FEATHER PICKING IN BIRDS
By Brent Parker, D.V.M.
Feather picking is one of the most frustrating and confounding conditions bird owners and veterinarians face. After all, one of the main reasons people acquire a pet bird, in addition to its intelligence, personality, and vocal abilities, is its physical attraction. When a bird pulls out or mutilates its feathers, its physical appearance and overall attractiveness are greatly diminished.
Feather picking is an obsessive, destructive behavior during which a bird damages all or parts of its accessible plumage. This behavior can lead to abnormalities in subsequent normal feather development and molt. In extreme cases, feather picking can progress to self-mutilation, where the skin and muscle tissues are also damaged.
A birdís feathers serve a variety of important functions. They are used for flight, temperature regulation, protection against environmental extremes, and visual displays such as courtship or aggression. The birdís feathers and skin reflect its overall health and nutritional plane. Without feathers, birds in the wild would not survive. Thus, feather picking is predominantly a condition of captive birds.
Normal grooming behavior in birds is called preening. The bird will use its beak and claws to condition and waterproof its feathers. Birds may often preen each other. Itís a fie line between drawing a feather through the beak to condition it (preening) and doing the same maneuver but biting the feather during the process and cutting it or pulling it out (feather picking). One an imagine how easy it must be for a bird to switch from the normal habit to the harmful one.
Some species of birds are mor prone to feather picking than others. African grey parrots, cockatoos, macaws, conures, and spoiled, improperly socialized, hand-raised birds of any species seem to be more at risk for feather picking and self-mutilation.
Feather picking is usually not difficult to diagnose. Regardless of the cause of the pattern of feather loss on the rest of the body, the heard feathers are spared and appear normal because, of course, the bird cannot reach its head feathers with its beak (an exception being if its head feathers are being picked at by a cage mate).
When examining the many causes of feather picking, one can see that it cannot be explained simply by overzealous grooming. Birds may pick feathers because of a primary feather or skin disease, or it can be secondary to another problem. Feather picking is often categorized as being medical or non-medial (psychological). Medical reasons include external and internal parasites, malnutrition, bacterial/viral/fungal skin or feather follicle infections, internal organ disease, an hormonal changes. Psychological causes can be related to stress, boredom, anxiety, lack of sleep, excessive noise and confusion, undesired contact with strangers or other pets (including other birds), sexual frustration or psychosis to name just a few. Thus, determining the underlying cause of feather picking is often difficult. It is useful to rule out as many medical causes as possible before assuming psychological or stress-related causes. Medial causes would, of course, be treated very differently. Appropriate testing includes blood and stool tests, feather follicle and skin tests, and sometimes x-rays. The cost of these tests can exceed $200, depending on which are chosen.
Once medical reasons for feather picking have been satisfactorily treated or ruled out, psychological reasons and their associated treatments may be addressed. Feather picking can become habitual, however, and continue even if the underlying cause is eliminated. It is important to realize that determining the underlying cause does not guarantee successful treatment, and that feather picking is more successfully treated in its early stages rather than if the problem has been going on for months or years.
Treatments for psychological or stress-induced feather picking are as numerous as the causes. Using restrictive collars and foul-tasting substances on the feathers only treat the symptoms and are not considered therapeutic. These treatments usually add more stress to the bird and often prevent even normal preening. Bathing or misting the bird, if not stress inducing, may stimulate more normal preening.
Taking the time and effort to improve the birdís environment and your relationship with the bird is a logical and often helpful first step. Eliminating exposure to tormenting pets, children, abusive adults, excessive noise, cigarette smoke, and other potential stressors if indicated. Covering the birdís cage at night or any other time the bird needs rest or privacy can be helpful. Spend more time with your bird. Eliminating boredom (solitary confinement) and separation anxiety may be accomplished by leaving on a TV, radio, or recordings of family activities when youíre away. Providing new and interesting foods (ďrecreational feedingĒ) and toys can also physically and mentally stimulate the bird, leaving less time for feather picking. Providing a larger cage or simply moving the cage to another part of the house may also be helpful, however, certain individuals may become more stressed with the move. Providing another bird or mate may help or add to the problem. In multiple bird households, moving the stressed individual out of sight/sound from other birds may help.
If psychological feather picking cannot be stopped with environmental and behavioral modification, it maybe necessary to try drug therapy. This may include hormones such as thyroid and progesterone, antidepressants, and antihistamines. These agents work in different ways, have different indications and levels of efficacy, and may have some undesirable side effects. Some are quite effective and are the promising subjects of current research studies. The use of any drug and other therapies should be discussed with your veterinarian, and/or bird breeder or behavioral specialist.
Dr. Brent Parker is a veterinarian who practices in Santa Fe.
This article first appeared in the Winter/Spring 1997 issue.
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