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Feather Picking in Pet Birds

Psittacines are birds that belong to the order Psittaciformes. Common psittacines include budgies, cockatiels, lories, cockatoos, conures, amazons, African greys, lovebirds, senegals, and jardines.  More info:  Wild Bird & Pet Bird Books

Feather picking in psittacines is a condition where the bird plucks or chews its feathers and mutilates its skin. This is a captive bird abnormality. Feathers are important for thermal regulation and flight so obviously a wild bird who self-mutilates would be at an extreme disadvantage. The most common cause of feather picking, especially in the larger parrots is the behavioral abnormality of excessive preening. However, there are many diseases and disorders that may cause a bird to pick or mutilate and these conditions should be ruled out before the problem is assumed behavioral. If a primary disease or disorder is found in a workup then, of course, the disease is treated.

A medical workup should include a good history, physical exam and diagnostic testing as indicated. History taking may uncover a problem with the enclosure the bird is kept in, nutritional problems, toxin exposure, or incidents, objects, and persons who may be irritating to the bird.

On physical exam, a skin abnormality may be found, frayed feather shafts, retained blood in the feather shafts, evidence of vitamin deficiencies or other abnormalities that may be related to the picking diagnostic testing will then add to our minimum data base But also definitively diagnose the problem in some cases thus allowing the specific problem to be treated. Try:  8 in 1 Ultra-Care Bird Iron & Blood Supplement  Such diagnostic procedures may include a complete blood cell count, cebum chemistries, a gram stain of oral and fecal swabs, oral/fecal culture, fecal analysis for parasites, feather pulp or skin cytology and culture, biopsy, PBFD and polyoma tests, and X-rays.

Some specific diseases that may lead to feather picking are as follows:

  • frayed feather shafts secondary to a poor feather clipping superficial or ulcerative dermatitis
  • metabolic diseases such as liver disease or thyroid gland dysfunction contact allergies 
  • Psittacine Beak
  • Feather Disease
  • Polyoma Viral Disease
  • malnutrition such as vitamin and mineral deficiencies or excessive fat 
  • parasites such as giardia or blood parasites

Once the picking has been initiated, it can become habitual and continue even though the precipitating cause is no longer present. Furthermore, chronic picking can damage the follicles such that future feather growth is prevented.

To treat the underlying disease, give antibiotics or antifungals are indicated. see: Bird Health Supplies  Improve the diet. Remove the bird from exposure to cigarette smoke, organic phosphates, heavy metals or other toxins. Provide frequent exposure to fresh air and sunlight and mist with a water bottle daily if the bird enjoys it. Treat the blood for intestinal parasites. Treat the metabolic disease. Remove the contact allergen. Restrictive collars only suppress the clinical problem and if the bird is itchy, their use is torture for the bird. Therefore these are used in only certain cases to (keep the bird from severely injuring itself.

If a history physical exam and diagnostic testing rule out any disease process then a behavioral problem is then assumed. Free-ranging parrots spend all waking hours flying, foraging, eating, preening and socializing with their mate and/or the flock. It stands to reason that for such intelligent and interactive individuals, life In an enclosure with no companionship or physiological stimulation must be very boring and depressing. The two must common reasons for behavioral feather picking are probably lack of proper socialization/training and sexual frustration, particularly in cockatoos. Other common species that feather pick for behavioral reasons are African Gray Parrots, Amazons, Conures, and Electus Parrots. 

Occasionally sexually frustrated birds who pick will stop if placed in a breeding situation. However, some birds continue to pick and occasionally will over preen the new mate. Therapy for feather picking should be considered effective if the destructive behavior can be reduced. Complete cessation is rare.

Treatment of Feather Picking

The treatment of psychogenic feather picking is multi-factorial. Sometimes leaving the TV of radio on will decrease separation anxiety while the owner is gone. New toys and changing the parrot's location in the home may stimulate some birds positively but these changes also may have the negative effect of stressing a bird and worsening the condition. The most important therapy is to improve the human-animal bond. We accomplish this through proper training. This is best started when the bird is young and easily influence but even older birds may be trained and socialized by a dedicated owner. It takes consistency!

A baby should be raised where there is a lot of activity and opportunity for new experiences. An older bird should be gradually introduced to more activity:  Stainless Steel Parrot Playstand so that it is not overwhelmed. Handling and feeding the young bird by different people will allow it to accept many individuals and not fixate on one person. An overindulgent owner during the weaning process may spoil the bird and teach that it can get attention by screaming, begging, and throwing food. 

Boundaries should be set and clear consistent communication through words and action will make the bird secure and realize it is a follower and not a leader. Training at least fifteen minutes a day. three or four times weekly for three to six months is usually necessary. The sessions should be uninterrupted and in the same place. Start with the commands up come, stay, wing, foot, and go potty, The wing and foot commands make wing and nail trims much easier. Positive reinforcement works much better to encourage appropriate behavioral than punishment. 

Treats (Bird Treats)  should be used as the primary rewards at first but accompany the treats with a kiss, click or whistle. Once the bird learns that these vocalizations are praise, the treat is no longer as important. Negative reinforcement such as a firm "no" or even "time out" in a special "time out" box may be helpful if a bird becomes unruly. Do not use the bird's cage for "time out" because it should not be associated with punishment.

Occasionally it becomes necessary to use behavior-altering drugs to treat feather picking, particularly if it has been a long term problem. These use should be closely monitored by a veterinarian because there may be adverse side effects. Further more these should be thought of as only a temporary therapy while other problems are corrected. The goal of all therapy should be to produce a better adjusted bird that is happy, disease-free, and has a good relationship with its owner.

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