Information In-depthSelf mutilation in birds
can be divided into 3 separate categories but is usually referred to
by the general term "feather picking".
the breaking of the feather shaft. The feather shaft might be
snapped near the outer end, resulting in feathers ending in a �v�
shape. The feather shaft might be snapped near the base leaving no
feathers visible outside the down.
Feather-plucking involves pulling feathers out, sometimes
resulting in the bird version of an �ouch�. This might be ongoing or
a temporary response to dirty or damaged feathers and is especially
common around the vent or the preening gland at the base of the
shredding, the most common form of self-inflicted damage, begins
with injury to the edge of the feathers. This might be related to:
soiled feathers; boredom; falling; anxiety; feelings of abandonment;
poor diet; or inadequate lighting.
Feather picking is not
only one of the most frustrating of all pet bird problems, it is
also one of the most common problems seen in avian veterinary
practice. Published information on feather picking in pet birds
suggests a number of possible etiologies (causes). However, in the
majority of cases, a cause is never identified, no matter how
dedicated or aggressive the diagnostic approach. Therapeutic trials
utilizing antibiotics, anti-inflammatory drugs, antidepressants and
tranquilizers have all produced inconsistent results. Unfortunately,
bird owners are often left extremely frustrated since feather
picking is incurable in a substantial number of cases.
Many different disorders can
contribute to feather picking in pet birds. Causes can be broken
down into three categories: external disorders of the skin or
feathers, systemic (internal) diseases, and psychological disorders.
Literature often reports that the three primary causes are mites,
malnutrition and boredom, but in fact these are rarely the cause.
Disorders of the feathers and skin are the easiest to
identify. Unfortunately, external causes of feather picking are not
very common, and some of them, while easy to identify, are difficult
or impossible to treat.
Systemic diseases as a cause of
feather picking can be far less obvious. Although almost any
infectious process or organ disease has the potential to cause
feather picking, the connection between internal disease and picking
is inconsistent. For example, sometimes the discovery and treatment
of an intestinal infection may stop a bird from feather picking. In
other cases, a bird may continue to pluck feathers despite the
successful diagnosis and treatment of an intestinal infection. In
these cases, either the picking became a habit that couldn't be
broken, or there was really no connection between the enteric
disease and feather problem to begin with.
causes of feather picking
- External parasites � Pet owners frequently believe that
mites are a common cause of feather picking. However, mite
infestations occur in a very small percentage of the pet bird
population. When mites are, in fact, present, they are very easy to
detect and curing the bird of the problem is extremely simple.
- Inadequate grooming � This is a common cause of feather
picking. Many birds become covered with dirt, oils, and chemicals,
such as make-up, from being handled extensively by their owners. The
practice of "bathing" birds by spraying them with water from a spray
bottle is inadequate in these cases. A small amount of baby shampoo
added to the water (1 tbs. shampoo to 16 oz. water) helps remove the
foreign material, but the bird should be gently but thoroughly
showered to rinse off the shampoo.
- Pyoderma (Bacterial infection of the skin) -
Staphylococcus aureus is a bacterial infection of the skin that can
cause enough itching and discomfort to cause feather picking.
- Fungal dermatitis � Rarely, fungal infections of the skin
or feathers may cause picking. When present, fungal dermatitis is
usually a secondary, opportunistic infection.
- Inadequate photoperiod � Occasionally, a lack of proper
exposure to normal lighting cycles (photoperiods) can lead to
delayed molting. Feathers may age and become the target of excessive
preening by the bird with a resultant "picking" problem. If coupled
with malnutrition, the feathers may deteriorate more rapidly than
normal. These feathers appear ragged, mimicking the appearance of
- Viral Diseases � Emerging feathers that have been damaged
by infection with Psittacine Beak and Feather Disease virus (PBFD)
often have a characteristic appearance. These feathers grow in like
twisted porcupine quills, then fall out, revealing crimped sections
at the roots. Other diseases occasionally produce these signs, so a
positive diagnosis based on laboratory work is mandatory, since PBFD
is often a fatal disease. Polyomavirus may cause similar appearing
feather lesions in young birds. Birds with feather lesions due to
Polyomavirus are more likely to recover than those with lesions
caused by PBFD.
- Liver disease � Several diseases of the liver, such as
Chlamydiosis (parrot fever, Psittacosis), Hepatic lipidosis (fatty
liver syndrome), Tuberculosis (TB), Bile Duct Carcinoma (liver
cancer), Lymphoma (cancer) and many others have been connected with
- Kidney disease has been observed in connection with
feather picking, often with the picking focused over the lower back
where the kidneys are located. In one case, removal of a benign
tumor of the kidney led to complete resolution.
- Aspergillosis is a fungal disease that forms plaques on
air sac surfaces. Birds with this condition may pick because of
allergic-type reactions to substances produced by the fungus. In
addition, these birds often have compromised immune systems and the
feathering may reflect generally poor condition.
- Intestinal infections � Giardia, an intestinal parasite,
can cause severe itching and feather picking in some species of
birds. Other intestinal infections, such as Candidiasis, a fungal
infection of the intestinal tract, or bacterial enteritis, may also
cause feather picking.
- Thyroid disorders can lead to poor quality plumage and
delayed molting. Feathers can become brittle and devitalized.
- Toxins � Heavy metals, such as lead and zinc have been
associated with feather picking.
- Reproduction, while not a disorder or disease, often
leads to feather picking. Females may pick at the lower abdomen to
prepare the "brood patch" (the area of the abdomen that will be in
contact with the eggs) for nesting. Both sexes may pluck to line the
nest with feathers in preparation for the eggs. Many claims exist of
single birds picking out of frustration from not having a mate. Some
of these birds however, when given a mate, will pick the mate as
well as themselves.
- Psychological causes of feather picking are by far the
most difficult to resolve, and probably the most common. Sudden
changes in routine, the absence of a consistently present owner or
unfamiliar disturbances can lead to violent episodes of generalized
picking. When the cause is sudden and it�s a single episode, the
plumage will often re-grow without complication. If, however, the
cause is not identified, the picking may progress indefinitely with
no response to attempts at intervention. Many owners caught in this
situation have a strong desire to utilize tranquilizers,
antidepressants, or sedatives. However, only a small number of birds
respond to treatment with these drugs. Not long ago, a news story
that discussed the use of one of these drugs prompted a flood of
requests for the drug from desperate owners. No further
documentation of this drug's effectiveness was ever produced, and
owners were once again gravely disappointed.