Feather Picking by Dr. Rob Marshall

Feather Picking by Dr. Rob Marshall
Index of Bird Diseases ... Symptoms & Potential Causes ... Bird Species & Diseases They are Most Susceptible to


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Feather loss as a result of feather picking can be a difficult problem to cure when the picking behaviour is already established. In order to best help a feather picking problem, birds should be presented to Dr. Marshall (or your vet) at the first signs of picking. Feather picking that has persisted for a prolonged period of time may become a habit and difficult to cure.

In this article feather picking may be either plucking, chewing of the feathers or both.

There are many possible causes of feather picking and special diagnostic tests are recommended by Dr Marshall as a starting point for unravelling the cause of feather picking in your bird.

The cause of feather picking may be behavioural, an underlying disease or parasite, or a combination of both. Dr Marshall believes poor nutrition and contaminated food to be the single most common initiating cause of feather picking. Behaviour induced feather picking is a close second.

Diagnostic tests are used to reveal possible disease causes of feather picking. Wet smears and gram stains are used to check for internal parasites and the presence of thrush and disease forming bacteria. Cultures from the throat and dropping are recommended in order to identify fungal or bacterial infections that may be the cause or result of feather picking.

Psittacosis is a common disease involved with feather picking and a Psittacosis test is always recommended. This disease may be the cause of feather picking or occur as a result of it. Recovery from feather picking is unlikely if Psittacosis is present and left untreated. Similarly if a fungal, thrush or bacterial infection is present then these must also be treated before it is possible to cure feather picking.

Feather picking is a sign of an unhappy or unwell pet bird. Diseases may occur as a result of the agitation produced by feather picking irrespective of whether the underlying cause is a behavioural problem or a disease.

Sudden onset of agitated feather picking is most commonly associated with a disease process. Psittacosis, fungal, thrush, staph infections and heavy metal poisons are the most common causes. Behavioural disturbances cause feather picking that starts as an over-grooming activity.

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. These are all possible causes of feather picking that need to be identified in order to cure the problem.

Behavioural disturbances are often the trigger to a disease-based feather picking problem. In fact, in many cases both a behavioural problem and disease may cause feather picking. A behavioural cause of feather picking is diagnosed when the diagnostic tests return as normal. However behaviour interactions are always explored even when a disease has been diagnosed as the cause of feather picking. The distribution of feather picking with behavioural problems starts on the feet and neck regions. Tail pulling may also be seen when a behavioural problem is the cause of feather picking. Dr Marshall will recommend a consultation with a bird behaviouralist when the cause of feather plucking has been identified as behavioural in nature.

Recovery from feather picking requires that both the underlying disease be treated and that the abnormal behaviour be altered.

It is always a challenge to diagnose and treat pet birds that have been feather picking for a prolonged time. The best outcomes occur when your bird is presented to Dr Marshall at the onset of feather picking activity.


Treatment options

1. Treat for Lice and Mites
Treatment against lice and mites is always recommended as a first line of attack against feather picking. Avian Liquidator Spray is applied to the bird's wings, tail, chest and back. Ivermectin should be administered in the drinking water as instructed by Dr Marshall.

2. Nutritional Health Programme
Poor nutrition or food quality cause birds to become easily agitated and therefore more likely to start feather picking. We recommend that your bird receive sterile food and a Special Nutrional Health Programme whatever the underlying cause of feather picking.

3. Specific treatment for disease
Administration of injections for diseases such as Psittacosis, hormonal imbalances and heavy metal poisoning may be recommended. Special medications (antidepressants, tranquilisers, narcotic antagonists) are rarely prescribed except when there is possibility of self mutilation or to help break an established feather picking habit.

4. Emergency Treatment Options
Some tests take up to 72 hours to be processed and in order to prevent self mutilation your bird may require immediate steps to be taken. Dr Marshall may recommend your bird be confined to a dark room, cupboard or moved to a covered darkened carrier/transport cage and be allowed out for half an hour under supervision to eat and drink. Medical treatment (drugs) may be prescribed by Dr Marshall when he is worried about self mutilation inflicting further harm whilst we await the culture and psittacosis test results.

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Information contained on this website is provided as general reference only. For application to specific circumstances, professional advice should be sought.