Posts from March, 2014
Ask any bird owner and they will probably tell you that the most serious bird behavior problem is biting. This is especially true with the larger birds whose strong jaw and hooked bills can inflict considerable damage and pain. Most biting behaviors can be classified as fear, aggression, territorial, conditioned, or mate related.
When most birds were wild-caught, fear biting was a bigger problem. Today, most birds are raised in captivity. However, birds that have been raised with little human interaction in captivity will still have fear problems. Finally, even birds that are hand-reared and more acclimated to human beings can still develop fear-related behaviors. Some, such as African Grays, seem to be naturally more cautious and fearful around humans.
Fear biters can be recognized by their attachment to the cage. They are unwilling to leave that safe environment and when approached, may run away from or scoot past your hand. They get very stressed when handled and may squawk, fight, and even pant. Excessive wing trims and the inevitable clumsiness and falls that accompany them are a good way to create a fear biter. Careful trims and lots of treats and patient handling can sometimes help a fear biter become more social.
Birds are highly intelligent and will learn to manipulate their owner quickly. An owner who withdraws their hand the first time a bird offers to bite will condition the animal to bite to get their way. Not surprisingly, the bigger the bird, the more common the problem seems to be. As with many other species of animals, if you don’t appear to be in control, birds will be more than happy to take over.
Conditioned biters need to have their wings trimmed both figuratively and literally. In addition, they should never be allowed to ride on the owner’s shoulder. One way to prevent this behavior is to place a towel on the shoulder and use that to safely remove the bird if needed. If you are too afraid to offer a hand, then gloves or a perch should be used to practice step up without biting. Do not hit the bird on the beak. Instead, redirect biting behavior by giving another command which can be rewarded when obeyed. If the owner is unable to establish control, the bird may have to be rehomed.
These are the birds that defend their cage by biting. Territorial aggression should occur only when the bird is in or on the cage. Consistent training and handling are an important step in curing this type of biting. More time spent with the owner and less time in the cage will help as well. Use of a separate cage for night time sleeping and daytime play can also be helpful.
Many birds bond closely with one person in the family. They may consider this person to be their mate and behave aggressively if they feel other family members are competing for “their” person. Again, training and consistent handling by all family members will help to decrease bond-related biting. Unpleasant jobs should be done by the favorite and treat doled out by others. Again, these birds should be kept off the shoulder. Play is good but too much cuddling can be misinterpreted.
Just like us, birds need to get a good night’s rest. A bird kept up late watching television, could turn into a tired, grumpy biter. Birds need to have at least 10 hours a day in a dark, quiet room. Owners need to keep that in mind when deciding where to place their bird’s cage.
Remember, if the biting is extreme, use gloves, perches, or towels. Also, changing established negative behaviors requires plenty of time, patience, confidence, and consistency on the part of the handler. In the worst cases, where the owner is unable to establish a safe relationship, a new home may be the best choice for everyone.
I am fortunate enough to have the opportunity to work with the entire collection of animals on grounds at Niabi Zoo as well as their dedicated zookeepers and staff at least once a week. Even though this part of my life is “scheduled,” I never know what my day will entail. It’s the constant variety of daily tasks in zoological medicine that makes it that much more interesting for me: the never-ending challenge of diagnosis, developing treatment plans, and, most importantly, annual wellness and preventative medicine. Preventative medical care and annual wellness screening is one of the most overlooked areas of zoological medicine in the public eye. Not only is preventative medicine essential for the animal’s health and well being, it is also necessary for the safety of the staff and the visiting public. However, depending on the animal we’re working on in the collection, this may be a challenge.
Preventative medicine examinations performed on zoo patients are very similar to those performed on your own four-legged friends and equally important. Much like our own four-legged friends, obesity can affect animals in captivity, so accurate weight logs and body condition assessments are kept by keeper staff and the veterinarian. Many of the animals in Niabi Zoo’s collection are trained with positive reinforcement and operant condition to willing stand or sit on a scale on command to maintain accurate records of their weights. Any major changes can then be reported to the veterinary staff and further measures can be taken. This may seem like a small detail of an exam, but the zookeepers are the eyes and ears of the veterinary department and work tirelessly to help prevent disease outbreaks and illness in the animals they oversee.
Another important area annually assessed is the animal’s mouth. Dental disease is one of the most common pet health problems diagnosed at Animal Family and is also common in zoo collections due to some undesired, stereotypical behaviors. The challenge in a zoological collection is that the animal’s mouth can also be the most dangerous weapon! Some of these animals require sedation to have their teeth examined. Other animals are trained with hand signals and will hold open their mouth open on command for visual examination. Just like in dogs and cats, the veterinarian looks for tartar, gingivitis, signs of periodontal disease, fractured teeth, or missing teeth, and develops a treatment plan accordingly.
Fecal examination and intestinal parasite screening is one of the most frequent tests performed at Niabi Zoo. There are several intestinal parasites such as roundworms and hookworms are considered zoonotic, meaning they can pass from animals to people and cause disease. Not only is it important to screen fecal for the health of the animal, but we also screen for the public’s health! The Centers for Disease Control estimates that almost 14% of the population of the United States is infected with roundworms! If any animal comes back positive, a deworming treatment is developed. The zoo animals are on similar monthly, year-round prevention products like Frontline and Heartgard for treatment of intestinal parasites, fleas, ticks, and heartworm disease.
Speaking of heartworm and tick-borne disease, the very same test 4DX Snap Test and Blood Parasite Screen that is recommended for your domestic animal is used on several animals at Niabi Zoo! Prevention of heartworm disease is key in a zoological collection, especially since the disease can be life-threatening and extremely expensive to treat. Due to the importance of conservation in a zoo collection, a life lost due to heartworm disease could mean a drastic blow to a genetic line under conservation.
Last, but not least, the animals at Niabi Zoo also undergo an annual vaccination routine, which is extremely important due to the exposure of these animals to wildlife and the public. Animals in the collection are routinely vaccinated for Rabies and Distemper annually since their risk of exposure is so high. These vaccines can be done every three years in our domestic dogs and cats.
The bottom line is preventative medicine is the most important medicine and can save your animal from having to suffer from illness long term. For some of our pets and the zoo collection, this means every year we need to make a thorough assessment, nose to tail, to keep our animals as healthy as possible.