Feather Picking Evaluations
For a better understanding of feather picking in pet birds, one must realize that birds are emotional animals affected psychologically by both physical and mental stress. The feather picking or plucking bird can be identified by the presence of healthy head feathers with feather loss and/or mutilated feathers in body areas accessible to the bird’s beak. If feather loss on the head is observed, the bird may be rubbing the feathers, another bird may be picking the feathers off, or a disease other than feather picking is the cause. Typical feather picking sites include the propatagium (inner wing web area), inner thighs, and the chest. Diagnosis is based on detailed history provided by the bird owner, a physical exam and recommended laboratory tests that may include an exam of the droppings, blood profiles, radiographs, culture, and biopsy of affected skin areas.
Dietary history is especially important – type of diet, amount, what is actually eaten, and how often. Also your veterinarian will want to know how long the bird has been showing feather picking behavior, time frame of when this behavior first started and progression of lesions. Previous treatment and its effect on the feather picking behavior is also important in helping the veterinarian do their best in making treatment recommendations. Any environmental or household changes that one can associate with the onset of the feather picking would also be helpful information. All this background information is important to know as feather picking behavior is often divided into behavioral and medical causes.
Behavioral Causes of Feather Picking
- Boredom: In their natural environment, for many species the rain forest, birds are exposed to thousands of stimuli on a daily basis. As a household pet a bird may have little stimulation, especially during the day. This may lead to displacement behavior that includes feather picking. Lack of routine may also contribute to picking. Some feather picking birds will stop picking when given stimulation or when rules or routines are established.
- Crowding: Overcrowding in a cage or aviary may stimulate feather picking. Housing with multiple birds or in an environment with too much cage ‘furniture’ or too many toys may create stress.
- Dominance: Dominant birds may pick feathers of subordinate birds that they share the cage with. In this situation feathers are picked from the top of the head of the subordinate cage mate, but at times trauma to the skin may occur.
- Environmental change: This may be an important cause of feather picking. It is not uncommon for feather picking to be initiated by a change in the bird’s normal routine or environment. Changes may include a move to a new house, moving the cage set up to a new room, taking an object out of, or placing a strange piece of furniture or decoration, in the bird’s room, and new people or pets coming into the household.
- Exaggerated Grooming: Preening is a normal activity that involves cleaning and rearranging the feathers. Over preening can lead to feather picking.
- Nesting Bird Ready to Clutch: It is common in some species for birds to line the nest with feathers. This is normal and is seen only at nesting time. If this continues beyond breeding season and goes beyond breast, abdomen or leg regions then feather picking may be considered.
- Poor Wing Clip: Especially if the feather ends are sharp or uneven. These may rub against the body and initiate picking behavior.
- Reproductive Frustrations: Especially during breeding season (typically spring time), feather picking may be caused by exaggerated or frustrated courtship rituals.
- Territorial: In a multi-bird cage, territorial disputes may lead to feather picking secondary to displacement behavior.
- Trauma: Birds may pick excessively at the site of an injury.
Medical Causes of Feather Picking
- Allergies: Current research has determined that many birds suffer from allergies. The same pollens and environmental irritants that affect people may also affect birds. These birds may itch and the exaggerated grooming response to this itchiness results in feather loss and skin inflammation. Over time this may lead to more serious long-term feather picking, even when the allergy season is passed. Cigarette smoke may also serve as a skin irritant.
- Feather Mites: This is rarely a cause of feather picking.
- Skin yeast infections: Can be ruled out with skin biopsies or tape cytology preps.
- Internal Parasites: Giardia have been associated with itching and feather picking, especially in cockatiels. Roundworms and tapeworms are other possibilities.
- Environment: If the air is too dry, the feathers may become brittle and feather growth will be inhibited; this may lead to feather picking.
- Hypothyroidism: Rarely seen as a cause of feather picking but should be considered if the bird has thickened skin and feather loss.
- Internal Disease: Especially liver and pancreatic disease. Also internal fungal lesions associated with Aspergillosis have been associated with feather picking behavior.
- Infectious Dermatitis, Folliculitis: Either bacterial or fungal skin infections may cause feather picking. Diagnosis requires a skin biopsy.
- Malnutrition: A predominant medical cause for feather picking, malnutrition, leads to alterations in skin and feathers, which can lead to picking. Balanced and adequate nutrition is necessary for the molting process and helps maintain healthy skin and feathering. Chronic malnutrition especially fatty acid imbalances and vitamin A deficiency, will lead to scaly skin and dull ragged feathers.
- Neoplasia: Birds often pick over skin tumors.
As you can see there are many potential underlying causes for feather picking behavior and explains why your veterinarian may recommend a variety of diagnostic tests in order to narrow the origin of this frustrating problem. If diagnosed with a specific medical problem treatment can be tailored to alleviate the condition and hopefully stop the picking behavior. If the bird is considered healthy on thorough examination, then the owner must focus on behavioral aspects that may be the underlying cause. The bird owner must also realize that if this bird has been feather picking for an extended period (months to years) then it may be very difficult to reverse, and that as long as the bird is healthy otherwise it can live with the problem. Nutrition, cage environment and activity/play periods all need to be reviewed and modified if necessary. Time and patience along with trial and error, will go a long way in determining if the picking behavior can be controlled.