I’m going to share something I’m currently going through. This is difficult to talk about, and it may also be difficult to read. As you read this article, pay attention to your emotional responses. This story is long (OMG, SO long, much longer than our typical blog articles) and sad, but – I hope – helpful. Take breaks as needed. Go outside. Touch grass. Love on your pets. Take care of yourself.
In 2008, I got a 17-year-old Eclectus parrot from a bad situation. I can’t speak to the details for legal reasons, but he was in rough shape. He has permanent follicular damage from the self-destructive feather behaviors he engaged in due to stress, malnutrition, and poor air quality.
Photo caption: This is how his feathers looked on the day I picked him up and this is still how they look now.
Photo caption: His feathers look like he’s in dire need of sunlight and a bath, don’t they? And yet, they grow in this way, he has daily access to unfiltered sunlight, a bird bath in the bird room which he uses regularly, and he takes periodic showers with me. This is another example of the permanent damage to his feather follicles.
I was delighted and also really surprised when our avian vet gave him a clean bill of health and said that he tested negative for any avian diseases. But I anticipated we’d have other challenges as well, beyond just physical health.
I was warned to be careful because he was “vicious”, but my experience with him was anything but. From the moment I brought him home, he was bright, curious, and very gentle. He started speaking to me and mimicking the things I said within just a few hours of arriving at my house. By that first evening, he chose to come out of his cage, come over to me, step up onto my arm, and then slowly and gently reached up, pressed his beak against my lips, and made a kissing sound. My heart absolutely melted: whatever else may have happened in his previous home, his previous pet parents had clearly made efforts to bond with him. Teaching a bird to give beaky kisses isn’t typically something that someone would do if they didn’t care about the bird.
From that moment on, Bayu (pronounced exactly like “bayou”) and I were fast friends. The only issue I ever encountered is that he would sometimes get resource guardy–which is understandable given how few resources he’d had for the first 17 years of his life. We easily navigated this issue by teaching him to station away from whatever foraging area or toy I needed to clean and refill, and that was all we needed for it to become a non-issue.
A couple of years ago, I thought he might be losing his hearing because he’d be busy doing something and I would approach as I always have, and he’d suddenly act startled, growl, and lunge at me. But then as soon as he saw it was me, he’d go back to being my good buddy again. I spoke with some colleagues about it, learned that birds can’t go deaf, and just figured that he was just In The Zone and I was worrying over nothing.
Fast forward to late last year, when he started contact calling more often. He makes a very specific noise when he wants me to come to him. Historically, this noise has never been excessive, and was always used with intention, as a way to express specific needs.
But a few months ago, he started contact calling during times of day that weren’t typical. Our routine for the past several years has been that I go into the bird room in the mornings to do our morning care routine, the birds get attention in whatever way they ask for it (do they want snuggles? Beaky kisses? Singing and dancing? Playing games? They tell me, and then we do the thing). After that, they spend the rest of the day entertaining themselves, puttering about the bird room doing bird things, chattering, or napping.
At first, I didn’t think anything of it. We’re in a new house, with new wildlife outside, and a new layout of a new bird room. When the environment changes, behavior often changes to follow suit.
However, over the months the contact calling got louder, more persistent, and for longer periods of time. He no longer seemed to be using it as a way to ask for things from me; I’d go into the bird room and he would ignore me or just look at me and then look away.
It got to the point of disrupting my job and my partner’s job. My partner was so stressed out about it that he was getting headaches from clenching his teeth. I was stressed out about it because my partner was stressed out–but also because I am a behavior consultant who teaches people about enrichment and meeting needs, and I had no idea how to meet this bird’s needs. Nothing I did was effective. The contact calling was now happening for hours on end, basically all day. My partner and I started yelling. It put a strain on our relationship.
Asking For Help
I confided in my business partners, particularly Ellen, since she’s also a bird person. I needed to be told something I already know well, and tell my clients and students all the time: we should rule our Separation Related Problem Behaviors (from here on out, SRPB).
I built a little bird zone in my office, and started coordinating with my partner to rotate the dogs out of my office around lunchtime – which is when Bayu usually started contact calling – so I could bring Bayu into my office. And who knew! That was it! That was the thing! As long as Bayu and I were in the office together, he wouldn’t contact call. He didn’t necessarily have to be on me, but we had to both be in the room. If I left the room, he’d start contact calling again.
So ok, I thought, he’s 32 years old, which is past the average lifespan for Eclectus parrots, and he’s suddenly developed an anxiety disorder for the first time in his life. Now I know what to do.
I started saving up money to schedule a session with a Veterinary Behaviorist I’ve known and worked with on avian cases for over a decade now so we could discuss meds, diagnostics, and a treatment plan, and I started following an SRPB protocol.
But the thing about having Bayu in my office with me for several hours every day is that I started seeing other concerning behavioral changes that I hadn’t been able to see when he was living full-time in the bird room.
First of all, I’d watch him forage on the bird zone I had created. His foraging options were nothing new or fancy:
- Cardboard boxes stuffed with paper balls, some of which had food in them, some of which didn’t
- Paper egg cartons with food in the egg wells, stacked on top of each other
- Fresh fruit, veggies, and cooked seeds and grains mixed together and stuffed inside folded paper cups
- Nuts and seeds in shell tied in clusters of shredded palm leaves
These are my preferred foraging options because they’re quick and easy to set up, provide opportunities for birds to perform species-typical behaviors, and provide opportunities for challenge and effort no matter how familiar birds are with the process.
But I watched as Bayu sometimes had no idea how to use one of these foraging opportunities. He’d stare at an object, flip it around, tentatively nibble at it, stare at it again, then get frustrated, growl, and throw it on the ground. Later, he’d come back to it and easily engage with the toy as he always had, without any difficulty.
He also seems to have forgotten things that he has known for as long as I’ve had him. He’s always loved his crate, because I did a lot of crate training with him when I first got him and have maintained his relationship to that space. Now, he acts like he’s never seen it, and he acts afraid of it. Bayu has also historically been a fan of musicals and cartoons, and had his favorite songs that he would enthusiastically sing along to; now, he’s forgotten most or all of each of those songs.
But worst of all, he had periods of seeming to not recognize me. This happened most often when he would be napping on my arm.
Photo caption: Bayu’s favorite place to hang out for his afternoon naps
He’d wake up and seem disoriented, suddenly squawking and stepping back off my arm. Sometimes he’d growl, lunge, and bite me–which, again, had never been a feature of our relationship prior to this. Afterwards, he’d give me the wary side-eye that he gives to strangers, walking around me and watching me intently, first out of one eye, then out of the other. Eventually, he’d tentatively say “step up?”, and I’d say, “Yes, Bayu, you can step up!” He’d slowly step back up on my arm, give me another wary look, and then slowly reach up for a beaky kiss.
Other times, he’d be fully awake on my arm, hanging out with me, and suddenly he’d look at me, his eyes would get wide, he’d stand up tall with his feathers pressed tightly against his body and his tail flared – all signs of distress – then he’d lean and look away from me and… start contact calling for me. I’d speak to him the way I always do, but it’d make no difference.
He’d also sometimes bite me when I’d approach his bird zone. Although he did have a history of guarding his spaces, it never looked like “bite first, ask questions later”. He’d always lower his head, his top eyelid would get flat which gave him an “I will cut you” expression, then he’d growl and strike at the ground in front of him. Biting was not a part of that repertoire. Now, he’d approach me with his typical affiliative body language, reach for my arm as he usually did for stability, and then at the last second, too fast for me to react, he’d get wide-eyed and bite the ever-loving crap out of my arm. After the third time it happened, I implemented a rule that I no longer approach Bayu; if he wants to step up, he has to approach me.
To allow him to keep napping on me when he wanted to while preventing him from biting me in those unpredictable moments, I started putting a bunched up blanket over my arm and against my chest. He likes chewing on fabrics, so this was the best protective contact strategy I could come up with because he likes the blanket – and in fact often chews on it until he falls asleep with the blanket in his beak – but if he had a moment where he didn’t recognize me and lashed out, he’d bite the blanket instead of me.
Photo caption: Bayu settling down for a nap with his blankie in his beak
But I realized it was time to reach out to friends and colleagues again for advice. I was shocked at how much my feelings were hurt. Everything I know about behavior and veterinary medicine wasn’t enough to protect me from feeling offended that this bird who had been a sweet, reliable, funny companion for 15 years was suddenly biting the crap out of me. And I felt embarrassed that, as a behavior professional who has generally been good enough at reading body language and giving animals control over their outcomes that I just never get bitten, I was now getting bitten by my own bird on a regular basis. What kind of a hack am I? Do I have any business writing behavior books? Mentoring other behavior professionals? Hosting a podcast? Teaching courses and webinars? Should I just quit?
I put out an SOS to friends, colleagues, and mentors, including one of my mentors who is an avian vet and whom I’ve known since the 90s. He’s no longer seeing clients and we live several states apart, but I knew he could give me guidance. I needed objective, knowledgeable third-party perspectives from people I trusted on this case. I needed someone to tell me stuff I already know but needed to be reminded of, and perhaps things I don’t already know as well.
The conversations all went something like this:
Me: Y’all… am I losing my marbles or does this look a whole lot like dementia?
Them: Could it be a vision issue?
Me: I don’t think so? He has no trouble navigating his environment, can still fly and land adeptly, and can preferentially select tiny bits of favorite foods from among tiny bits of less desirable foods.
Them: Could it be a physical health issue?
Me: Possibly, but he has no clinical symptoms whatsoever. His feather quality, while never great, hasn’t deteriorated. He still falls within the same 20-gram weight range he’s always been in. He is still an eager and enthusiastic eater and drinker. His poops could be used as the gold standard of what parrot poop should look like. His eyes, ears, nares (nostrils), choana (inside of the mouth), and cloaca (his bum) are all clean and clear. His respiration is clear and within normal limits. He is still fast, agile, and athletic–climbing, flying, somersaulting down his climbing net, sliding down the legs of his bird stand, making *ahem* “girlfriends” out of newspaper that he balls up and then does romantic things with, playing soccer with his foot toys, bouncing on his boing perch, swinging on his swing… he’s an active little dude who keeps himself as busy as always. He just seems… to forget things… and me… sometimes.
Them: Environmental changes?
Me: [explains the changes in his environment since we moved to Seattle, how he responded in our first year here, and what’s been different lately]
Them: That does sound a lot like dementia in humans. It sounds a lot like [their own personal experiences with friends, family members, or mammalian pets].
My avian vet mentor: We simply don’t know if birds can get dementia. But that doesn’t mean they can’t.
So I did what I do, and looked for any research on the subject. There is one paper that says that birds don’t have the variant of the GSK gene that has been associated with dementia in humans. But, like, that doesn’t mean much. Thanks to convergent evolution, birds have a lot of analogous systems to mammals, including humans, that just look very different in birds. For example, for a long time humans just assumed that birds didn’t have the executive functioning processes that humans have because they don’t have a prefrontal cortex like we do… until we found out that, yeah, they actually do have a lobe in their brain that functions like our prefrontal cortex does, it’s just in a different part of their brain. So hey, maybe it’s dementia, maybe it isn’t. We don’t get to know the answer to that yet.
The thing is, the second most likely explanation is cancer, and cancer can be sneaky. It can be hard to find and can have no clinical symptoms except weird, seemingly unrelated behavior changes. So it could be cancer, too.
I asked my avian vet mentor, and actually almost everyone I’ve spoken to about this, “Am I a bad person for not wanting to spend thousands upon thousands of dollars to put a geriatric bird through multiple trips to the vet – especially since he’s now afraid of his crate – to get diagnoses that either don’t have viable treatments or really, really invasive, expensive, and prolonged treatments that may or may not have a reasonable prognosis anyway? I talk with clients about assessing the benefits and drawbacks in scenarios like these and about assessing quality of life all the time, but now that I’m in this situation myself I can’t help but feeling like the entire animal welfare world will judge me if I don’t throw myself into massive debt to do whatever it takes to keep my bird alive as long as possible.”
Their overwhelming response was, “Or maybe you could model what it looks like to make an informed decision that prioritizes the animal’s actual experience over a decision that wouldn’t actually be best for either of you but assuages your guilt and fear of being judged.”
Now listen here, Internet: before you get up in arms and start yelling at me for encouraging people to not take their probably-sick animal to the vet, I am definitely not saying that. There are times when taking your animal to the vet is what’s actually in their best interest. I would argue that’s the case the overwhelming majority of the time. But I have spent over half of my life in the veterinary world, most of that time as a veterinary technician. I have taught courses on avian care to vet tech schools. And I have been making these decisions with the guidance of a trusted avian veterinarian, who knows me and my bird very, very well and used to be his vet. We are basing our decisions off of prolonged, careful observation of this bird and in the context of having discussed, at length, the pros and cons of every option.
So we had made the decision to prioritize Bayu’s mental health and comfort over longevity. I still had a plan to set up that appointment with the Veterinary Behaviorist I mentioned earlier so we could at least alleviate Bayu’s anxiety. But first, my partner and I had to go out of town for a few days.
We have an excellent, trusted pet sitter who knows our pets well. I told her about our situation and told her that if things got bad with Bayu, she could let me know and I would come home to take care of him.
She reported that he was fine. Mostly silent.
I started second-guessing everything that had happened over the past few years. Was I making it up in my head? Had I been unintentionally reinforcing these behaviors and then pathologizing them? OH MY GOD, I AM A HACK!
But when we got home, Bayu was silent. Completely silent.
I half expected to go into the bird room to find him dead. But there he was, rummaging around in a foraging station, as per usual. But he acted like he didn’t know me at all. He gave me that same, wary look that he gives strangers and that he’d been giving me for short periods of time for the past several months. I spoke to him, asked him to come to me, to step up, offered him some of his favorite treats. Still nothing.
I thought maybe he just needed a couple of days to get back into the routine. As I’m writing this it has been three weeks, and he still hasn’t made a single, solitary sound–and he still acts like he doesn’t recognize me at all.
The silence is unsettling. I spend a lot of time just sitting in the bird room, watching my birds. Cah’ya, my other Eclectus parrot, usually runs up and wants snuggles, so I’ll sit there snuggling her and watching Bayu go about his business. He’s still active and athletic. He’s still the picture of physical health. He’s still playful and keeps himself busy, and then takes his afternoon naps as always. But I am a stranger to him. He acts like he has no idea who I am. He doesn’t talk to me. He doesn’t sing with me. If I trip or drop something, he doesn’t say, “Uh oh! Watch out! Are you ok?” like he always used to. He doesn’t approach me. He growls and lunges if I try to approach him. The closest I’ve been able to get is about three feet away. No more beaky kisses. He won’t even take food from the long spoon I use to give him treats when he’s perched too high for me to reach with just my hand alone. He just… wants nothing to do with me.
I noticed that he struggles to remember how to use his foraging toys more often these days, so I started making sure that there was an abundance of food that is easy to get to and requires no work, so that if he can’t figure something out, he still has access to as much food as he wants or needs.
Other than his periodic frustration with his toys, though, and the fact that we are now strangers, he doesn’t show any signs of anxiety anymore – which, by the way, is another behavior change that is consistent with progressing dementia – and he has never shown any sign of pain or discomfort. Birds are notoriously good at hiding illness and injuries, because an injured prey animal in the wild might as well have a flashing neon sign pointing at them that says, “EASY PREY”. But those birds also often become less active, less playful, and usually lose weight. None of that describes Bayu.
So for now, I’m just observing him. Taking care of him. Making sure he continues to have access to the things that bring him joy and keep him busy and playful. I’m not sure what the rest of our journey is going to look like. Circumstances may change, and a vet visit may be in our future.
But for now, I’m prioritizing his experience over my feelings about his experience.
Over what the Internet might say about me.
Over the need to make myself feel like I”m Doing Everything I Can.
Over my ego, my guilt, my fear.
Over my grief of a lost friendship.
I’m accepting that I may never know if this is dementia.
I’m accepting that I don’t know how much time we have left.
I’m accepting that the only thing that matters right now is his experience, and while I can’t ask him how he feels and I can’t read his mind, I can watch his behavior, and his behavior can give me a clue as to what his inner life looks like.
And right now, all indicators point to him living his best life.
And that is enough.
- If you are going through something similar with your pet, check out the following resources to help you navigate this difficult process (most of these are focused on dogs, but there’s widespread applicability to other species):
- If you are a behavior professional who is going through something similar and it is making you feel like an impostor, you are not alone. Reach out to trusted friends, colleagues, and mentors to get support and advice. You cannot be your own behavior consultant. No one can.
- If you have a pet with similar issues and you need help troubleshooting a management strategy or improving the quality of life for your pet and/or your family, we are here to help. You can schedule an appointment with us here.