Updated: Apr 4
Written by: Lee Stone, Avian Trainer and Behaviour Consultant, Parrot Life Behaviour and Training.
This article first appeared in the Parrot Society of Australia 'Parrot News' Magazine Jan-Feb 2022 edition.
**Content Warning: This article includes a photo of an open wound caused by self-mutilation.
Parrots are much like young children, they cannot communicate to us verbally when and where
they may be experiencing pain. Often the pain will manifest as behaviour problems and can therefore be inadvertently missed as we assume the issue we are having is behavioural rather than physical. Behaviours such as biting, screaming, self-isolation, feather destructive behaviour and self-mutilation can all be indicators our parrots are suffering from some physical ailment, whether that is an illness, an injury or a chronic condition causing pain. Sudden behaviour change is often the most telling symptom of pain in our parrots, the bird who suddenly out of nowhere starts destroying their feathers, or will no longer exit their cage or interact with humans, biting that is out of character for the parrot in question or seemingly ‘unprovoked’ or suddenly screaming consistently even if nothing has changed within the environment.
These behaviour changes may be subtle, they won’t always be big, loud or obvious. It is critical we are keen observers of our parrots behaviour and body language in order to pick up when
something may be wrong. More importantly, we need to ensure we are seeking veterinary care as soon as possible and advocating for our parrots by requesting appropriate diagnostics to try and rule out possible medical causes for their behavioural changes. Pain should never be ruled out based only on observations as it may not manifest in a way that is easily observed such as gait and posture, but rather may only be visible through x-rays, CT scans or other more advanced imaging. One reason this is so critical, other than ensuring our pet birds are receiving treatment and pain medication if necessary, is that it is very difficult if not impossible to fully resolve a behaviour issue if it is triggered or compounded by unaddressed pain. If your parrot is biting you when it steps up because it has skeletal changes in its hip joint causing the bird pain, then no amount of training is likely to prevent the biting, you may reduce it, but if your bird is having a particularly painful day, then the behaviour is likely to reoccur or increase. Another important reason to address pain promptly is because pain can be very effective at producing negative associations in a short space of time. This means that if your bird is in pain and this pain often occurs in your presence your bird may quickly begin to associate you (your hands, your approach, your voice etc) with pain and this can lead to increasing behaviour issues, fear responses or even panic disorders developing. The following case studies highlight some examples of pain-related behaviour problems and how early intervention is crucial for the immediate welfare of the bird and long-term chances of resolution. Case Study 1: Joey the Major Mitchell Cockatoo Joey was a young Major Mitchell cockatoo who was purchased from a pet shop by his owners. The pet shop staff member clipped Joey’s wings before he went home, the wing clip was so short he was unable to even glide or effectively maintain balance. As often happens when a parrot’s wings are clipped too short, he began to have crashes and falls,
these led to painful injuries to his keel and wings and resulted in Joey beginning to self-mutilate, chewing at the skin at the tips of his wings and underneath his wings. These crashes and his pain also led Joey to associate the humans in his household with pain, as they would come to pick him up when he crashed, over time this led to Joey developing anxiety when humans approached him, he would panic and flap and reopen wounds on his wings and have further crashes. The cycle became so ingrained that Joey was in constant pain and distress. He had layers of scar tissue under his wings and was unable to be handled by his family. As a final attempt to help Joey he was boarded with a Parrot Life staff member, hoping that the change in the environment combined with pain medications, antibiotics and anxiety medications along with behaviour modification would help to break the cycle of pain, anxiety and panic that had developed. Although when he was calm he progressed very well to the point of stepping up again, when he had panic attacks he would, once again, open up his wing wounds. After much consultation with his avian vet it was decided he would be euthanised for welfare reasons as he had a very poor prognosis and was in constant pain, physically and mentally. Case Study 2: Aztec the Blue and Gold Macaw
At barely 7 months of age, Aztec, a Blue and Gold Macaw began chewing his own flight feathers off. It started with 1 - 2 feathers, easily dismissed as accidental breakages caused by over-
enthusiastic flight and play by a young parrot, this quickly turned into 4 - 5 primary feathers, then all of the primary feathers on his left wing, followed shortly by many of the feathers on his right wing. You can imagine the dismay and confusion this sudden, destructive behaviour caused. A vet visit was immediately scheduled to look into possible contributing factors for his behaviour. At this time diagnostics did not show anything of note and the vet and owner opted to tidy his feathers up, put him on a short course of meloxicam and monitor. Over the following 7 months a pattern of behaviour developed, where for a period of time he would leave his new feathers alone and then in a short space of time (2 -3 days) they would all be damaged again, there were no indications this behaviour was anxiety, stress or environment-related. In August 2021 it was decided to attempt an imping procedure (where donated feathers are implanted into the shaft of feathers on the recipient bird) to see if having a full set of tidy feathers would prevent him from further chewing and allow him to rebuild flight muscle. At this time it was decided to have his wings x-rayed a second time as the vet advised that bony changes indicating chronic issues can occur over time and these x-rays may show something different to prior x-rays. She was correct, the second lot of x-rays showed clear indications of skeletal issues, these included a slight curvature in the bones at the end of his wings, an issue with the joint in one wing and some curvature in his spine. Common issues associated with poor nutrition at a young age (in this case Aztec had been rejected by his parents at 5-6 weeks of age leading to them discontinuing feeding him). So he was placed on a pain medication (tramadol) to assist with reducing any chronic pain caused by his skeletal issues. Since that time Aztec has had some setbacks, these always occur immediately (within 12 - 24hrs) of him having an accident and crashing eg: trying to fly because
ver he is spooked and crashing into a wall. Upon reflection of the prior incidence of feather destructive behaviour, including the first time he began chewing his feathers his guardians can remember instances where he had crashed in the same time frame. Over time his medications have been changed and adjusted in conjunction with his avian vets and a veterinary behaviourist to ensure that he has on board the best medication for his condition, this is crucial as each individual animal will have different requirements based on a variety of factors.
This is still a work in progress but with pain meds on board his feathering has improved significantly, the consistent destruction of feathers has reduced, other behaviours such as sensitivity around his wings being handled have reduced and hopefully, over the coming 12 months he will re-grow all of his feathers and be fully flighted again.
Case Study 3: Smoky the African Grey
Smoky is a perfect example of how quick, professional intervention in cases of feather-destructive behaviour can make all the difference to long-term resolution.
As soon as Smoky's family noticed that she had begun engaging in feather-destructive behaviour they organised a veterinary visit and their avian vet recommended they contact Parrot Life for behavioural support.
One of the major triggers identified for Smoky was that she had fallen and broken a blood feather on her wing, although this seemed like a once off acute injury, ongoing pain was evident from other behaviour she was displaying, she was placed on a pain medication to address her pain and this made a significant difference to her behaviour very quickly.
With both medical and behavioural intervention to address several trigger points for her FDB, Smoky's feather destructive behaviour was significantly reduced within a week of our initial consultation, 5 months on and Smoky is no longer engaging in FDB and her feathering is nearly fully re-grown.