Feather picking is a common syndrome in Psitticine birds. There are many causes for feather picking and therefore the diagnosis and treatment of this disorder can be difficult. The reasons for feather picking generally fall into one or more of three categories:
- Metabolic Disorders
- Itchy disorders
- Painful disorders
- Psychological Disorders
- Hormonal/Sexual disorders
How can our veterinarians find out what is causing this problem?
When confronted with a feather picker, our veterinary team normally begin with an extensive history to try and determine if there is a pattern to the picking. This is followed by a thorough physical exam during which time we will assess the general condition of the bird as well as the condition of the feathers and skin. If we find a painful area on a wing (perhaps caused by trauma or retained feather cysts) our veterinarians may be able to address the problem with splinting or surgery.
Next we need to check the bird for the presence of microscopic bugs (mites), which may be causing the problem. This is accomplished by scraping the skin and examining the dander for the presence of mites under a microscope. If this is positive, our veterinary team will treat specifically for the mites and the prognosis is quite good. Unfortunately, mite infestations are not a very common reason for feather picking in the larger psitticines.
From here, our veterinarians must submit a number of lab specimens to rule out the presence of various viruses (psitticine beak and feather disease), bacterial infection (culture and sensitivity), feather follicle infection (feather cytology), internal metabolic disorders (biochemical profile and CBC), Chlamydial infection (Psitticosis), and Giardia infections all of which have been associated with feather picking.
If our veterinarians find abnormalities on our testing, we will attempt to treat whatever abnormalities are found. If all the tests are normal, then we have to consider psychological and hormonal/sexual disorders. This involves detailed observations by the owner over time to try and determine if there is a pattern to the picking. Birds are intelligent social animals and they are easily stressed psychologically. Frequently we will find birds picking as a result of separation anxiety related to owners not paying enough attention to them or leaving them unattended. Sometimes feather picking can result from boredom and lack of stimulation. Sometimes it can be related to the presence of other birds or pets, new people in the house (including new children). Occasionally, the individual isn’t picking his/her own feathers but is being picked on by another bird in the house. As you can imagine, trying to determine if any of these factors is playing a roll in the problem can be very difficult and often frustrating.
Finally, our veterinarian team have to consider the possibility of the bird being sexually frustrated as a cause for feather picking. This behavior may be associated with masturbation behavior (birds mounting inanimate objects) or enhanced nesting behavior, the loss of a mate etc.
What can be done to treat this disorder?
As you can see, there are myriad reasons for birds to pick at themselves. Our foremost goal in treatment is to find a specific reason for the problem and then treat it specifically. In general, we can assume that all feather pickers of Alta Loma, Rancho Cucamonga, Upland, Ontario, Claremont, Fontana, and the Inland Empire are stressed. Therefore our veterinarians should do our utmost to ensure that they are eating a varied diet of appropriate feeds along with daily vitamins (see avian nutrition handout). We should make certain that they are being housed at the appropriate temperature and that their cage is of the appropriate size. It is important that the birds have adequate stimulation in their environment including toys, feeds that require a bit of work to access, mirrors, climbing devices etc. Our veterinary team must make sure that they have adequate periods of darkness (8 hours minimum per day) to ensure appropriate circadian rhythms in their bodies.
Once these general support issues are dealt with, our veterinarians are faced with a number of options to help your bird. If the picking is so bad that the bird is bleeding or has caused injury to themselves, we may need to place a restraint collar or bandages on the bird for a period of time. Frequently, we will trim the beak to make it smoother so it can’t do as much damage to the bird. If there are wounds on the skin, antibiotics will probably be prescribed until they have healed. Remember, a restraint collar only prevents the picking; it does nothing to cure the problem!
If our veterinary team have ruled out any medical problems, we may try a combination of anti-anxiety drugs and behavior modification to help the bird. These drugs (like Prozac and Haldol) may be helpful, but unfortunately, they tend to work only while they are constantly administered. Once the drugs stop, most of the birds will return to the behavior if we have not relieved the initial source of stress. In some cases, we can try hormonal therapy that may help ease any sexual tension that may be contributing to the feather picking. These hormones tend to have a calming effect in general and may be helpful even if the problem is not sexually related.
Behavior modification is essential to reduce feather picking in the long run. Providing a stimulating environment for your bird is the first step in that direction. Make certain the cage is large enough for your bird. Have plenty of toys for him to play with. Considering the fact that most birds spend up to 8 hours a day in the wild looking for food, it is important to make your bird work a bit for his/her food. There are many techniques to increase the amount of time your pet has to forage (search) for food.
What is the prognosis for feather picking birds?
The prognosis for this problem varies with the cause of the problem. In general, there are rarely any “quick fixes” for this problem. Feather picking is often a chronic problem that we can control at times but may not cure. Although it may be frustrating at times, if you can persevere and have patience our veteinarians can usually find some combination of therapies that may help your bird.