Treatment Options for Parrot Self-Mutilation

Treatment Options for Parrot Self-Mutilation
Did you actually know that more than 50 percent of all pet birds engage in over-preening or some sort of feather damaging bird behavior? As Jeffrey Jenkins—an avian veterinarian in California--puts it, “feather loss is one of the most frustrating and complex bird problems that avian veterinarian have to shoulder every day as part of the supportive care they give to birds.” It is estimated that 1:10 birds that engage in feather picking progress to self-mutilation.
Washington state avian veterinarian, Cathy Johnson-Delaney, DVM, figures that one out of every 10 feather pickers also mutilates the skin. "Mutilators generally start out as feather pickers,” she said. "There may be a spot on the bird’s body where it is accustomed to picking feathers, and there are no feathers there anymore and so it bites its skin instead. The bird may continually have scabs on its chest because it picks and picks and picks.”1
A great majority of birds are prone to becoming feather pluckers. But cockatoos, quaker parrots, love birds, eclectus parrots, African grey parrots and parrotlets are particularly predisposed to the behavior. Take a good look and you’ll notice that all the aforementioned birds live in large flocks in the wild. If you've ever had the opportunity to see the flock behavior of these species in the wild, it is fascinating. Flock species count on each other for safety and socialialzation.

Flock species require the social setting as part of their psychological health and social stimulation. So, if by any chance you happen to separate one of these birds from its social group, it is highly prone to developing anxiety problems related to feeling vulnerable and lonely -- a mental state that many veterinarians suggest can bring about feather plucking, self mutilation and a series of other related problems.

Quite the opposite, nomadic bird species including amazon parrot species and macaws, are usually not bothered as much by solitude. Head to the rainforest of South America, and you’ll come across a number of them flying around in groups of two to four. As pets, such birds are less likely to be spotted picking features as they are used to being isolated. Bear in mind that the problem may not be completely impossible as thought, but rather uncommon for this group of birds.

Feather picking can take the form of simply chewing off the tips of feathers to literally yanking the entire feather out leaving a damaged follicle that is prone to scabs and infection.  An anxious bird may begin picking at the scabs and progress on to self-mutilation.  The bleeding and infection is alarming and scary and warrants a trip to the veterinarian for several reasons.  First, you want to prevent more severe medical problems from developing, such as infections, scars, etc. but secondly, self-mutilation mysteriously becomes self-fulfilling due to changing the brain chemistry. We'll write more about that later.


Other causes of self-mutilation in Parrots

Causes of self-mutilation in parrots can be broadly divided into two—medical and non-medical. Your avian veterinarian will help you uncover the causes of what is causing your bird to pick.  There are a number of medical issues that result in feather picking and self-mutilation, in fact way too many to discuss in this short article, but an experienced avian veterinarian can obtain a good medical history, perform a good examination and a few tests to pinpoint why a bird may be engaging in self destructive behavior.

Other non-medical causes

There are several non-medical causes of feather picking in birds, all of which are imputed to the random habits birds pick at some point in life. Again, you as the owner can at times reinforce these behaviors without knowing, in light of which you can end up worsening the situation.

A common behavioral cause of feather picking in parrots is  an improper wing trimming. When you use a blunt scissor to trim the wings of your parrot, you risk leaving the wing feather either too short or somewhat ragged. Imagine being constantly poked in the ribs or scratched by a feather shaft.  It is not uncommon for a bird to resort to pulling the feather out to relieve itself.

Bird injury is another factor that may in one way or another contribute to self-mutilation. For instance, a bird suffers a severe wing clip that causes her to thud roughly on the floor, injuring her wingtips and chest in the process. If you don't notice the injury and fail to bird a properly treat the injury, the bird may resort to biting and chewing a the wound in effort to alleviate the irritation. Now, couple the true irritation from the injury or wound with the anxiety of boredom or loneliness, and you can easily see how a bird may resort to self-injury.

Self mutilation and feather picking can also be stirred by a nervous habit, especially Cockatoos. Naturally, domesticated parrots are programmed to be receiving tactile and undivided attention from you--their owner, a habit that has been reported to spawn stereotyped behavior or obsessive compulsive pattern. So in case you fail to give them the attention they badly hanker for, the birds may decide to self-mutilate in a desperate bid to gain more of your attention. As the injury gets even more severe, the physical effects felt brings with it discomfort, thus causing the bird to self-mutilate even more.

How Can You Determine the Cause of Feather Picking in Your Bird?

We strongly urge you to work with an experienced avian veterinarian to determine the cause of why your bird may be feather picking. Complete blood chemistry should also be done, after which the bird can be tested for Psittacine Beak and Feather Disease. Other vital tests include fecal examination and hypothyroidism diagnosis among others. The nutritional history of your bird can also come handy while weighing in on the best treatment to use on the bird.


Once you have the real cause figured out, you can read through the notes below to determine the treatment:

  • If the results read positive for hypothyroidism, your veterinarian will prescribe thyroid medication such as Synthyroid that should allays the incidence and severity of the condition. But if your bird registers good health, proceed to explore behavioral causes for the most appropriate corrective measures.
  • The most basic method to treat behavioral self-mutilation in birds is to increase their cage size, add destructible toys and, above all, make the bird a central member of your family. It’s also important that you let the bird out for a short while during the day, playing and talking with her for an owner-bird moment. Another trick would be to alter your daily routine and pattern, while giving the bird foods that require her to spend time eating, such as carrot sticks and a cob of corns.
  • In case of severe feather picking, a physical barrier precluding the bird from self-damaging may help. But keep in mind that this method must be used alongside a behavioral modification. Otherwise you risk seeing the bird bringing back the feather picking habit once the barrier has been lifted. The most common barrier used for this case is the Elizabethan collar, worn around the bird’s neck as the bird’s feather regrow or the mutilation wound heals.
  • Option number three is nothing other than drug treatment. As with humans, parrots too have a number of behavioral and mood modifying psychoactive drugs that have been proven to be effective in curbing the self-mutilation problem in birds. A case in point is clomipramine--an anti-depressant that blocks the re-uptake of serotonin and norepinephrine to slow the habit of feather pickling up to 70 percent. Haloperidol is another effective drug that works as a dopamine antagonist to curtail or reduce self-mutilation and feather picking habits in birds. The only problem I have with the use of drugs in treating feather picking is that it doesn't necessarily address the underlying causes of the problem and the birds have to be on drugs for the rest of their lives. Determining a proper dosage can also be another problem, and in other cases you may find yourself using a trial and error approach to determine the right drug.
  • The last and most effective self-mutilation treatment is the behavioral modification technique. This technique is a bit varied, but basically it depends on the main trigger of the behavior. For instance, if the feather picking habit is spawned by the anxiety the bird gets when the owner leaves her alone, it will be good to periodically leave the bird for shorter periods to desensitize alone until it fully learns to adapt the situation. It’s also good to give the bird food or a toy she loves before leaving the house. Distractions such as a TV or radio can also prove useful in situations like this. Parrots have also been found to respond positively to videotapes of their owners romping up with them or just talking to them. Different studies have also shown that feather picking can also be as a result of upheavals in the life of the owner or the bird itself. Companion birds, particularly the psittacine species, have been found to be highly attuned to the moods and attitudes of their owners. So in case you notice your bird behaving gawkily when you’re undergoing a major wrangle, go back and address your own issues to save your bird the trouble of beating herself up on what concerns you. Please note I always encourage you to take your bird to an avian veterinarian for a full workup and treatment advice.

Watch for our upcoming e-book on parrot self-mutilation

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  • Diane Burroughs