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Feather picking in pet psittacine (hookbill) birds is an obcessive, destructive behavior pattern whereby a bird plucks, amputates, chews or, in some other way, destroys some or most of its feathers that it can reach with its beak. In most instances, that means the head is spared!
A picked bird has great difficulty regulating its temperature, is prone to skin infection, systemic infection hemorrhage from damage to skin and/or feathers and...rarely...acute death. In chronically affected birds, the increase nutritional demand to replace picked feathers may result in lingering ill-thriftyness, debilitation, increased suseptibility to infections, a substandard immune system responsiveness, pain, lethargy, poor quality of life and, ultimately, premature death.
Sadly, there are literally hundreds of incredibly beautiful pet bird species and, often it is the physical beauty that provides the principle attraction of human to bird. For some people asthetics is issue number one; a flaw in the bird's appearance constitutes a major breach in the "parent"- bird relationship. (This author has received occasional requests to euthanize a picked bird solely because of its "intolerable" appearance !!.)
|Causes of Feather Picking|
Though a primary behavioral "issue" is often blamed for the problem, in truth, there are many possible medical as well as psychological "issues" which can instigate the seemingly masochistic destruction of feathers and produce the unsightly appearance we have grown to dread. In some species, picking is taken a step further: Affected individuals actually pick feather, skin and then underlying soft tissues (the Mutilation Syndrome)!. A partial list of the more common causes of feather picking and mutilation includes:
parasites (internal or external)
metabolic/ organic diseases
benign or neoplastic masses or metabolic effects of systemic neoplasia which may be internal or external
various bacterial, viral or fungal infections affecting any body organ or system
malnutrition (see diet suggestions).
localized or generalized pain/discomfort anywhere
a surface defect....however minor...somewhere in or on the skin or feather...may attract the bird's attention....and then one nibble here then there, and then the bird can become unduly fixated or frustrated...leading to a secondary behavioral feather picking
A FEW NOTES ABOUT MUTILATION SYNDROME: More common species affected are Double Yellow-Head and Yellow Naped Amazons but African Grey parrots and some of the Mini-Macaw species have been also been affected. Severe damage is to skin and underlying tissues most often involving the wing webs and legs. Attacks usually occur at predictable, approximately three month, intervals; between attacks the bird is relatively "normal". A Pacific Northwest Mutilation Syndrome, possible a variant of Mutilation Syndrome has also been described by Rosskopf and Woerpel (PAAV, 1990: 301-304) in which symptoms appear in affected birds ( mostly Yellow-Nape Amazon parrots) living in Northern California to Washington State at unpredictable intervals. In these, a black discoloration may precede self-mutilation. In both syndromes, there is limited evidence that certain liver infections ("cholangiohepatitis") with or without precipitation of bile salts (derived from liver) in vessels and tissues near affected regions causes an intense itching/ self mutilation. A similar observation has been made in humans afflicted with a human mutilation syndrome. Some postulate a virus and others still think that heavy metal (e.g. lead) intoxication may precipitate a self-mutilation event. A role for hormonal influences revolves around the observation that most --or all--the affected birds are females and mutilation events seem clustered around specific times of the year. However like the other data, cause and effect relationships may be circumstantial as no specific scientific studies have examined this interesting problem. The photo below is a mild case...the only one I have seen. (I will update this when I obtain better photos)
As described above, a medical instigator can precipitate a purely inappropriate behavioral response
Birds are creatures of great emotional and intellectual complexity...far greater than is usually appreciated for any of the other companion animal species. Considered comparable in mental prowess and emotional sensitivity to a three year old human child (tantrums and all), birds need mental and emotional stimulation, and a profound sense of love and security. Real or perceived threats to fulfillment of these needs, particularly in certain avian species, and....a feather picking problem begins and, if left unchecked, explodes quickly.
Additionally...regardless of the cause, regardless of treatment, a bird that has picked for an extended period may become an habituated picker...i.e. the bird can become addicted to picking even if the underlying stimulus has been addressed, ...( either treated or eliminated). The habituated obcessive feather-picker is a major problem steeped in frustration for bird, owner and veterinarian.
The more common behavioral stimuli for feather picking are:
miniscule changes in the environment...perceived or real. Moving a piece of furniture, a plant, a lamp, perceived or real threats to security, safety or environment...are examples known to provoke some birds to exteme behavior, including feather picking
Perceived or real changes in physical attention, lack (or perceived lack) of adequate "tender loving care"...
Stress, real or imagined, to bird, to caretaker "parents", or to other household members
III. MORE ABOUT CAUSES
An interesting observation has been published showing a relationship between avian species and the most likely medical and behavioral underlying cause(s) for feather picking. This information was based on numerous retrospective studies and has been modified here, in table form for you to view. . As you will see, this information can be useful in some situations where a specific diagnosis is elusive or impossible...and educated "guesswork" is a sole resource...
An algorithm for the diagnosis of Feather Picking is cryptically outlined, for simplicity...and will be described in more (understandable) detail herein.
A good history may be taken at any time but obtaining early in the process, this may help guide the direction of diagnostic and therapeutic plans.
Determine the species, if not obvious; determine if there have been previous medical or behavioral "issues"
Determine if there is really a feather-picking (vs a feather-loss) problem. Chances are that if the head is spared, the problem is self-induced. If the problem is really feather loss, then a different approach/algorithm may be necessary
Nutrional deficiencies or abrupt changes in diet can negatively influence the health status, predispose to a multitude of serious medical problems, infection and distress. An appropriate diet for psittacine birds is described elsewhere on this web site.
Immediate: Cage size, location, exposure to other birds/animals, access to other regions of the house, bedding, toys, sanitation....all these can affect medical and behavioral status' that can result in feather picking
Household Environment: Colognes, perfumes, exposure to tobacco smoke, cooking or other fumes, chemicals, plants
Previous vs new owners' attention/interaction; increases or decreases in household members (human or otherwise...partners, spouses, roommates, dogs, cats, other birds, other species); inadequate attention to socialization and tasking skills
Social Interactions: Any changes or perceived changes in time, quality of supervised intellectual and emotional stimulation and/or direct interactive exchange with human "parent", or other playmate. (Remember...birds are just very needy kids with feathers.....!)
II PHYSICAL EXAM
Pattern of Picking: Often the location of a "bald" region(s) can be associated with a specific underlying cause for a particular species. For example, in cockatiels the observation of feather picking activity focused on areas under the wings or the legs implies giardiasis (a protozoal parasite). An example is shown:
Look for the presence of visible or palpable abnormalities, especially (but not exclusively) in the affected regions (which could draw a bird's attention and start the ensuing "problem")
Evaluate overal body condition: Any abnormality could be related to an underlying medical problem with or without a secondary behavioral component
REMEMBER: Illness in pet birds can be extremely difficult to diagnose by physical exam alone as birds are notoriously capable of hiding symptoms!!! For this reason this author ALWAYS, regardless of history or physical exam findings recommends obtaining a minimal laboratory database to uncover any occult.."hidden"... abnormalities. Often an x-ray is added to the database, if the owner is willing.
IV LABORATORY DATABASE
In situations where the results of physical exam, & history are non-diagnostic. a basic laboratory database is required
Complete Blood Count & Chemistry Profile, bacterial and fungal cultures, as well as gram stains of all "accessible orifices", initially
If indicated by history and species prevalence, serological and fecal tests for certain viral and chlamydial infections, and parasites
If indicated, feather/skin scrapes, cultures, biopsies (the latter requires anesthesia) and x-rays
IV Other Considerations
IF...and ONLY IF... there are major financial or other constraints or contraindications for obtaining a laboratory assessment for the presence of an underlying condition, then...the veterinarian MAY choose to consult the aforementioned table and limit diagnostics to the most probable cause(s) based upon species, history and physical exam. The client MUST be made aware that regardless of appearance or physical exam, the bird may, nevertheless, be hiding symptoms of significant underlying problem(s).
If there is an underlying medical problem, it is addressed including appropriate treatment and prevention from recurrence
Supportive care...for example antibiotics if infection is clearly present, an elizabethan collar to prevent continued picking
If a diagnosis of mutilation syndrome is clear, then expected "attacks" can be limited by preemptive application of an elizabethan collar... for about a week or two....until the cycle would normally terminate. If cholangiohepatitis or one of the other postulated (unproven) causes of this syndrome is positively identified, then addressing the possible cause also seems prudent. If hormonal abnormalities are suspected, then modulation of susupected hormone levels is indicated. Some veterinarians are trying some of the currently available antiviral drugs...but results are unknown, at this time.
If there is a solely behavioral problem (e.g. change in environment, emotional distress, etc) then every attempt to eliminate the causitive condition is made. Sometimes, behavioral modification is required concurrently....with or without the services of a behavioral specialist.
If a cause can not be readily identified...despite an exhaustive diagnostic workup, then a diagnosis of habituated (obcessive) picking is made.
All medical issues secondary to picking are addressed as described above for supportive care; an elizabethan collar may be necessary for weeks, months or.....?
An avian behavioral specialist is consulted to correct obcessive behavior and reestablish important socially acceptable behavior patterns and normal relationships to environment and to household members. Baths, toys and activities that foster appropriate social expression and emotional gratification are usually involved
Pharmacological intervention: Drugs, including hormones, antipsychotics, antidepressants, antianxietials, antihistamines, corticosteroids....and others have been used, often sucessfully when relief is needed and other treatments have not been successful. Potential for undesirable side effect require close supervision by a veterinarian
This Page will be updated regularly with more information, as it becomes available, and more pictures as they become available
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