By Laurie Hess, DVM, Diplomate ABVP (Avian Practice)
While it is often difficult for bird owners to tell whether their pet is sick, as birds commonly hide signs of illness, it is even harder for most bird owners to tell if their pets are unhappy or stressed. Birds can certainly feel these emotions and hide them until these feelings become so extreme that they are manifested either physically or behaviorally. Birds can express unhappiness and stress in several different ways.
How can a bird owner tell that his or her bird is stressed or unhappy? Here are some common signs of stress and unhappiness in pet parrots:
While many bird owners misinterpret birds’ biting as an act of aggression, this behavior is often a sign of stress and fear. Birds will frequently bite and lunge to try to protect themselves when they are afraid. Since biting also may be a sign of pain or discomfort in birds, a parrot that suddenly starts biting a lot should have a complete veterinary examination to ensure there is no underlying medical problem for this new behavior.
Normal parrots, depending on their species, make loud noise. However, a sudden increase in screaming and screeching may indicate that a bird is stressed, unhappy, or bored. Just as biting can be indicative of pain or discomfort, so can screaming. Thus, any bird that suddenly starts screaming should be checked out by a veterinarian to ensure there is no medical basis for this behavior.
While screaming can indicate underlying stress or unhappiness in birds, so can decreased vocalization. Birds that suddenly start to vocalize less may be stressed, unhappy, bored, or ill. It is imperative that any bird who suddenly vocalizes less be examined as soon as possible to make sure that there is no medical cause for this change in behavior.
Feather picking is a very common outward manifestation of stress and boredom, particularly in larger species, such as Eclectus parrots, cockatoos, and African gray parrots, but this is also seen in smaller birds, including Quakers parrots and lovebirds. Some birds will start picking as a result of an initiating cause, such as loud noise or the occurrence of construction in the house, and they will continue to pick even when that initiating stimulus is gone. Feather-picking birds should have a thorough medical examination, including blood work, to help rule-out other causes of illness.
Some very stressed or unhappy birds will go beyond feather-picking to chew on their skin or even dig deeper into muscle and bone, causing severe trauma. These birds must not only be examined by a veterinarian immediately, but also be started on anti-psychotic medication and/or fitted with an Elizabethan collar (the “cones” that dogs wear) to prevent them from doing further damage while the owner and veterinarian try to figure out what’s going on.
Some species, but especially cockatoos, manifest stress as stereotypical behaviors such as pacing, toe tapping, and head swinging. Often, birds perform these behaviors to stimulate themselves because they are bored. While these behaviors may be harmless, they can be a sign that the bird is unhappy, and owners should pay attention to these actions before they progress to more destructive activities such as feather-picking or self-mutilation.
Birds that are so stressed that they are depressed may eat less and ultimately may lose weight. Since decreased appetite can also be a sign of medical disease, birds whose appetites change should be thoroughly examined by a veterinarian to make sure they aren’t hiding an underlying illness.
What Causes Stress in Birds?
Regardless of how they manifest stress and unhappiness, birds, like people, may become stressed and unhappy for a variety of reasons. Many parrots, especially extremely social and intelligent species such as cockatoos and African grays, need a great deal of attention, and when they don’t receive it, they become bored and stressed and may scream, feather pick, or self-mutilate.
Often, environmental changes, such as a recent move to a new home, new people or pets in the house, loud noises (such as from construction or thunder), or even a change in the location of the bird’s cage in the house or of the color of paint on the walls, can stress or upset a bird. In addition, a change in the bird’s daily routine, such as from an alteration in the owner’s schedule, can upset a bird. Indoor birds also can become stressed from the sight or sound of unfamiliar wild animals, such as hawks or racoons, outside a window. Finally, a change in light cycle, such as might occur if a bird’s cage is moved to a dark room or is suddenly kept covered, can throw a bird off. Basically, since birds are such creatures of habit, anything that alters their routines can stress them or make them unhappy.
The Effects of Long-Term Stress on a Bird
Chronic stress and unhappiness can affect birds’ physical health, as it does in people. Birds that are constantly stressed and sad may eat less and may lose weight or suffer nutritional deficiencies.
Extremely anxious birds that feather pick and self-mutilate may permanently damage their feather follicles, preventing regrowth of feathers, and scar their skin. In addition, reproductively active female birds that produce eggs, such as cockatiels, may have difficulty laying if they are stressed or unhappy. These birds may become egg-bound, so that their eggs get stuck inside their bodies, and may require veterinary intervention with medication or even surgery to get them to lay. Finally, chronically stressed or upset birds also may suffer compromised immune system function, making them more susceptible to contracting infections and other diseases.
How to Help Your Unhappy or Stressed-Out Bird
If you suspect your bird is stressed or unhappy, there are several ways you can help. The key is to try to find out the cause of the bird’s anxiety or sadness so that it can be addressed to enable the bird to get back on track.
It can be difficult to pinpoint the exact cause of a bird’s sadness or stress, but working with an avian-savvy veterinarian or bird trainer can provide insight and may help an owner get relief for a bird more quickly.
Birds that are feather picking, screaming, or biting because they are bored or lacking attention should be provided with interactive toys, plus a TV to watch – or at least a radio to listen to. Their owners should try to give them extra attention and as much out-of-cage time as possible.
Pets that are frightened by loud noises or outside animals should have their cages moved to a quieter, interior location, away from windows. Stressed birds whose cages recently have been moved or covered should have them moved back to where they were before or have them left uncovered.
If there are new pets or people in the house who are stressing or upsetting the bird, the owner should seek the help of a veterinarian or bird trainer to help gradually acclimate the bird to the new individual through positive-reinforcement training, in which the sight or sound of the new individual is paired with a yummy treat or favorite toy.
Birds are psychologically complicated creatures, as they are very smart and socially very needy. When well-adjusted and provided with adequate attention and mental stimulation, they can be terrific pets for many years. Bird owners must be prepared, however, to adapt to and change with their birds as they age and become sexually mature; they must realize that like people, their birds are living, thinking beings whose needs and desires change over time and who must be attended to accordingly.