A feather cyst on a bird represents the equivalent of an ingrown hair on a human. Feather cysts are larger in size, of course, since feathers are larger than hairs. The cysts are due to malformation of a developing feather under the skin. They appear as oval or elongated swellings involving a single or several feather follicles. Although they may occur anywhere, they most commonly are found involving the primary feathers of the wings.
A feather cyst occurs when a growing feather is unable to protrude through the skin and curls within the follicle. As the feather continues to grow, the mass enlarges and a cheesy material composed of keratin accumulates.
Although feather cysts may be seen in all species, the highest incidence is in:
- Blue and Gold Macaws
- Budgies (budgerigars) and
- certain breeds of canaries (i.e., Glosters, Norwhich, and Borders).
They can be small yellow masses under the skin or large keratinised masses on the skin. All contain feather material and can be expressed or excised. More appear at subsequent moults, and these cysts are particularly common in Gloster and Norwich canaries (especially common in those with coarse (buff) feathering). There is a genetic predisposition to their development.
Some theories suggest the following causes for this condition:
- malnutrition due to improper or incomplete diet
- genetic disposition
- infection, or
- result of an injury or trauma involving the feather follicle.
Feather lumps can be quite painful for the bird, depending on their placement. If they are situated where they can cause pressure on a nerve or an internal organ, they can cause long-term damage, on occasion even even death.
Treatment consists of surgically removing the involved feather follicles. If the follicle is just incised and the feather with its accumulation of keratin is removed, it will usually recur. Initial resection is not a major procedure, but recurrence is common unless the extensive dissection of the feather follicle is accomplished. In birds with multiple affected feathers, such as the genetically predisposed Norwich canary, this is not practical.
Mary Ann Sloman-O’Driscoll, who contributed photos on this page, also comments about her own experience, which included the treatment and recommendations by a well-known Avian Vet (Scott Echols).
According to Dr. Echols, these cysts can potentially resolve by themselves without any intervention in a time span of 6 to 8 months. This process can be expedited by "poking" or lancing critical cysts (such as those covering the vent or heavy cysts).
Her vet alerted her that removing a follicle is not without risks as it requires anesthetizing a bird and could potentially result in dangerous blood losses and stress. The risks of "lancing" these feather cysts include unpredictable and potentially amounts of blood loss, pain, itching, scaring, infection and stress.
Some experienced canary breeders recommend the following amino acids for a successful, lump-free moult: methionine, lysine, threonine, and tryptophan, which are found in various foods).
Mary also agrees that increasing amino acids in the canaries' diet appears to be helpful. She suggests feeding daily foods such as oranges, broccoli, corn, peas, potatoes and spinach, as these food items have the highest count (average of 8) of the other amino acids needed to prevent feather cysts.
Mary was able to loosen some of the feather cysts with fresh leaf aloe gel without the usual loss of blood that is associated with removing these cysts (which can be dangerous, potentially even life-threatening).
It is also suggested that lecithin (an unsaturated fatty acid) aids in allowing feather growth to occur smoothly. Adequate B vitamins, mineral content (especially zinc), folic acid and Biotin have also been cited as essential elements required for a trouble-free moult.
The treatment protocol may vary depending on the bird's age, health status, and severity of the problem. In older birds or in cases where the cysts are not causing any discomfort, a nutritional protocol may be considered.
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