.
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.
Learn the subtle signs that a bird gives off when it isn't feeling well and check on your bird's condition daily.
Your best bet for your bird is to make sure that you are taking it to the avian vet for routine check-ups. These checks are key for an animal that hides illness. Plus, a lot of people who live with self-mutilating birds every day might miss subtle cues that the bird is getting worse. Your vet will pick up on any signs of a declining condition.
Secondly, measure your bird's weight once a week. Pick up a simple kitchen scale that measures in grams for about $25 on Amazon. Choose a day that works best for you and your bird. For us, Sunday mornings work great. We weigh our birds before they get their first meal of the day. If a bird is starting to lose weight, we bring the bird to the vet so 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.
An emotionally healthy bird keeps itself calm by routinely keeping itself busy with natural parrot behaviors like foraging, exercising, preening itself, and socializing.
Get in the habit of kindly reinforcing your birds' safe, natural bird behaviors. Harness the power of behavior modification! Positive reinforcement for healthy, safe behaviors is your friend. Never encourage undesirable behaviors as your bird will interpret that as a form of reinforcement. And, please remember, your bird isn’t emotionally handicapped. You'll get through this. But, it will take work.
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.
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.
Image by BirdSupplies.com
Do you have some other insights into picking and self-mutilation? Add your comments below.
Johnson, M. (2004). Getting Started Clicker Training For Birds. Karen Pryor Clickertraining.
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/
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.
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