ENVIRONMENTAL CHANGES AND SOME TREATMENTS:
The most important thing to remember when treating a feather picking or chewing bird is that this is often a lifelong management issue and there is no quick fix or cure. Therefore, it is important to realize that correcting this problem may take a considerable amount of time and commitment. Also, the longer the behavior has persisted the more difficult it is to correct. It is always best to take the bird to your veterinarian as soon a behavior is noticed. The birds caught early have the best chance of success in reducing or eliminating the negative behavior. That said, the following are some environmental changes I often suggest after a complete health screen of the bird. (for caging and housing see correct beginning)
1) Full Spectrum Lighting:
Often our birds are completely housed indoors and never see the sunlight. Even those by a window will not benefit from the sun because the window acts as a filter preventing the bird from absorbing the benefits of the sun such as Vitamin D3. Birds use the sunlight by preening their feathers with feather dust in the case of cockatiel or cockatoos or the oily secretions of the uropygial (preen) gland. The substance on the feathers will undergo a chemical reaction from the sunlight producing Vitamin D3 which the bird ingests with further preening of the feathers. The exclusively indoor bird does not have the benefit of the reaction. One alternative is to provide full spectrum lighting. The packaging for the light should state that is provides both UVA and UVB rays and must always be a fluorescent light and not an incandescent bulb. The introduction of the light should be slow to prevent stress to the bird. I’d suggest starting out with the light in the same room but not lighted or next to the cage and gradually moving it closer to the cage over several days. When the bird appears comfortable with the light is can be placed within 18inches of the cage and turned on. Ensure that the bird is unable to access the light or cord because most will chew given the opportunity. Also, the light should not be left on around the clock. Night time and darkness is also important to the bird’s health and I recommend 12 hours of uninterrupted darkness each night. Some of the better light will simulate dawn and dusk with a slow brightening and dimming and can be placed on a timer for consistency. Another option is to provide an outdoor cage for temporary sunning. The cause must have shaded areas available at all times and should be protected from wild birds or their droppings.
Many of our captive birds are adapted to the jungle and very high humidity. I suggest you research the natural lifestyle of your particular species and attempt to provide something close to their natural temperature and humidity. Often we live in areas of the country with very low humidity (i.e. Arizona) or we live in areas that require artificial heating which will lower the humidity. Either of these situations can be uncomfortable for our birds. Feather pickers will often benefit from increased humidity because it is soothing to the skin and allows them to keep their feathers clean. A great way of increasing the humidity is to provide a daily bath for your bird. Bathing can be done in a variety of way depending on the individual. Many of the larger parrots enjoy showering with us and there are actual shower perches that can be purchased. Smaller birds may enjoy misting or a shallow bowl of fresh clean water placed in the cage daily. Noise will often stimulate bathing activity and my birds will almost always bathe when I run the vacuum. For smaller birds I’ve also run the skin faucet slowly and placed the bird on a towel over the skin divider (for traction). The birds will watch you running your hands under the water and often will join in on the activity. Bathing with water alone will improve the health of the skin and feathers, but for feather pickers I’ve often added a prescription shampoo to the bathing routine (especially for the shower birds) and this is often an effective way of treating secondary skin infection caused by the trauma of picking. Of course you should never use an over the counter shampoo and also check with your vet prior to using any substance on the skin or feather. Often time anti-pick sprays will often increase the feather destruction because the bird is attempting to clean the substance off its feathers. So always check with your vet first. A humidifier is another means of increasing the humidity. If used, the water chamber must be cleaned in the dishwasher every day to prevent growth of fungus and bacteria that can be very harmful to our birds. Also the paper or cage litter must be changed daily to prevent growth of fungus and of course the bowls should always be cleaned daily as well.
3) Provide mental stimulation during the day:
I cannot over stress the importance of this need. Our birds are often left sitting alone in the cage, with a dish full of food, while we are at work. These can be long boring hours for our intelligent companions. They have no interaction with other intelligent beings most of the day, there is no work involved in getting food and there is no ability for vigorous exercise during the day. Why wouldn’t they feather picking. In the wild these same birds would spend their time interacting with flock mates, flying to distant locations while expending lots of excess energy, and most importantly looking for food throughout the day (mental stimulation). So what can we do? Toys, toys, toys… Think of a child spending time in a room alone and then the same child in a room full of enriching/interactive type toys. Still not perfect but better. I always suggest a variety of toys (see links below) that should include hand toys, puzzler toys, treasure chests, chewable toys and foraging toys. Think of toys not as an option or luxury for the pet bird, but as essentials to that bird’s well being. Please review the excellent links that are provided at the bottom of the page as well as the article on foraging shown below. I also suggest placing a TV or radio on a timer so that it repeatedly goes on and off through the day. This will still allow the bird some quiet time while also providing mental stimulation. Placing the cage in partial view of a window is also helpful. And requiring them to forage for their food is excellent mental stimulation. Foraging may involve hiding food or placing food in toys that they must "unlock" to get the treats (see foraging article below).
4)Vary the location of the cage or have multiple cages:
Caution should be used especially in a timid bird with little self confidence. Some birds are so frightened of change that a cage move will cause picking (see correct beginning). However, if your bird is already picking providing variety in the cage location may give them other things to think about and provide some distraction to slow the picking. Of course, it is best to start out early with a baby bird but even older birds can lean to tolerate change if the introduction is gradual.
5)A companion bird????
This is a tough question and can go either way depending on the individual bird. Ideally, I recommend when purchasing a baby bird that 2 birds be purchased. I believe it is unfair to these intelligent beings to require that they spend their lives alone. If raised together many birds will become lifelong companions. The babies should both be hand fed so that they are very tame and you must interact frequently with both birds to keep them tame and loving with the family members. The down side of having 2 birds is that they can become aggressive with each other (especially if introducedlater in life) and breeding activity can be stimulated. Breeding activity or hormonal changes can occur with 2 birds of the same sex of even with a single bird that has a mirror. The negative aspects of these hormonal changes are potential aggression, feather picking due to hormonal stress, and reproductive problems such as egg binding in females. If a bird has lived the majority of its live alone and has behavioral problems such as feather picking I often do not recommend getting a second bird. The original bird is often very jealous of the newcomer and fighting may ensue, also the new bird may develop the same behavioral problems as the first. It is best to work exclusively on the original bird to improve its general health both mental and physical.
Don’t have your bird in the kitchen or in the center of activity but rather on the periphery of activity so that they can be a part of the family but can also have some some quiet time.
7)Toys and perches:
see behavior tips and links below…
8) Nutrition – General Recommendation:
The feather picker is causing damage to its skin and feather follicles which can lead to secondary infection. It is important to provide the best possible nutrition for your particular species of bird to allow for a healthy immune system and prevent the stress of vitamin and nutrient deficiency. Realize that all birds are not the same and cannot eat the same diet. Ideally, I like to offer a variety of foods that include a organic and color free avian pellet, a large variety of fresh veggies, and a small percent of fresh fruits and seeds. The following are a few dietary generalization on some individual species, but again it is important that you speak with your veterinarian and do research on your bird prior to making any changes.
In general you need to provide a large variety of fresh food for your bird. Typically I recommend a core diet of an organic and color free parrot pellet. A large variety of fresh vegetables should be provided for both nutrition and mental stimulation. A small amount of seeds can be provided as a treat. Seeds should be clean and fresh. Sprouted seeds can also be offered and are a good way of introducing greens to the stubborn eater.
- Macaws: Variety will occur with the individual types of macaws. However, in general these birds require a higher fat content in their diet which can be provided with some of the large nuts as a part of their regular diet.
- African Greys: Greys are often subject to calcium deficiency and will require higher calcium content in their diet then other birds. The best way to provide this is by providing calcium rich foods such as cheeses and yogurt in moderation. Greens such as collards, kale, and mustard greens provide a healthy source of calcium. Another source is from almonds and dairy products in moderation.
- Eclectus: Ares often require more vitamin A in their diet than other birds, but you must be very careful with supplements because it is easy to create Vitamin A toxicity. Again, providing natural sources of Vitamin A is best. Feed dark leafy green and yellow veggies daily. Sweet potatoes, squash and bell peppers are a good source of Vitamin A that many birds enjoy.
- Small Birds: Budgies & Cockatiels: These guys are my exception to the rule of pellets. In general I like to place my avian patients on a complete balanced pellet, but for budgies and cockatiels I recommend that the pellets be no more than 50% of their diet with fresh/clean seeds offered daily and
of course fresh veggies.
Foods to Feed Only in Moderation:
- (1)Those veggies containing a high amount of oxalates. Some common examples include: spinach, chard, and bok choy.
- (2)Fruits, which can provide too much sugar in the bird’s diet.
- (3)Diets that are based 100% on cooked beans/grains/pasta. These diets often have too much phosphorus and are very high in calories which can result in an obese bird.
- (4)The diet should not be based on seeds. Seed diets contain too much fat and are deficient in many nutrients.
Foods to NEVER Feed:
- (1) Caffeine
- (2) Chocolate
- (3) The pits of most fruits – i.e. Avocado
- (4)High acid foods such as tomatoes and pineapple (uncooked)
9) Medical Options:
Certainly treatment of any primary or secondary medical causes of feather picking will need to be treated by your veterinarian. Many of these birds will develop secondary fungal and bacterial infections from the chronic skin damage. Also, many illnesses will cause picking and these will be discovered based on a physical and laboratory examination. Each illness will have its own treatment based on how it is affecting the bird.
A couple of things that I don’t recommend for routine use in feather picking birds are
- 1) Medroxyprogesterone acetate (Depo-Provera) which can cause obesity and liver disease
- 2)steroid injections which potentially can cause liver and gastrointestinal disease.
Medications for anxiety
It is important to remember that a medication is not a quick fix for this very complicated problem and is not warranted in all cases. You must first have a complete physical and laboratory examination of your bird and then work on correcting any environmental concerns. The best use I’ve had for medications are in those birds who are long term picker, very nervous birds, and birds causing skin damage. Also, remember that none of these drugs are had formal studies done in birds and are not labeled or approved for this use. Some medical options may include:
- 1.Clomipramine: This drug is labeled and used for dog separation anxiety.
- 2. Haloperidol: An antipsychotic drug that can have liver side effects
- 3. Fluoxetine: Prozac, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor
- 4. Amitriptyline: often used in cats for elimination problems, tricyclic antidepressant
Medications for hormonal feather picking:
Some birds will be greatly influenced by hormonal changes and this stress will cause feather picking. It is best to first make environmental changes such as removing mirrors or nest boxes (this can include anything the birds thinks of as a nest box), preventing hormonal stimulation such as petting that induces this behavior, and altering the light cycle to mimic winter sunlight. If all these changes fail than drug therapy may be warranted. Drug therapy is most effective in females but has also be tried in males.
- Lupron: leuprolide acetate has an inhibitory effect on the pituitary that should reduce the hormones FSH and LH. This drug has been used in birds for chronic egg laying, hormonal aggression and feather picking. Again, this is not a perfect drug and certainly not for all situations.
Antihistamines for Allergies and itchy skin:
Most feather pickers are NOT allergic birds and are not picking due to itchy skin, but there are exceptions and some birds will benefit from antihistamines. For those birds that do have allergies or skin irritations it is important to reduce environmental causes such as cigarette smoke in the air or on your hands, perfumes or other aerosolized sprays, and dust from cockatoos which can cause allergies in birds such as macaws. Always have clean hands when holding your bird, don’t use any sprays around the bird and ensure that the room is well ventilated.
Diphenhydramine: both oral and topical forms
- Hydroxyzine: both oral (liquid) and topical