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Home > News & Events > Other Announcements > MAARS Turns 13 - Join the 2011 Flock Challenge! > Breaking New Ground: Parrots and PTSD

Breaking New Ground: Parrots and PTSD

by Galiena Cimperman & Jamie McCarthy, Directors

In August of 2009 and 2010 MAARS attended the Association of Avian Veterinarians’ (AAV) annual conferences to present several groundbreaking papers on parrots, the effects of captivity and what role Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) plays in their lives. All observations and the overarching theories were the result of work with the MAARS flock and years of behavioral consulting work to keep birds in their homes. The papers and ideas were well received by the veterinary professionals and inspired interesting and thoughtful dialogue.

These presentations were co-authored by several MAARS volunteers, Gay Bradshaw, Ph.D., Executive Director of the Kerulos Center and author, Elephants on the Edge, and Joseph Yenkosky, PhD neuro-psychiatry.

Studies on PTSD have been completed on non-human primates, elephants and large marine mammals with the conclusion that all suffer from complex post-traumatic stress disorder similar to humans. The work on PTSD in captive parrots draws on these previous studies while recognizing the unique evolutionary social, ecological and psychological adaptations that have shaped the avian brain and flock social order.

The MAARS study came to similar conclusions as the studies on other captive wildlife that captivity is inherently traumatic for wild animals. All of the parrots in the study demonstrated a wide range, but at least some, affect dysregulation which ranges from the inability to be able to self soothe to the inability to control emotional responses to self-mutilation. The study has wide-ranging application because medium- and large-parrots will be rehomed at least once in their lifetime. It is not an issue limited to birds in rescue.

Like other social animals with strong familial bonds, when parrots are removed from their own kind at an early age or reared by humans from hatching the effects of that trauma and disruption to the normal developmental process manifests itself in captive parrots in many different forms. Specific manifesting behaviors range from excessive calling for you (the flock/mate), hypo arousal (depressed, lethargic, frightened state of being), hyper arousal (aggressive and unpredictable, excessive displays, extreme territoriality), and various forms of self destructive behavior (feather and or body mutilation).

Recent studies have shown that the avian brain mirrors the human in intelligence, trauma, and neuropsychology. In addition cytoarchitecture (arrangement of cells in tissue) has shown the same parallels in structure and emotion between humans and parrots. Like human children parrot chicks are altricial (relying on their parents and other flock members for a protracted developmental period) and learn in a social context. This shapes the parrot (and human) brain and behavior for the rest of their lives. 

Observationally, wild-caught parrots raised by their parents and captive parrots raised by their parents tend to exhibit fewer and less severe affect dysregulation and maladaptive behaviors.

In addition to the trauma caused by the disruption to familial and flock bonds,  confinement in a cage (a flight or a room) is a stressor for most birds or at least inhibits their natural instinct to fly, forage and roost. How an individual bird reacts to the confinement in large part depends on their early developmental period. Even attentive, caring and loving parrot guardians can face behavioral challenges.

Recognizing that the issues – screaming, anxiety, fear, aggression, repetitive behaviors, feather destruction and self-mutilation – have complex origins and may not easily be modified through more standard behavior modification approaches like positive reinforcement. While humans can never undo the trauma, in taking a broader approach to treatment and by using treatment models proven successful in human and non-human species, parrot guardians and veterinary professionals may be able to teach parrots new coping skills. In addition, guardians will have a deeper understanding of their bird’s behavior causation, an understanding which will hopefully keep birds from being labeled as “bad.”

MAARS began implementing these innovative treatment programs for several members of the flock. Each bird is treated as an individual taking into account parental deprivation, social isolation (from both parrots and humans) and other traumas, such as physical abuse and neglect, as they present. MAARS volunteers work with individual birds on treatment plans that encompass all forms of therapy from relearning missed developmental cues such as how to bond with other parrots or learning how to fly, to trust building exercises such as letting them choose whether or not to come out of an enclosure or whether or not to step up, to finding the right medication that will help alleviate their anxiety while they learn new methods of coping.

MAARS believes that we have had successes with this approach, not because every bird in our flock wants to be with humans or live in a home, but because we have seen birds become more comfortable in their own feathers and we accept them as they are.


Join the MAARS 2011 Flock Challenge and Help MAARS Help Birds!

To help MAARS continue its groundbreaking work on treating trauma in captive parrots join the 2011 Flock Challenge and help not only the MAARS birds but other captive parrots as well.


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