Just Ask the Expert: What to do about a biting bird

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Just Ask the Expert: What to do about a biting bird

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Aug 26, 2009
Dr. Tynes welcomes behavior questions from veterinarians and technicians.

To ask your question, e-mail: vm@advanstar.com
With the subject line: Behavior Questions

Q: A client told me that when he holds his pet bird in his hand and it bites, he corrects the bird by flinging it off his hand and onto the floor. What should I advise this client as far as this method of correcting the bird?

A: While this method may be commonly used to deal with a bird's biting behavior, it has several potential pitfalls. What the owner is attempting to do, whether he is aware of it or not, is to punish the bird for biting. By definition, punishment is a stimulus that, when delivered appropriately, decreases the chance a behavior will recur. Appropriate use of punishment (appropriate in this instance meaning there is a good chance of success) requires that the punishing stimulus be delivered within a second of the behavior you wish to decrease and every time the behavior occurs and be strong enough to be effective without causing fear or harm to the animal.1

Since most people can't meet these requirements, in this case it's likely the bird has learned to fear being held. Thus the owner may be inadvertently increasing the chance the bird will bite when held. In fact, punishment has been shown to be associated with four detrimental side effects2:

  • Increased aggression
  • Generalized fear
  • Apathy
  • Escape-avoidance behaviors

In this case, the owner is fortunate he has not caused physical harm to the bird as well.

Another potential pitfall of punishment is that the owner is failing to teach the bird what to do, which is easily done by using positive reinforcement—a stimulus that increases the chance a behavior will recur. Teaching the bird what to do instead of punishing it for what you don't want it to do is usually the safer and more effective solution. More sadly, punishment can damage the human-animal bond and lead to a pet that is fearful and anxious around its owner.

Remember, "If the behavior didn't matter to the animal it wouldn't keep doing it."3 Approach all problem behaviors by trying to understand how the behavior is reinforcing to the animal. If a pet's underlying motivation can be found, the owner can look for a more appropriate behavior the animal can learn to do in place of the inappropriate behavior. For example, if this bird bites only when the owner walks by a certain place in the home, such as a window or door, or when the owner raises his voice and talks in an excited manner with someone, then the bird may be biting out of fear. When the owner then throws the bird to the floor, the bird has succeeded in escaping the scary stimulus. So the bird has learned that biting is an effective means of escape, and its behavior has actually been reinforced instead of punished. Determine why an animal does something and how that behavior may be being reinforced, and then identify an appropriate behavior the owner can reinforce.

Continuing with this example, where fear is the root of the problem, the owner should consider using a wooden perch and teaching the bird an "up" and "off" command for stepping up onto and down off the perch. These behaviors should be rewarded with tiny tasty treats, such as small pieces sunflower seeds or pieces of fruit. The perch can then be used to retrieve the bird from the cage, to move the bird from place to place in the home, and to return the bird to its cage. If the bird becomes alarmed, it cannot bite the owner—and a problem behavior will not be reinforced by flinging the bird onto the floor and allowing escape. Eventually, the biting behavior will be extinguished. However, it is critical that the owner observe the bird and learn to recognize the signs of fear and the stimuli that cause it. A program of desensitization and counterconditioning could then be used to decrease the bird's fear of these particular stimuli.

Once an animal learns that one behavior is regularly followed by a positive reinforcement, it will usually choose that behavior more than the behavior that is not being reinforced. Reinforcing appropriate behaviors should always be tried first. Punishment should never be the first choice and can only be recommended after all other safer, more humane methods have been tried. If punishment is to be used, it must be used carefully, according to the rules described above and abandoned when it does not appear to be working, as in the case described here.

Obviously, understanding how animals learn and how to safely change behavior can be a complicated subject. If you feel unprepared to manage a particular behavior problem, refer the case to a veterinary behaviorist (dacvb.org) or other qualified behaviorist.

1. Schwartz B, Wasserman EA, Robbins SJ. Operant conditioning: Basic phenomena. In: Psychology of learning and behavior. 5th ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001;132-164.
2. Azrin NH, Holz WC. Punishment. In: Honig WK, ed. Operant behavior: Areas of research and application. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts,1966.
3. Friedman SG, Haug L. From parrots to pigs to pythons: Universal principles and procedures of learning. In: Tynes VV, ed. The Behavior of Exotic Pets. Blackwell Publishing, in press.

Valarie V. Tynes, DVM, DACVB
Premier Veterinary Behavior Consulting
P.O. Box 1040
Fort Worth, TX 76101

The intent of Just Ask the Expert is to address non-urgent medical questions and to share this information through the Web site with other practitioners. The recommendations are for informational purposes only. It is each clinician’s responsibility to carefully weigh these recommendations and determine the right course of action for each patient. Please verify any drug dosages discussed. Questions may be edited for style and length.