Why your chickens are great liars
When a bird gets sick, it turns on its amazing powers to trick us.
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.
WHY BIRDS ARE REALLY GOOD LIARS
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.