ASSESSING ANIMAL WELFARE
Given that animals can't tell us exactly what they want or need (in most cases), many people find the question of how to assess their pet's well-being confusing. The Five Domains model was developed in 1994 as a way for people to determine how physical and functional factors that affect an animal’s welfare influence the overall mental state of the animal. The domains in question are Nutrition, Environment, Health, Behavioral Interaction, and Mental State. Each of the physical factors contributes to the animal's overall mental state. This is often very obvious with parrots, as an unhappy parrot is a destructive parrot!
It's important to note that the Five Domains model makes it clear that merely minimizing or resolving negative physical or mental states does not necessarily result in positive welfare. To have a life worth living, animals must have the opportunity to have positive experiences such as anticipation, satisfaction, and satiation. With this in mind, those responsible for the care of animals need to provide environments that encourage animals to express behaviors that are rewarding. In the case of parrots, this can mean: a varied diet that meets both nutritional and behavioral needs, safe toys that keep their minds engaged, safe space and time for exercise, appropriate social interactions with humans and other birds, and more.
If you are considering adopting a parrot, using the Five Domains model to evaluate its current environment can help you ascertain whether the bird you are interested in is healthy and well-adjusted. If you have encountered a parrot and have concerns about the home, rescue, or shop in which they reside, this model may help you determine whether or not there are issues present which need to be addressed.
Of course the basis for good nutrition is an adequate amount of water and food that meets the parrot's daily requirements for proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals. There are specially formulated pellets and liquids designed to meet those requirements that certainly should form the basis of a healthy parrot's diet. However, a diet strictly composed of pellets may meet all of a parrot's nutritional needs without actively promoting a positive mental state. Parrots should also be offered a variety of fruits, vegetables, grains, herbs, and seeds with some effort made to discover which ones they actively enjoy. Serving fresh food also provides opportunities for the parrot to work out how best to manipulate the various items, a valuable source of enrichment.
Parrots are a diverse group of birds that range widely in size and habits, but they have many environmental needs in common. The parrot must be protected from drafts, fumes, extremes of heat and cold, and excessive stimulation. Minimizing or eliminating chemical exposure is also important, as birds have much more sensitive lungs than humans.
A cage to protect the parrot and contain their food, water, and toys is a must. The cage should be at least large enough for the parrot to extend and flap its wings, but ideally there should be plenty of space for the parrot to move around from perch to perch. Food and water dishes should be easily accessible, and a grated bottom with a removable tray to make it easier to keep the cage cleared of both spilled food and droppings.
Finally, a parrot's environment must contain sources of enrichment. These very clever birds have active minds and do not tolerate boredom. Parrots should have access to several types of toys at any given time. There are a wide variety of options available: Toys that encourage natural foraging behaviors, edible toys, toys that can be dismantled to satisfy parrot curiosity, and puzzle toys just to name a few.
As mentioned above, one of the first considerations for keeping a healthy parrot is clean air. Fumes, chemicals, and extremes of temperature can all make a pet bird very ill. Keeping a clean cage and preventing unintentional contamination of food and water sources is also very important. Additionally, the bars of a parrot's cage should be appropriately spaced for the bird's size: neither so far apart that the parrot can squeeze between them to escape nor so close that a leg or foot might get stuck.
Watching for signs of potential illness can be tricky with any pet bird. As prey animals, their natural instinct is to hide any sign of weakness to avoid the notice of predators. A conscientious parrot keeper routinely checks for these subtle signs, such as lethargy, changes to appetite, or changes in droppings. Early detection is key in treating the illnesses which can be treated or instituting a quarantine to prevent spreading the infection to others.
For more information on recognizing some of the more common illnesses that affect parrots, please see our article on Diseases and Prevention.
Behavioral interaction refers both to interactions with humans and other animals as well as engaging in natural behaviors that might be seen in the wild. Providing an acceptable environment--meaning a cage large enough for the parrot to move around and stretch its wings, adequate food and water, and access to a few toys--creates a fairly neutral baseline for this domain. To take that next step toward providing positive welfare, a good parrot caretaker will also be mindful of social interactions. Treating the parrot with empathy and kindness, speaking calmly, and handling the bird gently and respectfully go a long way toward creating positive welfare. Allowing time and space for healthy interactions with other birds, pets, and people is also positive, as bonding and playing with others makes for a more confident, content parrot.
In a similar vein, supervised time outside the cage provides a parrot with more chances to exercise and explore. Time outdoors can also be beneficial as long as the bird is protected from potential predators and wild birds that may carry disease. Indoors, parrots should not only have access to several different toys at once, but they should also be rotated in and out of storage to maintain a sense of novelty. Toys, foods, and perches that make use of a variety of materials and textures also encourage natural behaviors and reward a parrot's natural curiosity.
For more information on how to encourage a parrot to explore and keep their mind engaged, visit our article on Enrichment.
As shown by the diagram at the top of the page, each of the previous four domains interact to affect the final domain: Mental State. A bird who is suffering from issues like poor nutrition, a cramped cage, illness, or isolation will have certainly have a depressed mental state. An unhappy parrot may exhibit signs such as feather picking, self-mutilation, screaming, loss of appetite, timidity, or sudden aggression. Conversely, a parrot who has been provided with healthy food, ample space and exercise, a clean environment, and plenty of interesting toys and social interactions will show signs of confidence, curiosity, and contentment, seeking out new experiences and interactions. The parrot may sing, whistle, or chatter, flip its tail feathers, or grind its beak side to side to express happiness.
If you are seeking a reputable source to adopt a parrot or need to locate a safe place to surrender one, please consider one of the Rescues we've evaluated for proper Standards of Care.
If you have concerns about the care provided to parrots at a local breeder, rescue, or pet shop but aren't sure how to proceed, please Contact Us for assistance.