Feather Plucking & Self-Mutilation
Many parrots develop feather destructive behaviors, more commonly known as feather-picking or feather-plucking.
Feather-picking may result from a medical disorder and it is always important to have your bird evaluated by a veterinarian as soon as this behavior starts in order to have the best chance of it becoming a long-term problem. Depending on what is found during the examination, a veterinarian may order labwork, including a bloodwork, fecal parasite tests, cultures, a feather biopsy, and screening for Psittacine Beak and Feather Disease (PBFD) virus, as well as other diagnostic tests to try and identify an underlying medical cause. It may take many different tests for a comprehensive diagnostic to assess your parrot's condition. If you were offered labwork but did not choose to have it performed, it may impact the veterinarian's ability to make the best choices for your parrot's management. If a medical cause is identified, such as infection of the intestines with the parasite Giardia, the feather-picking may stop with appropriate treatment. Unfortunately, some parrots pick up the feather-picking habit and continue it even after the medical condition is cured.
A major part of the feather-picking evaluation will focus on changes in the household and changes in the care routine of your parrot. Feather-picking is often a signal that a parrot at some point in its past had unfulfilled husbandry needs that resulted in stress. In many of the feather-picking parrots seen at Arizona Exotic Animal Hospital, we can identify the following stressors: an imbalanced diet; seasonal hormonal changes or the onset of puberty; lack of quality sleep; lack of foraging opportunities; lack of ultraviolet-B light; change in the people or other pets in the household; changes in routine; petting of the erogenous zones (under the wings and over the hips) or other behaviors that stimulate mating behavior; the presence of cigarette smoke in the house; the presence of other aromatic agents such as carpet deodorizers, room deodorizers, incense, cleaning products, fresh paint fumes, new carpet/new upholstered furniture smells; remodeling of the house or nearby construction; loud noises; car headlights coming through the windows at night; and many other factors. It is often a lengthy process to figure out what may have triggered the feather-picking behavior and many times we never fully understand why a bird feather-picks.
The longer a bird has feather-picked before its first visit, the less likely we are to extinguish the behavior. It is important to recognize that feather-picking birds are often unlikely to completely stop this behavior; a parrot that appears "cured" and completely regrows its feathers may months pull out almost all its feathers in the span of a single day with no readily apparent triggering event. Caring for a chronic feather-picker requires a major commitment from all members of the family to provide a good diet, a good home, and practice consistent appropriate people-bird interactions.
It is very important to never reinforce the feather-picking behavior. If you yell at a parrot whenever it picks, it views that yelling as a good thing and may often continue to pick just to get some interaction with you. Ignore the feather-picking behavior as much as possible--avoid eye contact, don't talk to the bird, don't squirt it with a water bottle, and never ever strike the cage or the bird as a way to stop the behavior. Once a bird has stopped the feather-picking and is sitting quiet, then you come over and talk to the bird and praise it. The bird soon learns that feather-picking is NOT the way to get your attention.
Switching to a nutritionally imbalanced diets is an essential early stop for any feather-picking bird. We encourage the use of complete pellets that are organic and lack artificial flavors or artificial dyes. We suspect some birds have allergies to these ingredients and strongly recommend changing the diet if you are currently feeding a brightly colored pelleted food. We highly recommend Harrison's Bird High Potency Formula for feather-picking birds. See our webpage on "Feeding Parrots" for more information (http://azeah.com/Care-Sheets.asp?id=147)
See our webpage "Providing the Right Light" (http://azeah.com/Care-Sheets.asp?id=101) for information about the importance of providing a dark quiet place to sleep as well as getting your parrot enough ultraviolet-B light on a regular basis.
There are many different opinions about managing problem birds and we offer the solutions that have helped many other patients. It may take several counselling visits to help discover the best ways to manage your parrot. In some instances it is helpful to have a bird behaviorist come in to your home and evaluate your pet. There are also some excellent resources online such as goodbirdinc.com. The book "My Parrot, My Friend" has excellent information about managing birds with behavior issues and may help guide your relationship with your parrot.
Most of a bird's time in the wild is spent searching for food and then preparing and eating the food. It takes a lot of effort to get to the kernel of some nuts (which is why most parrots have strong beaks)! It is important to make your bird work for its food so that it has other things to do with its time than pull its feathers. Please see our webpage on "Toys and Enrichment" (http://azeah.com/Care-Sheets.asp?id=184) for more information on how to keep your parrot busy.
You may also rent or purchase the video "Captive Foraging" from us which describes how to build a foraging tree and offers other tips to keep feather-picking birds occupied with something besides their feathers. The website carries a variety of videos, books, and magazines that are helpful in managing parrots with behavior problems such as feather-picking.
THINGS TO AVOID:
There are many ointments and creams sold as feather-picking aids. Some, such as AVIX Soother Plus cream and AVIX Soother Plus Spray, may be of some benefit as part of an overall veterinary treatment program. Others, such as Neosporin, Vaseline, and other heavy ointments actually cause more harm than good.
If a product sounds too good to be true, avoid it! Many unscrupulous people market feather-picking remedies that have absolutely no benefit to your bird.
Kevin Wright and Jay Johnson
Arizona Exotic Animal Hospital, LLC
744 N Center Street
Mesa, AZ 85203