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(207) 846-6515

FEATHERS AND SKIN: FEATHER DAMAGING BEHAVIOR

YVCipedia AVIAN
FEATHER DAMAGING BEHAVIOR 

THE PROBLEM AND IT'S CAUSES
Birds that damage their own feathers are the most common avian patients we see. There may be a single cause or multiple causes that start the problem, and there are many factors that can perpetuate and complicate the problem. As a result, despite well-reasoned attempts to manage it, the problem usually persists, and often takes a spiralling, cascading course. It is wise to set our expectations carefully: successful treatment is often a reduction in, but rarely elimination of, the feather picking.

The initiating causes and perpetuating and complicating factors may be physical or psychological. It is simplistic and seriously misleading to think that the problem is "just" due to stress, boredom, or itch. 

PHYSICAL CAUSES
The possible physical causes include:

  • dermatitis: infection (bacteria, virus, fungus); inflammation (allergy)
  • folliculitis: infection (bacteria, virus, fungus)
  • malnutrition: a seed-based diet results in dry flaky skin which predisposes the bird to infection and itch
  • environmental conditions: extremes of heat and humidity; cigarette smoke
  • painful internal illness: liver, pancreatic and kidney diseases, arthritis and other orthopedic problems, abscesses, cancer
  • reproductive activitiy: enlargements in the reproductive tract related to normal reproductive physiology are thought to sometimes result in abdominal discomfort and feather picking
  • parasites: external (lice, mites) and internal (Giardia); this is a very common suspicion among feather-picking bird owners and pet store employees, it is very rarely true

BEHAVIORAL CAUSES
The possible psychological causes include:

  • attention-seeking behavior: the bird uses picking to get the owner's attention
  • anxiety: many possible sources, both environmental (for example, changes in the household; changes outside of the house that the bird is aware of) and intrinsic (for example, surging reproductive hormones)
  • obsessive/compulsive behavior
  • boredom: birds in the wild spend about 80% of daylight hours foraging for and consuming food, and the remaining 20% grooming and socializing; in captivity, with food readily available and often no one to socialize with, grooming is the only option remaining

DIAGNOSIS
It is not usually possible to definitively determine the cause of feather damaging behavior: this is certainly one of the most frustrating aspects of the problem for pet owners.

We believe it is still worth casting a wide diagnostic net in order to characterize the individual patient's problem in as much detail as possible. 

We begin with:

  • Detailed general history and behavioral history*
  • Physical exam*
  • Cytology: microscopic exam of skin and feather smears and scrapings*
  • Blood profile
  • Whole body x-rays

Depending on the results of these tests we consider:

  • Skin biopsy
  • Tests for specific disease-causing agents
  • Endoscopy

*  This thorough diagnostic approach is extremely valuable. The blood profile, x-rays and other tests are also expensive and require multiple visits to our office; some of the tests also require general anesthesia. What to expect from the first office visit for a feather damaging behavior problem: at YVC we can accomplish the exam and cytology in an extended office visit with no anesthesia. In many cases we can begin trial therapy without additional diagnostics. 

MANAGEMENT

WHAT WE DO NOT USE, AND WHAT DOES NOT WORK
We only use protective collars if self-mutilation (tearing of skin and other soft tissues) is occuring or seems very likely. 

Homeopathic remedies do not work. 

Herbal remedies are much more likely to either not work or be harmful than they are to be helpful. 

DRUGS
We have made safe and effective use of various medications. The options include behavior-modifying drugs (tranquilizers, antianxiety medications), anti-inflammatories, antibiotics, and analgesics. Our choices are specifically tailored for the individual patient, and are based on a carefully established diagnosis. We (all veterinarians) are not allowed to dispense or prescribe medications for pets that we have not examined; photos and videos are often helpful but there must be an exam.

NUTRITION
It is essential that the bird eat a complete and balanced diet. Seed-based diets must be stopped, and replaced with a diet appropriate for the specific species of bird. This usually means a pelleted diet (Harrisons Bird Food is best, Roudebush is another good option), Lafeber Avicakes, Lafeber Nutriberries, or a combination of two or all three of these options. 

A small amount of cooked egg every day provides balanced fatty acids that have the same anti-inflammatory and other health benefits that fish oils do for people. 

Nutritional supplements are of questionable value.

BEHAVIOR MODIFICATION
A very brief run-through of a very extensive topic:

  • Environmental stressors are identified and, to as great an extent as is possible, eliminated.
  • Basic training, using a reward-based system, is implemented. This is the bird version of the dog's "sit, down, stay, come" training. Once it is achieved it is used to guide more normal behaviors.
  • Provide foraging activities. 
  • Encourage normal feather care using frequent, gentle misting with water and providing multiple and varied bird bath and shower options. Provide the bird with chewing alternatives to its own feathers. The best ones are the simplest and least expensive: twigs and branches, rocks and stones.
  • Develop normal social interactions with the bird. This usually means carefully breaking the tight bond with one person and replacing it with an equally tight bond with the bird's entire social circle. 
  • In our experience at YVC, sexual bonding between the owner and their pet bird is a particularly common reason for feather damaging behavior. Kissing, snuggling, stroking down the front and/or back of the pet encourages it to view the owner as potential mate. The displacement behavior of damaging feathers occurs when the bird cannot get the satisfactory breeding relationship it is seeking. The owner must discontinue these activities, and replace them with the acceptable activities described above.

PROGNOSIS, EXPECTATIONS
Unfortunately, when the problem is partly or entirely behavioral, it is unlikely that feather damaging behavior can ever be completely stopped. The problem has a tendancy to wax and wane, so periodic re-evaluations and adjustments in the management plan are needed.

Our goal is to minimize this problem behavior by maximizing our avian patient's over-all health and happiness. If the end result of our efforts is a healthier bird that is more comfortable in its environment and more social with all of its human companions, then the state of its plumage becomes less significant. 

SEVERAL EXAMPLES FOR OWNERS TO CONSIDER:

The feather damaging occurs when the owner is not present. 
Likely causes: separation anxiety, boredom
Factors that make the problem worse: habit; lack of a rich environment; lack of foraging activities

The feather damage occurs when the owner is present but not paying attention to the bird.
Likely cause: attention-seeking
Factors that make the problem worse: habit; drama, other attention from the owner

The bird interrupts normal behavior to damage feathers.
Likely causes: obsessive-compulsive disorder; physical itchiness
Factors that make the problem worse: habit; drama, other attention from the owner

In addition to damaging feathers, the bird exhibits other signs of fear and anxiety.
Likely  cause: generalized anxiety disorder
Factors that make the problem worse: the owner avoids the bird; habit; changes in the home

Feather damaging starts at a young age, and/or in a handfed bird.
Likely cause: problems with preening; poor socialization
Factors that make the problem worse: habit; drama, other attention from the owner

Feather damaging involves mostly the long feathers of the wings and tail.
Likely causes: anxiety disorders; poor-quality wing trim; trauma from a too-small cage
Factors that make the problem worse: habit; drama, other attention from the owner

Feather damaging by a sexually mature bird that is receiving sexually suggestive attention from its owner.
Likely cause: displacement activity - because the bird ultimately cannot mate with the owner
Factors that make the problem worse: habit; drama, other attention from the owner

Yarmouth Veterinary Center
2016

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