By Dr. Barbara Nefer
Pet birds can be sensitive to your stress.
Finances can be fragile even in the best of times. When the economy is weak, it adds another layer of pressure. If you’re facing financial hardship, you’re probably struggling to make lifestyle changes and cutbacks. You might even be draining your bank account or maxing out the charge cards to pay basic living expenses. As your stress level skyrockets, the side effects are no doubt spilling over onto the rest of the family.
Lack of money impacts your pet birds, too. When you are under stress, the emotional turmoil can color your interactions with your pet birds. You might be more abrupt with them as worries weigh down your mind. You might not be able to give them as much attention as usual because you’re struggling to work more hours.
Most pet birds are comforted by routine and consistency. They don’t understand a financial crisis. They only know that the mood in their household has changed and that they’re not getting as much interaction. Some pet birds are resilient, especially if the situation is temporary. Others are more sensitive, and they might respond to the tense atmosphere by screaming, biting or becoming territorial. In the worst case, pet birds could develop neurotic behaviors, like feather picking (feather descructive behavior).
This sensitivity is natural. It’s part of the pet bird’s survival instincts. In the wild, parrots react to their flockmates’ emotions and actions. If one parrot is frightened by a perceived threat, the rest of the flock responds in kind by panicking and fleeing. They won’t ignore the chaos or take time to assess the threat level, because a quick reaction can mean the difference between life and death.
In a household environment, this instinct is dulled because immediate threats are rare. In our worlds, tension is often low-key and persistent. An ongoing stressful situation can cause a continuous sense of agitation in a pet bird rather than be expended in one burst. A normally friendly pet bird might become more cranky or aggressive as it reacts to the negative undercurrents.
Financial problems can also have a concrete impact on your pet bird’s living conditions, as you’re forced to cut back on your spending. Some of the effects might be minor. For example, you might have to cut back on store-bought toys. This gap can be filled by improvising; use common objects like straws, rolls of paper and Popsicle® sticks as toys. Birds love to shred paper, and it can be turned into a foraging toy if you wrap it around a treat. Cardboard works well for chewing, and drink cup lids and straws can entertain many birds for hours. Just make sure that such items are safe, with no glues, dyes or other toxic substances that your bird could ingest.
If you normally pay a vet tech or groomer to trim your bird’s nails and trim its wing feathers, you can learn how to do these tasks at home (just make sure you have sufficiently observed how to do so safely and are supervised by a professional when you first attempt grooming your bird). Neither of these cutbacks will significantly harm your bird’s quality of life, although you will likely appreciate new toy purchases once you are back on your feet financially.
Red flags start popping up if you find yourself skimping on necessities like nutritionally-balanced food and basic veterinary care. When you start making cutbacks that can have a direct effect on your bird’s health, it crosses the line and becomes neglect.
Take A Reality Check
You might try to justify your actions with thoughts like, “My pet bird’s been lethargic for a couple of days now, but I’ll wait a while longer to see if the problem clears up on its own,” or “Maybe it won’t hurt if I cut back on my macaw’s food this week. It won’t hurt him to eat a little less veggies or macadamia nuts.” This is part of the denial that often comes with unpleasant situations. If you’re normally a responsible pet bird owner, it’s hard to face the fact that financial hardship might be pushing you toward the borderline of neglect. You must force yourself to do an objective reality test because your pet bird’s well-being is at stake.
If you are in a money crunch, make a list of the pet-bird-related expenses that you’ve been cutting back on or eliminating. Go back over the list, and put a star by any items that can have a direct impact on your bird’s physical and/or psychological health. Those items should be non-negotiable; you need to reinstate them immediately and find other areas where you can make cuts to offset them.
Your pet birds might be addicted to treats, but there are other options. Instead of using treats as rewards for good behavior, shower your pet with praise. Combine “Good boy!” with a head scritch. Attention is a healthier reward than any snack, and it also boosts your bird’s psychological well-being.
The Ultimate Sacrifice
If you’ve already trimmed your budget down to its bare bones and still can’t afford your bird’s care, it might be time to consider re-homing. Sometimes a new home is the best option for a bird’s long-term well-being. Knowing that you’re doing the right thing won’t keep you from feeling a sense of loss, but part of the responsibility of owning a bird is making tough decisions based on what’s best for the animal.
It’s normal to resist the idea, but when you look at things objectively, you’ll probably see that most of the resistance comes from selfishness. It’s natural to love your bird and to want to keep it with you for a lifetime. Birds become members of the family and losing them, even by choice, leads to tremendous grief. But if we insist on keeping them, even at the expense of forcing them to live in substandard conditions, we’re disregarding the bird’s best interests. Sometimes, true love means knowing when it’s best to let go.
Rather than focusing on the hurt, channel your energy into a sense of control by concentrating on how to find the best adoptive home.
Do you have friends or family members who might be able to take your bird? Are you a member of a bird owners’ group or internet forum where others might be able to assist with referrals? Does someone in your veterinarian’s office or at your regular pet shop have any leads? If you have no choice other than using an ad, set up a rigorous screening process and ask for an adoption fee. The fee shouldn’t be so high that a person could buy a baby from a breeder for the same price. It just has to be high enough to screen out those who might be able to afford a cheap bird but not its long-term care.
If a potential adopter is reluctant to cooperate with the screening or if they balk at the fee, take that as a red flag. You’re re-homing your bird to get it into a better circumstance, so you have a right to make sure that’s going to happen. If someone isn’t willing to prove that they can provide for your bird, don’t let them take it.
Follow your gut instinct. Sometimes a person will give you a bad vibe for no discernible reason. If this happens and you’re not comfortable letting them adopt your bird, don’t be afraid to tell them no. You don’t owe them an explanation; your responsibility is to place your bird in the best home possible, not to avoid offending a stranger.
If you’ve abruptly lost your job, with no savings to count on, or if you’re being evicted, you might need to relocate your bird immediately. In this case, a local bird rescue group or animal shelter that re-homes avians might be your best option.
Be cautious about trying to set up an arrangement in which someone agrees to take your bird temporarily and return it to you when your circumstances improve. When you’re ready to reclaim your feathered friend, you might discover that the caretaker has grown too attached, and he or she might refuse to return your bird. Be sure to spell out the terms in writing and have both parties sign the contract. This gives you objective proof of the agreement when emotions threaten to get in the way. It also gives you some concrete proof if you end up pursuing the matter legally.
Because you can never predict when a personal financial crisis might happen or when the economy might tank, take some precautions when things are going smoothly. This gives you a cushion to fall back on if an unexpected budget crunch strikes. Steps might include pre-paying a wellness plan if your veterinarian offers that option, contributing regularly to a special earmarked savings account, or applying for a charge card that is only used in emergencies.
Also, keep the size of your avian family at a sustainable level. When times are good, you might think that if one bird livens up your household, two (or more) will surely be even better. Having a flock might multiply your enjoyment, but it also boosts your expenses accordingly. Before adding a new bird to your family, consider its financial impact both now and in potentially rocky times.
By keeping your flock at a reasonable size, planning ahead to ensure that you'll have something to fall back on in a crisis, and knowing where cutbacks can be made if necessary, you’ll be prepared to weather a financial storm and protect the well-being of your birds.
5 Ways To Save
Taking proper care of your pet in tough times might mean some personal sacrifices. That’s part of the responsibility of bringing feathered family members into the fold.
Cut out your morning coffee run. Make a lunch to bring to work instead of buying it.
Drop the premium cable channels or get a cheaper cell phone plan.
Switch from name brands to generic products.
Join a carpool or try mass transit to get to work. Carpooling or taking the bus/rail to work even one day a week can make a difference in your pocket book.
Rent movies instead of going to the cineplex.
When a financial crisis strikes, you might discover that things you thought were necessities can be expendable for the sake of your pet birds.