Feather plucking is a disease of captivity and is a multifactorial problem which is often very complicated in its causes and its required solutions. Most cases require detailed investigations to determine the causes and even then, a full recovery may not be possible making it an extremely frustrating condition for both the vet and the owner.
Rarely will there be a quick fix to this problem and if a cure is possible, then it will probably require a great deal of commitment from the owner.
Generally, the causes can be broken down into medical, nutritional and behavioural.
At the outset, a full and detailed history needs to be provided. This must include factors such as where the bird came from, its age, species, duration of plucking, season of onset, previous treatments, husbandry (including housing, daylight regime, feeding, concurrent illness, clinical signs), if any other birds affected etc.
- Environment: this is a huge subject and is a frequent cause of problems in captive birds of all species. Tobacco smoke and a dry environment can lead to itching and poor quality feathers. Feathers then break and the birds start to pluck at them. Smoking should never occur in the same air space as a bird. Most wild psittacines are adapted to rain forests which are moist and humid places. We keep then in dry rooms to prevent our houses smelling mouldy. As a compromise, light daily spraying with warm water will help as will the ability to bathe. Continual dry environments coupled with poor nutrition will often result in poor quality brittle feathers. Parrots will often attempt to remove poor feathers by plucking.
- Inappropriate lighting: Low light intensity can be a cause of father plucking. Equally, subjecting parrots to excessive daylight lengths can produce tired and irritable birds which can also lead to self mutilation. Many psittacines have evolved close to the equator with approximately 12 hours days and 12 hour nights. In the UK, our seasons can results in very different daylight lengths so owners need to regulate access to daylight to around 12 hours by covering them up. The cage should never be left in direct sunlight. Provision of full spectrum ultraviolet lights is very useful.
- Metabolic disorders: In Cockatiels, under-active thyroid glands have been shown to be commonly responsible for feather plucking. Liver disease can also cause itchy skin and lead to feather plucking. Chlamydia (causing psittacosis) is a common cause of liver disease. Septicaemia and air sacculitis can cause pain and discomfort which is also thought to result in feather plucking.
- Malnutrition: this is the most common medical cause of feather plucking in birds. A high proportion of captive birds are suffering from primary nutritional deficiencies which can be caused by genuine dietary deficiency, digestive abnormalities or lack of access to unfiltered natural light. Many parrot mixes are heavily sunflower based, something which must be corrected. Vitamin supplements are no substitute for an appropriate diet. Birds fed o predominantly sunflower seed mixes are likely to be deficient in vitamin A. Adding coloured vegetables such as sweetcorn and apricots are good sources of vitamin A. Deficiencies in minerals (especially calcium), trace elements (e.g. zinc) and various amino acids will also result in poor feather and skin quality which in turn can result in feather plucking. Conversely, high fat diets and obesity can also result in poor feather condition. Pretty Bird, Harrisons and Kaytee all produce complete diet foods for various species of psittacines which are far superior to traditional parrot seed mixes, but they will take a while to be accepted. Forcing birds to eat new diets will stress them and can result in further disease. Fresh foods with mixtures of sprouted seeds, vegetables and rice are also advised. Wild parrots are facultative omnivores which means they will eat anything available in their environmentincluding insects, small fish and even carrion. There is nothing wrong with offering hard cheese, yoghurt, cooked egg, cooked chicken or fish fingers, 2-3 times a week since the protein content of these foods can be essential for new feather growth.
- Ectoparasites: such as mites, lice or ticks; these are rarely the cause but are often blamed initially. However, they should still be ruled out as a possible cause.
- Endoparasites: faecal examinations can reveal various species of worms or protozoal parasites which can frequently cause problems, especially in Cockatiels.
- Allergies: these can include basic foods such as milet, sunflowers, peanuts and inhaled allergens. They are difficult to diagnose and even more difficult to treat since changing the diet of many parrots is impractical.
- Lead and zinc toxicity: many birds are thought to be exposed to low levels of zinc and/or lead from their environment which can then produce low grade chronic illnesses. Some experts feel this is a far more common cause than is generally realised and they advocate all plucking birds to be screened for zinc and lead toxicity.
- Psittacosis: caused by Chlamydia, this is a common infection of psittacines which causes liver disease and results in feather plucking. Diagnosis can be difficult because no one test in entirely accurate, however, more modern PCR tests are becoming more reliable.
- Infectious dermatitis / folliculitis: these are infections and inflammations of the feather follicles which produce irritation. However, it can be difficult to work out which came first - was it the irritation that resulted in the infection or did the infection result in the irritation. Overall, this is a relatively uncommon cause of feather plucking but should be ruled out nevertheless. Fungal disease can also occur infrequently.
- Viral disease: Polyomavirus and Circovirus (Psittacine Beak and Feather Disease) both cause poor feathers and leaad to feather plucking but generally, the pattern of feather abnormalities are different to normal feather plucking.
- Neoplasia: this can result in localised feather plucking over the tumour, although there is some evidence to suggest that chronic feather plucking may result in such tumours. Plucking of the chest and shoulders on the other hand can indicate hormonal changes or broody behaviour.
Once all medical causes have been ruled out, the environment has been improved but without success then only at this stage can psychological causes be seriously considered. Treatment of psychological causes is complex and time-consuming and is best performed by an experienced behaviourist who has the time to deal with this.
Boredom is often cited as a cause of feather plucking due to the fact that they are intelligent animals that require physical and mental stimulation. Toys, objects to chew, stimulating noises (such as TV or radio) and playtime with the owner can all help to prevent feather plucking. However, if the environment becomes too stimulating (such as with children around, dogs barking, TV blaring etc) birds may not have adequate time to rest and become over-tired, again resulting in feather plucking.
Toys can work out expensive and a cheaper alternative which is often just as effective is the provision of clean twigs from non-toxic trees (multi-stoned fruit trees, willow, hazel, chestnut, eucalyptus etc), cardboard boxes, toilet roll centres and rawhide dog chews. Birds will naturally chew these.
Leaving a radio or television on when the house is empty can be useful as long as it is not excessive. Playing recordings of the same species of bird calls, which are readily available on the internet now, can also be helpful.
Feather plucking often starts following a period of stress. The time of day that the feather plucking occurs can indicate that it is a response to something that annoys the bird at that time. Birds are very sensitive to their environment and routine and changes to these can all be triggers for feather plucking, such as new people staying in the house, owners going on holiday, building works etc.
Frequently, it is suggested that getting a mate for a feather plucker will be the answer, but this is not always the case. A companion bird of a different species may help but a bird of the same species can sometimes cause more problems and there is always the risk that they will copy each other and you end up with two feather pluckers.
The use of sedatives or psychological drugs such as “Prozac” may have a place in the treatment of feather plucking, but their effect is usually short-term and unless the bird’s environment is corrected, then the plucking behaviour will return once the drug is withdrawn.
The fitting of collars, notching of the beak or having a ball applied to the tip may also help in the short term but are generally preventative rather than curative and are again generally only useful in combination with correction of other underlying factors.
Feather plucking requires detailed investigation which can be expensive in both money and time. Treatment can be equally expensive and time-consuming and even when treatment appears to be successful, relapse is common.