Feather Destructive Behavior in Birds

Many bird patients have chronic feather destructive behavior – either they chew the shafts of their feathers off or they pluck the feathers out. Unfortunately this is not an uncommon problem in pet birds. In the wild, birds spend most of their days foraging for food, grooming and socializing with their flock mates, and exploring their environment. When we bring these birds into a home setting, we need to provide them with the same types of enrichment that they would have in the wild. Sometimes, even when we do our best, these birds will develop behavioral problems such as feather plucking.

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We want to give you an explanation of how we go about diagnosing the cause of the feather plucking in our patients, and let you know that if your bird plucks because of a behavioral problem and not a medical one, to be patient and consistent with treatment. There is never a quick fix for behavioral feather destructive behavior – it takes work and diligence.

First Presentation

The very first time a bird is seen for feather plucking, we like to get a good idea of what has been going on at home. The first 30 minutes of an appointment may simply be taking a history and finding out what has changed in the bird’s environment, what the diet is like, and what a typical day is like for your bird. Sometimes simply addressing underlying issues with husbandry will be the first step in treatment for a patient’s feather destructive behavior.

Diet plays a big role in a bird’s overall health, and most of our companion birds eat an unhealthy, imbalanced diet. Correcting the diet is the first step in improving the bird’s immune system and health, which can sometimes be a contributing cause of feather destructive behavior.

We will also make recommendations about daily enrichment, training, interacting with your bird, and potential stressors in your bird’s daily life, and any other possible underlying husbandry issues that could be related to your bird’s feather destruction.

Exam

A thorough physical exam will be performed next. For many birds, the only physical abnormality is the feather destruction. For any bird with feather plucking (whether symptoms started 2 days ago or 2 years ago), the following tests will always be recommended initially as part of the medical workup to rule out any medical problems that could be a root cause of the plucking:

Fecal gram stain and direct smear

This will give us an idea of what your bird’s digestive tract health is. Some birds, especially those that pluck around their bellies, will have an intestinal imbalance that needs to be corrected. Parasites like Giardia can also cause feather plucking, especially in Cockatiels. Additionally, birds who are chronic pluckers from stress or anxiety will often times have some sort of intestinal imbalance as well that needs to be treated along with the underlying cause for feather plucking.

Complete blood count and biochemistry profile

This gives us a good idea of how healthy your bird is. It is a complete organ screen and can identify any underlying infections or organ dysfunction. We always like to treat for medical causes of feather plucking before assuming it is a behavioral problems.

X-rays

Some birds will pluck because of underlying conditions, such as arthritis, hormonal issues, cancer, and other internal problems that x-rays may be able to show us.

Next Step

If blood work and x-rays are normal, then additional testing may be recommended (such as viral testing, feather biopsy and/or culture, and more) and we will begin to discuss behavioral modifications that may need to take place in the home. Each case is unique in treatment, so there is no one common recipe for plucking, and often times we have to work on behavior modification for weeks to months before seeing an improvement.

So please don’t give up hope!

The bottom line is, we will sit down and work on a treatment plan that is right for your bird, and we will continue to make modifications as needed to help your bird stop its feather destructive behavior. Please be aware that despite all efforts, some birds never completely resolve their feather plucking. Below is a list of some of the treatments we have recommended for feather plucking depending on physical exam and test results, just to give you an idea of the wide array of possible solutions to your bird’s problem:

  • Diet change
  • Nutritional and neutraceutical supplementation
  • Lighting change
  • Foraging enrichment
  • Independence play
  • Training exercises
  • Changes in bathing or environmental humidity
  • Changes in sleep patterns
  • Intestinal antibiotics/antifungals/deworming
  • Medications for skin infections
  • Medications for obsessive compulsive/anxiety disorders
  • Exercise recommendations
  • Changes in types of interactions with owners
  • Medications to regulate hormones
  • Changes in types of wing trims or allowing free flight

E-Collars

On a side note, many owners will ask us about the use of E-collars to prevent a bird from plucking. In our opinion, these collars need to only be used for severe cases when the bird is mutilating its skin or causing open sores, or as an adjunct to another form of treatment for its feather destruction. Though plucking feathers is unsightly and distressing to the owners, usually it does not cause any underlying problems as long as it is just the feather being destroyed.

Using a collar solely to prevent the bird from plucking will only further frustrate the bird and is not a useful treatment because we are doing nothing to address the actual cause of the plucking. It would be the same as putting an E-collar on a dog with itchy skin so he would not lick and chew at it, but then not giving him any medication to treat the itching.

Are Some Birds Prone To Feather Destructive Behavior?

Some birds are prone to feather destructive behavior, including African Grey Parrots, Cockatoos, Quaker parrots, certain species of Macaws, and certain species of Conures. If you have a species prone to plucking, then we highly suggest speaking with us about ways to enrich your bird’s life so that you may decrease the chances of your bird become a feather plucker. Many times it is stress-induced or behavioral in these species, or it is from inappropriate relationships with their human companions, or boredom in their environment that can trigger this behavior. Because of the high anxiety and stress that is genetically programmed into some of these birds, however, some will still exhibit feather destruction despite everything we do.

Address The Problem Sooner Rather Than Later

Finally, if you have noticed your bird begin to pluck feathers, please make an appointment as soon as possible. Sometimes this behavior is so ingrained by the time we see the bird that there is nothing we can do to stop the plucking. Also, do not try any home remedies without consulting us first. Many of these do not work and may hurt your bird, especially if there is an underlying medical reason why your bird is plucking.