Feather Picking and Self-Mutilating Behaviors
One of the first things people notice about birds is their plumage or feathers. They are a source of beauty, often colorful and distinct, but they also serve important functions such as flight, balance, warmth, and protection. Additionally, they are an important indicator of a bird’s health status. Poor feather quality or fluffed feathers can be a sign of clinical illness, poor diet, or stress.
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What is feather picking?
Feather picking, also called feather plucking or feather damaging behavior is a disorder commonly seen in birds that bite, chew out, or pull their own feathers with their beak resulting in damage to the feathers and quite frequently the skin. It is especially common in Psittacines (parrots, macaws, cockatoos, conures, and parakeets) and is being reported with more regularity in chickens. Feather picking itself is not an actual clinical disease process but rather a signal that something else is wrong with your bird.
What are the causes of feather picking?
Feather picking can be caused by medical, environmental, and psychological conditions.
Medical causes of feather picking include:
- Suboptimal diet leading to malnutrition or nutritional deficiencies
- Hormonal imbalances (i.e., hypothyroidism)
- Injuries or trauma
- Infectious organisms (bacterial, viral, or fungal)
Environmental causes of feather plucking can include:
- Skin parasites
- Exposure to toxins
- Suboptimal husbandry
Behavioral feather damage can result from:
- Stress from various sources including lack of stimuli (boredom, lack of toys, not enough foraging opportunities)
- Not enough interaction with other birds or people
- Lack of training
- Sexual frustration
What can be done to prevent this behavior?
Several things can be done to prevent this behavior. A healthy bird is less likely to feather pick, so if you see anything abnormal in your bird (decreased appetite, abnormal stool or urates, etc.) a trip to the vet is recommended.
Appropriate diet and husbandry can go a long way in preventing feather picking and self-mutilating behaviors. Psittacines on all or high seed diets are prone to several conditions that can lead to feather picking such as arteriosclerosis, poor feather quality, dry and cracked skin, and obesity.
Overcrowding can lead to stress, which will cause chickens to not only pluck their own feathers but the feathers of other birds in the flock. When a bird does not feel well or they are perpetually stressed, they can start to pluck their feathers.
Any injuries or trauma can lead to overgrooming and subsequent feather destruction so they should be addressed as soon as possible.
Enrichment can be a deterrent to boredom. Bored birds will feather pick simply because they have nothing else to do.
My bird is a feather picker – what are my options?
If your bird is picking its feathers, the first thing you should do is contact your vet. It's important to rule out any underlying medical causes. Your vet can perform a physical exam and do diagnostic testing to eliminate some of the medical conditions previously mentioned.
Evaluate your bird’s diet and husbandry. Establish a routine with your bird or change up the one you already have. Provide enrichment and try to minimize stress. Birds can respond to positive changes and stop this behavior.
There are medications available to treat feather picking but they are not effective in every case. In some instances, the feathers will grow back but in many cases of chronic feather picking, damage to the underlying skin and surrounding structures is too severe.
Once a bird starts to feather pick it can become a life-long problem. Educating yourself on the proper diet, husbandry, and enrichment for your bird as well as monitoring for any health concerns will go a long way in preventing this abnormal behavior from ever happening.
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