Margaret A. Wissman, DVM
If your bird is starting to look ragged, or not grooming, that could be a sign she's stressed out.
Stress! I think we all know what that word means, as we live in a world filled with all sorts of things that cause us stress. Stress is defined as a physical, chemical or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension and may be a factor in disease causation. Stress is also defined as a state of bodily or mental tension resulting from factors that tend to alter an existent equilibrium.
Well, we may have a clinical definition, but that doesn’t really explain things. What really is stress? What would be considered stress as perceived by a bird? Why does stress often lead to disease?
The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is an automatic system that controls the heart, lungs, stomach, blood vessels and glands. Because of its actions, we do not need to consciously think about our breathing, digestion or heart beating. There are two systems within the ANS, the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system essentially conserves energy levels and increases bodily secretions, such as tears, stomach acids, mucus and saliva. Conversely, the sympathetic nervous system prepares the body for action.
When a body is subjected to a stressor, the sympathetic nervous system kicks into action. The stress response is helpful and necessary when dealing with a short-lived stressor.
You may have heard of the term "fight or flight response.” When an animal is startled or frightened or is injured, the body releases some hormones, including epinephrine, norepinephrine and steroids, which immediately prepare the body to stand and fight or to run away. The stress response includes activity of the adrenal, pituitary and thyroid glands.
The hormones released in a stressful situation prepare the body to fight or run by providing the muscles and other tissues with sugar and fat, they increase the strength of skeletal muscles, increase the heart rate, reduce intestinal activity and digestion, inhibit tears and digestive secretions, dilate the pupils, dilate bronchial passages in the lungs, increase sweating (birds, dogs and cats don’t sweat, however), increase mental activity and alertness and constrict many blood vessels, except for the ones in the heart, leg and arm muscles, where it dilates those to provide more blood flow and oxygen. After the stress situation is over, the parasympathetic nervous system helps to restore the body to a state of equilibrium (balance).
Birds might not lie on their backs to relax like this Meyer's parrot, but relaxation time is important to your pet bird.
Now we know what is supposed to happen when a body is exposed to an immediate stressor. The hormones are released, the body reacts and then the episode should be over. The problems arise when a stressor doesn’t go away, or isn’t perceived as going away. Or if the animal views, hears or feels something that it perceives as a stressor, it will live in a continual state of sympathetic nervous system activation, along with all the "fight or flight” hormones continually being released into its system. Short-term, these hormones do their job, but if they are constantly being dumped into the bloodstream, they can wreak havoc with the immune system, cause high blood pressure, headaches, tiredness, muscle weakness, digestive difficulties (especially diarrhea), dizziness and sleep disturbances.
Compulsive behavior (feather picking, mutilation)
Not preening or grooming properly.
People under emotional stress tend to crave sweeter, high-fat and more calorie–dense foods. Without an increase in physical activity, these individuals, including birds, tend to gain weight. Birds under stress might show aggression, irritability, restlessness, phobias, compulsive behavior (feather picking, mutilation, chewing toenails), decreased reproduction and unkempt appearance (not preening or grooming properly).
If the perceived stress is not removed, the body won’t have a chance to recover and go back to normal again. The effects of the stress hormones tend to accumulate and build up over time. Over a long period of time, the thyroid glands may begin to not function properly.
The steroids, produced and secreted by the adrenal glands, are known to cause suppression of the immune system, which can be very dangerous in birds. Eventually, the adrenal glands may no longer be able to sustain the continued release of the steroids, resulting in adrenal fatigue, causing a myriad of clinical signs because the body can no longer effectively deal with the perceived stress.
One known antifungal medication, ketoconazole, has been shown to block the normal functioning of the adrenal glands hormones. It has been my personal experience that this antifungal treatment should not be given to birds that have been ill and, therefore, have undergone stress for a prolonged period of time, as if the adrenal glands are already functioning marginally, then this medication may actually precipitate an adrenal crisis.
Can stress cause a bird to pluck feathers or mutilate flesh? Absolutely. Can stress cause a bird to hurl itself to the bottom of the cage, possibly breaking blood feathers, or worse? Absolutely. Or the impact may be much more subtle resulting in compromise to the immune system.
It may not always be possible to identify and remove all of the stressors from a bird’s life, but it is important to try to maintain a bird in as natural and stress-free of an environment as possible. If you notice that a bird freaks out when it sees a certain object or item, it should be possible to remove that from its line of sight. It is important to be diligent in attempting to identify anything that potentially will cause undue stress in a bird, but in some cases, this will be unavoidable. Of course, a bird will be stressed by a visit to its avian veterinarian, and the restraint involved with grooming is also stressful, but necessary. Most birds will bounce back after being restrained or examined by an avian vet, but it has been suffering from chronic stress, any of these procedures may precipitate a crisis, especially if the bird is suffering from any sub-clinical illness.
Realistically, we cannot remove all potential stressors from our birds’ lives, in the same way that we cannot remove them from our own lives. But, minimizing stress, getting enough sleep, eating a balanced diet, getting adequate exercise, having regular check-ups and avoiding toxins are good advice for all of us: our birds and their stewards, ourselves.
Make sure your pet bird gets enough sleep.
Feed your bird healthy foods.
Make sure your bird gets adequate exercise
Take your pet bird to the avian veterinarian for her routine checkups.
Remove possible toxins (e.g., lead, zinc) from the household.
Remove possible stressors (e.g., if your bird is terrified of that picture you have on the wall, take it down!)
Want to help your bird relax? Check out these articles:
Steps To De-Stress Your Bird
Stress-Free Travel Tips For Traveling Birds