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by Diane Burroughs July 04, 2021 11 min read

People often complain that their pet birds are loud or even feather pluck when they leave the room.  They don't understand why their bird just can't be content when they're not around. After all, the bird has everything it could want for.

Others describe that their bird goes bonkers when they're getting ready to leave for work. And still, others describe that they wake up in the morning to a cage floor full of feathers because their bird plucked itself bald at night.

What in the world is triggering these behaviors in so many birds? At BirdSupplies.com, we're all about parrot wellness.  In this blog post I'll discuss separation anxiety in birds and what you can do right now to start helping your pet.

Can pet birds have separation anxiety?

Pet separation anxiety is when the bird experiences physiological reactions to being alone or separated from their caretaker. We hear about it in dogs all the time. But, pet birds are prone to separation anxiety, too.

After all, birds are our flock animals. In other words most of our pets live in massive flocks in the wilderness. Their whole psyche is geared toward “being together.” In the wild, one sole bird is likely to become a predator's lunch. There is safety in numbers.

There are other theories about why birds get separation anxiety, which I'll get into a little deeper.

What Causes Separation Anxiety In Birds?

Hand Feeding: 

Different from, say, puppies and kittens,  who are allowed to stay with their mother and to be raised with littermates for about eight weeks, most baby birds are pulled from their parents to be hand fed for the pet trade before they even get their feathers.

As bird behaviorists, we believe that this is a traumatic event for the  baby bird.  Just the mere fact of being separated from its parents is hard enough. But, on top of that these baby birds don't learn foundational behaviors leaving them feeling even more vulnerable.

Training Mishaps

Finally, when the baby bird is old enough to be weaned, it goes off to its new home. a lot of times, the new owner doesn't exactly know how to provide proper care and training for their new little baby bird.

According to Dr. Greg Harrison, Founder of The Bird & Exotic Hospital, the way that a parrot is raised impacts its personality.  We know that birds deeply bond with what they're around when they're very young, which is why it's harmful to pull young baby birds  from Mom and Dad for hand-feeding purposes. 

But, it could also be that when people first get a new baby bird they give it a lot of attention and handle it a lot - which doesn't teach the baby how to self-entertain or feel comfortable being alone.

Then, when the baby cries because it doesn't know how to forage or play with toys for entertainment, the caretaker showers the bird with attention. 

Training mishaps might be another contributing factor to why parrots are prone to separation anxiety.

Nutritional Deficits

We're finding out just how important nutrition is, not just for body health, but for brain health, too. A lot of people still feed their birds unhealthy seed mixes. Bird seed mixes are notoriously deficient in important vitamins and nutrients that a bird needs in order to sustain its physical and mental health.

I hear complaints almost every day how people can't get their birds to eat healthy pellets and nutritious vegetables.  In reality, it's very similar to kids.

Our kids would eat cookies and ice cream all day long if we'd let them! They need to be taught which foods are healthy and rewarded for trying new things out. Our birds are no different. 

Deficiencies of important nutrients like zinc and omega-3 fatty acids, are known to contribute to depression, anxiety, and other mental health disorders. Harvard reports a link to gut health, deficient vitamin B, a deficiency in antioxidants, as well. Below find some of the antioxidant-rich, bird-safe foods identified by the USDA:

  • Beans: Dried small red, Pinto, black, red kidney (always properly prepare)
  • Fruits: Apples (Gala, Granny Smith, Red Delicious), prunes, sweet cherries, plums, black plums
  • Berries: Blackberries, strawberries, cranberries, raspberries, blueberries
  • Nuts: Walnuts, pecans
  • Vegetables: Artichokes, kale, spinach, beets, broccoli
  • Spices with both antioxidant and anti-anxiety properties include turmeric (containing the active ingredient curcumin) and ginger.

 A bird's brain functioning is affected by nutritional deficits, as well. Dive into Karmen Budai, et. al research and find out which raw, uncooked foods can balance out your bird's brain health.

 

How Can I Help My Bird With Separation Anxiety?

Related Article:  How to tell if you're pet bird is stressed

So, what can you do to help your hand-reared bird manage separation anxiety?  The good news is that there are a lot of reasons to be hopeful.  And, applying science-backed strategies to calm and support your bird works!

I will delve into two specific science-back strategies that can change your bird's life. But first, let me talk about how to know if your bird is experiencing separation anxiety.

How do I know if my bird has separation anxiety?

You may know that there are several different types of anxiety, from generalized anxiety to specific phobias to PTSD.  Separation anxiety disorder, otherwise known as SAD, is when the bird “experiences an extended and extensive period of fear and distress when it is apart from its usual caretaker. The hallmark of SAD is that the level of the fear and distress has these two features:

  • The bird actually has a physical reaction that is somewhat like a panic attack, due to the separation. Its heart is beating fast. It's breathing is shallow and rapid.  It's muscles get tense.  And, it's blood pressure may go through the roof. The bird literally goes into fight or flight mode.
  •  The level of distress is notably out of proportion to what's really going on. A short separation from the caretaker is generally not a cause to get so alarmed.

What are the physical indications SAD in a bird?  A bird experiencing SAD goes into fight or flight mode. 

In fight mode, the bird is actively trying to fight off the feelings. You'll notice screaming behaviors or  an almost phobic refusal to go in its cage at night.

In flight mode, the bird will do anything to try and escape the feelings. You'll notice these birds also might thrash about the cage when you turn out the lights and leave or it plucks its own feathers out. Some birds even self-mutilate. 

Why feather plucking? Because, the very instant that the bird pulls a feather out Or takes a chunk out of its skin, it causes so much pain that the brain releases endorphins which instantly serve to reduce anxiety. 

You can also tell if you're dealing with SAD, by knowing what the circumstances are that preceded these observable behaviors. In other words, what triggered the behavior.

What Is Behavior?

As behaviorists, we know that all observable behavior is sandwiched between a trigger and a  reinforcement.

The actual scientific term for a trigger is called an "antecedent." While the actual scientific term for a reinforcement is called a "consequence."

This behavioral model is called the ABC model.  Hopefully, this diagram will clarify this important concept for you.

 

ABC Model of Bird Behavior
© Diane Burroughs, LCSW 2021.

Let's take the ABC model a little bit further. 

The setting or location of the behavior also serves to inform us of what the trigger is. 

For example, I have a fear of needles.  So, when I need to get a shot, my blood pressure goes up, my heart races, and I tense up.  Being in a medical office where I know that I'm about to get a shot makes me anxious.  The medical office is the setting that triggers an anxious episode.

In your bird with SAD, the sight of you physically leaving the room or the sound of you getting ready to go to work triggers it’s anxiety.

How can I help my bird with separation anxiety?

A few paragraphs up, I'd mentioned that  hand feeding, training mishaps, and nutritional deficits are all known to predispose a pet bird to have SAD.  If you want to help your bird deal more effectively with its anxiety, you'll need to introduce two strategies.  Parrot wellness and effective bird training.

Wellness

Wellness is the act of practicing healthy habits on a daily basis to attain better physical and mental health outcomes. For parrots, wellness encompasses the following:

  • Preventive health care in the form of annual wellness exams accompanied by healthy habits everyday.
  •  Species-specific optimum nutrition
  •  Providing a rich range of enrichment opportunities
  •  Ensuring for pain prevention and management

Related Post - Creating a Parrot Friendly Environment

Let’s review some of these needs:

PHYSIOLOGICAL NEEDS:  So, getting back to the science-backed brain research regarding the relationship between nutrition and brain health, feeding your bird well is critical.  

You have to realize that birds hide their illnesses, injuries and pain from us as a matter of survival. That makes annual wellness exams really important. An avian vet has been trained to identify the early onset of nutritional deficiencies, illness and pain. 

Related Blog Series - Parrot Plucking Series

ENRICHMENT NEEDS: We already know how highly intelligent parrots are. Scientists have uncovered that our avian friends have a highly sophisticated brain structure, which, while different from mammals, performs the same functions. Parrots need a wide variety of daily activities to maintain a healthy brain.  

Neuroscience tells us that brains rely on physical exercise, healthy brain foods, and brain workouts for optimum functioning.

Brain workouts include novel activities, foraging for food, problem-solving activities, auditory, visual, kinesthetic and other enrichment activities, and healthy, non-sexualized socialization to thrive in home environments.

PSYCHOLOGICAL / SOCIAL NEEDS: Piggy-backing from above, not only are parrots highly intelligent, but they are low on the food chain and they rely on their flock for safety throughout their entire life span. 

Imagine, then, being pulled from your parents, whose job it is to teach you about safety, then being hand-reared only to be acquired by a well-meaning care-taker who leaves you alone in a cage with a few toys and a bowl full of food. 

You can rest assured that this parrot's brain has now become hardwired toward hyper-vigilance and anxiety.

Keeping your bird busy with enrichment activities will help a lot.

How can training calm a stressed parrot down?

Bird Training is another essential way to help your bird overcome SAD. Think of it as psychotherapy for your pet's emotional needs. Scroll back up to the ABC model and take another gander at it.

Now, let's take this model one step further to give you a framework on how to train your stressed out bird to calm down on its own.

Target Behavior in Bird Training

© Diane Burroughs, LCSW 2021 ( adapted from Friedman &  ). 

Think back in time.

Can you identify about 3 - 5 incidents when your bird was experiencing SAD? If you can, jot down a statement about the observable and measurable factors of the behavior.  Here's an example for nighttime SAD.

“After putting my bird in its cage and turning out the lights and before our morning greeting time, Chico plucks out his chest feathers - 3 - 4 nights per week.”

Now, you figured out what the trigger is. Nighttime SAD. The easiest way to resolve the problem is to remove the trigger, also known as antecedent rearrangement.

With this knowledge, you figured out that being alone at night is the cause of the plucking.

Let's think about possible behavior training solutions.

One short-term solution is that you could temporarily have your bird sleep in a sleep cage near you to change the trigger.  Another solution short-term solution is that you could give your bird a calming supplement before bed-time.  

Long-term solutions might be to feed for better zinc, omega-3 fatty acids, gut health, and B vitamins. Or, train your bird to self-entertain with foraging activities. 

Take a minute to brainstorm some other things that you could change up to reduce the nighttime SAD. This is just practice to get you to kind of train your mind to view your bird's behavior in a scientific manner. 

Since you’ve described the problem in an observable, measurable manner, you’ll be able to recognize whether changing the trigger (eg. having your bird sleep in a sleep cage) Is helpful.

Keep in mind that these are first steps toward resolving bird SAD.  There are other strategies that you can use to  actually encourage calmer behavior going forward. These strategies are called “positive reinforcement.”  

Is There Anxiety Medicine For Birds?

Another thing to try might be to use bird supplements or medicines to support a calmer mood. Supplements are different then medicines. Supplements are not considered medicines. 

They do not give a cure to any illness or disease. They are just taken to supplement or reinforce the need for nutrients like vitamins and minerals. 

Supplements are good for the body since it can help boost the nutrients needed by the body.

People use natural supplements all the time to reduce anxiety.   Some of the same supplements people use are safe for use in birds, too. Keep in mind That supplements usually have a disclaimer, something like, “ These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease”

There are 4 main types of avian calming supplements you may choose from at the time this article was written

Loose Herb Teas and Chamomile Flowers are an excellent calming herb that support the relief of  mild avian anxiety. Chamomile flowers may be brewed into a tea or served loose in the bowl. Chamomile, the mildest calming herb is the  avian calming formula when first starting out to calm a parrot and for ongoing maintenance of a calmer mood. Keeping with dried herbs for calming parrot anxiety, UnRuffledRx Bird Calming Tea  has a variety of adaptogen herbs that supportive call my mood.  We love this as one of the best avian calming formulas for daily mood maintenance. 

A second anxiety supplement for birds, UnRuffledR Parrot Calming Formula, supports bird separation anxiety with L-Theanine an amino acid found in green tea . L-Theanine is a tasteless, water soluble calming agent that is found in green tea.  

The amazing thing about this  bird calming  supplement is that, not only does it “take the edge off” of mild to moderate anxiety, but it also supports improved alertness. It works best taken with other amino acids.  We recommend combining UnRuffledRx FeatheredUp! with UnRuffledRx Parrot Calming Formula. This combination is the best for a bird with persistent anxiety. 

Avian-grade CBD Oil is another very popular product that supports avian calmness.  Many bird owners swear by the calming and anti-inflammatory effects of CBD oil.

We suggest that you look for these three qualities when using bird hemp or CBD oil to calm your feathered friend down.  

  1. A high quality avian specific formula will have a lower concentration of the active ingredient then that required to calm a cat or dog. After all, you’d not want to give your bird a product developed for a ten pound dog or risk organ damage by serving a product made with an alcohol base. “The rule, says veterinarian Angie Krause, is 0.5 milligrams of CBD for every kilogram of body weight.” So, translated, this would be 0.5 ml for a parrot weighing 1,000 gm.
  2. A tincture that is dissolved in vegetable glycerin as opposed to alcohol.  Alcohol is bad for your bird's liver. 
  3. Since the CBD industry is currently not regulated, you’ll want to know that the product run has gone through a third party analysis that assesses the amountIngredients in the product.

As such, a CBD lab report is basically a means to provide an unbiased verification of what’s actually in the product that you’re buying.

Bird CBD.oil can be administered right from the dropper or topically on the skin, if you're dealing with pain. 

Finally, several prescription grade parrot anxiety medications have been shown to have successful outcomes in studies for the treatment of avian anxiety, including feather plucking behavior.  We’d encourage you to contact an experienced avian veterinarian to discuss the latest options for supporting severe avian anxiety.

In conclusion, we've talked about how prevalent bird separation anxiety disorder is. I've also discussed how to tell if your  bird has separation anxiety disorder, at home  strategies to support your bird, and helpful bird calming supplements that kind of support your bird through its recovery journey.

References:

https://www.aspca.org/pet-care/dog-care/common-dog-behavior-issues/separation-anxiety

https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/nutritional-strategies-to-ease-anxiety-201604139441

 VetStreet.com separation anxiety article

 


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