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FEATHER PICKING

Feather picking is a common and frustrating problem in pet birds. Some pets nibble the ends off their feathers, while others tear their skin, creating large open sores. Any bird can feather pick, but Psittacine birds, such as African Grey Parrots and Cockatoos, are the most common pluckers.

Common Causes

Your pet's feather picking may start because of irritation from a medical condition and progress to obsessive-compulsive behavior. Or several problems may coexist. There are several common causes for this behavior.

Infection: Bacteria can attack skin and feather follicles, creating an itchy, painful problem your bird chews at to relieve. Pets with vitamin deficiencies from incomplete diets are at increased risk of infection. Some viral infections that specifically attack growing feathers, such as psittacine beak and feather disease and Polyomavirus infection, cause inflammation or abnormal feather eruption that irritates your bird's skin and triggers picking. Other more easily treatable conditions such as parasitic infestations can also cause a fierce itch. However, these parasite infestations are not commonly found in hand-raised birds.

Allergies: Just as in people, pollen, mold and certain foods occasionally trigger itchy allergies in birds. Your pet may resort to feather picking for relief. An allergic reaction to Giardia infections, an internal parasite found in some water supplies, can cause skin irritation in cockatiels.

Environmental Factors: Excessive heat or low humidity can make your bird's skin itchy and flaky. And stressful change, such as a new family member or pet, moving to a new house or moving the cage to a different room, may cause birds to pick their plumage.

Anxiety: Many birds normally live in flocks where they enjoy the sights and sounds of other birds. When you keep a solitary bird, you assume the role of the flock. So if you're nervous, upset or absent, your bird may feel anxious and respond by feather picking.

Attention Seeking: Many birds, like some children, crave any attention they can get. If they discover picking at their feathers brings you running or even just causes you to scold, they'll repeat the behavior to get your attention and your attention reinforces the behavior.

Boredom: Some pet birds might be just plain bored. Evolution has trained them to be wary of predators and to poke, prod and chew at everything in their environment as they forage for meals. It's perfectly natural for them to chew all day long. In the absence of a proper outlet, such as a chew toy, many turn to themselves.

Sexual Frustration: Normally, elevated hormone levels in sexually mature birds can make them irritable and anxious, especially during breeding season. So if possible, avoid environmental factors that stimulate breeding instincts including long periods of light exposure greater than 12 hours per day, nest boxes or toys your female may treat as eggs. Many environmental stimuli cannot be avoided so other methods must be used to avert the chewing behaviors.

Predisposition: Most birds groom each other in the wild on a daily basis, so solitary life may confuse and stress them. They may feel the urge to preen constantly and pick at their own feathers.

Hypothyroidism: Research suggests that low thyroid-hormone levels may cause poor feathering or feather loss, which resembles feather picking. Watch your bird carefully to see if the feathers are falling out on their own.

What You Can Do

First, visit your avian veterinarian to make sure a medical problem isn't the cause of the picking.

Information about your bird's environment, personality traits and where you purchased your pet may help unravel the cause behind the compulsive behavior. Be patient. Finding a medical condition that causes feather picking can be an extensive process. If your bird is physically healthy, there are many treatment options. But keep in mind that treating feather picking can be frustrating for the owner, veterinarian and patient alike.

Another person to work closely with is a qualified bird behavior specialist who has been scientifically trained in bird behavior. Be careful of those with no formal training as they may cause more harm than good. Work with your veterinarian and avian behaviorist to determine realistic expectations.

Learn about your bird's normal preening and molting behavior so you can recognize abnormal feather loss. Birds who pluck their feathers usually give themselves away. If your pet sports feathers only on hard-to-reach places, such as the head and neck, feather picking is likely the culprit.

Remove sources of stress and fear such as loud stereos, the family dog or bright lights at all hours of the day. Birds with separation anxiety may benefit from a softly playing radio or television for company while you're away.

Offer imaginative ways for your bird to forage by hiding food in hollow toys and cardboard tubes or attaching food to ropes or chains. Let your pet satisfy the urge to preen excessively by providing items that can be destroyed including whisk brooms, empty paper towel tubes, wooden sticks or rolled-up papers. There's a limitless supply of interactive toys to occupy your pet's time. Remember to alternate the toys to prevent boredom.

Don't give your bird attention while feather picking. Shower her with attention as often as possible, but never for inappropriate behavior. Remember, reward good behavior and ignore unwanted behavior. A behavior that is not rewarded, in some fashion, will generally extinguish itself. You may need to use these measures for the rest of your bird's life to keep your pet from a path of self-destruction.

Prognosis

Providing a home that can fulfill all the needs of these highly intelligent pets is a challenging task, and some birds will continue their self-destructive behaviors despite your best efforts. Patience and perseverance are your best weapons against your precious pet's disagreeable habit.