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FEATHER PLUCKING IN PARROTS

The feature that sets birds apart in the animal kingdom is not the power of flight - other types of animal (e.g. bats) can fly, and some birds are flightless - but instead it is their feathers. These unique and complex structures give avian species their particular attraction in terms of appearance and color. It is perhaps the main reason why people find birds so attractive, and therefore if any problem occurs with the feathers, it is of immediate concern to the owner.

Just as with any general disease problem in birds, a few displayed symptoms can represent a whole range of causes of the illness, so then there are many reasons why a bird's feathers may become damaged or lost. These would include inherited defects, dietary deficiencies, infections, and physical damage from the environment or other birds. To the inexperienced eye, one damaged feather looks much like another, whereas experience and more detailed analysis will hopefully identify the alternative causes. All of the above problems are of concern to the owner, and require skilful diagnosis to establish the cause and thereby to suggest a possible cure; but there is no more frustrating condition both for the disappointed owner and the veterinarian attempting to treat the bird than the Feather Plucker.

The first point to note is that feather plucking is a disease of captivity - it does not occur (except as natural physiological behavior in breeding birds) in wild-living individuals. Many owners appear to give their birds the best of care and attention, and yet are rewarded by a bird that rips out all its feathers; whilst other individuals can live in apparently appalling environments and yet have immaculate plumage.

The second comment is that no case of feather plucking will respond to a miraculous overnight cure, nor can the answer be given in a two-minute telephone call. The various remedies that have been suggested in the press are not universal panaceas: what will solve the problem in one bird may have no effect in another individual, because of the different root cause.

In attempting to investigate a feather-plucking problem, one has to be able to recognize the normal from the abnormal, and to eliminate all other possible causes of feather disease. This will require detailed questioning of the owner (clinical history) as to the background of the bird - where it came from, where it is kept, how it is fed, when the problem started, how is the problem manifest, are other birds involved, etc, etc…. Examination of the environment is important - the presence of parasites or irritants may be detected, plus one can get a general impression of the bird's lifestyle. The bird will then need a thorough examination, probably linked to laboratory tests such as blood samples to assess liver and kidney function and hormone levels; or to check for infectious agents such as Psittacine Beak and Feather Disease (PBFD). It may be necessary to examine feather samples or skin biopsies for the presence of bacteria, viruses, fungi, or parasites.

It is perfectly normal for a bird to pluck the head and neck feathers of its mate in the breeding season, or for parents to over-preen their chicks in the same way. It is also normal for birds to lose feathers over the breast area while breeding (the "brood patch"), but both these may be triggers to start a bird on the road to longer term plucking. New feathers that grow in the normal molt will irritate as they come through, and birds will preen heavily at this time, but again the scales can tip easily from preening to plucking if the irritation is excessive. This would be the case when many feathers are replaced at once, for example following accident or illness. But then a vicious circle is established, because the large number of growing feathers irritates; this leads to plucking, which means more feathers are grown to replace those pulled out, which means more irritation, and therefore more picking, which means…..

Certain internal or systemic disease conditions will produce skin irritation that results in plucking. Liver disease is one; Giardiasis in Cockatiels is another. This protozoal intestinal infection is well documented as being a cause of feather picking in the USA, although we tend not to see so much over here. The remedy in these cases is obviously to treat the underlying disease rather than simply to try to control the picking.

Dietary problems are also highly significant in feather disease. Still far too many caged birds are kept on an inadequate or imbalanced diet, and deficiencies of vitamins (especially A), minerals (especially calcium), trace elements (e.g. zinc), and amino acids will result in poor feather and skin quality, which in turn predispose to plucking. In some cases too much of a dietary component can cause a problem - a fat-rich diet, or simple obesity, will produce poor feather quality.

The bird's environment is extremely important: smoke in the atmosphere, or fat droplets where a bird is kept near a pub kitchen for example, will be deposited on the feathers, and will cause irritation. Handling a bird with nicotine-stained fingers after smoking will irritate a bird's skin, and will start the bird pecking to relieve the itch. A dry, dusty atmosphere is very bad for plumage quality - the feathers will become brittle and will then irritate. Regular bathing or spraying is essential. Lighting is important - too long a photoperiod (length of daylight) may tire the bird, or stimulate breeding activity, or encourage frequent moulting. Light levels that are too low will result in poor quality feather growth.

Another environmental consideration is boredom. This is frequently cited as a cause of feather plucking, but in my experience it is by no means the commonest cause. Parrots are extremely intelligent creatures, and do need a lot of physical and mental stimulation to satisfy their needs. Therefore toys, objects to chew, radios playing, "playtime" with the owner, are all important for their well-being, and in many cases the provision of such items where they are not present will prevent plucking in a bird. However, the opposite situation can also apply - that is to say that a bird's environment can be too busy. In an active household, with children playing and running around, dogs barking, music blaring, and general busy-ness from dawn 'til way past dusk, the poor bird may get over-stimulated and have no chance of proper rest. This can result in feather pulling, and the answer in this case is obviously to move the bird to a more relaxed atmosphere!

In some cases there may be an inability to preen. The feathers will then look untidy, with persistent sheaths, and possibly secondarily infected, but they will not be plucked out. This could be the case in a hand-reared bird that has not been socialised with others, and has never really learned how to preen; or it may result from some damage to the beak that prevents grooming activity. A further option is arthritis in an older bird, reducing its flexibility to reach certain areas of its plumage.

Specific infections of the skin or feathers may lead to plucking because of the resultant irritation. These would include bacterial infections of the skin (dermatitis) or feather follicles (folliculitis); fungal diseases (similar to conditions such as athlete's foot, or ringworm); or virus infections such as PBFD or Polyomavirus. Parasitic infestations by such creatures as mites, lice, or ticks, are commonly suspected as causes of feather picking, and many cans of mite spray are sold in consequence. In fact, single pet birds are unlikely to be afflicted in this way, unless they have come recently from a collection. Small aviary and colony birds, such as finches, canaries, budgies, and pigeons on the other hand, may be affected by such organisms. One other parasitic condition that is quite common as a cause of skin disease (although rarely feather plucking) is the mange mite Cnemidocoptes (Scaly face, scaly leg, tassle foot.

Thus to diagnose and treat a case of feather plucking, one has to consider and eliminate or test for all of the above. Plucking often starts at adolescence, or following some episode of stress. The time of day that plucking occurs is significant. "Situation" plucking in response to something that annoys the bird is common: for example, being put away at night when he doesn't want to go! Birds are very sensitive to environment and routine - the classic case was the Cockatoo that plucked when its owner moved a picture from one wall in the room to another, and stopped plucking when the picture was replaced! Jealousy and stress are commonly implicated - having builders in or relatives to stay; holiday times or other changes in routine may all be responsible for starting a bird pulling at its feathers.

The area of feathers that the bird attacks is also significant. Hormone changes and broody behaviour most commonly influence chest and shoulder pluckers, while a small local area may indicate some underlying internal pain.

In my experience, most cases of plucking that are not the result of one of the disease processes listed above occur in adolescent birds. Hand-reared African Grey Parrots are perhaps the worst offenders, but Eclectus and Cockatoos come close. Although birds have been kept in captivity for some generations, they are still far from being domesticated species like the dog and cat. The artificial incubation and hand rearing of parrots is a much more recent phenomenon, and these birds grow up not really sure whether they are bird or human! When they reach those "awkward teenage years", and their hormones tell them they need to breed, they are not quite sure which way to turn, and hence start plucking in frustration and confusion. It is also possible that the hormone changes cause direct irritability of the skin, just as in human teenagers with acne. A commonly suggested solution in such cases is to "get the bird a mate", but this is not always the answer. A companion bird of a different species may help, but a true opposite sex of the same species may throw the bird into even more confusion. They may even copy each other, and you end up with two plucked birds!

So having identified our bird as a plucker, and confirmed by the above examinations and analysis that it is not suffering from a specific disease, what can we do about it? I hope I have demonstrated that the causes can be so varied that no one single treatment could possibly work for every bird, but there are some general suggestions that I offer as background therapy in every case. These are:

? Regular spraying or bathing with warm water. This is essential for proper feather condition, especially in an indoor heated atmosphere, and should be done several times a week. Most birds enjoy a shower, but some will actively dislike it. Nevertheless, one should persevere for the sake of the long-term plumage quality.

? The provision of a stimulating and interesting environment, including materials that can be chewed. There are many parrot toys available that are useful, but these can be expensive. It is just as effective to provide cheap replaceable objects such as clean twigs from non-toxic trees (fruit trees, willow, hazel, chestnut, eucalyptus, etc); cardboard rolls or egg boxes; hide chews intended for dogs; or similar items. Birds need to gnaw, and these items may be destroyed and replaced cheaply on a regular basis, and may distract the bird from chewing its own feathers. Leaving a radio or television playing when the house is empty can be useful, but balance this with what I mentioned earlier about an over-busy environment. It may help to move the bird around to be with the family at different times of day, but conversely other birds fare much better if their housing is stable, and they can feel safe and secure. Each case has to be treated individually.

? The provision of a well-balanced diet. This is very important, and many cases of poor feather quality will be improved with better nutrition. Fussy eaters can be given one of the many vitamin and mineral supplements that are available, but of particular importance to feather growth are the amino acids to be found in animal protein. Many people seem surprised to be told that their pet birds should be given such items as hard cheese, cooked egg or chicken, fish fingers and the like, but in fact the protein content of these foods is essential for new feather growth. Most wild parrots are facultative omnivores, which means they will eat anything that is available in their environment, including the occasional grub, caterpillar, insect, or even small fish, so animal protein is not at all alien to their diet.

Other remedies that may be adopted in specific cases could be the judicious use of hormone therapy, or the provision of a proper environment in which to pair off and breed.

Many other suggested methods really just attack the results of the plucking, and do not address the root cause. These would include the use of sedatives or psycho-altering drugs such as the much publicised "Prozac". These may have a place and a short-term effect in some cases, but usually once therapy is withdrawn, the plucking will recur if the bird's circumstances are unchanged. The beak may be notched or have a ball applied to its tip to prevent damage to the feathers; or collars may be attached to restrict plucking. Again, both these methods are preventive rather than curative, but may have a place in allowing feather recovery while the underlying reasons are addressed. The fitting of collars is a personal preference: in my experience many birds are adept at removing them, or if they can't, then they become even more neurotic.

In summary, one can repeat that there is no overnight solution, and that there is no single remedy suitable for all cases! Detailed "psychoanalysis" is required for each bird (and very often its owner!), and even then there will be many disappointments. It will take weeks to correct a problem and establish new feather growth, but only a few minutes for a recalcitrant bird to pull them all out again! Many cases do relapse, and with repeated plucking there may well be permanent follicular damage that means the bird will never grow feathers in these areas. Parrots are intelligent creatures, and require both mental and physical stimulation to keep them fit. This they have in their natural wild environment, so I repeat that feather plucking is a disease of captivity. Each case presents a challenge to owner and veterinarian, and every attempt must be made to solve the underlying problem rather than merely to suppress the urge to pluck.

 
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