|Having a beautiful pet such as a Cockatoo or an African Grey that destroys its' own feathers or even mutilates its' skin is both worrisome and frustrating. Many bird owners obtain a companion bird, at least in part, for its’ unique beauty, enjoyable nature and intelligence. So when their treasured pet begins to mangle its own feathers and cause injury to its skin the problem causes anxiety. Furthermore, since the cause of feather disorders is difficult to diagnose and treat, treating veterinarian’s find the problem frustrating, as well.
It has never been established that wild birds pluck their feathers or mutilate themselves. In fact, proper care of feathers is of utmost importance for wild birds. Feathers must be in good condition for controlled flight and landing, proper temperature regulation, protection from environmental extremes and in courtship displays. Wild birds spend a great deal of time preening themselves by removing the dried sheathing from new feathers, meticulously "zipping" each feather into uniformity and applying waterproofing oils to each feather with their tongue and beak. So, at one level, it seems odd that companion birds, which are so frequently described as not being domesticated pets, would stray so far from instinctual behaviors involved in proper feather maintenance. Of course, the flip side here is that these “pets“ are not domesticated animals. Many are only one generation away from their wild relatives. Therefore, companion birds may be much more susceptible to the stress involved in a “human owned" lifestyle. Companion bird owners report concerns with obsessive feather picking and feather mutilation and the opposite extreme, the refusal to provide adequate care of feathers resulting in a tattered and unhealthy appearance.
1 Table is Modified from Rosskopf & Woerpel, Proc. Assoc. Av. Vet.1990: 301-304
2 Some colleague-members of ANAV have noticed a disproportionate number of birds (domestic or imported) with tapeworms.
Assessing Potential Causes of Feather Picking
Sally Blanchard, a respected avian behaviorist, proposes that feather picking, plucking and mutilation are perplexing symptoms which are maintained by a complex myriad of causes. It is theorized that while a simple situation may cause the onset, feather picking tends to become a habit through a mix of improper reinforcement, psychological stressors and physiological stressors.
Working Towards Solutions for Feather Picking
When feather picking is first discovered, it is important to develop an action plan before a compulsive habit develops. The first rule of thumb is to rule out any health related issues with a thorough physical examination by a certified avian veterinarian. At the same time, owners of feather picking birds should consciously work on providing no stimulus when the bird picks. Even minor attention, including negative attention, may cause the bird to associate attention with feather picking.
As early as possible, begin a log book to help you track issues that are related to the picking. Journalizing the problem helps caretakers develop insights into factors which contribute to the picking. Record the time of day when your bird picks and doesn't pick, the emotional tone of the household when picking occurs, what feelings the bird may be sensing from you or other household members, and what the bird may be seeing, hearing, feeling, and doing when it initiates picking. Also, track what factors that distract the bird from picking. You may begin to see patterns of temperament, things that cause the bird anxiety, and factors that calm the bird. As you gather data relating to the picking you can begin to slowly modify the environment.
As discussed above, feather picking is a symptom of several health issues. Even with a clean bill of health, you may want to modify some health related issues that impact the birds emotional state and overall well being. One of the most important health related changes that can be made is to improve the birds diet. Inadequate diet may adversely effect the condition of the skin, other vital organs and even effect the bird's temperament. The Feather Plucking Starter Pack at BirdSupplies.com is a bundle of vitamins and minerals that are needed for healthy skin and feathers. Strongly consider feeding a high quality pelleted diet like Harrison's Bird Food and supplemented with a healthy mix of fresh fruits, vegetables, legumes, pasta and other nutritious foods on a daily basis. Consult your avian veterinarian for recommendations.
Another environmental factor that can easily be altered is to provide your bird with adequate rest. At a minimum, eight hours of undisturbed rest time is needed each night. Inadequate rest adversely effects the bird's metabolism, it's reproductive cycles, and it's overall temperament and ability to cope with stress. Develop a routine that allows your bird to get at least eight but closer to 10 hours of undisturbed sleep at night. Place the sleeping cage in a quiet location. Birds have an excellent sense of hearing. Barking dogs, television noise, people arriving home after dark and turning lights on disturb the bird. Another option is to cover the cage at night to muffle the distractions. If your bird tends to fall off of its perch at night, pad the bottom of the cage with a soft towel. Happy Huts, Birdy Buddies, and sleep tents available at BirdSupplies.com which may help increase the birds sense of security at night.
Cage size effects the birds mental health dramatically. Birds should be placed in cages that allow them to stretch their wings and tail feathers without bumping them into the cage bars. If you've ever jammed your finger catching a ball, you may appreciate what jamming feathers into tender skin feels like for a bird. Not only does it irritate the skin near the follicle, but the bump may break or splinter the feather shaft so that the shaft actually pricks the skin. A natural defense, then, for the bird is to pick the feather out.
Metal toxicity has been related to feather picking. Most frequently, zinc and lead are cited as being the culprits. Examine your birds cage for exposed metal and rust. Frequently examine toys that have quick-links, chain, bells and keys or other metal parts to see if the nickel plating has worn through. Heavy metals build up in the system over time until toxic levels result in physical symptoms develop. By that time, damage may have already been done to vital systems. Several toy manufacturers have begun addressing the problem of zinc toxicity and have changed the hardware on their products to stainless steel. You may easily eliminate all worry by simply purchasing a few stainless steel quick links and acrylic washers to use on toys rather than relying on the manufacturer to supply them. You can obtain safe bird toys at BirdSupplies.com . One major contributor to lead poisoning is the hobby of stained glass. Lead free sodder is available.
Some research has indicated that smokers who handle birds transfer nicotine to bird feathers, which in turn, irritates the skin and may contribute to feather picking. Smokers would be advised to thoroughly wash their hands with an abrasive soap, such as Lava, prior to handling birds. Furthermore, inhalation of smoke may be harmful to birds.
In the wild, birds bathe daily. Most parrots are from Rain Forests where the humidity is very high. High humidity to is needed to insure healthy skin condition. Caged birds that live indoors and are not frequently bathed often experience dry skin and poor feather condition. A simple solution is to purchase a shower perch or a Misty Mate spray bottle and frequently bathing for the bird. These products are affordably available at BirdSupplies.com. Many veteran avian experts have reported success in spraying feather picking birds with a mixture of Aloe Vera juice and water on a daily basis. Aloe Vera has natural antiseptic qualities that soothes dry, itchy skin.
Reactions to environmental mold and fungus effect the birds skin and other systems. Birds can be exposed to mold and fungus from infected food bought in bulk, through wet/dry vacuums, from poorly cleaned cages, soiled cage litter and from poorly attended water. Carefully examine food that is bought in bulk for mold and fungus. Clean and disinfect avian cages, water bottles and feeding dishes on a regular basis. Pet Focus, a veterinary hospital grade germicidal detergent and detergent, is available from BirdSupplies.com. Avoid cage litters, opting for black and white newsprint or waxed tray liners instead.
From an emotional perspective, birds that are stressed or bored may be turn to feather picking. Birds are sensitive to the emotional atmosphere they live in and react to tension and sadness but have no way to discharge the feelings. Like some people pick their nails when they are stressed, a bird may pick its feathers. Even in calm environment, birds that are constantly exposed to perceived predators may experience stress. Common culprits are dogs, cats or even other birds. Predatory animals which hover near windows that the cage is located by cause the bird stress. When environmental stressors interfere with the birds sense of well-being, moving the cage to a quieter, safer location is warranted. Here again, cuddly sleep tents or cage mates may provide enough shelter to soothe a stressful environment. After changing the cage location, you may wish to try a natural calming agent just for birds,Avicalm.
Some birds engage in feather destructive behavior out of boredom. Wild hookbills are active and mentally stimulated throughout the day. Birds are intelligent, social animals with active minds and a high need for activity. Research has shown that parrots have the intellectual capacity and activity level of a five to six year old child. Pet birds that are stuck in small cages with minimal stimulation live an unnatural existence that leaves them prone to developing destructive behaviors. A rule of thumb for bird owners is to purchase the largest cage that one can afford. The cage must be large enough for the bird to fully extend it's wings and have adequate height so that tail feathers aren't drug through cage grates. Provide toys and foods that require mental and physical effort to use. The bird should have access to several parrot toys. Rotate them on a regular basis to alleviate boredom. Toys that are designed to simulate preening such as cotton rag toys, sisal, Bird Kabobs and Shredders provide distraction and give the bird something to preen other then it self. Birds naturally love to mouth and destroy things, especially wood! Provide a feather picker with wood toys to destroy on a regular basis. Fruits and vegetables placed on skewers take effort to eat and provide a fun, healthy distraction from boredom. Nuts in shells also take time and effort to eat. When the bird is happily chewing on toys or food it is not picking it's feathers!
Birds are very social creatures too. Companion birds require daily socialization in at least two forms. One on one attention is needed on a daily basis. Plan on spending 30 minutes to an hour of one on one time with your bird. This is a good time to to cuddle, to work on social skills, and to teach your bird tricks. Vicarious attention is simply a form of socialization when the bird out of it's cage and around it's family. Bird's learn independent play skills when they are within view and ear shot of the family. Bird Stands are an invaluable resource for providing socialization and fighting boredom. The Parrot Enrichment Pack at BirdSupplies.com was developed to enrich and provide captive foraging opportunities for companion parrots.
All in all, feather picking is often maintained through a complex set of circumstances which include health related issues and emotional issues. Many discouraged bird lovers have successfully counteracted the feather picking habit with the assistance of an avian veterinarian and by slowly modifying the birds environment to one that suits it's needs and temperament.
Blanchard, Sally. The Complexities Of Feather Destructive Behavior. The Pet Bird Report
Highfill, Carol. (Cockatoo Heaven)Feather Mutilation
Jenkins, DVM Tammy. The Basics of Feather Picking
Johnson, Anne. Feather Mutilation: Winged Wisdom
Newman Ph.D, D.V.M., Chick (10/97)Picking Trends vs Species Newman Veterinary Medical
Identifying Contributing Factors of Feather Picking
Species of Bird: Age: Weight: Sex:
When and where did you acquire the bird?
Describe previous living situations that the bird has experienced before you acquired it:
When did the feather picking start?
Describe any events that may have precipitated the picking:
Describe the progression and patterns of the picking:
Describe the appearance of feathers once they've been destroyed:
Is there a history of the feather picking stopping and then restarting? Yes No
When does the bird pick it's feathers?
If picking happens in your presence, how does the bird seem?
When the bird picks in your presence, how does it respond?
When the bird picks in your presence, how do you respond?
Does the bird interrupt a favorite activity to pick?
Describe Wing Clips:
Describe Claw Trims:
How frequently is the bird misted or bathed:
On average, how many hours of rest does the bird receive each night?
On average, how many hours of full spectrum lighting does the bird receive each day?
What remedies have been tried so far?
What diet is the bird offered
What diet does the bird actually eat?
What dietary supplements are offered
What is the water source for drinking water
Describe the type of exercise your bird enjoys:
Does the bird currently or previously have a history of residing with other birds?
Has your bird been seen by a certified avian veterinarian for the feather picking problem?
What potential causitive factors have been tested for?
Health Related Issues:
Current Health Status:
Date of Last Veterinarian Checkup:
Has the bird ever tested positive for parasites?
Has the bird ever tested positive for viral Disease?(including chlamydia):
Does the bird have a history of injury, including thrashing about the cage as a young bird?
History of Exposure to Toxins(especially zinc):
List the major cleaning agents that are used in the home for general cleaning, carpet cleaning and laundry
List the cleaning agents used for cage cleaning
List any airborne irritants that the bird may have been exposed to
Environmental and/or Psychological Issues:
Rate the of the following personality traits in the bird, with one being mild and 5 being intense:
Relaxed 1 2 3 4 5 Anxious
Describe the general routine the household follows?
Has the routine for bird care changed? No Yes
Do other pets live in the home? No Yes
Has the bird experienced a frightening or traumatic event prior to the onset of picking? (Including injury, severely frightening experience, exposure to loud noises or vibrations)
Noise level of the household:
Emotional intensity of household:
When in it's cage, is the bird able to fully extend its wings and tail feathers without bumping the bars or toys?
How much time is the bird out of it's cage daily?
How much one on one time does the bird receive each day?
How frequently is the bird provided with new toys?
How much time does the bird spend unattended during the working day?
If the bird is able to view out of a window, what does it see? (Potential predators, loud or unusual activities, etc.)
Personality Related Issues:
Does the bird have a history of phobic behavior?
Has the bird established independent play skills?
Has the bird socialized to new situations, people and things?
Are socialization skills regularly maintained?
Describe behavioral expectations for the bird and how they are enforced.
Blanchard, Sally. The Complexities Of Feather Destructive Behavior.The Pet Bird Report