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Parrots pluck their feathers for
a number of reasons. Parrots pluck their feathers as a way of dealing with
stress. The stress that causes feather plucking can be emotional, nutritional or
disease stress. Parrots that eat an all-seed diet deficient in vitamins often
pluck their feathers. At breeding time, deprived parrots also pluck their
feathers. Feather plucking in parrots is an exaggerated form of preening. To
correct feather plucking in parrots one must identify the cause of plucking.
Even when the root cause is corrected the habit of feather plucking in parrots
may continue. Some times medications are required to break the habit of feather
plucking in parrots
The first step always in
dealing with a behavioural problem such as feather plucking (the other two
common problems being screaming and biting) is to make sure that it doesn’t have
its roots in an underlying health problem. Feather plucking is a symptom of
something else wrong with the bird. The only chance of a successful outcome is
to identify and correct what is behind the behaviour. Every feather plucker or
feather chewer has a reason for exhibiting the behaviour. Remember, feather
plucking is a symptom and not a disease in itself.
And so, what possible health problems are going through an avian vet’s mind when
he is initially presented with a feather-plucking parrot for examination and,
indeed, what sort of diagnostic tests are at his disposal?
Primary feather follicle irritation
Feather follicles that are itchy or irritated attract the bird’s attention. In
its attempt to make itself comfortable, the bird may chew or pick at the
feather. Possible causes include an infection associated with mites, bacteria,
fungi or a virus. Some species of mite live deep in the feather follicle, wedged
between the outer wall of the feather and the lining of the feather follicle. A
simple in-aviary test that might indicate the presence of mites is to gently
roll a damaged feather out of its follicle. If mites are present, there may be a
collar of dry dandruff-like material around the feather. A vet can scrape this
material onto a drop of oil on a microscope slide and examine it. Examination
can reveal adult mites, nymphs and also eggs. A feather with a healthy follicle
is often harder to remove and the section of feather below the skin is clean and
shiny. Generalized bacterial infection associated with bacteria such as
Staphylococcus can be intensely itchy, while fungi (such as Mucor sp. and
Rhizopus sp.) have been associated with itchiness in pigeons as well as parrots.
Veterinarians can take skin scrapings and squash feather contents onto slides
for microscopic examination. Sometimes, special stains can aid in diagnosis.
Feather and skin samples can also be cultured for bacteria and fungus. Both
Polyoma virus (associated amongst other things with ‘French Moult’ in budgies)
and Circo virus (the agent of PBFD in cockatoos and other birds) can inflame the
feather follicle, leading to the growth of abnormal feathers and variable
degrees of irritation. These viruses are tested for usually in blood and feather
samples where either evidence of the virus itself or antibody to the virus is
detected. Interestingly, itchy birds that may appear quite normal sometimes test
positive for Circo virus, which means that even though no obvious feather damage
is visible, the virus should not be discounted.
The jury is still out on the importance of allergies in itchy birds. What we do
know is that we see clinical disease and microscopic lesions associated with
allergies in birds that scratch and feather pick. Also, there is a significant
difference in the skin testing results between normal and itchy birds. Suggested
allergens include Aspergillis sp. (a fungus that grows on organic material such
as straw, etc in damp conditions) and sunflower seeds.
Many things found in households that are quite innocuous to humans have been
associated with itchy skin in birds. Vapourised cooking oils, alcohol-based
sprays and cigarette smoke can all irritate the skin. The low humidity created
by central heating is also particularly irritant to rainforest parrots, such as
macaws, which have evolved to do well in more humid environments.
Birds don’t have hands but, in the same way that we might rub a sore area to try
and make it feel better, birds will pick and chew over an area that is sore. And
so, chewing of a localized area may indicate pain or discomfort in that area. A
common syndrome here occurs in cockatiels that chew and damage the feathers over
their body generally but often particularly over their abdomen. Microscopic
examination of these birds’ droppings sometimes reveals a Giardia (a flagellate)
infection. Treatment of the Giardia often leads to a resolution of the feather
picking. The exact mechanism here is not known but it is thought that either a
toxin produced by the Giardia or alternately direct discomfort caused by the
organism in the bowel leads to the self-trauma. Chlamydophila infection has also
been associated with feather chewing, either due to primary skin changes or
internal pain associated with the disease. Liver disease can lead to the
deposition of irritant bile salts in the skin. Poorly healed fractures have also
been associated with self-trauma. Screening X-rays, blood profiles, together
with microscopic examination and cultures of throat swabs and droppings, as well
as specific tests for Chlamydophila are all used to gather information.
Poor diets can not only lead to poor quality feathers and dry flaky skin but can
also make the skin more vulnerable to secondary infection. Both scenarios result
in unhealthy skin that becomes itchy. The diet of any bird with poor quality
feathers should always be reviewed. This appears particularly so in Eclectus
parrots and it is surprising how many of these birds respond simply to dietary
improvement. Vitamin A, in particular, is the nutrient required for healthy skin
and mucous membranes. Vitamin A deficiency should always be suspected in birds
whose diet is based on dry seed.
Heavy metal poisoning, most commonly associated with inadvertent lead or zinc
ingestion through chewing new wire or other metal objects, can lead to
behavioural changes (together with other problems) that may manifest as
compulsive feather chewing.
Tumours, feather cysts, xanthomas and non-healing wounds can all draw a bird’s
attention to a particular site, leading to feather picking.
Some birds prior to breeding, e.g. some cockatoos, will pluck their feathers to
line nesting logs.
Poor feathering and feather loss can occur secondary to some hormonal problems,
such as hyperthyroidism (increased function of the thyroid gland) and Addison’s
disease (decreased formation of corticosterone by the adrenal gland). Although
not a direct cause of feather picking, they may predispose the bird to secondary
problems and cause low-grade itchiness.
Diagnosis of a medical cause behind feather picking can be time consuming and at
times costly. As veterinarians, we often face the challenge of providing an
accurate diagnosis within given financial constraints. Veterinarians endeavor to
get to the bottom of the problem without spending client’s money on tests that
are unnecessary but at the same time it is important that the bird’s health is
not put at risk through an unidentified problem. Usually, however the
combination of a concerned bird owner and keen avian vet will identify any
medical problem present.
Physical v. psychological
Self-mutilation can be either a physical or psychological problem. If the bird’s
clinical examination and diagnostic testing fail to identify a health problem,
then through a diagnosis of exclusion a psychological problem becomes more
Parrots are naturally active, intelligent birds that with insufficient input to
their sensory pathways simply go ‘stir crazy’. In the same way that a bored
lonely working dog confined to a suburban yard will start to exhibit abnormal
behaviour, such as barking excessively, being aggressive or destroying objects,
parrots will release the same frustrations through mutilating themselves.
In the wild, parrots spend a long time with their parents and in some species
(e.g. the galah) crèche groups are formed. This social structure tends to
educate the growing birds and reinforce correct behaviour. Birds raised in
isolation from a young age are vulnerable to developing a range of aberrant
behaviours, including feather plucking. The identification and management of
psychological feather plucking is involved and challenging and will be only
briefly touched on here.
Psychological self-mutilation usually occurs either as a result of boredom,
sexual frustration or anxiety.
Free-flying parrots live in a three-dimensional world full of colour and
activity. The parrot owner must mimic this as closely as possible through
enriching the bird’s environment. The type of cage, cage location and the
provision of interesting food and toys are all relevant here.
Many free-roaming parrots travel with their mate in small roving bands. They
therefore have a natural need for companionship. In captivity, pet birds will
often develop what they perceive as a ‘mate’ relationship with their primary
carer. This is obviously inappropriate as no human can fulfill such a role.
Fostering such a relationship leads to a situation of unrequited love and simply
serves to further the bird’s mental confusion and frustration. The appropriate
role for an owner to adopt is that of a friend not a mate. The pet bird should
view its primary carer as a benevolent leader. Interestingly, it is thought that
the fatty seeds provided in some commercial diets may contain oestrogen
precursors and may in some way act as aphrodisiacs, further exacerbating the
Overcrowding, close housing to a non-compatible species excessive noise or
disturbance, etc, etc, can all be sources of anxiety. Evaluation needs a careful
review of a bird’s management and environment.
No matter what the cause of feather plucking, the earlier it is identified and
corrected the better is the chance of a successful outcome. As always, your
local avian veterinarian is the best person to consult for advice.
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