This specific behaviour is a concerning behaviour for us keepers when we see our animals preforming Self Mutilation. But it isn’t a newly found concern, Self Mutilation is happening with animals for a very long time. There are stories known from 1759 where a male opossum was brought to the Schönbrunn Zoo in Vienna who bitten of it’s tail after a few months in human care. A female black leopard in a zoo near Paris suddenly gnawed away his left forepaw, a French newspaper wrote in 1967. In a zoo park in Berne, 2 Martens a male and a female started after 2 years. The male born in 1960 started to bite its tail in 1962 for months. The other one a female born in 1963 started to lose all the hair on her tail and bite marks were shown. 

the mutilation of oneself, especially as a symptom of mental or emotional disturbance

Oxford Dictionary

They had observed the female playfully running after her tail. This playful behaviour might have been a compensation for the unsatisfied drive of hunting prey which could be a one of the causes of Self Mutilation. Even though they thought that the reason might be due to the lack of practise of hunting behaviour other thoughts were presented. Self Mutilation could come from other reasons but it is not entirely known what this could be. Ectoparasites or eczema can be the reason for this problem behaviour but there is more. 

Self Mutilation is a stereotypy. It is repetitive.

An improper diet could be a reason this behaviour might occur. This means that within the diet something is missing what the animal needs to thrive from out a nutritional standpoint. The outcome might be Self Mutilation. Interestingly there are other potential reasons why animals go for this form of stereotypy. Social frustration or aggressive drive can turn towards animals themselves. It has been observed when a male Japanese macaque and a female Pig-Tailed monkey continuously rushing against the the wire of the fence transferring their aggression to themselves afterwards. 

A huge issue is boredom. Boredom can lead to Self Mutilation. Us caretakers becoming to complacent with what we think is good. “Ow the exhibit is big enough”, “They have enough friends”, “But I put enough toys in there (without observing)”, “I did some food scattering”. All of these comments are ways how we interpret how the animal experiences situations without us actually knowing this. We become comfortable with believing in these self calming statements. The exhibit is seen already after 3 days of living in there from any corner. The toys they play with for 5 minutes and thats it due to the fact that you put food in there. Their day is longer than this and their needs are more than foraging. We need to think further to make sure animals are not bored and show us a wide repertoire of species specific behaviour.

Self Mutilation isn’t only occurring in animals but in humans as well. A simple one is nail biting for example. I, myself is definitely a victim of doing this. I discovered that I don’t just preform this behaviour but only when I’m excited or when I’m stressed or even nervous for something to happen. I will bite my nails sometimes to the point where they start to bleed. Not a good behaviour what so ever. What is interesting is the emotion that comes with it. We can say that for me it is a comping behaviour. 

Rocking Bua

A similar occasion happened with a stereotypy called rocking in elephants. The waving back and forth with their head and up and down. A 23 year old female Bua living in a Zoo in Sweden used to preform this behaviour for hours on end. We observed her behaviour and decided to take action. We thought her that when we were not around you are able to do things for yourself. Coming from the Free contact program and going into the Protective contact program we had to teach her that you could make your own decisions now. This was difficult for Bua and her always seemed to be this stereotypy. 

Similar rocking behaviour to Bua with elephant elsewhere.

Essentially Bua is coping with her emotions and is shown in this specific behaviour.

We decided to teach her these decisions by giving her other options we would empower afterwards. This helped her to be more confident in doing so. After quite some time it worked perfectly. The interesting part of this story was that she only showed us the rocking behaviour when she was nervous, stressed or excited exactly like myself with the nail biting. 

Can it be the lack of proper locomotion?

We can say that these type of problem behaviours could be connected to a variety of reasons. With Self Mutilation it is even mentioned that due to poor locomotion this problem behaviour is the outcome. The reason is that it seems to be specific body parts where Self-Mutilation is happening. Such as the tail, shoulder, elbow and paws. Little do we know if locomotion is the problem. Although we are able to say that it is very difficult for us to give our animals the same fitness and same stress on all muscles the animals do on their own in the wild. Therefore this might be a valid reason to think about. 

Get the data to determine your plan

Self-Mutilation is problematic and has to be considered as soon as we see this happening. At first we have to look at it from the medical point of view. We have to exclude the medical reasons to be able to say it can be behavioural. We have to look at the nutrition and how the nutrition functions for the individual. Does it fit all the values they need? Have you tested if this really the case by blood, urine or faeces sampling? 

Self Mutilation in a Parrot.

When it is a behavioural problem we have to look into what happens previous to the occurring behaviour, how long does the behaviour happen and what happens after the behaviour has occurred? Where in the habitat? Who was with the individual in the habitat? Is it periodically in a year, as in only in breeding season? Or year round? Specific moments in the day?

We need to take out the data of this specific behaviour to find the best solution. We can already conclude that we have a problem but taking prompt action is not always the best thing to do. Doing so might actually cause more problems. Our goal is to solve this problem on the long run and not on the short run which means we shouldn’t get comfortable with something you think works right now. A common issue when we try to solve stereotypy.

Different species have different challenges. What I mean by this is that a macaw plucking itself might have another reason in comparison of a tiger that bites a spot on his tail, or a monkey biting his testicles. Macaw might have unbalanced nutrition, the tiger eczema and the monkey sexual frustration. Self Mutilation is a problematic behaviour which we have to look into in good detail because for each individual or species the reasons might be entirely different.

Regardless of which stereotypy we observe we continuously have to ask ourselves do we give all the needs to the animal so they can thrive? Not in comparison to us, no, in comparison to what they need as a species. 


When we observed Self Mutilating behaviour we can conclude that we are already to late. We now have to make sure it won’t get worse. Important is to exclude the medical reason and therefore this should be your very first check up. Self Mutilation is a severe stereotypy where an animal really needs help.

As animal care takers we need to understand why such a behaviour can occur and how to avoid this completely by giving the needs the animal needs in any sense of the word. Which is easy to say but there need to be a balance!

But when a mammal’s needs are met by others, as in captivity, it can invest energy in futile efforts without loss of food or safety. The brain might even connect futile efforts to the successful meeting of its needs. Food and protection keep coming when the mammal self-harms, so the brain has reason to expect more of the same. The mammal brain constantly wants to “do something” to promote its well-being. It does whatever worked in the past. Once a self-destructive behavior appears to “work,” the mammal brain repeats it as if its life depended on it.

Book Source: Abnormal Behaviours In Animals – FOX

Categories: Trainer Talk


Peter is a passionate Animal Consultant that beside teaching you about Operant Conditioning makes sure you will go home motivated and inspired. Make sure you read his Bio!


Anonymous · February 28, 2023 at 19:55

Hey could you put any reports on animals who actually hurt someone

PeterGiljam · October 14, 2021 at 08:05

Thank you Peet. Much appreciated.

Peet · October 6, 2021 at 20:09

Thank you for this interesting view on this behavior. I always learn & learn new things when i do a visit at zoospensefull

Leave a Reply

Avatar placeholder

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.