Phobia in Birds
by Sibylle Faye Johnson
Dictionaries define phobia as an irrational, persistent fear of certain situations, objects, activities or persons. The main symptom of this disorder is the excessive, unreasonable desire to avoid the feared subject.
When the fear is beyond one’s control, or if the fear is interfering with daily life, then a diagnosis under one of the anxiety disorders can be made. as an irrational fear: a fear that has no logical basis
Please note that a phobia, which is an IRRATIONAL and excessive fear, should not be confused with the fear a bird may feel of people caused by lack of socialization, nor the caution a bird feels towards new objects in its environment.
Birds are prey animals and it is perfectly normal for them to be suspicious of new people, objects and events or activities. Although the lines may be blurred, as a rational fear could turn phobic if not properly addressed. This topic will be discussed in more detail below.
The two parrot species that are especially susceptible to phobic behavior are:
Studies indicate that these two species require longer maturation period times with their family groups than most other parrot species. This specific need may not be accommodated in captive situations, which explains why phobias occur only in domestically-bred psittacines.
It does seem to make sense that parrots in their natural habitat appreciate the control they have over just about every aspect of their lives: the places they stay at, the companions they choose to be with, the food they eat — all of that is very difficult to replicate in captivity.
However, every effort should be made to provide our companion birds with some level of control – even if it is only perceived. Gently guiding our pet birds to places we want them to hang out on by enticing them with their favorite toys and treats, rather than continuously man-handling them to comply; accommodating them by securing and adapting their favorite hang-out areas to protect both our pets as well as our household items from being “customized” by their beaks.
We have to understand that parrots naturally chew on wood in the wild, to exercise their beaks, to build a nest site — the fact that they chew on our furniture is not a “vicious act” but natural behavior. Foraging is one way to occupy our pets productively, and keep them from other, more destructive activities.
It has been stated that males are exclusively coming down with this anxiety disorder; however, I don’t know if there is a scientific basis for this assertion. In addition to which, I have been contacted by the owner of a female galah cockatoo said to suffer from this condition (described below). This being said, the lines may be blurred as to where rational fears end and phobia begins.
Diagnosing a Phobic Birds:
- Deep-rooted and Unfounded Fears: Affected birds may be terrified of humans, human hands, or certain items in their environment. Again, this should not be confused with the rational fear of a poorly socialized bird. A poorly socialized bird may show more aggressive behavior, while a phobic bird will do everything it can (rational or not) to get away from whatever it is terrified of. Phobic birds have been seen crashing violently into walls, running in place against a barrier, pushing its face into cage bars to the point of bleeding. Others may get anxiety attacks from common sounds, such as the door bell or the ringing of a telephone. Some parrots (particularly african greys) have been seen throwing themselves on their backs in a flight-and-die position when people or feared objects come too close for their comfort level.
- Agoraphobia: Some birds are too scared to leave the sanctuary of their cages. This is commonly referred to as being “cage-bound.”
- Feather Destruction / Self-Mutilation: Others pull out their feathers — some are taking it even further and mutilate themselves. (NOTE: feather plucking can have clinical reasons). Behavioral feather plucking is difficult to treat, but once it has progressed to actual mutilation, the vet may recommend euthanasia as an option. It could be argued that this would be the humane thing to do, considering the mental distress the bird is experiencing. However, if there is any quality of life left, I would hope that all other options would be considered first. Any physical reason should be excluded. For example, In some instances, heavy metal toxicity has been traced to mutilation. Giardia to feather picking, as have diseases, such as PDD. These are just examples. In recent years, some promising products have been made available that have a calming effect on easily stressed birds, thus being effective in treating stress-related plucking / mutilation.
- If it is stress-related plucking, then the following product has shown amazing effectiveness:
- A product called “Stress Control” by King Bio Inc. has also shown effectiveness against stress-related plucking. It is a natural herbal mixture that relieves stress and anxiety in most pets, including birds. This product also helps with aggressive behaviors. One Customer review states that this “PRODUCT TRULY IS A MIRACLE WORKER!”. It is added to a bird’s drinking water. The package also indicates “Advanced Homeopathic Formulation with NO Side Effects 100% Safe Natural.”
- Ingredients and applications
- At the time of writing this article, “Stress Control” retailed at $19.95 a bottle. Another herbal product has very similar ingredients and is equally effective. However, “Pluck No More” cost around $30.
- This product may work great for parrots suffering from stress or anxiety, but the cause of the stress or plucking may still need to be addressed, especially since there may be physical causes. Therefore, please also go over this website to assess the cause of the plucking, which could be as simple as changing the location of the cage or may require veterinary intervention.
The Difference Between Rational Fear and Phobia
At this point, we have to differentiate between rational fears and phobia. Any bird that perceives himself to be in danger will have the urge to escape or to protect itself, often resulting in aggression / biting. The fear itself that causes him to take the action would not be considered phobia; but a natural instinct to protect himself from injury or death.
- Being wary of new people, new toys, items in the bird’s environment — all of these are to be expected and in no way represent phobias. Rational fear is not a disease and should not be treated as such.
- Rational fears should be addressed by gently familiarizing a bird to an unknown object or person.
- Only true phobias require treatment; not necessarily by a vet (unless they have received additional treatment in this area); but by a trained behaviorist. Any recommendations by the professional will depend on whether it is deemed to be a rational fear or an actual phobia.
Causes of Phobia:
The interesting aspect of it all is that, according to experts, phobias are primarily seen in domestically raised birds and that this condition is unknown in the wild.
The major reasons of true phobias in birds are usually:
Flying increases a bird’s confidence. The simple knowledge of being able to escape from a predator; the feeling of control that they get from flying – all of these are, in my opinion, of immense importance when it comes to maintaining a bird’s emotional health.
Why African Greys and Cockatoos (galah cockatoos specifically) are so susceptible to phobias may be explained by the fact that in the wild they spend considerable times on the ground foraging for food – more so than other species.
I understand that wing clipping is helpful when taming a bird; however, after the goal of building a relationship with the bird has been attained, the wing feathers should be allowed to grow back in, as they eventually will at the next time of molting.
A crucial time to allow a bird to fly is when it is fledging. The disability of a bird to do what comes naturally — to takes his first flight at this defining time may be a major reason for future behavioral problems, including phobias.
At this point it needs to be stated that the fledging process may take several weeks. The bird should be left fully flighted long enough to develop self-confidence. If the owner at that point chooses to clip the bird’s wings, the negative impact will not be as significant.
- Severe, long-term neglect and/or abuse (as is the case with cage-bound birds)
- Captive-breeding techniques that don’t take into consideration the specific developmental needs of a chick
- Force-weaning is considered a major underlying reason for emotional problems, including phobias. Force-feeding is defined as reducing feedings at a level that is not natural nor comfortable for the chick, leaving the only options to learn to eat on its own before it naturally would — or face starvation. I truly believe in the value of abundance weaning. Breeders that are faced with too many chicks (breeding mills) may take short cuts, including force-weaning chicks, potentially stunting the chick’s emotional development.
- Another hand-raising mistake that can be seen is when caretakers don’t recognize the instinctive need of a chick to gain independence as it weans. This process is very natural and to be encouraged. Inexperienced handfeeders who perceive this normal process of detachment as a problem may overcompensate by showering the chick with even more attention to increase the chick’s dependence on their human caretaker.
- Other factors may include lack of socialization, the phycial environment, and / or various experiences of a chick that may have a huge impact on their future emotional health, adaptability, and long- term happiness in a pet environment. For example, placing young chicks just removed from a dark nest box into a clear or brightly lit brooder can also have a negative impact. Their natural instinct is to stay hidden from predators. Constant or unexpected movements and activities of people in the nursery, or even lifting the cover of the brooder to peek in may cause continual stress to sensitive chicks, even potentially resulting in emotional trauma during an important developmental phase.
- Separating chicks is also not recommended. The interaction of siblings plays an important role in the maturing process.
- Wing Clipping:
- Poor Wing Clips:
Poor wing clips affect a bird’s balance and the ability to adequately counter a fall potentially resulting in an injury. Repeated falls causes the bird to suffer pain and decreased self-confidence and increased frustration. Feather plucking can get started by a bird wanting to remove any broken or damaged feather and it turning into a habitual pattern that is extremely difficult to correct.
Severe wing clips: When flight feathers are cut too short blood feathers may break and need to be pulled. This is a painful process and the resulting handling and vet visit can be categorized as a traumatic event by sensitive birds.
- Traumatic events: Another case of phobia developed after a burglary in the owner’s home. Two parrots were stolen. The remaining parrots were traumatized; and the female galah withdrew completely, becoming cage-bound and suffering from severe anxiety attacks. Fortunately, she has shown considerable improvements as the devoted owner continues to work with her.
- Genetics. Overly sensitive / insecure birds are most likely to come down with this condition. The parrot species that are commonly diagnosed with phobia are African Greys and Cockatoos. Both of these species are known to be very sensitive. This being said, one amazon parrot was presented with phobic behavior, causing him to pull out all his feathers, frantically run against the wall and continue to “run in place” after hitting a barrier. It took the owner several years of loving care, compassion and immeasurable patience to turn him into a healthy and happy bird. In this case, the phobia could be traced back to family history.
- Environmental conditions that resulted in phobia: Birds are prey animals and in one case phobias developed when a bird owner had lighting installed on the ceiling. The birds were not removed from the area. Birds are genetically programmed to fear dangers from above — as they would have to evade birds of prey in the wild. The situation of having people noisily working above their heads can cause emotional distress and phobia in the birds.
Recently when we had our home remodeled, I noticed that my flighted birds voluntarily left the area that was being worked on, searching out quiet rooms to stay in. Once work was completed, they would come back to their cages and bird areas. Giving, or taking away, this level of control may explain why captive birds come down with phobias, and this also would explain why this condition is unknown in birds leaving in their natural habitat.