Causes of Feather Plucking in Parrots


“When a pet bird owner comes to you and thinks he has a parrot that is picking its feathers for behavioral reasons, what veterinary tests do you want to have seen done to rule out physical causes before you are comfortable going forward with behavioral modification?”

Answer:

Birds Fluffing Their Feathers After...
Birds Fluffing Their Feathers After Preening

By the time someone calls me for a behavioral consultation, they have typically been to a veterinarian who has conducted some tests and has delivered the opinion that the plucking is “behavioral.” This is typically done before they call me for a behavioral consultation.

They frequently inform me that “the veterinarian has done ALL of the testings, and the bird is fully healthy….behavioral!” it’s After having previously believed that they were caring and careful parrot owners, they are now perplexed, feeling slightly guilty, and quite confused about what is going on. In addition, they have frequently already invested a significant amount of money to arrive at that conclusion.

The very first thing I want to know is, “If ALL of the tests have been done, what were they?”

In every case, the owner is unaware of the situation. In point of fact, I have never had a single customer who was able to respond appropriately to this question. I’m going to pause here for a second and say that this is one of the most significant issues facing parrot keeping in the modern era.

In a nutshell, each and every one of us is responsible for being fully informed of the examinations that are conducted on our parrots and the goals of each examination. In the investigation of featherpicking, it is imperative that we have a clear understanding of the physical factors that each test is designed to rule out.

There is a wide range of expertise and experience among avian veterinarians, and a responsible owner will monitor the care her parrot receives with a proactive mindset so she may make the most of the available options.

This requires us to be patient and persistent when asking questions, as well as to ensure that our birds are handled in a gentle manner. I would advise a person to look for a new veterinarian if their current one is unwilling to take the time to explain what he is testing for and why he is doing so.

This concept will be better understood after reading the following anecdote:

I got a phone call from the owner of an intelligent African Grey who was very knowledgeable. Her Grey female child, who was seven years old, was collecting feathers. Regarding the issue, she had visited two separate veterinarians.

The initial analysis consisted of doing cultures, a gram stain, and a blood panel, but it did not contain any kind of measurement of the toxicity of heavy metals. A second veterinarian, who had performed a feather biopsy, had been suggested to her by him. Both of these veterans are well-known and highly regarded in their fields.

However, neither of them had their blood tested for conditions such as aspergillosis, giardia, zinc or lead toxicity, which are some of the most common reasons why people pick their feathers. Why? Because the field of avian veterinary care, along with our understanding of the physiological factors that contribute to feather picking, is still in its formative stages.

The knowledge that a veterinarian has about the physical causes of feather picking is often dependent, to a large extent, on the number of cases that have been brought to his attention (and which he has successfully tested and treated) as well as the amount of time that he spends staying up to date on the latest developments in this field.

In addition, until very recently, it was a widely-accepted assumption that the majority of issues associated with feather picking are “behavioral” in character. This misconception is held by many veterinarians even today, and as a result, they do not always perform the comprehensive testing that is sometimes required.

As a result, it is both unreasonable and unwise to anticipate that any one veterinarian will be able to treat a feather-plucking bird with the necessary level of expertise. As parrot owners, this puts us in the position of being the “bottom line.” Every person who owns a feather-picking bird needs to be informed about the specific tests that have been run to date for the issue, as well as the specific physiologic causes that each of these tests was intended to rule out.

Therefore, the first task I give a new client is to find out what tests have been performed and what potential physical causes have been eliminated. After that, we start to “fill in the blanks” to figure out what the problem is. The most forward-thinking and modern veterinarians are now suggesting that as much as 70 percent of all feather picking is caused by physical factors. Therefore, it would not be appropriate for me to proceed with the assumption that the picking is solely behavioral (even if this statement has been offered by the vet who is working on the case), and it would also be irresponsible of me to do so, unless I made a careful examination of the tests that had been run in the past. On the other hand, it is imperative that I take into account the fact that the owner has, in most cases, already spent a sizeable amount of money on previous trips to the veterinarian, with no resolution in sight, and may not be pleased with the prospect of being required to return to the veterinarian for additional testing.

Before concluding that the issue is primarily a behavioral one, it is my opinion that we should first have the owners undertake every feasible test to rule out the possibility that there is a physical explanation. On the other hand, the price tag for something like that typically exceeds $500. In situations in which it is not feasible or viable to immediately eliminate every conceivable physical reason, it is important in my opinion that the owner at least conduct tests for the following factors:

Aspergillosis. This is a fungal infection of the respiratory tract that is caused by the aspergillus mold. This creature can be found virtually anywhere; its spores are dispersed throughout the surrounding environment. It grows easily on corn cob bedding, which may be purchased to be used in parrot cages, in addition to other organic waste. Because it is so prevalent in the natural world, parrots typically do not become infected with the disease (having developed some resistance to it) unless one of the following two things happens: (1) they have some kind of massive exposure to the spores, or (2) their immune system becomes suppressed. When corn cobs are used as bedding or when fields that are close to a parrot’s house are tilled, a significantly higher number of spores than usual are discharged into the air, both of which can result in massive exposure. When a parrot is under heightened stress or when it becomes unwell with another infection, the immune system of the parrot can become suppressed. This can make the parrot more susceptible to disease. There are three species of parrots that appear to be particularly prone to contracting infections caused by Aspergillus: African Greys, Blue-fronted Amazons, and Jardine’s Parrots. Taking a blood sample and bringing it to the laboratory at the University of Miami is the most reliable way to establish a diagnosis of aspergillosis. The testing process that is carried out in this laboratory is one that is more complete than the straightforward test for antibodies that is sometimes carried out.

Giardia. Giardia is a type of parasite that can be found in the intestines, as was mentioned not too long ago on this list. It is a rather large protozoa that, when it lives in the intestinal tract of a parrot, also causes the parrot to react with histamine. This happens because the parrot is allergic to the protozoa. Both of these can result in a significant amount of itching. On the other hand, not all parrots that have Giardia show signs of pain. Giardiasis is not nearly as rare as the majority of people assume it to be. For instance, an outbreak of Giardia will occur fairly regularly during years that have an above-average amount of rainfall, which causes the contents of septic tanks to leach into the ground water. This is the case in cities and towns that have high water tables and where homes use septic systems for waste disposal. Giardia is a disease that may spread easily, and its reproductive cysts are so hardy that they can survive in the soil for years while maintaining their capacity to cause illness if they come into touch with water. Giardia is also difficult to diagnose. The trichrome test, which requires a sample to be collected from the droppings made on the first morning of three separate days in a row, is the most accurate approach for making the diagnosis. (A veterinarian with whom I had a recent conversation was of the opinion that it is best to take a sample on alternating days, such as Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, rather than three days in a row.)

Toxic levels of zinc and lead This is also another common factor that might lead to feathers being pulled out and chewed on. It appears that cockatoos and Jardine’s parrots, along with other species of parrots known for their particularly loud beaks, have a greater than average risk of developing this condition. These species appear to have an attraction to the metal quick-links that are used to secure toys, as well as any other metals that may be present on the toys. One of the Cockatoos that I am currently dealing with has a penchant for hammering on the inside of the galvanized bathroom faucet in an effort to extract water from this supply. I have observed this behavior on multiple occasions. His zinc levels are three times higher than what is considered normal. In order to establish a diagnosis of heavy metal toxicity, an avian blood panel must be carried out, and within that panel must be a particular request for this value. In the situation that I detailed above with the African Grey that went to two different veterinarians, the first veterinarian did a blood panel on the patient, but no values for zinc or lead were obtained. As a result, it was necessary to conduct this test once more.

It is recognized that feather picking can be caused by a number of infectious disorders, including Polyoma, Chlamydia, and Psittacine Beak and Feather Disease, amongst others. In many instances, these diseases have already been ruled out following a checkup to ensure that the birds are healthy. In the event that this is not the case, I will be forced to request that these other tests also be carried out. A sample of the patient’s blood is taken in order to make the diagnosis.

In many instances, plucking of feathers is also caused by bacterial infections such as Klebsiella and Pasteurella. A culture and sensitivity test of the mouth and cloaca are the standard diagnostic procedures for these conditions.

Candida (yeast). This is an organism that is naturally found in a parrot’s body; but, in high numbers, it can also be responsible for a parrot’s experience of “itchiness” and abusive behaviors toward its feathers. Gram staining is the standard method for diagnosing Candida infections. When I get dietary information and observe that a parrot (usually a macaw) is eating loads of fruit and also indulging generously in the owner’s sugary snacks, I typically believe that the parrot has a Candida problem. This is because Candida thrives on sugary foods.

*** It is imperative that it be known that the information presented here is merely a “beginning place.” Further veterinary testing is required in order to rule out the possibility that feather-abusive behaviors are caused by one of the several other physical factors. On the other hand, it would appear that they occur less frequently than the ones listed above.

The next step, which takes place simultaneously with the completion of the tests described above, entails taking a patient’s medical history in order to glean any information that may indicate additional potential reasons, including those of a “behavioral” type. The age of a bird may be indicative of increased hormonal activity, which can be a cause or aggravator of feather picking in some birds, particularly cockatoos. The exact moment of a molt as well as its intensity can be a contributing factor in some cases. The information about a person’s diet can either hint at nutritional inadequacies or to food allergies. Information about the environment that is included on a history form may indicate that there are difficulties with air-borne toxins, which is another factor. (I had a situation with one Macaw that started picking after spending the day traveling with her owner, hiding under the seat of the car near the floorboards of this older vehicle, and absorbing fumes from the motor.) There may be “behavioral” causes that may be deduced from certain pieces of information, such as the social environment of the family and the mental attitude of its occupants, as well as some features of the physical environment. Sometimes the information acquired leads to another physical cause that is less well recognized, and when this happens, the client is taken back to the veterinarian for more testing at that moment.

I do not believe that we have yet discovered all of the factors that contribute to feather abuse illnesses, as there are a great number of them. Every investigation has its own unique puzzle that needs to be solved. It is essential to approach this “unraveling” process with the same level of methodical and scientific rigor that a detective would bring to an investigation of a homicide. In addition, it is essential to keep gathering “clues,” much as it is in the investigation of a homicide, and to be dogged in one’s pursuit of the root of the problem. The term “no reason” does not apply to the way parrots treat their feathers. When one potential cause after another is eliminated, it is often necessary to go back to the veterinarian for additional in-depth testing that goes beyond what is mentioned in this article.

Alterations to a parrot’s diet, environment, and care practices that might contribute to some improvement or at the very least slow down the feather chewing can be made at any time, even while the cause is still being investigated. These alterations can be made regardless of whether or not the cause has been identified. An increase in the frequency of bathing may be helpful in certain circumstances, such as those in which a large number of bacteria or fungi are residing on the surface of the skin. Changing the diet of a parrot that isn’t feeling well will help since it will alleviate any nutritional shortages and strengthen the immune system. In most cases, the condition will improve if the person eliminates foods from their diet that can trigger allergic reactions, such as peanuts. There is no guarantee that a full recovery will occur if newly acquired large-screen televisions or freshly installed tract lighting are removed from the premises. In many cases, in order to definitively rule out a possible dietary or environmental cause, it is important to execute measures and wait for evidence of improvement after the problem has been resolved. The availability of a large number of items within the cage that are capable of being “shredded” can, in the interim, occasionally at least slow things down.

In order to bring this discussion to a close, I feel it necessary to point out that the preceding information can at most be considered to be a tangential remark on the importance of doing veterinary tests and on the various physical causes that ought to be eliminated from consideration. I am not a veterinarian, nor do I have any prior experience in the field. I, like everyone else on this list, am gaining more knowledge on a daily basis, and I by no means have the answers that are definite concerning feather choosing. Nevertheless, I am looking forward to gaining additional knowledge and discussing this topic with each of you. If every one of us is dogged in our pursuit of identifying and eliminating potential causes, and if we share this information with one another, we may one day be able to make a big dent in this ever-expanding problem.

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