Feather Picking and Over Preening
What is the cure? Simple question, but often not a simple answer.
There may not be one particular thing that solves the problem of a bird with feather issues, especially if the bird has chronic feather destruction problems. Sadly there are the rare cases when there might not be a complete cure at all.
"Why does my bird pick its feathers?" An all too common question we hear from customers. There rarely is a simple answer, and if someone tells you there is, well maybe the person who tells you that, does not really understand feather problems at all, or even parrots for that matter.
Birds who chew, pick, pluck, break, or otherwise destroy their beautiful feathers, are a puzzle that will need to be pieced together and worked out. It is a process of elimination many times. Very seldom is the answer evident at first glance, so you may need to be very patient as you solve the mystery.
First, let us explore the occasional cases where the answer may be more easily identified. If your bird has suddenly started destroying feathers, when the bird has never done this before, one of the following might be the trigger for this new behavior:
1. A drier environment such as during the winter when heat is turned on and the air becomes much drier. Just as humans can get dry itchy skin, so can birds. Humidity is very important to parrots especially during the drier winter months.
2. A family's recent move from one home to another.
3. A recent move from one family to new family.
4. The death of a person or animal the bird was strongly bonded with.
5. The departure of a favorite person the bird was bonded to such as a student going away to college or moving away from home, or in a divorce situation where one family member is no longer living in the household, or other situations where a family member may no longer living in the household.
6. A new bird, or other new pet, a new person, or the arrival of a new baby, now living in the household.
7. New furniture in the room the bird stays in, or the bird being moved to a different room in the home that it is not familiar with.
8. A big change in diet such as changing from one brand of food to another, or withholding seeds to attempt a change to a totally pelleted diet, or a new food introduced into the diet that the bird may have a sensitivity to or food allergy.
9. A recent feather clip that may have resulted in a clip too short causing irritation against the area under the wings.
10. Schedule changes such as when an owner begins a new job or work shift change that may interfere with sufficient quality sleep time for your bird.
If any of the above has occurred, then you may have the insight you need to help your bird change it's newly acquired bad behavior. We'll discuss more on the above situations a little later.
If your bird has been destroying, or even just overpreening it's feathers for quite some time and the problem seems to be escalating, or if you have recently acquired a bird that is chewing or removing it's own feathers, the first, and we mean absolutely the first thing, you should do is take your bird to a qualified Avian Veterinarian to rule out any medical reason for the feather problems. Yes, going to the Vet can be expensive, and for something as elusive as feather picking, it might involve blood work as well to rule out specific health related problems. Your bird may be checked for common bacterial infections, possible yeast infection, giardia and/or other parasites, and other health problems that very well might cause the feather picking. Depending on your locality, a full office work up could cost anywhere from $100 to $300, so call ahead and ask if you need to, and don't be afraid to discuss the tests and costs with your Avian Veterinarian. It's the most important thing you can do to begin the journey of understanding completely the behavior, the cause, and hopefully the cure of your bird's feather problems.
If after your vet visit, it is determined that there is no physical or health reason for the feather destruction, then you begin the time consuming process of elimination to try and get to the bottom of the problem. In our opinion there is no "you have to start here" place to begin (other than the vet visit). The main areas you do want to investigate and rule out are - Diet - Stress - Breeding Hormones - Learned Behaviors - and, possible Boredom.
Diet - You will need to pick apart your bird's diet and decide if your bird is getting everything he or she needs. Every bird is an individual and we believe there is not a "one diet fits all" recipe out there. Most birds do well on the diets they are on, but sometimes a bird just needs that something extra, or in the reverse may be bothered by ingredients in many of the commercial diets available. Your vet visit should tell you if your bird is possibly lacking a particular nutrient which your vet will have discussed in detail with you. In the case of a vitamin or nutrient missing in the diet, you can begin reading labels on seed mixes, pellets, and cooked diets to find the best ingredients necessary for your particular bird.
If however, the lab work showed no particular deficiency in your bird's diet, then you may want to consider food allergies. This is sometimes controversy among vegetarians, but our personal Avian Veterinarian has always believed birds can be and are in many cases sensitive to certain foods or food additives. This is a good discussion to have with your vet to get their view on what foods you may want to eliminate from your bird's diet temporarily to see if your bird ceases the feather destruction. Most seed mixes and pellets are corn based and if you have a bird that is sensitive to corn, well you have just eliminated about 95% of the commercial products out there.
Thankfully, manufacturers are listening to concerns of bird owners and are responding with more and more diets made for birds with food sensitivities. These new diets may be rice based instead of corn based, or may be organic in nature and contain no corn or rice. You may have to search around to find some of these, and be prepared to pay more for these special diets even if it's only for a trial period to see how your bird responds. Any new change in diet should be implemented for at least 6 weeks to see whether the change has been effective. There are some really good books out that can also help you choose the best diet for your bird. If your bird is on an all seed diet, you may need to add a good vitamin to the diet to ensure the bird is getting all the necessary vitamins and minerals it needs, or add a good manufacture red pellet to the diet.
If your bird is on all pellets you may want to eliminate pellets for a short time, or change to a rice based one to see if the pellets are the problem. Pellets vary in the amount of proteins and fats, so read the labels when choosing.
Birds can even be sensitive to people foods. We know of an African Grey Parrot who is very allergic to rice. We were the ones to find this out as the bird was boarding with us a few years ago and we were serving a cooked food one day that included rice. Unknown to us or the owner, this bird had never had rice before and within hours of pigging out on the meal which he truly enjoyed, he began chewing at his feet. His feet began swelling and he continued chewing. A vet visit revealed after some tests and treatment that this African Grey is very allergic to rice products.
We also know of a little Sun Conure who cannot eat dried packaged papaya as it upsets his tummy and if fed enough will end up a very sick bird. It may actually be the preservatives used in the papaya brand the owner was purchasing, but his owner feeds no papaya now, fresh or packaged.
Diet is a subject we could write pages and pages on, and still barely touch the surface. Our advice, read labels, choose carefully and wisely, and always be ready to learn new things concerning the diets of your birds. If you have eliminated foods from your bird's diet and there has been improvement in the feather picking, then very slowly begin to add foods back one at a time, about a week apart, to see if you can pinpoint the foods that are triggers for feather destruction.
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