Feather Picking / Feather Plucking & Overpreening in Companion Birds
Index of Bird Diseases ... Symptoms and Potential Causes ... Bird Species and Diseases They are Most Susceptible to
Is the Plucking Behavioral or Caused by a Disease?
- A sudden onset of agitated feather picking is most commonly associated with a disease process, while behavioral feather picking starts with overpreening and then progresses.
The majority of feather plucking is caused by:
Malnutrition: One-sided, unbalanced nutrition (which may have led to a disease) . Deficiencies of minerals, such as calcium, zinc, selenium, manganese and magnesium, may be associated with brittle, frayed feathers and itchy skin, which can lead to feather plucking / bald spots.
Food sensitivities / allergies: Dietary Changes and Recipes To Reduce Feather Plucking
Boredom: Insufficient activities available for a pet bird within the cage may cause birds to turn to their own feathers for entertainment. The pet may spend too much time in their cages (especially if the cage is too small for a parrot to move around freely in it) or a parrot doesn't have toys to entertain it. The more time a bird spends in the cage, the bigger the cage ought to be!
- Michael and Diane Rametta were able to resolve their cockatoo Coco's plucking with inexpensive cotton mop heads that they hang on top of her cage and on her swing. After years of plucking, Coco now just puts her attention to picking and chewing the mop heads. They point out that they only purchase "cut end" mop heads (#24 "Cut End Mop" from Rubbermaid) to minimize the risk of Coco getting her feet caught or tangled. Please refer to the below "before" and "after" photos of Coco.
It has taken about 5 years but her feathers are almost full grown and she flew for the first time this summer. For extra fun tie extra beads or nuts / seeds wrapped in paper into them.
- The following websites provide excellent tips and tricks to occupy your bird: Environmental Changes .... Bird Proofing Your Home .... Foraging stops destructive behaviors ... Also refer to: Redirecting Negative Behaviors in your Petbird
Light: Birds enjoy the sun and like lots of light in their environment. If they are kept in dark corners, they are likely to become depressed and may turn to feather plucking or even self-mutilation. It addition to which, sunlight is needed to form essential Vitamin D - a lack of which has also been linked to feather picking.
Some bird have owners have witnessed a total turn-around in behavior and feather condition once proper light conditions were available to their pets.
Avianweb visitor "Leslie Tannahill" shares her experience as to what resolved her pet's behavioral plucking problem:
" My bird plucked for many years, and I tried various things to get him to stop and sometimes he would but would always go back to it. Until a year and a half ago, when I bought a new house. It has a wonderful "Florida room" that has windows on three sides and two skylights. I put his cage out there thinking he'd enjoy being able to watch birds and people outside and lo- and behold, he stopped plucking. The room is unheated so he must come in during the colder months, and I got him a full spectrum lamp which is on a timer so he gets 5 hours of "daylight" each day, and he has not plucked since then. If I had known that the light was the answer, I could have had a fully fledged bird years ago!"
Diane Sanborn from Toronto, Canada describes the following: "My African Grey, Ray, suddenly started frantic feather plucking about a month ago. Literally, it seemed out of nowhere. I brought him to my vet and blood work revealed low calcium, and high bile salts. We changed his diet a bit and started Light Therapy with a Reptilian type of uva/uvb lamp placed above his cage. Before we started these changes I was worried that the feather plucking would continue and become "bad" habit. I think I have come upon a great solution to divert his attention and satisfy his need to "pluck". Newspaper pretzels. Some may know of this homemade toy. If not here's what you do. Take 1 large piece of new paper, roll and twist it tight to simulate a thick rope, then tie into a knot. I make 2 or 3 of these every night (and Ray watches intently while I do this) and shove part of it through cage bars. Since he was plucking early morning we now see shredded paper in the AM instead of feathers. It has worked and now that he's getting better light and better nutrition we hope the feather plucking is behind us."
Avianweb Note: Birds benefit from natural sun rays that are unfiltered by window glass, as glass blocks necessary UV rays needed to synthesize vitamin D necessary for bone health. So it's important to open up the windows when weather conditions allow to let the rays in (make sure that some part of the cage is in the shade to allow a bird to get out of the sun when he or she gets too hot. During the winter months, full-spectrum lamps can substitute for natural light.
Sedatives, hypnotics and tricyclic antidepressants have been occasionally reported as an effective treatment.
Several bird owners found that their pets' feather plucking stopped almost immediately after starting their pets on Avitech AviCalm Calming Supplement (for stress reduction) and Featheriffic (stimulates growth and good feather quality). They sprinkled these supplements over their food.
Medication: In an initial study by Grindlinger and Ramsay, 10 severely afflicted birds were treated with dosages of Clomipramine ranging from 0.75 to 3.0 mg/kg.
- Refeathering occurred in areas where the skin and follicles had not atrophied to the point of incapacity to produce refeathering;
- 20% of the birds were capable of refeathering;
- 50% picked their feathers significantly less, to the point that areas of excoriation or inflammation healed;
- 40% of the birds gained 10% of their body weight.
- Birds were more active and more sociable, but not sedated and not affected by anticholinergic (antihistamine like) side effects, according to 60% of the bird owners.
The findings of this study may have been more positive had less severely affected birds been used in their sample population. That a significant reduction in picking occurred in 50% of the birds treated is really remarkable.
Loneliness: Parrots are social beings. In their natural habitat, most of them occur in flocks or at least with a mate.
- Spend more time with your pet bird or provide a bird companion.
- Behavioral modification. Providing positive reinforcement and redirecting your bird's energy towards non-destructive activities
- For a small percentage of birds, the addition of an opposite sexed mate may eliminate the behavior.
Research by the Purdue University into this widespread topic of abnormal behavior in parrots, including featherplucking: Research by Purdue University: Cage Location a Primary Factor in Emotional Feather Plucking
... physical environment, including cage placement, was a key factor generating feather picking by the parrots used in the study ... The scientists found that parrots with cages that didn't allow a view of doors where people entered the room were less likely to engage in feather picking.
"For parrot owners and breeders, one thing our research shows is that it might be worth putting a lot of thought into where the cage is positioned in the room," Garner said. "I think with a lot of care and a lot of forethought, these behaviors are manageable and preventable, especially considering our earlier work that demonstrated the positive effects of social housing and environmental enrichments, such as foraging and climbing devices. (Research by Purdue University: Cage Location a Primary Factor in Emotional Feather Plucking)
Pain: Birds don't understand pain. For example, my elderly, handicapped cockatiel has arthritis and keeps biting his swollen joint whenever he feels in pain. When birds are in pain, they may bite / chew on the area where the pain is concentrated or they may remove (pluck) feathers over that area. If you find your pet concentrates on one specific area - rather than randomly plucking feathers, this may be a good indication that your pet is experiencing localized pain.
X-rays are often recommended when pain is associated with feather picking and when the distribution of feather picking is over the back, neck or chest. The X-ray may reveal problems such as blocked gizzard, a gas extended proventriculus or cloaca, heavy metal poisoning, foreign bodies, enlarged spleen and airsac disease. One parrot who plucked his neck feathers just over the crop had ingested pieces of string that were stuck inside the crop causing discomfort.
The most common diseases / health problems are:
- Psittacosis (human transferable disease with persistent flu-like symptoms. Fairly easy to treat with antibiotics. This disease should especially be considered in recently acquired birds that come from pet stores or from breeders - and even more so if flu-like symptoms are apparent in family members.
- Fungal (Aspergillosis), thrush, staph infections
- Heavy metal poisoning (especially suspect in birds that like to chew) Symptoms: lethargy, lack of appetite, vomiting, increased thirst and watery dropping. Chronic low grade Zinc exposure can result in excess barbering and feather picking.
- Is your parrot getting enough light? Just like we do, our birds need light to synthesize Vitamin D - also known as “the sunshine vitamin” - as it is formed when our skin is exposed to sunlight. A deficiency in this vitamin has been associated with poor skin and feather condition, including feather picking.
- A Vitamin D / Calcium Deficiency can also be caused by a malfunctioning uropygial or oil gland, as this gland produces vitamin D3 precursors that are spread into the feathers as the birds preen themselves. Upon exposure to ultraviolet light, the precursors will be converted to active D3, which will then be ingested when the birds preen themselves again. Therefore, the oil gland should be checked in feather picking birds, and/or those that are suffering from seizures.
Food Sensitivities / Allergies (itching / dry / flaky / inflamed skin)
According to a vet, the problem with a long time plucker (barring no follicle damage, of course) is that it begins to itch and hurt when a new feather breaks through the skin, as the skin is dry - which will likely encourage further feather destruction in your pet. It is really important to condition your pet's skin. You might want to monitor the humidity in your bird's area, then supplement with moisture; increasing the amount and frequency of baths, with the addition of aloe afterward usually helps a great deal.
Aloe Sprays are usually somewhat expensive and can easily be made at a fraction of the cost. Simply take 1 part of 100% aloe gel and mix it in a sprayer with 3 parts of water. Shake it up and it's ready for use.
Dry itchy skin may also be an indicator of liver problem. Once the liver problems have been resolved, it takes a while for the itching to stop.
Food Sensitivity: Some birds are sensitive to wheat, corn, rice and grains.The itching may stop once once all these are eliminated.
- Please refer to this webpage for dietary recommendations.
Low levels of essential fats will also contribute to dry skin. Limiting or eliminating pellets and increasing foods / seeds high in essential fatty acids is recommended.
Many parrots pluck their chest area as they mature and get into breeding condition. Another typical plucking patterns for hormonal birds may be plucking between their legs.
One bird plucked his chest when he was forced to watch a breeding pair of the same species that were temporarily placed into his room. As soon as the pair was relocated, the plucking stopped.
In some cases, a vet may prescribe Lupron shots to reduce hormonal behavior. The drug Lupron turns off sexual hormones. Some bird owners report that hormonal plucking stopped immediately after administration of this drug and never started again. It works if the plucking is caused by hormonal frustration.
However, vets first recommend that pet owners make environmental changes to reduce sexual triggers, such as removing mirrors or nest boxes and to prevent hormonal stimulation such as petting that induces this behavior, and altering the light cycle to mimic winter sunlight. If all these changes fail than drug therapy may be warranted. Drug therapy is most effective in females but has also shown effectiveness in males.
About Lupron: leuprorelin acetate has an inhibitory effect on the pituitary that should reduce the hormones FSH and LH. This drug has been used in birds for chronic egg laying, hormonal aggression and feather picking. Again, this is not a perfect drug and certainly not for all situations.
When a bird destroys their feathers in an irregular pattern, some experts believe that they might be picking feathers over the locations of infected air sacs because of respiratory problems, such as aspergillosis.
A diet deficient in calcium, salt and/or protein could also be a cause for plucking/chewing. One breeder suggested adding in a separate dish salt water (1 tsp of salt to a quart of warm water). You may want to discuss the preceding possibilities with your vet. Calcium malabsorption problem in birds could be brought on by an imbalance of other nutrients such as phosphorus.
- Red Palm Oil: More and more Red Palm Oil have been supplementing their birds' diet with Red Palm Oil and are reporting healthier / glossier plumage. I started adding it recently and was surprised that my parrots really seemed to like it. Several bird owners recommended this product and one pointed out a review on Amazon.com b J. Hall from San Pedro, CA (quoted next): "This isn't a joke, but it is useful advice.I bought this oil because I have a parrot with a feather plucking problem. I've been adding about half a teaspoonful daily to her soft food for about 3 months and the results are terrific. She's almost back to full feather and has not plucked a single pinfeather since we began adding it.This is a logical solution. Palm nuts are a part of most parrot's natural diet. It only makes sense that red palm oil contains nutrients that are otherwise missing in a caged bird's diet. Your mileage may vary since feather plucking is a complex mystery, but in my case it's been a miracle cure for our cantankerous eclectus."
- How to feed: Popcorn tasted great popped in it or you could sautée vegetables in it. However, I am keeping this oil in the fridge and it's therefore solid, which allows me to simply take off a pea-size scraping and place it on top of my parrot's fresh food. They like it.
For more information on bird nutrition, please go to this webpage
Endocrine / Reproductive Disease
- Zinc Toxicity: Zinc is a known toxin that will cause feather plucking in birds. Most affected birds were feather picking or showed signs of depression and gastrointestinal stasis. Your vet will be able to measure the your bird's zinc levels. Sources of zinc include: i.e., galvanized or powder-coated cages, quick-links or hardware, galvanized dishes, metallic toys - indeed any metallic, shiny object could be suspect
- Environmental toxins: such as pesticides on produce, exposure to cleaning products, air deodorizers, etc. (For non-toxic ways to control pests in the house or garden, please visit this webpage.)
(i.e., Gardia) - The common giardia picking pattern usually involves the chest, underside of the wings, insides of the thighs, shoulders and sometimes the lower back region.
- If you found something that worked, please e-mail us!
- Primary Cause for Plucking - Stress: Several bird owners found that their pets' feather plucking stopped almost immediately after starting their pets on Avitech AviCalm Calming Supplement (for stress reduction) and Featheriffic (stimulates growth and good feather quality). They sprinkled these supplements over their food.
- Bee Pollen: One bird owner describes her own experience with feather plucking: " have a couple of pluckers that I started giving organic bee pollen daily. Both of these birds have stopped plucking. One of these birds was a chronic plucker; [not] a feather on him, except his head. He is now almost fully feathered."
- Success Story: Sue Crossley reports: " I live in ... Australia and have just experienced severe bushfires and had to be evacuated from our home. Our Cockatiel ... became very stressed, depressed and started plucking out his feathers. I found your website which recommended Bee Pollen. As I work for an apiarist (beekeeper) I actually had some pollen in my cupboard. My bird loved the pollen (I’d never thought of giving it to him before) and stopped plucking and perked up within 2 days. I can’t say how it would work on chronic pluckers, but for stress, I couldn’t recommend anything better. Now I give him the pollen everyday just because he likes it and he’s never looked so healthy or happy."
- The Vinegar Cure: One bird owner was advised by her vet to spray-soak her feather-plucking pet bird with a mix of 1/4 tsp apple cider vinegar (ACV) added to 1 quart of water 3 times a day (2 teaspoon ACV per cup of water). This trick seems to work well with some birds. Please note that some concern has been raised about applying this apple cider vinegar and water solution to bare skin. It may cause some irritation in birds with sensitive skin. It's best to try on a small patch of skin first and see how your pet reacts (allow to try). In most cases, this solution appears to be even soothing. However, it's best to test it first. PLEASE NOTE: HEATED vinegar emits toxic fumes similar to carbon dioxide. Bird owners have lost their pets by adding vinegar to their dishwashing cycle, or used it to clean coffee machines.
- Mix Aloe Vera Juice (not Gel) with Water - 50 / 50. Mist your bird daily with this solution. You can get Aloe Vera Juice at a larger pharmacy or grocery store. Some plucking may be caused by dry skin -- and if this is the case with your bird, this will help. It also reduce dander - which is helpful for people with allergies.
Note: It is very important that the Aloe Juice be kept refrigerated. It does go bad and then causes more damage than it is helpful. Freshness and sanitation is very important.
- Palm Oil: With African Greys specifically, but not exclusively so, adding Palm Oil to his or her diet can greatly improve feather condition. The Palm Oil greatly decreases the desire to pluck or chew, allows feathers to grow in and those feathers are strong and glossy. A small amount of this oil should be mixed in with any parrot seed you are using (about 1/4 teaspoon twice a week). it can also be fed to other parrots (smaller birds / cockatiel size about 8 drops twice a week.). Red Palm Oil is available at your local natural food store.
Note: My African Grey's plumage is glossy and beautiful. Others report the same. Definitely recommended.
Herbal formulations such as " Pluck No More " or "Stress Control" by King Bio Inc. have also shown effectiveness against stress-related plucking. Their natural herbal mixtures relieve stress and anxiety in most pets, including birds. This product also helps with aggressive behaviors. One Customer review states that this "PRODUCT TRULY IS A MIRACLE WORKER!". It is added to a bird's drinking water. The package also indicates "Advanced Homeopathic Formulation with NO Side Effects 100% Safe Natural."
An alternative product to the Pluck-no-more is "'911 Stress Control" by King Bio. This product is available at health food stores in the Homeopathic section. It has very similar ingredients to Pluck-no-more and costs between $16 to $20 for a 2 oz bottle. It only takes a couple of sprays directly onto the bird's food, or a drop or two in the water. It can be used on birds and reptiles, as well as mammals, such as cats, dogs and horses; as well as stressed-out humans. Many swear by its effectiveness.
Note: A vet recommended a list member NOT feed ANY FRESH FOOD while your pet is on either Pluck No More or the Stress Control formula. He recommends feeding cooked foods, pellets and seeds only. According to him, the fresh food interacts with the natural formula and makes it a futile effort.
- Stress Control:
Owners report varying degrees of improvement after the use of Bach's Remedies:
"Rescue Remedy" (less expensive equivalents are available) is a flower essence remedy that has been recommended for people and pets for its calming properties. It provides unconditional support during demanding / stressful times.
Mustard Bach Flower remedy is another one that is recommended for plucking. This remedy relieves depression which sets in for no apparent reason.
Cerato Flower Remedy is used for parrots who are lonely and hormonal, and develop severe behavioral problems because of that. This remedy has shown effectiveness in cases where a parrot plucks as a result of a sexual frustration.
Some mix different remedies together - although it is generally not advisable to mix more than five at a time.
The above products may work great for parrots suffering from stress or anxiety, but the cause of the stress or plucking may still need to be addressed, especially since there may be physical causes. Therefore, please also go over this website to assess the cause of the plucking, which could be as simple as changing the location of the cage or may require veterinary intervention.
Temporary Fixes: Please note that the below will not RESOLVE the underlying problem, it will only stop your pet bird from being able to seek relief by pulling his or her feathers, or chewing on his or her skin. The below should only be implemented if the vet was unable to find an underlying condition, believes it to be behavioral and recommends it to hopefully break a bad habit.
Great success has been reached by a vet putting a little notch in the lower beak (mandible) which makes it difficult for the bird to grasp a feather, and yet doesn't impede eating. The beak will eventually grow back; the rule of thumb is that the deeper the notch the longer it works. This will only treat the symptom - and the cause of feather plucking still needs to be investigated, but this procedure will prevent permanent damage to the feather follicles and prevent further feather loss.
Collars: For serious cases, such as mutilators, additional steps may need to be taken. People have reported success in stopping a bird from overpreening / plucking his/her feathers by using a "tube collar".
Bird owners have successfully used the soft pipe insulation tubes as a collar. It can be purchased at any hardware stores and is more comfortable than the Elizabethan collars. These insulation tubes come in different diameters, so you would get one that would be close enough to your pet's neck to keep your pet from reaching down to pull feathers out. You only need a short piece - to fit around the neck. The insulation tubes are already slit to fit over a pipe so there is no cutting, taping, stapling or anything. Just stretch it apart and put around the birds neck and you are done. Vet recommended. It works great, there is no loss of balance; parrot can easily move around.
My parrot had additional problems, such as an injured breast bone caused by frequent falling (she had nerve damage due to suffering from PDD / Macaw Wasting Disease.) So I was looking for somethign that not only stopped her from plucking, but also protected her chest. I used a thick sports sock (the thicker, the better it withstands a bird's beak). I cut the "foot" off the sock, until I had a "tube" long enough to cover the chest of the bird. I cut two slits on the sides for the wings. On this webpage, you can see a photo: Xena.htm.
Crop Bra: A fairly easy solution offers the crop bra (illustrated below). I made it from elastic bandage. It temporary prevents chewers from getting to their wounds.
The "sports-sock" solution lasts a little longer -- as it is thicker. But the crop bra may be easier for you to work with. You could put some cushioning material between the bandage and the chest to protect the bird from hurting itself when falling off the perch, as sick and weak birds tend to do.
Bubble Collars: Another option is a commercially available Bubble Collar. They are more comfortable than the hard-colllars commonly used. Hopefully your avian vet carries that. If not, the following vet offices do: Bridget Ferguson, DVM, Animal Heath Care Center, Renton, WA; Wildwood Veterinary Hospital 838 Portola Rd Portola Valley, CA 94028-7207, Phone: (650) 851-9453. Your vet needs to order this collar. They are relatively inexpensive.
Avian Collars: Another commercially available collar - also needs to be purchased by your vet. They are also relatively inexpensive; however, your vet will have to order a whole set to fit your pet with the right size.
A little experimenting will help you find the best solution for you.
The following resources are recommended readings:
- Feather Picking by Dr. Jill M. Patt, DVM
- Feather Picking by Dr. Rob Marshall
- Redirecting Negative Behaviors in your Petbird for some excellent tips and tricks
- Bird Proof Your Home to Protect Your Furniture and Keep your Bird Safe
- Foraging: The Way To Keep Your Parrot Mentally Stimulated and Happy
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