In general, for every day a bird picks, it takes at least 1 day to repair that damage. Birds showing feather destructive behavior are telling us that something is wrong because feather picking is a result of undue stress placed on a bird by one or several conditions. Our veterinarians can help decide a diagnostic approach based on a complete history and physical examination. The overall goal is to perform tests to rule out the likely causes based on the assessment of each individual bird. Various testing can include blood tests (CBC, Chemistry profile, viral testing, etc), radiographs, fecal tests, DNA sexing, and diet and nutritional evaluation. With an organized medical plan, an answer and treatment can often be achieved. Possible causes of feather destructive behavior can be divided into five main categories. Below is a list of one or multiple reasons a bird may pick its feathers.
1. Psittacine Beak and Feather Disease (PBFD)/Polyoma Virus (PVD): PBFD affects the immune system and can eventually cause necrosis of the feather follicle and loss from the body. There is an accurate blood test to determine if the bird is infected, whether or not it is showing signs. Another virus, PVD, has also been shown to cause feather loss, but is more prevalent in juvenile birds with adults more likely acting as carriers. There is a blood test as well for PVD.
2. Metabolic causes: These are causes that affect internal organs and can be sub-classified into:
Infectious: Any infectious agent (Psittacosis, bacterial, fungal, etc) that can damage internal organs and/or cause enough stress on the bird to lead to feather destructive behavior.
Non-infectious: These are substances in the environment that can do harm to our pet birds. Examples include heavy metal toxicity (Lead, zinc, copper), nutritional imbalances, nicotine poisoning from second hand smoke, heart disease, gastrointestinal foreign material, and many others. Sometimes a bird will attack the site of pain on the skin relating to the injured organ system in a predictable way. Most of these causes can be detected with blood tests, radiographs, or specialty laboratory tests.
3. Nutritional: Nutrition alone can affect all organs and exaggerate any other problem within the body. The skin and feathers make up the largest organ system in the body and will reflect a lack of proper nutrients. Imbalances in vitamin A, vitamin B, amino acids, calcium, and excess fats have all been shown to influence feather condition.
4. Hormonal: Many birds (male and female) with rising hormone levels as they mature can exhibit “sexual frustration” or “obsessive compulsive disorders” with the subsequent sign of feather destruction or picking. This may occur only seasonally and may be accompanied by aggression in response to the breeding season (for that species). There are several options to treat these cases and minimize the effects of hormones on a bird’s mental state, including hormone therapy, mood modulating drugs, and possibly neutering/spaying.
5. Psychological: The brain is a powerful organ that takes in various stimuli and environmental experiences and attempts to make logic out of it. Sometimes this logic mechanism short circuits and the only way a bird can deal with these anxieties is to take out its problems on its own body. Some of the worst mutilation is diagnosed as an acute psychologic episode.