Avian anxiety: a holistic approach
Dr Deborah Monks (Brisbane Bird and Exotics)
With birds, anxiety disorders are often not considered as a diagnosis until the animal (or the owners), is at crisis point and even then, treatment tends to focus on the clinical signs rather than the underlying anxiety disorder. !!
What does an anxious bird look like?
Most pet birds are prey species, so fight/flight/freeze in response to perceived danger.
• Excessive hiding. They may spend more time obscuring themselves in foliage, in cage corners, in nest
boxes. They may cling to an owner’s shoulder or neck or hide in longer hair.
• Hyper vigilance. . These animals generally are tense, with feathers held tightly against their bodies, and fixed, watchful facial expressions. They may fixate on normal items in their
environments with watchful stares, refusing to approach.
• Excessive reaction to stimuli. . Anxious birds can startle so severely that they hurt themselves, flying into obstacles. They may vocalize repeated or excessive distress calls.
• Physical changes. Tremoring, tachycardia, tachypnoea can be seen.
• Screaming. Inappropriate or excessive screaming is a common owner complaint, but not all screaming originates from pathological anxiety. They can be calling to their owners or flock members; The screaming associated with anxiety tends to be prolonged, associated with distressed posture and facial expression, and may seem without purpose.
• Feather damaging behaviour. This is often the presenting sign of an anxious bird, being very obvious to the owner. . When associated with anxiety, it has been compared to habitual, self harming and other malfunction behaviors in humans.2
• Lack of self-directed behaviors. Many anxious birds are unable to engage in independent behavior, which can manifest as overly ‘clingy’ behavior with their owners, or a general
lack of interaction with their environment, despite foraging, environmental enrichment and other opportunities.
Diagnosing avian anxiety
Before diagnosing ‘anxiety’, a thorough physical assessment must be performed, followed by an in depth analysis of the home environment and bird’s specific, nutritional and behavioral history.
A medical consultation is scheduled first, in order to do a physical examination, get an initial history and run some baseline diagnostic tests.
This is be followed with a specific behavioral consultation, in which a much more detailed history is obtained.
A suggested list of abnormal behavior required to diagnose avian anxiety could be:
At least one of:
• Severe or escalating withdrawal from interaction with people, conspecifics or environment
• Presence of seemingly pointless, repetitive behaviors with distressed body language. This can include screaming.
• Active feather damaging behavior;
In association with at least two of the following:
• Excessive startle response
• Hiding Inability to calm/settle
• Tremoring, wing flicking, excessive muscle activity.
Does anxiety need to be treated?
The pet needs holistic – medical and psychological intervention !
Medication for anxiety, modification of serotonin levels
Fluoxetine at 2mg kg twice a day (A Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) )
Clomipramine at 3mg kg- twice a day is a tricyclic antidepressant, increasing levels of both norepinephrine and serotonin
Both take about 4 weeks before they start working.
A recent paper has demonstrated the use of trazadone at 30 mg kg-1 in pigeons.
Gabapentin has been used in birds as both an analgesic and an anti-seizure medication
Benzodiazepines are commonly used in birds for sedation and could also have application during acute crisis.
Giving twice daily medication La la la la la ….
One of the problems treating anxious birds is the difficulty in administration of medication. The drugs mentioned above are often unpalatable, even bitter, coupled with baseline anxiety and perhaps hypervigilance, medication can be very stressful and even more harmful than beneficial! Causing Damage to the
The treatment of avian anxiety must also aim to improve behavioural resilience. Resilience, a term used to denote the capacity to withstand stressful events, is often reduced in the anxious individual.
Improving their ‘skill-set’ is likely to provide more successful outcomes, Providing more opportunities for self-directed behaviour, with the addition of toys, foraging and enrichment items to the bird’s environment is desirable. In an anxious individual, unexpected changes may cause significant distress, so new resources must be introduced with sensitivity and
It is also important that owners remain observant. An object is only enriching if the bird places a value upon it, and good owner
observation will ensure that appropriate items are used.
When adding foraging to the bird’s behavioural repertoire, it is important to ensure that the bird understands how to forage. This may need to be taught. Some birds lack foraging skills and will
cease to look for food if they cannot see it in the normal place.
Providing more opportunities for empowerment is a powerful tool in the maintenance of psychological health.
Bird training can be very empowering for the patient, and can encompass tricks (fetch, turn around etc.); medication training (taking water out of syringe etc.); exercise (recalling to shoulder etc.); or improved communication (the bird might be trained to call for human interaction or attention by ringing a bell or whistling, rather than screaming).
It is also possible to reinforce – and request – ‘calmer’ behaviour, which can be beneficial.
Predictability can be added to a pet bird environment by having a regular schedule (for instance, regular-outside-of-cage time; regular bedtime regimen); having a regular environment (no sudden changes in the cage, the household, the husbandry etc.).
Once an anxious bird is responding to treatment, it is worth considering whether small, controlled changes can be introduced to the schedule or environment, in order to encourage better resilience.
The purpose of this is NOT to cause a relapse in the bird’s clinical signs of anxiety, but to improve the
bird’s robustness. It must be done with very great sensitivity and observation, and in miniscule increments. These changes might eventually grow to incorporate semi-regular boarding at a facility,
occasional change in the human carer, introduction of new toys/cage furniture, or larger scale cage
changes. For instance, with a plan such as this, a bird may be comfortable staying in a boarding
establishment while the owner is away on holiday, with minimal or only mild increase in anxiety
Behaviour is dynamic, and owners of anxious birds should be trained themselves to be on a
permanent path of observation, analysis and change. Although it may become easier for owners to
respond to flares in anxiety signs with time, these birds may have permanent neurochemical
pathology. Their responses to stressors and change may never be ‘normal’, so owners may need to
commit to long-term management.
Given the complexity of treatment, the prevention of avian anxiety would be ideal. This could be achieved with
Better selection of breeding birds so that less anxious parents are bred.
• Proper socialization
• Appropriate home environment – stress free
• Appropriate cage stress reducing
• Appropriate Diet
• Avoid boredom
• Train resilience.
Adapted from a presentation by
Bird Specialist Dr Deborah Monks