Feather Disorders In Pet Birds
Over grooming, feather chewing and feather plucking are common and complex problems with many possible causes, both physical and emotional. Some birds with this disorder never demonstrate it in front of the owner; others are unable to stop even when transported or examined.
Medical problems that may have started the problem or continue to contribute to it include skin infections (bacteria, viruses, fungi, mites) and other diseases such as hormone imbalances, allergies and cancer. Most of these causes are rare. We are frequently asked about mites and lice but both are extremely unusual. The only common mite infections occur on parakeets and canaries and they do not cause feather loss.
Poor nutrition often makes both physical and emotional problems worse. Supplements, formulated diets, and labour intensive foods such as whole fruits, millet sprays, honey sticks and safflower based diets are often recommended.
Stresses apart from poor nutrition may include environmental factors such as humidity too low, temperature too cold, inappropriate cage, inappropriate location and uninteresting or uncomfortable perches. A lack of mate or flock, and a fear of certain humans or pets may also be present but difficult to detect.
Common psychological stressors include:
Some hand-raised birds identify so closely with their human owners that they give them the role of mate substitute, or the family becomes a substitute flock. These birds rarely pick in front of the owners, but will often become excited when left alone, hanging on to the bars and calling. Picking may then occur as frustration and anxiety deepen. In the wild, a member of the flock would not normally be separated from the other birds.
Obviously, humans can never take the place of an avian mate. Birds have a natural desire to breed, and the inability to carry out this function may result in a stressful situation.
In the wild, parrots work from dawn to dusk, searching for food, processing it, searching for water, and interacting with flock members. In captivity, they live a life of leisure. No matter how hard we try to entertain them, the truth is, they have no job. The energy that they expend simply surviving is unused when food and water is conveniently available from a bowl in the cage. The work that the beak must normally do may end up as overgrooming, picking and chewing.
Sometimes a temporary physical or emotional problem STARTS a feather mutilation behavior that becomes a HABIT. This habit closely resembles obsessive-compulsive disorders in humans and other animals. A compulsive disorder may involve a brain feedback situation, where it is physically difficult for the bird to stop the mutilation behavior. A tired or stressed bird seems to have even more trouble discontinuing this behavior.
The GOALS in this situation are always to 1) identify medical problem (if any), and then 2) minimize the stress and habitual factors involved.
Environmental problem solving and "occupational therapy" can often be handled together. Try a larger cage, and move the cage to a busier location in the house. Or, for shy birds, try elevating the cage (all birds seem to prefer this). Sometimes a hiding or nesting type box can provide additional security and chewing material. Try the introduction of a cardboard box in an upper corner of the cage (cut an entrance hole). Most birds at least enjoy destroying the box, if not sleeping in it. Go slowly with African greys - they can be shy about new things and may need a gradual introduction to a new item. Also, remove your bird from its cage and take down the old perches, replacing them with "chewable" branches such as apple, willow, alder, birch, or maple. Disease transmission through the use of fresh branches has never been documented and is almost impossible. Many large breeders take advantage of these natural, disposable perches and highly recommend them.
Purchase some new toys (try those with leather, rawhide, soft wood, plaster blocks, mirror, bells, rope pieces, etc). replace the toy if it is damaged or well used. Hold some toys in reserve so you can rotate them once weekly. Feeder puzzles (slot boxes for nuts or PVC tubes with perforations) are commercially available or can be constructed. Check for safety considerations before using these excellent "work to feed" devices".
Make sure the bird gets at least 10 hours of darkness and quiet each night. Mist the bird frequently or take into the shower if enjoyed. Don't forget to improve or change the diet (try offering only the new items each morning - replace regular food at noon until eating habits change). Mist the bird with warm water, spray once daily.
Consider the purchase of another bird. A breeding situation sometimes improves the birds mental health, although feather mutilation is not always discontinued.
Start a training program. A regular program of simple tricks and lessons seems to be very helpful in promoting normal activity.
Drug therapy and Elizabethan collars should only be used in combination with environmental and behavioral modifications. Prozac, doxepin, haloperidol, clomipramine, and naltrexone are all recently suggested choices. Your avian veterinarian can give you additional information.
Louise Bauck BSc, DVM, MVSc.