Feather picking or plucking often called, Feather Destruction Behavior or FDB is a problem that plagues many of our companion parrots.
It apparently does not affect wild parrots and seems to be a ‘disease of captivity.” It can exist to a wide spectrum of degrees, and a bird can mildly over preen feathers to a barely noticeable degree on one end, or at the worst, a bird can completely yank out all feathers it can reach and maybe even start to chew on the skin (which gets into a different set of issues but possibly related).
Many diseases and disorders have been found as the cause of Feather Destruction Behavior so this behavior can better be defined as a ‘symptom’ more than as a problem itself. Dietary issues (deficiencies in many nutrients including vitamin A and calcium), infections (of both the skin and internal organs) agents can be a cause; metabolic and circulation issues (liver disease, cardiac disease, arteriosclerosis), hormonal and reproductive issues, and many more.
There can be many behavioral (or “psychogenic”) causes, too. It is hard to look at our sweet little parrot and think of her as a wild animal who is only several generations out of the wild. There are many things that we can offer our birds to try to replace a little of the wild that we have taken away when we have brought them into our homes.
My first job as a health care provider for my patients with Feather Destruction Behavior is to make sure the physical causes are ruled out. A thorough history, a complete physical examination, consultation, and optimizing of the diet comprise the basic starting point.
In addition, basic screening blood tests, x-rays, and an assessment of the bacterial, fungal, and parasitic components of the skin and possibly the digestive and respiratory tract are usually a good next step. It can either be done at the same time as the first step or can be staged somewhat later if something is revealed during the history-taking process that would be a likely cause of the FDB (such as “bird bath sprays” being used, a seed diet, tobacco smoke exposure, or insufficient plain water bathing).
Whatever caused the discomfort which then led to the bird pulling out feathers may even dissipate, however, the contact of beak pulling out feathers will cause a physical reaction in the skin (inflammation, bruising, damage at a microscopic level) and thus propagate the cycle for a longer bout of Feather Destruction Behavior.
While starting the discovery and diagnostic process, we usually try to control this ongoing process in some manner – sometimes using laser therapy, mild anti-inflammatory medications, painkillers, soothing topical medications, omega-3 fatty acids, antihistamines, and in rare cases a barrier like a bandage or a collar (usually only chosen if there is self-mutilation or severe trauma of emerging feathers which is leading to life-threatening hemorrhage.)
Sometimes if the bird is exhibiting evidence of hormonal imbalance we will use medication to bring the hormones down while we give you instructions on how to limit the hormone activity with your bird.
We can also optimize the environment we provide our birds to limit psychogenic causes of Feather Destruction Behavior.
One of the first considerations is whether we give our birds enough to do in a directed manner. They like all animals and people, need a job to do. Give them an opportunity to look and work for food-whether they have to chew through a few layers of paper to get to their breakfast or figure out a puzzle to get a healthy treat.
Trick training is another way a bird can work with their owner for food. Encouraging a lot of activity overall- flying if safe in the household; getting outside in sun and fresh air (not too hot!); lots of toys in the cage for general deconstruction; a play area that is not the cage. Cuddling and body-petting on a regular basis can lead to excessive hormonal surges which can lead to behavior problems in general, so keep that interaction limited.
One of the most frustrating aspects of Feather Destruction Behavior is that often, it is actually a combination of factors that come together to cause a bird to tear its feathers out. It takes patience and persistence to work through all the possible causes; very rarely is there an easy, miraculous cure. If your bird is tearing its feathers out, we at The Bird & Exotic Hospital are happy to help you through the resolution process. Just call and set up your appointment.
By, Vanessa Rolfe, DVM, ABVP board certified in avian practice,
6147 Lake Worth Rd., Greenacres.