What is it?
Grooming, also known as preening, is a normal behavior of parrots and can occupy a good portion of a bird’s day. However, normal preening should not cause any damage to skin or the feathers. Preening that causes damage to the feathers and/or skin is indicative of a feather-picking disorder. Feather picking in itself is not a disease process, but rather an indicator that something else is wrong.1
Who gets it?
Feather picking is one of the most common behavior disorders seen in pet parrots, mainly seen in African Grey Parrots, macaws, cockatoo species, conure species, Eclectus Parrots, and Grey-cheeked parakeets.1 Although less common, it is possible to see this condition in other parrots, as well.
What causes it?
There are numerous causes of feather picking, ranging from medical, environmental, and behavioral, some of them being less obvious than others.
- Medical: Parasites, general illness, infectious disease, nutritional deficiencies, dermatitis, hormonal imbalances, or possibly cancer1, 2
- Environmental: Generalized itchiness, toxins, allergies, husbandry, or a change in the environment1, 2
- Behavioral: Boredom, jealousy, or fear1, 2
What can I do about it?
Once a feather-picking disorder is evident, it is important to bring the bird to a veterinarian. A full workup of a complete blood cell count, a biochemical profile, fecal examination, and radiographs (x-rays) is recommended to help identify or rule out an underlying medical condition.1, 2 Depending on the presenting signs of the bird, other tests can be run to check for infectious organisms, skin parasites, or abnormal hormone levels. If there is an underlying medical condition, your veterinarian will be able to guide you in the next steps to take. If no underlying medical problem is evident and environmental causes have been ruled out, then behavioral causes should be considered.
My bird has a behavioral feather-picking problem. Now what?
Parrots in the wild spend a large part of their day foraging for food. This includes flying to multiple areas in a day to dig and root up different food items that complete their diet.
Captive parrots require the same sort of behavioral stimuli and activity as wild parrots. However, they are often housed in a much smaller area where they can access their food without much effort. Increasing foraging time and environmental enrichment reduces feather-picking activity by re-directing the energy given to destructive feather-picking to more positive and “natural” activities.1, 3
- Offer puzzle toys with food hidden inside
- Have small amounts of food placed in multiple locations
- Provide various types of toys, such as foraging, shredding, puzzle, and noise-making toys
- Train for different commands
Although many of these methods are aimed directly at helping boredom-related feather picking, they have also been shown to help birds with fear-related feather picking. Continually offering new toys to a bird allows the bird to become more curious and less fearful of his or her environment.4
What if behavioral enrichment alone is not working?
It is important to understand that there may not be one solution to the feather picking. Because parrots are such intellectually complex creatures, there may be multiple changes an owner has to make to help decrease feather picking. Certain anti-anxiety drugs may be beneficial, especially when combined with other behavioral therapy options such as those listed above. Once making these changes, it may take weeks to months before positive changes are seen. Therefore, being patient during this time and continuing with the prescribed therapy even without immediate changes in a bird’s behavior is recommended. Allowing the full therapy to run its course will lead to a more long-term positive outcome and a better quality of life for both the animal and the owner.
- Luescher, AU (editor); Seibert, LM. Chapter 23 – Feather-picking Disorder in Pet Birds. Manual of Parrot Behavior, Blackwell Publishing (2003): 255-265.
- Nett, Cs; Tully, TN. 2003. Anatomy, Clinical Presentation, and Diagnostic Approach to Feather- Picking Pet Birds. Dermatology Compendium, VetFolio, 25(3).
- Meehan, CL; Millam, JR; Mench, JA. 2003. Foraging opportunity and increased physical complexity both prevent and reduce psychogenic feather picking by young Amazon parrots. Applied Animal Behavior Science, 80(1): 71-85
- Meehan, CL; Mench, JA. 2002. Environmental enrichment affects the fear and exploratory responses to novelty of young Amazon parrots. Applied Animal Behavior Science, 79(1): 75-88.
—Compiled by Seema Patel for Dr. Kelly Ballantyne’s VM 620 class