Why your chick­ens are great liars

When a bird gets sick, it turns on its amaz­ing pow­ers to trick us.

NZ Lifestyle Block - - Contents - WORDS SUE CLARKE

Part of the re­spon­si­bil­ity of own­ing any an­i­mal or bird is to care for it in both sick­ness and in health. This in­cludes mak­ing de­ci­sions about feed­ing, shel­ter and wel­fare, but it also in­cludes recog­nis­ing when it is sick, giv­ing it ap­pro­pri­ate care to re­solve the ill­ness, or de­cid­ing to eu­thanise a suf­fer­ing bird.

Many an­i­mals and birds are no­to­ri­ously good at mask­ing pain un­til the con­di­tion which caused the pain is well ad­vanced and treat­ment may be too late.

We don’t know what pain is truly like for non-hu­mans. Is there ‘emo­tional in­volve­ment’ as there is with hu­mans? This as­pect is usu­ally ex­cluded when dis­cussing the pain suf­fered by a bird or other an­i­mal.

But renowned Ger­man sci­en­tist Man­fred Zim­mer­man, who has spe­cialised for al­most 50 years in neu­ro­science and re­search into pain, de­scribes it for an­i­mals in this way.

“An aver­sive sen­sory ex­pe­ri­ence caused by ac­tual or po­ten­tial in­jury that elic­its pro­tec­tive motor and veg­e­ta­tive re­ac­tions, re­sults in learned avoid­ance and may mod­ify species-spe­cific be­hav­iour, in­clud­ing so­cial be­hav­iour.”

His work has in­cluded test­ing the same pain stim­uli on hu­mans and rats. One test looked at the re­ac­tion of a hu­man to their fin­ger go­ing into wa­ter heated to 50°C, and that of a rat when its tail was ex­posed to the same test.

The rats and hu­mans quickly re­acted to re­move their body part from the wa­ter, show­ing a sim­i­lar au­to­matic re­sponse in their no­ci­cep­tive or pain sys­tem.

An­i­mals do have the ca­pa­bil­ity to ex­hibit be­havioural and psy­cho­log­i­cal changes. These are easy for an ob­ser­vant owner to spot, but for those less in­volved, signs of pain or ill­ness like these may be eas­ily missed: • it may eat less; • its so­cial be­hav­iour may be dis­rupted (eg it may hide in a cor­ner); • it may dis­play un­usual be­hav­iour, such as keep­ing away from its flock or sleep­ing where it doesn’t nor­mally sleep; • its feath­ers may look raised, un­tidy or dirty; • it may emit dis­tress calls; • its breath­ing and heart rate may change; • it may have a raised tem­per­a­ture or in­flam­ma­tion; • there may be a rise in the stress hor­mones cor­ti­sone and adrenalin.


For many years birds were not thought to feel pain in the ways that other an­i­mals, par­tic­u­larly mam­mals, do. Sci­en­tists have now proven this isn’t true, but they’ve also found birds are much more able to mask the ef­fects of pain.

Ex­hibit­ing weak­ness through limp­ing, breath­ing dif­fi­culty or other phys­i­cal symp­toms would make the bird a tar­get to be pre­dated on by its own kind or its many en­e­mies, both on the ground and in the air. Their clever at­tempts to hide symp­toms are called the preser­va­tion reflex.

Hon­ing your ob­ser­va­tion skills as to what is nor­mal and ab­nor­mal is a pre­req­ui­site to be­ing a good owner of any kind of live­stock. Ap­pro­pri­ate ac­tion can then be taken in a timely man­ner to al­le­vi­ate pain and suf­fer­ing.

Young sick ban­tam rooster.

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