understanding skin mutilation

Skin chewing, or skin mutilation is a commonly occurring problem amongst the various species of Cockatoo. It can happen with other species of parrot. But it is most often seen as a persistent problem in Cockatoo. Much like feather plucking, the phenomenon is widely misunderstood. Most people, including people with zero parrot experience, have it set in their mind that skin chewing is caused by stress, anxiety and/or depression. So, when a cockatoo mutilates its own skin, the owner will often inundate the bird with antianxiety medications and supplements to no avail. Because these medications do not address the root cause, no improvement is seen.
As we covered in our post about feather plucking; ‘Unraveling the Truth of Feather Plucking‘, feather plucking is not caused by stress, anxiety or depression. The same is true for skin mutilation. Stress, anxiety and depression can exacerbate the tendency to pluck feathers or mutilate skin. So, to most parrot owners, it appears stress, anxiety and depression are causing the tendency. But they are not the initial cause. Making proper diagnosis even more problematic, likely causes for skin chewing vary from one Cockatoo species to the next.
In every case I have heard of, the initial cause of skin mutilation is purely physical. In the case of Moluccan Cockatoo, the most common cause for skin mutilation is an inflamed spinal nerve.
In their natural setting, all cockatoo have a highly demanding, athletic, survival-oriented lifestyle. This gives their bodies a strong muscular core. In a domestic setting, they do not develop such an athletic body. Without strong muscular spinal support, and the slouching that often happens in cages, moluccan cockatoo often suffer from age-related upper spinal compression. This vertebral distortion often irritates and inflames a spinal nerve that emerges from the thorax at the top of the sternum. This is why Moluccan Cockatoo often mutilate skin on their upper keel. An avian specialist aware of this phenomenon will start the bird on gabapentin, which reduces nerve inflammation. If the inflamed nerve assumption is correct, immediate improvement is seen. If that improvement isn’t enough to stop the bird from mutilating skin, The specialist may opt for a rhizotomy to kill the inflamed nerve. But this surgical procedure can be hit-or-miss.
For Umbrella Cockatoo that chew the skin on their keel, an inflamed spinal nerve is also the most likely cause.
But there are a variety of other reasons why any parrot species might mutilate its skin. An Eclectus was brought into our specialist’s office that was mutilating the the skin around where its liver is located. Routine bloodwork revealed that the bird had a diseased liver. One of our Macaw mutilated the skin on the back of its neck. The cause was an infected cluster of feather cysts. One of our Goffin’s Cockatoo had a known hip injury. At one point, that bird mutilated a couple of its toes in response to hip pain.
In essentially every case of skin mutilation one might encounter, the original cause is purely physical. Therefore, one’s response to their parrot chewing its skin must begin with a thorough examination and bloodwork preformed by an avian specialist.
But a question remains; why do we most often experience prolonged and chronic skin mutilation with the various species of Cockatoo? Why are they disproportionately affected?
The answer is found in the stereotypic behaviors of Cockatoo. These behaviors are commonly characterized as the “negative” behaviors that most Cockatoo exhibit; obsessive/compulsive tendencies, elevated fear based aggression, naturally elevated prey anxiety, etc. Cockatoo are pertinacious in their natural habitats. Their obstinate or even obsessive nature serves them well in the wild. Most species of Cockatoo come from very demanding environments that a lackadaisical animal would not survive.
But in a domestic setting, a Cockatoo’s relentless, obsessive tendencies often lead to problems of a chronic, neurotic nature.
For hypothetical example, if a Cockatoo develops a physical issue that causes skin mutilation, and that initial issue is successfully treated, the Cockatoo may still continue to mutilate its skin because the behavior has become habitual. Furthermore, if the undesirable behavior provokes a consistent response from the owner (good or bad), then the Cockatoo has even greater incentive to continue the behavior. The parrot has now trained the owner to respond on command.
This is why I say parrots are so much better at training people then people are at training parrots.
Stopping Cockatoo skin mutilation then becomes twofold; treating the initial physical problem, and defusing the subsequent obsessive behavioral habituation. The longer the initial physical problem progresses, the more ingrained the unwanted behavior becomes.
So, if your parrot begins to chew its skin (especially if it’s a Cockatoo), do not assume it is a response to anxiety or stress. Have your parrot thoroughly examined by an avian specialist to find the physical cause. The sooner you find the initial physical problem, the less ingrained the resulting unwanted behavior will become.

Animal rescue is essential

The introduction of the COVID-19 virus into our society has shifted our perspective on life. We are at a time when we are more focused on securing the resources necessary to keep ourselves and our loved ones healthy, safe and happy. But it is important that we do not loose sight of those that need us. Due to increased layoffs and shutdowns, the number of animals being abandoned has increased. At a time like this, animal rescue becomes even more vital. When an animal is abandoned, its life is essentially over. But animal rescue and sanctuaries give that deserving creature a second chance at life.

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