WARNING: This is a VERY LONG DOCUMENT!
Sammy, March 1998
Sammy, DNA-sexed Male Congo African Grey, hatch date: 5/17/95
Current Owners: Maggie & Russ Buchanan, Las Vegas, NV
Date obtained: March 1998, at the approximate age of 2 yrs, 9 months
Condition at the date of acquisition: Mostly feathers, except for the front of the neck and over the crop area. These areas were bare of feathers, with some pin feathers coming in. Sammy also exhibited fear/dislike/distrust of women.
Basic problem: Extreme food and separation anxieties as a result of going hungry as a neonate; bites & grabs neck feathers; pulls out pin feathers at night; mutilates skin when tail feathers molt.
History: First owner purchased Sammy at 3 months of age from Unique Aviaries (So. Calif.) in August 1995. Sammy was bought without the consent and knowledge of the wife, who did not want a parrot and who did not care for sight and sound of Sammy. The wife was allowed to name Sammy, hoping it would get her involved. Unfortunately, she never learned to care for Sammy, and admits that she covered his cage during the day. She also admits that she threw pillows at his cage while it was covered and that she ate in front of him (which probably contributed to his food anxieties).
Second owners: I have had birds for approximately 22 years. In addition to Sammy, we have the following birds: Popeye, 6.5 yo female CAG who is an intermittent plucker; and Bopper, 7 yo male DYHA. Popeye joined our home at 7 weeks of age (1/95) and Bopper at 7 months (3/95). We do not know all the causes of Popeye's plucking, but she started at 7 months of age and quit when we moved into our new home, which leads us to believe that she had been scared by neighborhood kids and dogs in our former home. She was on haloperidol from the age of 15 months to about 30 months of age. She was off the drug for 1 year, and hadn't plucked for 2 years, but resumed plucking again in June of 1998, right after Sammy came home. She is once again in remission, having stopped plucking in mid 2000.
Health: Sammy had no diagnosed illnesses until 12/97 at which time Sammy was seen for flesh mutilation on one of his legs. Feather/follicle biopsies were done, which indicated a topical infection. Sammy was treated with Baytril, and the area subsequently healed without incident. In April 1998, right after I brought him home, he was diagnosed with a sinus infection from e. coli in the choana. He was treated with garacin and subsequent cultures were clean.
Weaning: Sammy was originally hand fed KayTee handrearing formula. When the first owner brought Sammy home, he was approximately 3 months old and on one feeding per day. Sammy was fully weaned to KayTee Rainbow Exact when he was approximately 8 months old. No unusual incidents occurred during weaning, however Sammy did not want to wean as he was always wanting (begging) to be handfed, and he apparently would eat anything out of a syringe. Sammy was clipped prior to going home with his first owner, and was not allowed to fledge. During weaning, a limited amount of fresh fruits and veggies. Sammy had pellets 24 hours a day.
Housing: Sammy was kept in a small cage until approximately 4 months of age; at that time he was placed in his permanent cage, a 2'x2'x5' California Cage. He had one perch in the middle of the cage, which ran side to side, and 2 perches up at the top of the cage, that ran diagonally from corner to corner, opposite of each other. When I got Sammyin March 1998, he had a whiskbroom, two toys made up of uncolored wood, leather and jute, and one colored rope preen-type toy. It was stated that Sammy never appeared happy in his cage, preferring to be out when either owner was home. It was also stated that Sammy never played much, if at all. Sammy's cage was placed diagonally in a corner, with the sliding glass door about 12 inches from the cage. A doggie door, which was used 24 hours a day by the family dog, was located underneath the cage.
I moved Sammy into a 23"deep x 32" wide x 32" high California Cage (Y540 Cockatoo Cage) with playgym on top. This cage is placed diagonally in a southeast corner, and he has a window he can look out into the backyard. A patio cover provides shade from the sun as well as predators flying by. He has 5 perches at different heights, a ladder, 2 crocks of foot and chew toys, 8 toys, and 3 food bowls plus water bowl in his cage.
Bathing: Sammy came from Southern California which has fairly high humidity; he was taken into the bathroom every morning while the owner showered. On occasion, the owner would fill up the top try of the cage with water, and Sammy would bathe. Since March 1998, Sammy gets daily baths from the spray bottle, and pyrex pan is kept on top his cage for daily pan bathing opportunities. One to two times a week, Sammy will bathe in his pan - he circles it, climbs up on the edge, and jumps in. He is extremely exuberant about bathing.
Socialization: The first owner states that he tried to socialize Sammy in accordance with Sally Blanchard's theories. He also read "My Parrot, My Friend" and tried to implement the concepts included therein. However, he himself did not play much with Sammy, preferring to just hold him while watching TV. Sammy is very well-trained to the UP and DOWN commands. Since March 98, I have played peek-a-boo, tug-of-war, blink, and various other interactive games with Sammy. He learned to play, and played aggressively both in and out of his cage, oftentimes going inside at will to play, until Thanksgiving 1999. He readily accepts new toys and will actually run over to one of the other birds and take their toys away; he is very aggressive towards the other birds, chasing, lunging and biting at them if allowed.
Diet as an adult: Harrisons Pepper Adult Coarse is currently available 24 hours a day. In his previous home, Sammy was fed Kaytee Rainbow Exact 24/7 along with few fruits and veggies. He usually ate breakfast cereal in milk or scrambled eggs for breakfast. From 5pm to the time that his owner came home (anywhere from 6-8pm), Sammy was usually covered in his cage by the wife. Sammy was fed when his male owner got home, usually pizza. When I first got Sammy in March 1998, he ate about 75% pellets. However, I seem to have "ruined" him - he now eats maybe 1% pellets, about 20% fresh fruits & vegetables, frozen vegetables, and beans, pastas, rices, breads, meats, and mixtures thereof. The balance of Sammy’s nutrition is comprised of formula made up of 50% KayTee handfeeding formula and Dr. Harvey's Natural handfeeding formula. mixed with baby food. He takes about 30 ccs in the morning and about 40 ccs at night. He also gorges himself on favorite foods like macaroni or stuffing to the point where he bulges dangerously! It was stated that Sammy would gorge himself and then regurgitate because he ate too much. I have never seen this, but he does regurgitate for me out of "love".
Plucking: When Sammy was about 1 ˝ years old, approximately Christmas of 1996, he began plucking. The original pattern of plucking was the circumference of the neck and down the back. Sammy's first owner does not have any idea as to what may have triggered the plucking. At Christmas of 1997, Sammy was treated for an infection on one of his legs; he had done some flesh mutilation in the area. Over the course of about a year, Sammy's first owner tried St. John's Wort, Valerian Root, Pycnogennol, and Bird Calm, as well as Pamelor and Haloperidol; the Pamelor seemed to work for about a month before losing its efficacy. The full dose of Haloperidol (.05cc) did not stop the behavior.
Diagnosis of food and separation anxieties: Sammy's first owner apparently took Sammy everywhere with him within the home, and outside for walks. He also shared every meal with him; basically, I believe that Sammy with him most of the time he was at home. As a result, it is believed that Sammy developed anxieties such that if he couldn't be with or in sight of his owner, he would become very agitated. Likewise, going hungry as a neonate caused Sammy to learn distrust of his caregiver and his food supply; this distrust lead into anxieties which manifest whenever food is being prepared or eaten in front of Sammy.
Behavior: Sammy engages in what I call the bite and snatch routine: He will bite a foot, snatch at his neck feathers with the foot, then reach down and snatch at his neck feathers with his beak. This results in shredded feathers that break under the continued abuse. He has also pulled out pin feathers in the neck/crop area when having an anxiety attack. While he does this, he will reach up real tall and sometimes weave from side to side; he will also drop his head and do it. Most notably, Sammy does this when people are home and NOT in the room with him. If either my husband or I am gone, Sammy does not as a rule engage in this behavior. He also does the bite and snatch when food is being fixed. Originally, I prevented most of this behavior by putting Sammy in a smaller cage on the kitchen counter to desensitize him; he was then able to stay on his cage while food was being prepared, not doing much of the bite & snatch. However, if we ate in front of him or food/formula is being fixed, he would experience extreme anxiety. We found that if we fed just prior to our preparing food or eating, Sammy's anxiety was significantly reduced. In his previous home, Sammy was also allowed to eat off plates; when we first got him Sammy would jump off his cage and come beg. He is also content to eat in his cage while we eat, but usually gets upset if he doesn't partake of what we are eating. Sammy loves eating from the syringe - if he doesn't get fed, he will do the bite & snatch, and bite and/or pull his feathers out. As a rule, he will not take food from the hand; he started taking food from my hand by late summer 1999 but has since stopped.
Sammy appears to have hated women when we first got him, and was unhandleable by anyone but his first owner. In fact, he would attack - lunge, strike and bite, then say, "F*ck you!" in a woman's voice. His reaction to women leads us to believe that he was teased by a woman. Sammy has chosen my husband for companionship and normally prefers his company in the evening. Sammy will sit with Russ and chew his cud - he will chew and smack until he creates this big runny ball of saliva, presumably a comfort behavior he developed at a very young age as a result of going hungry. According to his previous owner, Sammy always did this chewing thing.
Life with Sammy: For the first 4 months after Sammy came to live with us, he bit me every chance he could. He has never bitten Russ. Since approximately August 1998, Sammy began regurgitating for me; he does this whenever I walk near or clean his cage. He is now quite the little gentleman, allowing me to cuddle him, and learns new words and phrases from both me and Russ. Sammy will occasionally do the bite & snatch when I play him, and this seems to be occur when he gets excited; he doesn't seem to know what to do with himself when he gets that way, so will bite & snatch his neck feathers. The look on his face when he engages in the bite & snatch and the cud chewing is one of "lights on, nobody home." His pupils dilate, and he has anxiety written all over him. He is not very comfortable with cuddling, only allowing it as it suits him; if I push the issue with him, he will do the bite and snatch while sitting on my hand. One of his favorites is to lay on his back in my shirt when I put him to bed at night - he gurgles & coos for me, and seems to really enjoy the cuddling involved in his nitey-nite ritual.
Sammy's previous owner had ceased clipping him, and shortly after he came to live with us, Sammy was fully flighted. He remained that way for almost a year, at which time we gave him a window clip, leaving the 3 leading edge primaries intact. He did not appear to be affected by loss of flight.
My vet and I have discussed the behavior and wonder if, at some point, Sammy threw a fit because he didn't get what he was used to: being with his owner all the time, or being fed when food was being eaten, and that the behavior was reinforced until it became a habit. For the first 3 months we had Sammy, we ignored the bite & snatch. Three times (March, April & May 1998) he either bit out or pulled out his neck feathers, always the day before, the day of, and the day after the last quarter of the moon. I started leaving the blinds open on his window, and he did not remove any feathers during this phase in June. What is so interesting is that he does not have a full-time habit of plucking - weeks and months go by without him losing any feathers, as long as we were proactive and engage in the behaviors that I know will prevent Sammy from doing the bite and snatch. His anxiety about being left alone when both me and my hubby are home has diminished a little. As long as we tell him where we are going and when we will be back, and that he will be OK, Sammy seems to be a little better about being separated from us. Contact calls seem to make things worse for Sammy.
1. Jane Hallander, approximately June 1998. A telephone consultation with Jane, during which time she spoke with all three birds, provided little help.
2. Bonnie Doane, telephone consultation approximately July 1998. Bonnie felt that Sammy had food & separation anxieties caused by underfeeding and hunger as a neonate. As a result of this consultation, I began handfeeding Sammy at night. Initially, no improvement was noted, other than a gradual lessening of overall anxiety.
3. Pamela Clark, in-home consultation, August 1999. At this time, Sammy was fully feathered and fairly stable. Pam reviewed management and environmental issues, and made some minor recommendations, but otherwise felt that Sammy was doing well. This in-home consultation provided great insight for me as Pam was able to see how I handled and interacted with my birds, and she was able to provide some very significant advice and suggestions on how to improve my relationships with all three birds.
Sammy, July 1999
Events which lead up to the skin mutilation in 1999:
The summer of 1999, Sammy’s weight started dropping and he became very, very active, almost hyper. By August his weight had dropped to about 455, down from 490 grams. I took him in for his annual exam in early October, just before the PBR convention, and his tests were all clean so we attributed his weight loss to his increased activity level. After I returned from the PBR convention on 10/10, I began converting Sammy’s formula from Kaytee to a mixture of Harrison’s Adult Lifetime Mash, ground oatmeal, peanut butter, and baby food.
At 2:45 am on October 16, an earthquake hit the Hector Mine outside of Joshua, CA. Sammy fright-molted 10 of his big tail feathers (the remaining 2 were blood feathers) and about half his coverts; the other two birds were scared but not enough to drop their tails. Immediately after the quake, I turned on the lights and let the birds out. It took about 45 minutes to calm them enough to get them to go back in their cages.
Sammy's Tail Feathers
On October 21, Sammy began ripping out down feathers. I didn’t think too much of this, since my female CAG plucks and I’ve been indoctrinated to ignore plucking. However, I did talk to Pam Clark and we decided to manipulate the cage cover to reduce his fears. I did, he was ok for a few days, then he’d rip some more down out, I’d change the cage cover again, and so on & so forth until the week before Thanksgiving.
Sammy without his tail feathers!
On Friday morning, 1 week before Thanksgiving, Sammy’s cage looked like a free-for-all had occurred – there were tons & tons of down everywhere. Again, I shifted the cage cover, but Saturday morning, 11/20, there was even more down in the cage. By late afternoon, Sammy was laying in my lap (this bird NEVER spends time with me) twitching uncontrollably – he was like a dog with fleas, biting at his rear end, scratching everywhere, kicking out like a horse. I had scheduled a consult with Jane for the next day, but instead called her that evening. Jane felt extreme fear and distress from Sammy, and on her advice, I put Sammy into a sleep cage and the next morning there was no down in the cage. He was, however, very miserable – he was very clearly uncomfortable. I began giving him benadryl and misting him, and by the end of the day he was willingly soaking in a bowl of warm water. (We have no after-hours qualified avian veterinary care here in Las Vegas.) Sammy lives in the sleep cage to this day, and is clearly uncomfortable being caged in his large cage.
On Monday, 11/22, Sammy was seen by my vet. They ran a full panel on him, and I specifically requested zinc toxicity testing. My vet gave me GentaVed to spray on Sammy who, upon exam, was discovered to have no down from the wingpits down to his tail. His new tail feathers were about half way in at that time, maybe a little more. We thought perhaps his new tail was the source of his discomfort, but the area above the preen gland was scabbed. The preen gland showed no signs of infection, abscess, or impaction. My vet also recommended that we put Sammy on haloperidol, which I did, and keep him on the benadryl. The test results showed his liver enzymes at 97, and his muscle enzymes were also elevated. Everything else was normal.
Sammy at the vet's, November 1999
By Wednesday, 11/24, Sammy was no better so we started him on .2cc prednisone 2x a day, and terminated the haloperidol. By Saturday, 11/27, Sammy was lethargic and sleepy; I took him back in to the vet and we found that the scabbing on his rear end had become much more extensive. Incidentally, he quit talking and playing when this whole thing started. He seemed to be more comfortable on the prednisone which led us to believe he may have an allergy. On Wednesday, 12/1, I began to titrate him and eliminated his morning dose of prednisone; by Saturday, 12/4, he was very uncomfortable and agitated again.
By Monday, December 6, Sammy had developed red and bloody areas on his rump area. Also, on Monday, I received email from Greg Harrison, in response to my query about possible allergens in their mash, and he offered to consult with my vet. On Dr. Harrison’s recommendation on December 7, Sammy was given a shot of dexamethasone and a shot of HCG, and put on a diet low in fat (no seeds & nuts, but Sammy has never eaten them anyway), no fruits, and 3-4 drops of pure flax seed oil. Dr. Harrison thought that Sammy was exhibiting frustrated breeding activity; up until the time of the earthquake, Sammy had never been shy about regurgitating for me or winking at me, or lifting his wings and doing the "uh uh uh" thing. He had since stopped that behavior, and oddly enough, began chewing wood like a crazed beaver; I actually thought he may be eating it too. He never learned things to not eat – to this day, he will eat paper if we don’t watch him.
Sammy, December 1999
By mid December, Sammy had pulled out all down & feathers 360 degrees around the tail and vent area; he had no feathers from about 2 inches above the tail all the way around. He also had bloody scabbing present on both flanks, and a thin light tan color scabbing everywhere else. I eliminated the Harrisons from his diet altogether, and began giving him a 50/50 Scenic-Kaytee handfeeding formula, with either carrots or sweet potatoes, 2x a day. By this time, he had quit eating on his own and his weight dropped to 426 grams. I was spraying him with the GentaVed or with pure aloe juice, and periodically soaked him in a bowl of warm water just to clean his feathers off. Another suggestion from Greg Harrison was the use of 1cc heparin mixed in aloe, which acts as an anti-itch/inflamatory. This was used without much improvement.
Sammy having a soak, December 1999
By about the 20th of December, we had terminated the use of steroids and put Sammy back on a low dose of haloperidol (.02cc), with frequent spraying of aloe. I also used an aloe gel which provided some relief for a few hours; Sammy was clearly not improving – his tail feathers had dried up in uneven lengths, and he had had some bad times where he had broken blood feathers and pulled out blood feathers from the tail coverts. At this point, Sammy was comatose and nonresponsive, not eating on his own and in such abject misery that we began to consider that euthanasia may become the only option. On December 21, in desperation, I put vitamin E oil on his bare skin and within seconds it became apparent that it provided the relief he needed. On December 23, he began talking again and on December 24, he executed a search & destroy on a brand new remote, eating the red buttons off it. By New Year's, he was totally healed up and back to his nitey-nite ritual of laying on his back for me.
In early January 2000, I eliminated the haloperidol to try Hydroxyzine after consulting with Tammy Jenkins. It became immediately apparent that the Hydroxyzine was of no benefit to him, so we put him back on the haloperidol. By the end of January, Sammy had gotten in his down on both flanks and on the top of his rump; the underside, around the pelvis and vent, were still bare skin. There was no sign of any new contour feathers forming.
By late January, Sammy was becoming hyper again and we decided that he had built a tolerance to the haloperidol so we phased him off the drug. His last dose was on February 2, and on Friday, February 4, I woke up to find that he had once again ripped out the down on both flanks and had chewed the skin bloody. I oiled him up again, dosed him up with haloperidol, and continually misted him until the haloperidol kicked in and sedated him.
On February 5, I had a repeat panel done on Sammy, as well as testing for lead, giardia, and asper. The panel came back perfectly normal, nothing came up in the lead or giardia. The asper titre came in at 1.4 and 2.1 for the antibody and antigen testing, and we took Sammy for xrays on February 12; the xrays were clean. Using the vitamin E oil, we got Sammy healed up and he again regrew his down feathers and some of his contours in the tail area; all pin feathers coming in in the neck/crop area were harvested as they come in, always at night after he was put to bed.
At this time, I had a telephone consultation with Phoebe Linden, who felt that Sammy may have survival issues. On her advice, I began to prepare myself for a lifetime of handfeeding Sammy twice a day. I also began to try to nurture him in the manner in which his parents would have done.
In early April 2000, Sammy began to molt; he molted a couple tail coverts which caused him to mutilate once again in the tail area. We immediately biopsied him and redid the asper test, as well as testing for crypto. All negative except for the biopsy – a slight increase in WBC was noted, so we treated Sammy with Claforan shots 2x a day for 14 days, along with medicated baths 2-3 times a week.. We also did a 3-day collection fecal trichrome for giardia, which came back negative again; however, we decided to and proceeded to treat him with a 10 day course of Flagyl. He quit molting after about 2-3 weeks and once again healed up and refeathered in the tail area; pin feathers in the neck/crop area continue to be pulled when they are about 3/8 to ˝ inch long. Sometimes he rips the follicle when he pulls them out. About this time, I converted the formula to Noah’s Kingdom handfeeding formula.
Once again, in early June 2000, Sammy began molting – this was a hard molt, he lost a lot of feathers very fast; again, he lost tail coverts which caused mutilation on the underside of the tail area. I was getting better at reading the indicators - hyperactivity, extreme itchy and irritable behavior, and weight loss - that precede a mutilation incident. This time, we got it stopped in a couple days. However, the molt lasted about 3 weeks and stopped; again, he continued to pull out pin feathers from the neck/crop area. He had yet to allow any to come in.
July and September 2000 brought further attempts at molting, and again he mutilated the tail/rump area when he molted tail feathers. The September incident was stopped almost before it began as we had reached a point where we were able to identify the subtle signs that heralded an episode. When Sammy molted tail feathers in November 2000, we were absolutely delighted that for the first time in a year, he did not mutilate; he also stopped pulling out the pin feathers in the neck area. He continued in this manner for a couple months, occasionally losing tail feathers without incident, until I felt it was time to titrate him off the haloperidol. Once again, Sammy was fully flighted but not flying.
Sammy, Christmas 2000
Once again, I slowly began reducing the dose, until I got it down to .02cc in March 2001; at that time, he was fully feathered and absolutely gorgeous. Unfortunately, March brought spring molt, and Sammy lost a lot of tail feathers in just a few days; once again, he began to mutilate and his weight dropped from 476 to 440 grams. Devastated, I immediately increased the haloperidol and applied the old standby, vitamin E oil. In addition, we also used lidocaine applied topically. As before, he ceased mutilating when the tail feathers came in and he is once again fully feathered, except for the occasional pin feather he pulls out.
June 2001: Again, I am currently trying to titrate Sammy off the haloperidol. His dose is currently .03cc. His weight remains poor, about 450. I continue to handfeed him with the intent that when he is off the haloperidol, I will wean him. Oddly enough, at this point in his life, he doesn't seem to have food anxieties at all - we can eat or fix food in front of him, and it doesn't bother him. Separation anxieties remain a problem, and Sammy has finally begun to show anxiety regarding my presence or absence. Many times, he will seek me out and sit with me, instead of going to his papa. He rarely plays, but his amount of play is slowly increasing. I still hope to see him, drugfree, in a larger cage, screaming his lungs out while he kills his favorite toy. He is finally flying again, and has learned that the potshelves are a wondrous place to roost. Oftentimes, he'll roost right over the computer and poop on me, the keyboard, the mouse, or in my coffee cup.
July 2001: Sammy molted several tail coverts and 3 large tail feathers, in addition to losing 3 large tail feathers during a night-fright. No further mutilation has occurred, and he remains fully feathered.
September 2001: Sammy is getting in the 3 molted tail feathers without incident; however, the 3 tail feathers that were fright-molted 2 months ago have yet to come in. His dose of haloperidol is .02 cc, and his weight remains around 475 grams.
Update, September 16, 2001: Murphy's Law struck - The above case history was uploaded on Tuesday, September 11, 2001. Within 72 hours, on Friday, September 14, 2001, Sammy entered a mutilation phase as a result of incoming tail feathers. I applied Vitamin E oil to the affected areas, but did not increase his haloperidol as done previously in the hopes that we could get through this without escalating the dose. So far, he's doing OK as long as I apply the Vitamin E oil daily. His weight is remaining stable, and he appears to be relatively comfortable.
The future: For the most part, we take it one day at a time with Sammy, never knowing what's around the corner but accepting that what we have today may be different tomorrow. I am no longer concerned that he may mutilate - if he does, I know we'll get through it. Sammy has been the most wondrous and inspirational gift to me, and has taught me so much about life. I remain convinced that his coming to me was karma - that he was meant to come to me to be my teacher. He continues to chew up remotes, spill beer, and get into whatever trouble he can devise, but I wouldn't have it any other way. When he lays on his back in my shirt and looks up at me with adoration in his eyes, singing his song for me, the past heartaches fade in the joy of the moment.
Video clips of His Royal Highness:
Sammy (warning: this one is pretty big!)
This page is dedicated to Sammy, the love of my life, who has taught me what is important in life and how to love unconditionally.
My heartfelt thanks to the following who helped us:
Joel Blumberg, DVM
Grey Harrison, DVM
Tammy Jenkins, DVM
Dave McCluggage, DVM
and last, but not least,
Patrick Hauck, DVM - my vet without whom we would have not gotten through this ordeal
Last Update: 10/28/01