Feather Plucking & Self-Mutilation

Behavioral disorders are a frequent issue identified in companion parrots and one study revealed that 36% of owners felt their bird had a behavioral problem. Feather destructive behavior, more commonly known as feather-picking or feather-plucking, was the most common behavior problem seen by veterinarians and the fourth most common behavioral problem identified by owners. This issue can result from both medical and behavioral causes.

If this problem is seen in your bird, it is important to have your bird evaluated by a veterinarian as soon as it starts in order to have the best chance of resolving the issue. Depending on what is found during the examination, a veterinarian may order blood work, fecal parasite tests, cultures, a feather biopsy, and possibly screening for Psittacine Beak and Feather Disease (PBFD) virus. Other diagnostic tests may be needed based on the individual bird’s assessment to try and identify an underlying medical disorder. If a medical cause is identified, treatments should be started for the specific issue.

If a medical condition is not identified and behavioral causes are implicated, there is a major concern that some stress in the bird’s life has initiated the feather-picking episodes. In order to find out what the stressor is/was a thorough questioning process will ensue. It is important to know when the behavior is happening, who is present, what the owner’s response to the picking is and how the bird reacts to that response. The length of time the picking has been occurring for, how long the bird is exposed to light, where the cage is located and what the cage furniture is like are all necessary to identify. What is the environment in the household like? Are there are any other pets or people in the household and if so, what is the relationship like between the bird and others? Have there been any changes in the environment? It is important to understand that changes from minor ones to major ones could initiate a problem. What sort of toys are provided, what diet does the bird eat, where does it sleep, how do the owners pet the bird, and reproductive status are all necessary to know. The answers to the questions will guide the veterinarian to determine where the problem is and then be able to come up with a behavioral modification treatment plan to deal with the issue most effectively.

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 there are times we never fully understand why a bird feather-picks.

Visiting with a veterinarian or trained avian behaviorist is invaluable in process of determining how to deal with a feather plucking parrot. It may take several counselling visits to help discover the best ways to manage your bird. In some instances it is helpful to have a professional come in to your home and evaluate your pet. Treatment of a behavioral feather picker will be tailored to the individual but many recommendations often will focus on changes in the household and changes in the care routine of the parrot. First, it is very important to never reinforce the feather-picking behavior. Some birds will pick in order to get attention and if attention is given during the picking episode, whether it be in the form of calmly talking to the bird or yelling at it to stop, can reinforce the behavior. Instead, ignoring the feather-picking behavior as much as possible by avoiding eye contact, not talking to the bird, and focusing your attention calming on other things is important. 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.

Many other recommendations that are made include providing the right diet, access to appropriate levels of ultraviolet-B rays, and giving the bird an opportunity to focus on more appropriate behaviors and activities. Providing appropriate toys and teaching your bird to forage can be very helpful. See the following pages for more information on toys here and foraging here. 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. Additionally, the website www.goodbirdinc.com carries a variety of videos, books, and magazines that are helpful in managing parrots with behavior problems such as feather-picking.

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 that have been picking for a long time are often unlikely to completely stop this behavior. What is important to remember though is that as the care takers for the bird, it is our responsibility to ensure that the individual is happy and in a low stress environment. The picking may persist, but the initiating stressor that caused it to occur needs to be extinguished. 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.