Feather Picking

Feather picking. No two words seem to frustrate owners and avian vets alike more than feather picking. Whether it has just begun or if a bird has been pulling feathers for years, it is a very frustrating problem for owners since every time they look at their pet, they see evidence of a problem. Is their beloved pet picking feathers out because it is ill? Or does it pluck because it is unhappy? Because it wants a mate? Because it is frustrated? Because it wants something that the owner cannot identify? No matter the reason, a plucked bird is a constant reminder to the owner that there is something amiss in their relationship. Owners ask themselves what they did wrong for their bird to begin plucking, or they wonder if their bird is unhappy. Let's put the emotional aspects (to the owners) of feather picking aside and go through some of the more common causes of this problem.

When an avian vet is presented with a bird that has begun feather picking, there are a specific group of questions that should be answered in order for him or her to start to analyze the situation. I want to know the age and sex of the bird, if known. Other important information includes: the bird's normal diet, method of water delivery (bottle or bowl), frequency of cage cleaning, other birds in the home, other pets in the home, where the cage is placed in the home, if the bird has a play-gym, amount of exercise and interaction with people and other birds, type of cage, cage size, cage substrate, numbers and types of toys (and how frequently replaced), if the bird's wings are kept clipped, how the wings are clipped (primaries cut at level of coverts or cut at the base), if the bird has been boarded or otherwise exposed to other birds, any previous medical problems, any changes in the droppings, and any changes in vocalization, activity level, food or water consumption. I will also want to see any tests that were performed on the patient previously.

Once I have the patient's general history, I will then want to get a specific history regarding the bird's feather picking. When did it first start (or when did the owner first notice it?) When does the bird usually pick? Does it appear that it is over-preening? Does the bird appear itchy or bothered in any way? Where on the body are feathers missing? Is the bird picking out its own feathers or is a cage-mate removing them? Does the bird scream when it pulls out a feather? Where does the bird usually pick (in its cage, when out of the cage, when on a play-gym, etc.)? Has the bird ever picked before? What remedies (if any) has the owner tried? (While you may be embarrassed by trying home remedies or suggestions from friends, it is important that your vet knows about them.) Does the bird bathe (by misting, by going into the shower, by dunking in the sink or a bowl)? Is there a pattern to the picking?

Once I have all of this information, I will perform a physical exam. However, before I even handle the bird, I will watch it in the cage, observing its stance, attitude, behavior and droppings. Then, I will catch up the bird for the examination. In addition to the normal things that I look at, I will carefully examine (with magnification) the choanal slit (on the roof of the mouth) to ensure that the choanal papillae are normal, and that the slit is not swollen, reddened or if there is excessive mucus in the oral cavity. These can be signs of vitamin A deficiency, which can make some birds itchy. I will closely examine the uropygial gland in all birds that possess one (Amazons and hyacinth macaws don't). I will gently palpate the bilobed heart-shaped gland, and then I will roll the wick (feathers protruding from the base of the gland) through my fingers to assess if the gland is functioning normally. If the gland is working, I will see an oily secretion on my fingertips. Vitamin A deficiency can also cause the uropygial gland to not function normally. Next, I will look carefully at the skin, feathers and follicles. I will examine the eyes, ears, listen to the heart, lungs and air sacs, palpate the entire bird, including the crop and abdomen, and then I will flex and extend the joints. I will take a cotton-tipped applicator dipped in 5% acetic acid and gently evert the cloacal mucosa to examine the tissues (in all birds larger than a cockatiel). You can learn much from examination of the tissue inside the vent. In addition to looking for cloacal papillomas, I can tell if the mucus membranes are inflamed, or if the bird is anemic. I will also check the feet, beak, toenails and scales.

Based on the results of the physical examination, I will recommend certain other tests. I think of different types of problems in different birds. For example, a very high percentage of cockatiels that feather pick are suffering from giardiasis. Giardia is a one-celled protozoan that inhabits the first part of the small intestines. It can be very difficult to diagnose giardiasis, as it is only shed intermittently in the droppings, and the trophozoites passed disintegrate quickly. For this reason, many cases are not properly diagnosed. Diagnosis may require special fecal testing, after collecting feces over several days and placing them in a special preservative. One fecal test may be negative and the bird may still have giardiasis. Treatment is classically attempted with metronidazole, but I have found that it only treats about 40 or 50% of the isolates. Ronidazole is a much more effective drug for clearing this organism.

African greys may pick due to low blood calcium levels (which also may cause seizures). Domestic greys bred in the southeast may harbor roundworms and tapeworms, neither of which will be routinely found on fecal exams. If the band shows that the bird was bred in the southeast, I will deworm it with appropriate meds. Many greys that feather pick are very difficult to control. Often, once medical avenues have been exhausted, a behaviorist should be consulted.

Cockatoos are also very frustrating cases when it comes to picking. As with other species, testing for Giardia using pooled samples should be performed. Birds bred in the southeast should be dewormed. Many cockatoos that pluck have elevated zinc levels in the blood, so zinc testing should be performed. Zinc may be found in galvanized metal, plastic toys and adhesives (such as those found on paper towel rolls).

Eclectus are another group of birds that pluck, with no cut and dried solutions. Poor wing clips (primary feathers cut at the level of the coverts and not at the base) may irritate the bird, causing it to chew on cut feathers, and proceeding from there. Cockatoos are also prone to plucking and chewing due to poor wing clipping. It seems that both male and female Eclectus alike are pickers. They seem to pick at the onset of sexual maturity. I have seen more problems with non-functioning uropygial glands in Eclectus than in other species, so problems with dry feathers and skin may contribute to feather problems. The uropygial gland secretion is also antibacterial, so a non-functioning uropygial gland may result in a bird with skin or follicle infections, as well.

Blue and gold macaws are another frustrating group of birds. Picking appears to coincide with sexual maturity (which can occur as early as two years of age in domestic macaws, contrary to published reports). However, accurate Giardia testing should be performed on all pickers. All pickers should also have a CBC and chemistry panel performed routinely. Other tests may be warranted, including polyomavirus screening (can cause abnormal feathers), psittacosis testing, PBFD testing, aspergillosis testing or protein electrophoresis testing. Radiographs may also be a good idea, as an internal lesion, such as an aspergillosis granuloma, may cause picking over the inside lesion.

Many birds that chronically pick will eventually destroy feather follicles, and thus, feathers may never regrow. Regardless of any treatments instituted, owners may need to accept the fact that their bird may always pick. Treatments include treating any infections found, removing any parasites, collaring (only if the bird is doing damage to itself), correcting any nutritional problems, working to correct any problems with the uropygial gland, perhaps trying one of the drugs used to treat behavioral problems (hopefully after having a consultation with an avian behaviorist) or trying a hormone, such as HCG or leuprolide acetate. If giardiasis has been diagnosed, during and after treatment, the bird should be converted to a water bottle to prevent reinfestation. (Anyone who knows me knows that I constantly recommend switching birds to water bottles to prevent subclinical bacterial infections, as well as protozoal problems.)

Rarely mites are responsible for feather picking. One can test for this by covering the cage at night with a white sheet and examining it in the morning for black or red dots the size of pepper. Dermanyssus mites feed at night, sucking blood, making the bird agitated, then the mites crawl off to hide during the day in crevasses in the cage, perches, toys, etc. These mites are different than the mites causing a powdery appearance to budgies around the beak, cere, eyes, feet and vent, called Knemidokoptes.

Feather picking is a complex problem with no simple solution in many cases. While owners would like a quick fix, a pill or a spray, often, it takes team-work between the veterinarian, owner and behaviorist, to uncover the reasons for the problem, and to apply the correct treatment. And when all possibilities have been exhausted, the owner may need to accept the fact that the bird may always pick. Thinking that the bird should be placed into a breeding program to make it happy is often ineffective. Many plucked birds are happily breeding, yet still plucking. In my opinion, there are many contented, adjusted birds that pluck out of habit. If that is the case, once medical and serious behavioral problems have been ruled out, you need to accept that and enjoy your relationship with your bird, and stop seeking some miracle cure that doesn't exist.

Copyright 2006 Margaret A. Wissman, D.V.M., D.A.B.V.P.
All Rights Reserved

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