Medical Causes of Feather Plucking, Picking & Mutilation in Pet Birds

There are many known causes of plucking.  On rare occasions a cause may be easy to identify and correct. However, in many cases a cause is not identified and the picking is difficult or impossible to resolve. Therefore, feather plucking is one of the most frustrating and complex problems seen by avian veterinarians.  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 picking is sensed by the bird, making the bird's anxiety, and therefore the feather picking, worse.

Some disease-related causes of feather plucking include:
·Hormonal imbalances such as low thyroid levels, progesterone or testosterone
·Poor nutrition, especially vitamin A deficiency
·Allergies to seeds, mold, pollen, cigarette smoke, perfume, hair spray, detergent, or artificial preservatives or colors in foods
·Internal parasites such as Giardia, roundworms or tapeworms
·Bacterial, viral, or fungal infections of the skin and feathers
·Intestinal, respiratory, or crop infection
·Internal tumors or liver or kidney disease
·Dry, flaky skin or thickened reddened skin
·Improper wing clipping, where the cut shafts poke the bird's back
·An injury causing pain or itching during healing
·Toxins such as lead or zinc poisoning
·External parasites such as mites or lice are very rarely a cause

In order to perform a thorough evaluation of a bird’s plucking to try and find a medical cause, there are many tests that would necessary.  There is no guarantee that performing any or all of these tests will result in a diagnosis.
·CBC and Chemistry Profile: over 25 measures of organ function and blood cells
·Oral and fecal microscopic exams or cultures: for bacteria and funguses
·Multiple fecal samples: for special stains to look for parasites
·Thyroid hormone testing
·Blood tests for lead or zinc levels
·DNA probe tests: for specific diseases such as PBFD virus
·Radiographs: to look for tumors or organ enlargements
·Plasma electrophoresis or bile acid testing: when suggested by other test results
·Skin biopsies: for examination by a pathologist when other causes are not found

There are currently no readily available tests for allergies, most hormones, or vitamin levels.  Sometimes even when a medical problem is diagnosed, there may be no treatment available, or the bird may continue to pluck out of habit.  We usually do not recommend collars, antidepressant drugs or tranquilizers except for birds that are injuring themselves.

Non-Medical Causes of Plucking, Picking & Mutilation in Pet Birds

Some causes, not related to any disease, include:
·Boredom in the very intelligent larger parrot species
·Insecurity, Stress, or Nervousness (can be caused by a change in daily routine, a new environment, remodeling, other pets, or a new owner)
·Overcrowded housing: Finches in particular
·Sexual frustration in a mature bird
·Overenthusiastic plucking of a brood patch by an egg laying female
·Excessive courtship behavior: one bird plucks the other
·Parents picking their chicks to drive them from the nest so they can breed again
·Inadequate bathing facilities and low humidity
·Breed predisposition, as in Quaker Mutilation Syndrome

Change in your bird’s life may be necessary, but make all changes gradually. Protecting a parrot from traumatic experiences is essential. Overprotected parrots, however, which have not been introduced to change in safe, secure ways are often feather pickers.

·Provide plenty of toys, some of which can be destroyed, since birds find great satisfaction in tearing things up.  Try cotton rope, natural whiskbrooms, newspaper torn into strips and hung in the cage, and soft woods that can be chewed into pieces.  Rotate toys every couple of weeks.  If your bird is afraid of new toys, lay them on a nearby surface for a couple of days, then hang them on the outside of the cage away from food and water dishes.
·Occupy your bird’s time by making it work to find food inside of a specially designed “treat toy”, or put food inside a box that your bird has to chew thru.
·Leave on a television or radio for the bird to listen to.  Many owners say that their birds enjoy programs geared toward small children.
·Make sure your bird is caged where it can be involved in the household rather than shut away in a back room.  However, avoid placing a nervous bird where there may be unexpected things happening in every direction.  Many birds feel more secure in a corner where they can’t be approached from all sides.  Some birds enjoy looking out a window, while others may be scared of something outside.
·The bird should be getting 10 to 12 hours of quiet sleep each night.  You may have to move the cage into a nighttime room to ensure this if people are up late watching TV.  The bird should also get plenty of exercise every day outside of the cage.  Try teaching it tricks like riding a remote controlled car or playing fetch.
·Allow your bird to bathe as often as possible in a dish or in the shower with you.  If he or she won’t take a bath, use a spray bottle with plain water every day.
·Avoid giving the bird too much attention when young, as it needs to learn to be alone sometimes and entertain itself.  Focus more on teaching the bird to play and do tricks rather than just sitting and being petted, which may stimulate breeding hormones and cause frustration.
·Ignore the feather plucking behavior.  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.
·Sometimes after doing complete lab work and having the owner make changes at home to make the bird as happy as possible, I counsel owners to accept that some birds are not easy to cure.  As long as they are happy and healthy in every way that we can control, sometimes a bird missing some feathers is not such a terrible thing to have to live with.
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Burge Bird Services
Julie Burge, DVM
13833 S. 71 Hwy
Grandview, MO 64030
(816) 356-4700