Feather Picking in Birds
Also known as “feather destructive behaviour”, feather picking refers to birds self-traumatising their feathers with their beaks. One important concept to understand as a bird owner is that it is not a disease in itself – it is a symptom of an underlying disease. While it is common among parrots and cockatoos, it can affect any bird.
Beyond feather loss as a cosmetic issue (baldness), feather picking can affect a bird’s ability to keep warm. It can also cause bleeding and infection, and it can become an obsessive-compulsive behaviour that is very hard to correct.
WHY DOES FEATHER PICKING OCCUR?
Vets will seek to determine if feather picking is “medical” or “non-medical”, with non-medical being much more common in captive or pet birds.
- Nutritional deficiency (for example not enough calcium, too much seed)
- Low humidity
- Small cage
- Overcrowding or competition with other birds
- Improper socialisation when young
- Unpredictable home environment
- Sleep deprivation
Primary feather and skin diseases
- Viral diseases (e.g. beak and feather disease)
- Bacterial or fungal skin infections
- Feather dysplasia (abnormal feather growth)
Reaching a diagnosis for the cause of feather picking starts with your veterinarian obtaining a comprehensive history. They will want to know everything – where the bird came from, diet, housing, routine, other pets at home and much more. Based on this, they may decide to run other tests such as X-rays, blood tests and biopsies. Be aware that these tests often need to be done under anaesthetic, and can get expensive.
It is important to have realistic expectations. As the problem is so complex and often behavioural, it is often impossible to eradicate feather picking. However, it is possible to reduce it, and improve your bird’s quality of life.
Feather picking is a coping mechanism – think of it as a bird’s version of biting nails. Treatment plans will be aimed at providing healthy, sustainable alternatives to feather picking. It must be specific for your bird and your own capabilities as an owner.
If your veterinarian identifies a medical cause, treatment will be directed at this and guided by your veterinarian. Environmental enrichment and stimulation is applicable in most cases:
- Foraging – having to move around and use their intelligence to find food
- Toys, swings, ropes, ladders
- Larger cage size
- Social interaction regularly with people, or other birds
- Background noises such as TV, radio
- Ability to observe people, or outside environment (ie a view from a window)
See our article on housing and feeding birds for tips to get started! (coming soon)
Generally, it is best to avoid things like collars or neck braces to stop the feather picking. These are not solutions in the long term and will only add to your bird’s frustration. Be prepared to work closely with your vet over a long period of time to alleviate the problem. The better you know your bird, and the earlier you pick up on feather picking, the better the results will be.
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