Watching your feathered friend and family member destroy its feathers, pluck itself bald, or in some instances damage its skin (actually a separate syndrome) can be very worrying and difficult to live with. For the purposes of this article, we will only deal with feather picking/destruction. This is probably one of the most frustrating conditions, as there are many medical and behavioral considerations as an underlying causes. We can help many, perhaps even 70% of the birds that pick, but the journey to achieve this is sometimes frustrating, time consuming and expensive.
In general, a full medical work-up is needed to eliminate the possibility of a medical cause. This is not a simple task, as some conditions will not show up on routine lab testing. If a medical condition exists, behavioral therapy alone is doomed to fail. Only after all medical causes have been ruled out or eliminated can we truly diagnose behavioral feather picking (which by itself has many factors and causes). In many instances even if the underlying cause is determined, a complete cure may be impossible. Our goal is firstly to determine the cause, secondly to forecast prognosis and formulate a plan, and finally to aim for a cure or at least a management program that is healthier for the pet bird.
Common Medical Causes of Feather Picking:
- Toxins i.e.- heavy metals (zinc, lead), nicotine, other skin irritants
- Infectious disease i.e.- primary bacterial skin infections, viral disease (psittacine beak and feather disease, polyoma, etc.), fungal (aspergillosis, etc.)
- Endocrine/Reproductive disease i.e.- hypothyroidism, egg binding, egg yolk peritonitis, reproductive infections
- Parasites i.e.- internal (mites, etc.), external (i.e. – Giardia is a very common cause in cockatiels)
- Nutritional deficiencies i.e.- vitamin A deficiency, abnormal blood calcium levels, high cholesterol
- Metabolic Illness (organ diseases) i.e.- liver, kidney, heart disease, atherosclerosis
- Preen gland disease
- Beak/Nail disease
- Skeletal disease i.e.- pain/arthritis
Common Behavioral Causes:
- Anxiety/Stress (from humans or other pets)
- Separation anxiety (from perceived mate or member of the flock)
- Over bonding with one person/jealousy
- Boredom/attention seeking behaviors
Things to avoid/improve:
- Avoid square cages. Round sided cages are considered to be physiologically superior.
- Ensure that perches are clean and the correct size (foot can grasp ¾ of the way around the perch)
- Move cage to a location that is draft free and quiet (i.e. -not the living room or kitchen). Also avoid adjacent to windows. Avoid stress from hyperactive child, or another dominant pet
- Provide ample water for healthy feathers and skin (mist/bathe 2-3x/wk)
- Provide ample bird-safe toys in the cage
- Can “branch-load” the cage with bird safe branches and twigs. Make it difficult for the bird to move without coming in contact with a branch. The idea is to encourage the bird to chew the branches rather than self. Toilet paper and paper towel rolls work here too.
- Make your daily play and attention time very scheduled and routine. This should be done even when you have extra time to spend with the bird.
- Develop a routine of out of cage play and foraging for food and a routine of training (see additional handouts on dominance training).
- Avoid aerosols and smoke. Smokes should smoke outside and wash their hands prior to handling the bird.
- Cover the cage at night and make sure cage is in a quiet place (birds require a lot of regular sleep, are easily disturbed with noise, and can suffer anxiety from lack of sufficient regular sleep.
- Ensure the diet is ideal. For most medium and large parrot species this means a staple of appropriately formulated/size high quality fresh pellets (approx. 75%) and fresh veggies (emphasize dark leafy greens). Only a small amount of fruit and seeds should be offered (<10%, used predominantly as a treat/reward) as they offer little to the nutritional makeup of the diet. See the nutrition handout for more details.
- Do not place water/food bowls below the level of the perches. Provide bird-safe “food puzzle” toys to challenge you intelligent friend when seeking food. A simple example would be a piece of bird-safe wood with some holes drilled into it and a favorite food item or treat wedged into the hole.
- Make the parrot work for its regular in-cage food (i.e.- wrap the food bowls with heavy newspaper so that it has to work to get to the food. Remember, in the wild these highly intelligent parrots spend a large portion of the day “working” to find food.
- Do not mix avian species.
Feather Picking Work-Up:
In evaluating this condition, we typically start with a thorough history and physical exam consultation, blood screening, skin scrape/feather pulp analysis, and fecal exam/de-worming.
Causes such as vitamin deficiency, metabolic disease (liver, kidney, etc), bacterial or fungal infection, parasites, and other physical problems may become apparent at this stage.
Further work-up includes radiographs (to detect metal densities, organ position/size changes, etc), skin/feather follicle biopsy (to investigate infection or hormone related skin changes), viral testing (Psittacine beak and feather disease, Polyoma, etc), Blood DNA sexing (to determine sex and whether reproductive disease is more or less likely), endoscopic or laparoscopic surgery (when indicated from other tests and exam findings to address underlying physical issues or obtain biopsy specimens), and finally behavioral consultation/referral as needed.
During the work-up medical therapies may be used to control secondary infection and measures may be initiated to prevent further feather damage.
As you can see the condition is a challenging one to diagnoses and control, but with some effort and patience a possible cure or management of the condition can be determined in order to help your feathered friend and prevent further risk to his/her well-being.