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.
Self mutilation in birds can be divided into 3 separate categories but is usually referred to by the general term “feather picking”.
Feather-snapping involves the breaking of the feather shaft. The feather shaft might be snapped near the outer end, resulting in feathers ending in a “v” shape. The feather shaft might be snapped near the base leaving no feathers visible outside the down.
Feather-plucking involves pulling feathers out, sometimes resulting in the bird version of an “ouch”. This might be ongoing or a temporary response to dirty or damaged feathers and is especially common around the vent or the preening gland at the base of the tail.
Feather-chewing or shredding, the most common form of self-inflicted damage, begins with injury to the edge of the feathers. This might be related to: soiled feathers; boredom; falling; anxiety; feelings of abandonment; poor diet; or inadequate lighting.
Feather picking is not only one of the most frustrating of all pet bird problems, it is also one of the most common problems seen in avian veterinary practice. Published information on feather picking in pet birds suggests a number of possible etiologies (causes). However, in the majority of cases, a cause is never identified, no matter how dedicated or aggressive the diagnostic approach. Therapeutic trials utilizing antibiotics, anti-inflammatory drugs, antidepressants and tranquilizers have all produced inconsistent results. Unfortunately, bird owners are often left extremely frustrated since feather picking is incurable in a substantial number of cases.
Many different disorders can contribute to feather picking in pet birds. Causes can be broken down into three categories: external disorders of the skin or feathers, systemic (internal) diseases, and psychological disorders. Literature often reports that the three primary causes are mites, malnutrition and boredom, but in fact these are rarely the cause.
Disorders of the feathers and skin are the easiest to identify. Unfortunately, external causes of feather picking are not very common, and some of them, while easy to identify, are difficult or impossible to treat.
Systemic diseases as a cause of feather picking can be far less obvious. Although almost any infectious process or organ disease has the potential to cause feather picking, the connection between internal disease and picking is inconsistent. For example, sometimes the discovery and treatment of an intestinal infection may stop a bird from feather picking. In other cases, a bird may continue to pluck feathers despite the successful diagnosis and treatment of an intestinal infection. In these cases, either the picking became a habit that couldn’t be broken, or there was really no connection between the enteric disease and feather problem to begin with.
Possible causes of feather picking
- External parasites – Pet owners frequently believe that mites are a common cause of feather picking. However, mite infestations occur in a very small percentage of the pet bird population. When mites are, in fact, present, they are very easy to detect and curing the bird of the problem is extremely simple.
- Inadequate grooming – This is a common cause of feather picking. Many birds become covered with dirt, oils, and chemicals, such as make-up, from being handled extensively by their owners. The practice of “bathing” birds by spraying them with water from a spray bottle is inadequate in these cases. A small amount of baby shampoo added to the water (1 tbs. shampoo to 16 oz. water) helps remove the foreign material, but the bird should be gently but thoroughly showered to rinse off the shampoo.
- Pyoderma (Bacterial infection of the skin) – Staphylococcus aureus is a bacterial infection of the skin that can cause enough itching and discomfort to cause feather picking.
- Fungal dermatitis – Rarely, fungal infections of the skin or feathers may cause picking. When present, fungal dermatitis is usually a secondary, opportunistic infection.
- Inadequate photoperiod – Occasionally, a lack of proper exposure to normal lighting cycles (photoperiods) can lead to delayed molting. Feathers may age and become the target of excessive preening by the bird with a resultant “picking” problem. If coupled with malnutrition, the feathers may deteriorate more rapidly than normal. These feathers appear ragged, mimicking the appearance of feather picking.
- Viral Diseases – Emerging feathers that have been damaged by infection with Psittacine Beak and Feather Disease virus (PBFD) often have a characteristic appearance. These feathers grow in like twisted porcupine quills, then fall out, revealing crimped sections at the roots. Other diseases occasionally produce these signs, so a positive diagnosis based on laboratory work is mandatory, since PBFD is often a fatal disease. Polyomavirus may cause similar appearing feather lesions in young birds. Birds with feather lesions due to Polyomavirus are more likely to recover than those with lesions caused by PBFD.
- Liver disease – Several diseases of the liver, such as Chlamydiosis (parrot fever, Psittacosis), Hepatic lipidosis (fatty liver syndrome), Tuberculosis (TB), Bile Duct Carcinoma (liver cancer), Lymphoma (cancer) and many others have been connected with feather picking.
- Kidney disease has been observed in connection with feather picking, often with the picking focused over the lower back where the kidneys are located. In one case, removal of a benign tumor of the kidney led to complete resolution.
- Aspergillosis is a fungal disease that forms plaques on air sac surfaces. Birds with this condition may pick because of allergic-type reactions to substances produced by the fungus. In addition, these birds often have compromised immune systems and the feathering may reflect generally poor condition.
- Intestinal infections – Giardia, an intestinal parasite, can cause severe itching and feather picking in some species of birds. Other intestinal infections, such as Candidiasis, a fungal infection of the intestinal tract, or bacterial enteritis, may also cause feather picking.
- Thyroid disorders can lead to poor quality plumage and delayed molting. Feathers can become brittle and devitalized.
- Toxins – Heavy metals, such as lead and zinc have been associated with feather picking.
- Reproduction, while not a disorder or disease, often leads to feather picking. Females may pick at the lower abdomen to prepare the “brood patch” (the area of the abdomen that will be in contact with the eggs) for nesting. Both sexes may pluck to line the nest with feathers in preparation for the eggs. Many claims exist of single birds picking out of frustration from not having a mate. Some of these birds however, when given a mate, will pick the mate as well as themselves.
- Psychological causes of feather picking are by far the most difficult to resolve, and probably the most common. Sudden changes in routine, the absence of a consistently present owner or unfamiliar disturbances can lead to violent episodes of generalized picking. When the cause is sudden and it’s a single episode, the plumage will often regrow without complication. If, however, the cause is not identified, the picking may progress indefinitely with no response to attempts at intervention. Many owners caught in this situation have a strong desire to utilize tranquilizers, antidepressants, or sedatives. However, only a small number of birds respond to treatment with these drugs. Not long ago, a news story that discussed the use of one of these drugs prompted a flood of requests for the drug from desperate owners. No further documentation of this drug’s effectiveness was ever produced, and owners were once again gravely disappointed.
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:
- 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.
- 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.