Dr. Don Harris
A thorough history. Prior to examination and testing, your bird's diet, caging, daily routine and all other influences on the bird's life must be assessed. Occasionally, simple factors such as the amount of daylight the bird receives become important in the analysis of the cause of feather picking. Absolutely nothing that has any effect on the life of the bird should be overlooked as a possible cause of the picking.
Because so many different variables can influence feather picking, it is usually not possible to determine the cause through a cursory examination of your bird. In most cases, an extensive array of physical and laboratory diagnostic techniques must be employed in order to reveal all contributing factors. A veterinarian faced with the daunting task of finding a cause for feather picking must first determine whether or not a medical problem exists at all, or if the origin is psychological. Since psychological tests don't exist for birds, one must go to great extremes to rule out medical problems. Your veterinarian will recommend specific diagnostic tests depending on how severe the feather picking is, whether other symptoms are present, or how long the problem has been going on. Any combination of the following may be recommended:
Physical examination. No investigation into possible causes of feather picking would be complete without a very careful and thorough physical examination. The veterinarian will carefully examine the overall appearance and color of the plumage, the structure of the individual feathers and the quality of the skin. In addition, other physical features are important since a medical condition may be directly or indirectly causing the picking.
Complete Blood Count. General laboratory screening usually begins with the CBC (complete blood count). The appearance of the red cells can suggest evidence of nutritional problems, parasitism, chronic blood loss, and other disorders. The number and types of white blood cells in circulation can provide information on bacterial, viral, chlamydial, and other infectious problems. They can also suggest parasitism, allergies, and even cancer. There is probably no other lab test that provides so much information in one simple package.
Plasma protein electrophoresis. Proteins function in nutrient distribution, blood pressure regulation, and as part of the immune system. Measuring individual proteins will often reveal conditions not apparent in other tests. For example, the beta globulin fraction of plasma proteins is often elevated with Aspergillus infections. Sometimes, this is the only evidence of this infection in the blood work.
Serum biochemistry profile. Evidence of liver disease, kidney disease, and thyroid dysfunction may be detected by examination of the serum biochemistry profile. Disease of these organ systems may exist even though the bird is not showing any characteristic symptoms. It is therefore extremely important to specifically screen for the existence of these diseases when nonspecific symptoms such as feather picking exist.
Sampling of the crop, feces or cloaca for bacterial culture and cytology (looking at cell types for evidence of infection or inflammation).
Sampling of the crop or feces to look for intestinal parasites.
Antibody detection or DNA probes for specific diseases. If physical signs or screening labwork are suggestive, it may be appropriate to check further for certain specific diseases. For example, feather picking accompanied by abnormal feather growth creates suspicion for Psittacine Beak and Feather Disease (PBFD). Tests can then be performed on feather follicles or blood to look for DNA from the PBFD virus. Similar tests exist for Chlamydia, polyomavirus and Aspergillosis.
Blood tests that measure the concentration of heavy metals, such as lead or zinc, in circulation.
Radiography (X-Rays) to look for evidence of intestinal disease, foreign bodies, and the size and density of the liver, kidneys or other organs.
Endoscopy – viewing the intestinal tract or body cavity directly with an endoscope to collect samples for biopsy or culture. A specialist usually performs this test.
Therapy for feather picking depends entirely on the cause. There is no one therapeutic approach that works in all cases. If a medical cause is detected, treatment of the medical problem often resolves the feather picking.
Placement of an Elizabethan collar around the bird's neck will prevent feather picking by creating a barrier between the bird's beak and its feathers. However, many birds are extremely stressed by the application of these devices. If the feather picking is due to psychological causes, the application often exacerbates the condition. Birds with collars require careful monitoring, since severe injury may occur if these collars become caught on the cage.
When absolutely no medical problem is evident, the cause is often deemed psychological. Much discussion has centered on the use of antidepressants and tranquilizers. However, the response to these drugs is inconsistent, and treatment failures are common. The majority of the frustration and futility experienced over these patients stems from the fact that the owners fear that a bird's health may be in danger if the picking continues. However, in most cases, the problem is only cosmetic, and the overall health of the bird is not affected.
The best means of managing a psychologically-based picking disorder is through behavioral modification. As with medical diseases, a proper diagnosis is essential to an effective cure. Several individuals across the United States have demonstrated encouraging success in diagnosing and treating these patients. Prevention is still the best means of controlling behavioral picking disorders, and that means that owners should educate themselves on proper rearing techniques before they acquire their birds.