Dr. Don Harris
Feather picking in pet birds is one of the most difficult symptoms of all to contend with. A multitude of causes have been blamed for the frustrating condition, yet few of these prove to offer any consistent path to resolution. Essentially, any situation that produces a physiological or psychological disturbance can result in a bird plucking out its own feathers.
On rare occasions a cause may be easy to identify and correct. However, in the vast majority of cases a true cause is not identified and the picking is difficult or impossible to resolve. It is even possible that once the initiating cause is resolved, a bird may continue to pick from habit or for attention. In many cases, the owner's frustration over the lack of resolution is sensed by the bird, making the bird's anxiety, and therefore the feather picking, worse. Nonetheless, various approaches at managing feather picking have evolved.
Because many different conditions can lead to feather picking, in most cases your veterinarian will need to employ a number of different diagnostic tests to find the cause. Frequently, more than one factor contributes to the problem, so finding one possible cause does not mean that it is the only cause. However, being thorough offers the greatest assurance that resolution can be achieved.
A thorough history including your bird's diet, the type of housing, typical toys and exposure to other animals is a valuable first step in finding the possible cause of a feather picking episode.
A variety of blood tests including a CBC (complete blood count), blood chemistries, antibody measurements, and tests for certain specific diseases or toxins will often provide valuable information.
Analysis of skin scrapings, feather samples, and skin biopsies can illustrate one of two things. First, these tests may demonstrate the specific type of inflammatory reaction in the skin, which in turn would lead your veterinarian to suspect certain disorders. Second, it may identify the actual causative agent, such as bacteria or fungi.
In some situations, imaging techniques such as radiography, ultrasonography, or endoscopy may be the only means of discovering a cause of feather picking.
Occasionally, an episode of feather picking is actually exacerbated by an owner trying to resolve the problem. Birds are much like children and will sometimes prefer negative attention to no attention at all. Your attempts to distract your pet bird from feather picking may actually become entertaining to the bird. Your first responsibility, therefore, is NOT to draw attention to the picking in front of your bird.
Poor diets can either cause or contribute to plumage problems. Ensuring that your pet bird is on an appropriately balanced diet is always critical.
You can experiment with toys and objects that the bird finds more appealing than its own feathers.
Regular grooming in the form of showers and baths may decrease a bird's preoccupation with its plumage.
If true self-mutilation becomes a factor, immediate veterinary attention is critical. Birds, especially cockatoos, have been known to eat into the flesh of their chest during an episode of feather picking.