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Q: What have people used to successfully address feather picking and problematic over-preening behaviour in birds?

“What have people used to successfully address feather picking behaviour in birds? (Apart from going to an avian vet).

I don’t mean something that prevents them from feather picking, but something that actually addressed the habit.

What was the approach used?

What has worked for you or someone you know?”


A:

When I was working as an avian/exotic behavioral modifier for parrots the primary issue I encountered were severe feather plucking cases.
I’m assuming since you don’t want answers for preventing plucking, you’re ruling out sprays, collars, etc. If you’d like more information on the most effective physical preventatives, let me know/message me and I can provide more info.
In any case, the most effective preventative measures are environmental and emotional solutions. That being said, feather plucking can be extremely hard to treat, depending on factors such as breed, age, trauma/stress factors, sex, etc.

Before I get into any solutions it’s important to understand how these factor in, and the triggers behind, plucking. Here is a good website with a full background on what defines plucking, treatment, and so forth:

Treating and Preventing Feather Picking

I’ve summarized a few key points below:
  • There are both medical and non-medical causes for feather picking. So this is where “going to an avian vet” factors in. You first need to rule out the major medical causes:changes in hormone levels, external and internal parasites, malnutrition, internal disease, and bacterial or fungal infections of the skin and/or feather follicles. You also need to rule out (preening and molting–but it’s pretty obvious when plucking has become an obsessive, damaging/balding habit).
  • The non-medical causes are psychological and/or stress related:
    • Captive birds endure stress not experienced by their wild counterparts. Captivity, malnutrition, solitary living, absence of a mate with which to fulfill courtship rituals and mating needs cause significant stress, in addition to stress associated with confinement within a home (noise, confusion, presence of other pets, such as dogs or cats, which represent potential predators to caged birds).
  • Birds–especially parrots– are highly intelligent and require a great deal of visual, auditory, and tactile stimulation. They rely on highly developed vision to seek out food based on color, communication, smell, etc. When under-stimulated they tend to find ways to “occupy their minds” by creating OCD like behaviors.
  • Because they are creatures of habit, changes (large or small) in their environment or in their established routine can often create stress. This stress often results in obsessive, introverted behavior (plucking). This is also what makes them hard to treat–once stuck in a routine or any bad habit, they can become fixated and extremely hard to “reprogram”.
That being said, here are some changes you can make in their lives/environments that I have found to be the most helpful:
  1. Changing location of the birds cage and perch. Sometimes a more private area they can retreat to creates a more mellow safe space. This depends on the type of bird, however.
    • “For example, a feather picking African gray parrot (normally shy and suspicious) might be better off in a more private and secluded area of the house than in a heavily trafficked and noisy locale. By contrast, an umbrella cockatoo (docile, affectionate, gregarious) that lives in relative isolation and that has begun to feather pick might be better off in a very public area of the house. If a feather picker lives in a very small cage or has limited living space, it might be beneficial to provide a larger cage or a more spacious living environment.”
  2. Rest. Some may not be receiving adequate or healthy sleep cycles. This has to do with the former–they may not have a safe space totally hidden from view they feel they can relax in. This may also have to do with light.
  3. Light. Birds need full spectrum lighting. You can purchase the proper UV light bulb based on species at a petstore. Here’s a link with info: Parrot Island–Articles
  4. Bathing or misting a feather picker on a daily or otherwise regular basis may be beneficial because wetting the feathers encourages normal preening behavior. The hope is that the bird will spend more time conditioning the plumage and less time chewing on the feathers or pulling them out.
*I’ve noticed that some tropical birds also deeply enjoy being “misted.” This was THE MOST helpful thing I did with the Eclectus parrots, as they love to take rain “showers” in the wild and found it extremely fun and soothing. They were cured within months.
  1. -Providing a wide variety of food. Along with their regular diet, incorporate colorful and varied foods and/or treats. Emphasis should be placed on foods that require some time and effort to eat (non-shelled walnuts and other nuts, string beans, snow peas, macaroni and cheese) and those representing a variety of colors, shapes, sizes and textures.
  2. Toys, toys, toys! Pet stores have a lot of great options, (chains, bells, rawhide and hardwood pieces, colorful rope, mirrors, hard rubber toys) but toys do not have to be expensive and store bought. The important thing is a wide variety. Get creative! You can use cardboard boxes with holes, strings, twine/rope, paper bags, or other durable safe materials with treats placed inside that are hard to reach.
  3. Appliances (radio, tape recorder, television, etc) that stimulate the bird’s other senses should also be considered and provided
    *Most importantly: toys should stimulate and hold the bird’s interest as much as possible and should require physical activity (large rope to climb on, etc). It is important to provide natural objects that a bird can investigate, chew up, and rip apart.
*Last, if the case is very severe, I do recommend seeing a vet about anti-anxiety meds to help treat the bird in addition to everything above.

 

 

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