Like many pets, birds aren’t always fans of visiting the veterinarian. Part of that is likely because they aren’t used to riding in a car. Most avian companions rarely travel outside of the home.
This means travel may have the potential to be challenging. Training your bird in advance for transportation can give you peace of mind, make it more likely that they will receive regular annual examinations and necessary medical attention in a timely manner, and make it easier to evacuate in the event of an emergency or natural disaster.
Choosing a Carrier
Training for transport first requires finding an appropriate carrier. Some manufacturers have designed small travel cages, crates, and backpacks specifically for companion birds. However, other products such as plastic kennels or wire crates designed for dogs and cats can be adapted to work well for birds. Examine these products closely before purchasing to ensure that the materials are safe and suitably indestructible, depending on the species you have.
An ideal carrier should be comfortable, inviting, and easy to teach the bird to use. This may require adding and positioning a perch of the appropriate size. Birds with long tails, like macaws, may require the perch to be placed closer to one end to allow them to sit comfortably in the crate or cage. The bird should have enough space inside the carrier to easily turn around.
Some carriers provide more than one door, large doors, or unobstructed openings that make it easier for birds to enter voluntarily. This can facilitate training the bird to willingly enter a container for transport.
While it is tempting to put many toys inside a travel container, be careful to avoid hanging toys that can swing into the bird during car movement. This can create an unpleasant experience. Options to consider include small foot toys that can be placed on the bottom of the crate or items that can be secured to the side so they don’t move.
Entering the Carrier
Training the bird to enter the travel container involves a series of steps. The first step is to give the bird time to habituate to the new crate or portable cage. This involves giving them time to see the travel container without any requirement to engage with it. This can be done by placing the crate or cage within viewing distance, while making sure the bird is calm and relaxed in its presence.
The next steps are to encourage interaction with the travel container. The initial interaction can be started by luring. Luring involves placing preferred items in a trail from outside that leads to inside the travel container. This can include food items or toys. For some birds providing attention can also work.
If the bird knows how to orient their beak toward an object, like a ball on a stick or the tip of a chopstick to earn desired outcomes (also known as targeting), this behavior can also be used to guide the bird into the crate.
Subsequent steps include reinforcing with a special treat or reward for allowing the door to be closed for short increments of time. When your bird is comfortable with the door being closed, follow by reinforcing for allowing the container to be picked up with the bird in it and then for moving the container for short distances.
Riding in the Car
Another important step in the shaping plan is to practice driving the bird in the carrier in the car. Start with short trips around the block. How the container is placed is an important part of preventing motion sickness for some birds. Being able to see where they are going can help. If possible, place the carrier in the front seat, raised so that your bird can see out the window. Don’t cover the carrier or place it on the floor or in the back of the vehicle.
If you notice regurgitation, consult your veterinarian for options to prevent motion sickness. Additionally, driving prior to feeding a meal can also help to reduce nausea.
Addressing Fear Responses
If your bird shows a fear response to riding in a carrier due to prior experiences, another strategy to help initiate the training process is to use distance as a reinforcer for calm behavior in the presence of the travel container. This is done by starting far enough away from the container that the bird’s behavior is relaxed and calm. Rather than getting closer and closer to the container, only approach the carrier to a point at which the bird remains relaxed and comfortable, then retreat. Your bird learns that calm body language at that distance results in moving away from the carrier.
Repeat, decreasing the distance between bird and carrier each time. Eventually, your bird will be close to the carrier, showing relaxed behavior, and you can switch to the previously described steps using treats or other rewards.
Training for transportation can be done even if a bird doesn’t know how to step up on hands or is not entirely comfortable with people. It is an important and valuable step toward making an avian veterinary visit Fear Free.
This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.
Barbara Heidenreich is an animal training consultant specializing in exotic animals. She consults worldwide working with zoos, universities, veterinary professionals, and conservation projects. She has worked onsite with over 90 facilities in 27 countries. She is an adjunct instructor at Texas A&M University. She has authored two books and contributed to four veterinary textbooks. She is a co-author of two Fear Free® Avian Certification Courses. Much of her work focuses on training exotic species to cooperate in medical care. Barbara is an advisor for the Animal Training Working Group and the Parrot Taxon Advisory Group for the European Association of Zoos and Aquariums. She has provided her expertise to conservation projects The Kakapo Recovery Program and The Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation. Her goal is to leave behind a legacy of kindness to animals by sharing her expertise.
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Published January 23, 2023