Margaret A. Wissman, DVM
Posted: January 21, 2013, 5:15 p.m. PST
Pet birds may begin to feel under stimulated or isolated since most birds are social being in the wild. Feather picking/plucking may be a behavioral issue, where the bird bites, chews, picks at or pulls out feathers due to boredom or frustration, or a medical problem could be the cause.
By Gina Cioli/BowTie Studio/Courtesy Amy Baggs
If your bird is picking his or her feathers, it may be because of a medical problem.
An infection, protozoal infestation, improper wing feather trimming, skin disorder or mites could be the cause behind a feather-picking bird. Itching from one of these causes may disrupt your pet bird, causing it to pick or pluck at its feathers in an attempt to soothe the irritation.
Other birds begin plucking due to a number of behavioral or physiological issues. A bird may not feel challenged or stimulated enough or it may be a cry for attention if the bird feels neglected by or jealous of their human companion. A stressful household could also lead to plucking behavior.
Internal or external parasites may lead to plucking. Hormonal behavior may compel a bird to pluck feathers, as can sexual frustration. An improper wing feather trim can leave sharp, jagged feathers that poke or irritate the skin under the wings, leading a bird to begin chewing on the cut ends.
Bald areas may turn up on a feather-plucking bird and during a molt, pin feathers that do not appear to be growing back in could be due to the bird plucking them out. Over time, if a bird continues to pluck for long enough, the feather follicles will become so damaged that they will no longer re-grow feathers. In this case, the bird will never grow normal feathers again.
Whether it’s a behavioral or medical issue, feather plucking needs to be dealt with as soon as possible. Especially with behavioral issues, the longer feather picking or plucking continues, the longer is takes to solve.
A bird found to be plucking or pickinghis or her feathers needs to be examined by an avian vet to discover or rule out medical issues that may be causing the behavior. Once a thorough medical examination and appropriate tests are performed, and no physical cause is uncovered, the bird’s owner may need to seek counsel with a qualified bird behaviorist who can perform a consultation, either over the phone or in person.
The majority of feather-picking small birds (cockatiels and budgies, in particular) feather-pick as a result of an intestinal protozoal infestation (Giardia or Hexamita). Testing can be performed for these protozoa, however, these organisms can be elusive to diagnose, so it might be better for an avian veterinarian to perform a trial with an anti-protozoal medication, such as ronidazole. In the past, metronidazole has been used to treat such infestations in other species; however, it may not always work to eradicate the organisms from the intestinal tract.
New research suggests that non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) can work to decrease inflammation in feather follicles, which may be involved with some feather plucking in birds. Your avian veterinarian will decide if this course of medication is appropriate for your bird.
Changing your bird’s environment so that it is distracted from picking its feathers and providing a stimulating environment, as well as following any recommendations of your avian veterinarian make this a life-long commitment. More challenging toys (and toys that it can shred or chew up or take apart are good choices) and human interaction will always need to be provided for a bird so that feather plucking does not start up again. However, that can be a double-edged sword, as you cannot reinforce plucking by rewarding the bad behavior with attention.
Disclaimer: BirdChannel.com’s Bird Health Index is intended for educational purposes only. It is not meant to replace the expertise and experience of a professional veterinarian. Do not use the information presented here to make decisions about your bird’s health if you suspect your pet is sick. If your pet is showing signs of illness or you notice changes in your bird’s behavior, take your pet to the nearest veterinarian or an emergency pet clinic as soon as possible.