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Feather Plucking Questionnaire: Exploring Feather Plucking in Birds

Feather Plucking Questionnaire: Exploring Feather Plucking in Birds

Feather Plucking Questionnaire

Feather Plucking CockatooHaving 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.

Inadequate feather
care & maintenance

Normal feather care
& maintenance

Obsessive, excessive
damage to feathers

 

No preening

Normal preening

Feather picking

 

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.

A search of the World Wide Web reveals a handful of theories pertaining to the cause and maintenance of feather picking and self mutilation. Essentially, the three main causes for the onset of feather picking are health related issues, the individual personality of the bird and environmental stressors. It would be helpful, then, to explore various factors that have been described to contribute to the onset avian feather picking.

Numerous diseases have been implicated as contributing to feather picking in birds. These diseases include infectious diseases, allergies, reproductive disease, exposure to toxins, parasites, hypothyroidism, skin infections, dietary deficiencies, and systemic disease. A certified avian veterinarian is the most knowledgeable professional to accurately diagnose and treat physiological diseases that contribute to feather picking. Infectious diseases that have been implicated to cause feather picking include PBFD (Psitticine Beak and Feather Disease), PDD (Proventricular Dilation Disease), and Apergillosis. Allergies have also been implicated. PBFD has been described as being like an avian form of AIDS. The two major symptoms of this disease are bedraggled feathers and an overgrown beak. PDD is a disease that is suspected to be viral. It affects the nerves supplying the gastrointestional tract and central nervous system. Allergies are a biological response to certain environmental proteins as if they were pathogens. The immune system responds to the effected protein as if it were harmful, resulting in itchy skin, rashes, gastrointestinal problems, and respiratory problems. Skin lesions from hot spots and scratching may leave the bird prone to secondary bacterial or yeast infections. Birds have been found to be allergic to inhalants such as mold, pollen, and dust. Certain foods and food additives have been implicated as allergens, as have some contact materials, such as cotton and wool.

A skilled veterinarian may suspect hormonal or reproductive disease when the bird has seasonal feather picking, picks at it's legs or demonstrates particular pattern of mutilation. Several drug therapies are available to treat hormonal related feather picking. Toxins, such as zinc, have been implicated in feather picking. A blood test can be administered to obtain blood levels of zinc. Internal and external parasites have been associated with feather picking. The most common endoparasite that has been associated with picking is giardia. Giardia is a protozoan parasite that lives in contaminated water and fecal material. It is contagious and can pass from birds to mammals and back again. It is resistant to most anti-germicides. Veterinarian's are capable of testing for the presence of parasitic activity and for prescribing the appropriate treatment. Other physical issues that have been implicated include hypothyroidism, skin infections, dietary deficiencies, and systemic disease. Additionally, psychiatric disorders such as obsessive compulsive disorder, separation anxiety, and fears or phobias can be treated with psychotropic medications.

Environmental issues that have been implicated in feather picking include lack of rest, a loud or emotionally intense living environment, inadequate exposure to UVA and U, an VB lightinappropriately sized cage and a cage location that does not fit the bird's temperament. When environmental issues are suspected as the cause of feather picking it is helpful to identify all possible contributing factors and slowly modify the bird's environment. Using a daily log helps one to identify whether changes effect symptom frequency and intensity. Surmising several important articles, we've developed a detailed questionnaire to help pinpoint potential factors in an individual bird.

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.



Bibliography

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

Identifying Information

Species of Bird: Age: Weight: Sex:

Owner Report:

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:
Where did it start, where did it progress, which areas are most effected, etc.

Describe the appearance of feathers once they've been destroyed:
chewed, frayed, old, shiny, clean

Is there a history of the feather picking stopping and then restarting? Yes No
If yes, describe:

When does the bird pick it's feathers?
In your presence
In your absence
Seasonally
When it is molting
During reproductive activity, i.e. increased aggression, rubbing vent on objects, paper shredding
During a specific time of day
Only at Night
Describe:

If picking happens in your presence, how does the bird seem?
Itchy
In pain
Agitated Bored

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?
Yes No
Describe:

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
Pellets
Seed
Fresh Vegetables
Fresh Fruits
Hot or Cooked Diet
Nuts in Shell
Other

What diet does the bird actually eat?
Pellets
Seed
Fresh Vegetables
Fresh Fruits
Hot or Cooked Diet
Nuts in Shell
Other

What dietary supplements are offered
Cuttlebone
Mineral Blocks
Other:

What is the water source for drinking water
Tap Water
Filtered
Bottled
Other:

Describe the type of exercise your bird enjoys:

Does the bird currently or previously have a history of residing with other birds?
Yes No
If yes, describe when, breed, relationship:

Has your bird been seen by a certified avian veterinarian for the feather picking problem?
Yes
No

Describe treatment and outcome:

What potential causitive factors have been tested for?
Infectious disease
PBFD
PDD
Allergies
Endocrine or Reproductive Disease
Exposure to Toxins
Hypothyroidism
Internal and External Parasites
Giardia
Aspergillosis
Skin Infection
Dietary Deficiency
Dietary Deficiency

Health Related Issues:

Current Health Status:

Health History:

Date of Last Veterinarian Checkup:

Vaccination History:

Has the bird ever tested positive for parasites?
Yes No
If yes, describe when, which parasite, treatment and outcome:

Has the bird ever tested positive for viral Disease?(including chlamydia):
Yes No
If yes, describe when, what, treatment and outcome:

Does the bird have a history of injury, including thrashing about the cage as a young bird?
Yes No
If yes, describe when, how it was resolved, how long it lasted and behavioral outcomes:

History of Exposure to Toxins(especially zinc):
Lead (old paint, stained glass hobby)
Zinc (chipping cage paint, mouthing quick links or chain, rusted chain, bells, keys)
Nicotine transferred from hands of smoker
Mold Spores
Bacterial Infections
Other:

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
i.e.: scented candles, fumes from nonstick cookware or heating elements, air freshener, cigarette smoke, room deodorizers, hair sprays, pesticides, etc.

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

Excitable 1 2 3 4 5 Lethargic

Playful 1 2 3 4 5 Calm

Comfortable 1 2 3 4 5 Uncomfortable

Happy 1 2 4 5 Agitated

Calm 1 2 3 4 5 Fearful

Friendly 1 2 3 4 5 Aggressive

Describe the general routine the household follows?

Has the routine for bird care changed? No Yes
Describe:

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)
Yes No
If yes, describe:

Noise level of the household:
Loud: i.e. Young children, frequent yelling, loud cars, music, etc., nearby construction, noise causing vibrations
Moderate: i.e., Teens, yelling for someone in another room
Minimal

Emotional intensity of household:
Intense, i.e. loud fighting, close proximity to other household pets, member of household rattling cage, teasing or yelling at bird
Moderate, i.e. Some arguing, frequent company, member of household doesn't like bird, high traffic cage location
Minimal

Cage Location:
High traffic area
Moderate traffic
Isolated

When in it's cage, is the bird able to fully extend its wings and tail feathers without bumping the bars or toys?
Yes No

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?
Yes No
Describe:

Has the bird established independent play skills?
Yes No
Describe:

Has the bird socialized to new situations, people and things?
Yes No
Describe:

Are socialization skills regularly maintained?
Yes No

Describe behavioral expectations for the bird and how they are enforced.

 

Bibliography

Blanchard, Sally. The Complexities Of Feather Destructive Behavior.The Pet Bird Report

Hallander, Jane. Feather Plucking: The Pattern Tells the Story

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

Woerpel, Richard W. and Rosskopf, jr. Walter J. How to Manage Feather Picking


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