Behavior as part of history collection and physical examination (Proceedings)
Most avian practitioners and many owners understand the importance of yearly physical examination for disease prevention and care of the physical health of the bird. More and more significance is now given to the importance of the bird's psychologic health as well. The yearly examination is the ideal opportunity to address behavioral concerns.
According to statistics from the Gabriel Foundation, a nationally recognized parrot rescue organization, birds are frequently relinquished for a variety of reasons. The most commonly relinquished bird is the cockatiel, and the most common reasons cited by owners for abandonment are "note enough time for the bird, and/or "change in priority." Other birds are primarily abandoned for so called "behavioral" reasons, in particular, blue and gold macaws and larger cockatoos.1 When owners relinquish their birds, this often represents a certain degree of disappointment for the owner, a potentially stressful disruption for the bird, and a loss of clientele and income for the avian veterinarian.
According to practice management experts, in the well-run practice, the veterinary technician or assistant assumes the duty of patient intake and the initial gathering of signalment and history. This requires specific training, especially in the area of the behavioral history. Specific behavioral query training, client education handouts, and pre-printed questionnaires can be beneficial. Suggested questions to begin the behavioral history are presented in table 1.Identification of problem behavioral areas is the first step towards resolution. Once a problem area is identified, the behavioral history continues. For example, if the owner indicates the bird screams when she leaves the room, the next logical questions may include: Is this a new behavior? Does it happen every time you leave the room? What do you do when the bird screams after you leave the room? If the response to the last question is that the owner immediately comes back to the room to reassure the bird, the first steps towards identification of a "cause and effect" or positively-reinforced undesired behavior has begun.2,3
The initial behavioral history, follow up history, behavioral diagnosis and formulation of a behavioral "treatment" plan take time, and in some cases requires regular follow up and reinforcement. In many cases, this is impossible to accomplish within the time allotted for a standard avian wellness examination. In some cases of multiple or severe behavioral problems, it is extremely useful to schedule a separate behavioral consult, often with all members of the interacting human family present. This allows the practitioner time to formulate an initial diagnosis based on the behavioral history, and a tentative treatment plan. In many cases, consultation with other family members provides additional insight not provided from the single owner's view. For example, owner A insists the bird "hates" owner B and will bite. Owner B, however, reveals she is able to handle the bird without problem when owner A is not present.
Since many behavioral problems in birds are linked to inappropriate bonding and inadequate socialization, behavioral treatment frequently involved cooperation from all members of the human "flock". Teaching and demonstrating skills that will be used to attempt to resolve the behavioral problem is much easier with participating members all present.
Clients should be sent home with written behavioral "homework" with clearly defined exercises and goals, including instructions for how to regularly report progress. Poor owner compliance is not uncommon, and practitioners should consider a call back system to track owner progress.
It should be noted that the behavioral history should be a part of every avian examination, not just for patients presenting for a first time visit. Many well-established, long-term patients develop undesirable behaviors during the time between veterinary visits. It is important not to rely on the client to address behavioral concerns, as theses are often forgotten during the excitement of the examination process. Many clients also fail to mention behavioral problems because they don't recognize them as such, and suffer in silence, e.g. "Yes, my bird bites me a lot but I thought that was normal for birds."