Bird affected by feather picking
FEATHER PICKING AND SELF-MUTILATION IN COMPANION BIRDS
Tara Sager

Introduction

Feather picking and the associated self-mutilation behavior that occur in psittacines can be a distressing and frustrating challenge for many bird owners.This obsessive-compulsive disorder is seen in a number of species including parrots (such as Amazons or African Greys), Cockatoos, Macaws and Cockatiels.

What is feather picking?

As opposed to preening, the behavior of birds in which they groom their feathers and skin free from dirt or foreign particles and correct any feather distortions, feather picking is excessive self grooming, that includes picking at, plucking out, or chewing on feathers.In a severe case, the bird can be naked form the head down.Indicators of feather picking include the presence of healthy head feathers, feather loss, and/or mutilated feathers in body areas accessible to a birdís beak (including the wing skin fold, inner thighs, and breast).Even more worrisome than feather picking is the associated self-mutilation, which can occur.Essentially, self-mutilation involves a bird chewing on its own flesh, often in the breast area.Unfortunately, as the area of mutilation becomes lacerated, nerve and tissue damage can result, causing increased discomfort, and hence the bird chews on itself even more.Although the breast area is the most commonly seen area affected by self-mutilation, some birds have been known to consume one or more of their own toes.Because self-mutilation leaves a chronically open wound on the bird, secondary infections are also seen.

Causes and Contributing Factors

Why would a bird pick on its own feathers?

Essentially there are six main reasons why feather picking occurs.These can be divided into strictly medical and non-medical in origin.It should be noted that medical causes for feather picking are rare in frequency more so than non-medical, or psychological causes.

1)The first medical reason for feather picking is hypothyroidism (a less than normal thyroid gland). This is a fairly rare occurrence, and signs of hypothyroidism include thickened dry skin and excessive feather loss in combination with feather picking.

2)Another suggested medical cause for feather picking is mineral deficiency, or inadequate nutritional care, but there are varied opinions about this among veterinarians, and it is not usually something that feather picking or mutilation is attributed to. 

There are also several non-medical causes of feather picking.All of these causes of feather picking are the result of a habit formed by the bird for various reasons.Often, owners can reinforce this habit without even realizing it, and the situation continues to worsen.

1)One main contributing factor of feather picking is the birdís environment.Birds are flock animals, something which many novice bird owners may not be aware of.Birds are often hailed as low maintenance pets in terms of care, but it should be noted that low maintenance does not include sitting alone in a cage all day long off in some corner.Psittacine birds in particular need stimulus and contact with the rest of their flock, the humans they share the household with.Parrots are intelligent birds, some say with the mentality of a human three year old.Consequently, they need constant mental and physical stimulation, in the form of destructible toys, perches of different sizes and textures, activity foods, varied routines, and so forth.If the birdís environmental needs are not met, boredom or stress can lead to feather picking and mutilation.Also, if the cage size for the bird is inadequate (i.e. too small), feathers can be damaged and this as well can result in forming a habit of feather picking.

2)Another cause of feather picking, especially seen in species such as the African Grey, is wing trimming that is either too short or sloppy.Improper wing trimming can lead to damaged feather follicles, especially if dull scissors are use and the ends of the feathers are left ragged or torn.When feathers are left like this, it can cause the bird discomfort, which can either aggravate feather picking or cause it to become a habit in the first place.

3)Self-mutilation can also be a formed habit when a bird has suffered some injury to itself.If for example, a severe wing clip causes a parrot to drop roughly to the floor, wingtips or chests can be injured, and parrots especially seem naturally prone to picking at the injury.Care must be taken as well if owners are caring for more than one bird; aggression and biting are not uncommon and can often result in injuries leading to self-mutilation as well.

4)Feather picking and self-mutilation can also arise from a nervous habit.In Cockatoos especially, their desire for tactile contact and the undivided attention of their owner can lead to an obsessive compulsive or stereotyped behavior pattern of feather picking or mutilation.Often owners reinforce this behavior by closely examining the affected area on the bird.The bird may then increase its self-mutilation in an effort to gain more attention.As the self-inflicted injury increases in severity, physical effects (such as nerve or tissue damage) cause discomfort, and the bird picks at itself even more.

Recommendations and Assistance

What can be done to determine the cause of feather picking?

The first thing that should be done in a case of suspected feather picking is a complete physical examination of the bird by a veterinarian.It is recommended that complete blood chemistry be done, that Psittacine Beak and Feather Disease be tested for, a faecal examination conducted and a nutritional history of the bird be taken.If a bird is found to have a condition of hypothyroidism, lifelong treatment with thyroid medication (Synthroid for example), can reduce the incidence and severity of feather picking.After the good health of the bird has been established, then behavioral causes can be explored and treatment or corrective measures prescribed.

Once feather picking has been attributed to a behavioral cause, what can be done?

There are four main methods by which feather picking and/or self-mutilation can be treated and it should be noted that often more than one of these options must be used in conjunction with one another in order for the treatment to be effective in curbing feather picking behavior.

1)The most basic option is to make changes to the birdís environment by increasing cage size, adding destructible and varied toys, making the bird a more central member of the family (that is, letting it outside of its cage for short periods throughout the day, spending time playing and talking with the bird and so forth), altering the routine or pattern of daily activity, and giving the bird a variety of inactivity foods or foods that require the bird to manipulate an spend time eating them (for example, a cob of corn, nuts in the shell, carrot sticks etc, foods differing in color, texture and taste).

2)In cases of severe feather picking or mutilation, a physical barrier is sometimes required to keep the bird from damaging itself while behavioral modification is undergone.Most often this entails the wearing of an Elizabethan collar while the birdís feathers grow out, or the wounds from mutilation heal.The problem with simply just putting a collar on the bird is that in many cases, as soon as the collar is removed, the behavior begins all over again.

3)A third option in arresting feather picking is drug treatment.Behavior or mood modifying psychoactive drugs have been reported as an effective treatment. One drug, Clomipramine (an anti-depressant which blocks the re-uptake of norepinephrine and serotonin) has been found to slow feather picking in up to 70% of the birds treated.Another drug, Haloperidol, which is a dopamine antagonist, has also been used with some degree of effectiveness in reducing or curtailing feather picking and self-mutilation behavior.The problem with using drugs to treat such behavior, is that the underlying causes for the feather picking are never addressed in the first place, and the birds are usually required to be on the drugs for the rest of their lives.The proper dosage of the drugs can also be difficult to determine, involving a trial and error approach.

4)A final option in self-mutilation or feather picking treatment is behavioral modification techniques.These techniques can be quite varied and the exact modification required depends on the trigger for the feather picking behavior.For example, feather picking in parrots can often be the result of separation anxiety.When the birdís owner leaves the household (to travel, or go to work) or in severe cases even leaves the room where the bird is, a parrot can often become so distressed, that picking and mutilation are the result. In cases like this, the bird can periodically be left for short periods of time, gradually desensitizing it to being left alone.It is also helpful to give the bird a favorite toy, or food before the owner leaves.Distractions such as leaving a radio or TV on for the bird can also help.Birds often do respond to videotapes of their owners talking to them in a normal, playful manner.Feather picking can also be the result of some upheaval in the life of either the owner or the bird.Companion birds, especially the psittacine species are highly attuned to the attitudes and moods of their owners.Consequently, owners need to be aware of this, and in the event of such upheavals, possible solutions should be discussed with the owner.
 

References

 
Davis, C.S. 1991. Parrot Psychology and Behaviour Problems. Veterinary Clinics of North America:
    Small Animal Practice 21(6):1281-1288.

Iglauer, F and R. Rasim. 1993. Treatment of psychogenic feather picking in psittacine birds with a

    Dopamine antagonist. Journal of Small Animal Practice 34:564-566.

Van Hoek, C.S. and C.E. King. 1997. Causation and Influence of Enviromental Enrichment of

    Feather Picking on the Crimson-Bellied Conure (Pyrrhura periata perlata). Zoo Biology 16:161-172.
 
 
 
 

Last Updated August, 2001 by TGH

Back to Applied Ethology Home Page