Saturday, March 20, 2010

Psychiatry Is For The Birds (Or: Prozac For Polly)

Don't ask me how I stumbled across this story, but I thought it was fun enough to put up on the blog. It's a study done by a parrot rescue organization in Minnesota that describes a kind of trauma recovery program for birds, using human development models. See the full article: "Avian Affective Dysregulation: Psychiatric Models and Treatment for Parrots in Captivity".

The group has a clinical psychologist and trained volunteer caregiver "therapists" while the parrots are known as "clients" (not "patients"). The five cockatoos described in this study are even given pseudonyms to protect their anonymity. The team develops individualized treatment plans for each bird that are supposed to help them recover from traumatic rearing through gradual exposure and de-sensitization.

In this paper the researchers classify the birds according to one of four attachment styles: secure, insecure-avoidant, insecure-ambivalent and disorganized-disoriented. Each attachment style is thought to be the result of certain early and juvenile caregiver experiences. Birds exposed to frequent changes of caregivers, or caregivers who were abusive or unpredictable, developed insecure or unstable attachments to other birds and to human caregivers. These birds had a number of bird "symptoms" or behavior problems such as withdrawal, lack of affect ( can they tell if a bird has a flat affect?), attacking or biting behavior or a "flat crest" (I think that's the bird equivalent of a dog with it's tail between it's legs).

The paper really doesn't go into detail about how the birds were treated except to say they were given opportunities to "exercise autonomy, agency, and social and physical competence". They were also gradually reintroduced (or introduced for the first time) to other birds. The cockatoo which came from a stable, secure and consistent human family was surprised by the other birds (since he had never been around them before), but he adapted quickly to the flock and didn't show any maladaptive behaviors. The bird from the violent and substance abusing family had unpredictable and sometimes violent reactions to other birds. One bird was given a "social facilitator"---another bird who supposedly modeled appropriate bird behavior and taught him how to adapt to the flock---his own emotional support animal.

They also tried giving the most unstable cockatoos psychiatric medication such amitriptyline, clomipramine and Prozac, but the results were inconsistent. (And yes, they even figured out a way to give informed consent.)

I thought people might enjoy reading about "transpecies psychiatry". You might find it interesting to read about elephant PTSD as well as EMDR therapy for traumatized horses.