Stress is a normal part of life, but if you talk to health experts, getting a handle on it is a very big deal. I think that's one thing that we've all learned in the pandemic. If you can't reduce your stress and practice coping strategies your at risk for developing physical and mental health issues.
Bird stress is no different. Our companion birds experience a lot of day to day stress that can affect both their physical and mental well-being, too. And, sadly, the very things that bring us stress can cause stress in our birds. Like a poor diet. Unsatisfactory living conditions. Boredom. And, not having the foundational skills that they need to navigate everyday life. Let's dive deep into bird stress.
According to MedLinePlus.com,
Stress is a feeling of emotional or physical tension. It can come from any event or thought that makes you feel frustrated, angry, or nervous. Stress is your body's reaction to a challenge or demand.
Short-term stress has a positive effect. Like, when a bird flies off of a branch to avoid danger. Long-erm stress has a cumulative negative effect as the stress hormones cause damage to tissue and more. Long-term effects of stress hormones can result in high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, obesity, depression and anxiety, skin problems, and reproductive issues.
Doesn't prevention of chronic stress make sense, then?
Avian Veterinarian Richard Shubolt of UC Davis tells us that one of the best things that you can do for your pet bird is to optimize its life for wellness. But, what does that mean? And, moreover, in what ways does wellness help your feathered friend?
First, let's dive into what wellness encompasses. There are five major areas to address. And, it is not as complicated as you might think.
Now, when you're thinking of wellness, you'll want to keep in mind that anything that brings the mind or body "stress" actually takes away from wellness. Also, stress is a normal part of life. But, our parrots' bodies have adapted to certain needs that are very difficult to replicate in a captive home environment. So, we as caretakers have to be really in tune with what our pets need. Let's look at what Dr. Shubolt recommends in terms of wellness.
1. PREVENTATIVE HEALTH: Preventative health can cover everything from adequate sleep to proper petting to exercise, and more.
2. DIET / NUTRITION - SPECIES SPECIFIC: Providing your exotic pet with a species-specific, nutritional diet is essential for keeping all body systems functioning properly. In a nutshell, that' going to be about 40% premium bird pellets and 60% raw organic, plant-based foods.
3. BEHAVIOR TRAINING: Behavior training is critical for all pets, and parrots are no different. Did you know that wild parrot parents spend a relatively long time teaching their babies manners and safety behaviors as a foundation? You, as the "pet parent," will have to teach your feathered friend appropriate foundational behaviors like stepping up, coming when called, stationing (staying) in place, among other things
4. ENVIRONMENTAL ENRICHMENT: Finally, providing your pet with a lot of enrichment opportunities is essential for its well-being. Your pet needs new problem-solving experience on a regular basis, like foraging toys, puzzle toys, exercise, out-of-cage time, and more.
5. PEDIATRIC & GERIATRIC SPECIAL NEEDS: Developing baby birds and aging older birds have special needs. When this special needs are not met, it can, and often will, result in significant stress. For instance, we know that being pulled from parent birds to hand-feed for the pet trade is highly stressful for young chicks. Likewise, not learning basic foundational avian behaviors can result in life-long traumatic stress. And, in the case of an aging bird, chronic pain and generalized poor health are huge stress inducers.
No responsible bird parent wants their beloved companion to be chronically stressed out. After all, chronic stress makes the body produce stress hormones, namely adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine. But, what are the signs of stress in our companion birds?
1. Bird Stress Bars On Feathers: Stress bars are often distinctive lines across the feather where the feather growth was stunted due to... you got it.... stress. When the body is stressed, it temporarily sources nutrients to more important organs compromising normal feather growth, leaving the bars.
2. Aggression: Do you get cranky when you're stressed out? That's because stress hormones bring out a fight or flight response. If a bird can't reasonably leave the situation, it is likely to "fight" off unwanted interactions and protect its resources.
3. Fear: Depending on the situation, some stress can make a bird fear for its safety or its' very life. If this happens enough, the body stores up the related stress hormones, bringing about a chronic sense of anxiety.
4. Change in Vocalizations: The above, goes to stand, that a fearful bird is either going to be quiet, so as to not draw attention to itself, or scream its head off in effort to make the stressful source back off.
5. Loss of Appetite: Stress tends to shut down hunger which results loss of appetite.
6. Lethargy: Lethargy looks an awful lot like boredom, but, there's a big difference. Lethargy is when your bird is in such an upset state, that it's almost given up. As if it's lost its energy and enthusiasm to enjoy its surroundings. That's very different than not being able to find something entertaining to do. As a behaviorist, I know that when life's enthusiasm is lost, it's a very big deal!
7. Repetitive Behaviors: Repetitive behaviors are another sign that one has lost engagement with life that's going on around them. Common repetitive behaviors include pacing, toe-tapping, head-swinging, or furiously feather plucking in birds. Repetitive behaviors take on a self-soothing flavor. So, rather than this very social animal engaging with society, it is consumed with simply trying to soothe itself.
8. Feather Plucking and Bird Self Mutilation: Very similar to above, feather plucking, and especially bird self mutilation are a very big deal. They're an undeniable symptom that something is likely to be very wrong in the birds life. Or at least, that at one point, something was very wrong and the body still carries the stress reaction.
So, what can you do to resolve bird stress? It's a little time consuming, but really fairly simple. I find that I deal better with time consuming tasks by breaking it down into actionable, reachable steps. This makes me much less likely to give up.
1. Get into the habit of observing your bird for signs of stress every day.
2. Faithfully arm yourself with Dr. Shubot's recommendations above.
3. Teach your bird basic foundational skills so that it knows how to be a bird. Just like you may have taught your child about "adulting," you'll need to teach your bird how to "bird!"
4. Work with a bird behaviorist to develop specialized behavior skills to turn around stress related behaviors.
I urge you to grab a pen & paper and create your own wellness plan to improve your pet's quality of life. Bounce your ideas off of popular bird-related Facebook groups, like BirdSupplles.com and its sister site, the private group called Feather Plucking Help.
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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