Feather plucking in pet birds is an all too common problem. It's estimated that about 10% of all pet birds, mostly parrots, engage in some form of feather destructive behavior. Bird owners wonder if once feather plucking starts can be cured.
Bird behaviorist’s and avian specialists believe that certain traits in our exotic pets may predispose them develop stereotypic disorders, like feather plucking. For instance, parrots are very emotionally sensitive. They are also highly intelligent and they have complex social needs. It’s hard to manage these sensitivities in a solely kept cage bird.You can find more about what might predispose feather plucking in birds here (March 8 blog
Given how prevalent feather plucking is in birds, you'd think that avian veterinarians would understand the complexities of the disorder. But, the fact is that a lot of feather plucking cases turn out to be behavioral in origin, not medical. Most avian veterinarians focus on ruling out major causative factors, with the caretakers budget in mind.
You'll, of course, want to rule out a medical problem with a good avian vet as your first line of defense You can find an avian veterinarian here.
Whether the problem originated due to a medical problem, a behavioral concern, or a highly upsetting event, it will be important to use behavior strategies to stop the problem as soon as you realize what’s going on. That’s because feather plucking often takes on a compulsive, self-reinforcing quality rather quickly. If a plucking disorder is treated within the first few years of onset, it is much easier to cure. Severe cases are also more difficult to manage.
People ask, how do I stop my bird from plucking his feathers? They try diversions like bird collars or offering more bird toys in hopes that the plucking will stop. In truth, these quick-fixes alone rarely work. A diversion doesn’t change behavior but it can certainly buy you time as you learn to use more effective strategies. When it comes to curing a feather plucking habit, you’ll need to use actual, science-based behavior change strategies.
Applied behavior analysis (ABA) offers us the best solution to curing feather plucking in our precious birds. Backed by decades of research, ABA therapy literally spells out the most effective approaches to curing difficult and challenging behaviors like feather plucking in birds. It’s not a quick fix nor is it simple to use, but it is the most effective treatment aside from drugging your bird up.
If we’ve learned anything during COVID, we’ve learned that a scientific approach is critical. And, it helps to work with experts. For instance, the science shows us that that the most important thing that you can do to cure feather plucking is to enhance wellness. That is physical and emotional wellness. A stressed out, improperly cared for pet simply does not have the ability to control its behavior.
Once you’ve ensured for emotional and physical wellness, specific behavioral strategies have the best long-term outcome for resolving a feather plucking problem. But, more about that in a little bit. First, let’s dive deeper into what “environmental wellness” actually means.
Embrace Pet Insurance describes this vague term as, “Environmental enrichment isthe process of makingthe animal's living space interesting and stimulating so as to decrease boredom and its subsequent problems.”
Okay?! To be nice, this is an incredibly simplified definition. Environmental wellness actually goes much deeper.
Richard Shubolt, DVM from the University of California, Davis takes it further. He describes 6 essential characteristics to improve environmental wellness in our pet birds:
When you understand how adverse environmental factors contribute to feather plucking in birds, then you’ll be better equipped to take the correct action from the onset.
Who wants to spend lots of money and time trying one thing after another when the science is clear on what works to cure challenging behavior? Spinning your wheels with “bandaid approaches” hoping that something works is heartbreaking. You may temporarily curb the problem, but do nothing to actually change a habitual, dangerous behavior.
Think of wellness as an empty balloon. Each time that your pet endures a stressor, whether its poor nutrition, lack of sleep, or pain, it’s like a puff of air filling up the balloon. At some point, the balloon will explode.
Wellness is the most effective and the easiest DYI thing that you can do to cure feather plucking in birds. If you’re looking to save money and help your beloved pet, learn as much as you can about Dr. Shubolt’s environmental wellness research. Reduce the stressors. Don’t let your birds mental health burst like the proverbial balloon that I’d mentioned.
Being exotic pets, parrots have specialized care needs. After all, our pet birds are only a few generations removed from the rainforest or jungle. Their exotic nature means that we, as caretakers, are responsible for ensuring that our parrots innate needs are met.
Specifically, plan to support the following needs of your exotic bird.
Once you’ve stabilized your pets environment for wellness, now you can start working on ABA behavioral strategies to end feather plucking. This can get a little complicated so it is best to enlist the help of a bird behaviorist. You can also read my book, The Feather Plucking Workbook or enroll in my course, FRIEND which walks you through the most effective strategies.
The behavior strategies that we’ll look at include:
The easiest behavior strategy is to change the antecedent. This is a fancy way of saying that you need to figure out what circumstances trigger a plucking and rearrange the environment so that the bird isn’t getting triggered in the first place. This is called antecedent rearrangement.
Applied Behavior Analysis tells us that behavior is essentially sandwiched between a “trigger”and a “reinforcer”. in other words, an antecedent precedes a specific behavior. All behavior has a consequence. Once the behavior occurs it is followed up by a consequence that reinforces the behavior. The consequence essentially tells us why the bird is doing the challenging behavior. Its usually to gain something desired or to escape something that the animal wants to avoid.
In order to figure out the ABC sequence you’ll need to study the behavior by doing a time study. A bird behaviorist can help you crack the code, so to speak and thereby prescribe changes that you can make.
When we know what the function of the birds behavior is then we can work toward developing safer, more productive ways to get that need met. Essentially, a bird behaviorist will help you rearrange the environment and show you how to teach your pet new behaviors so that it can be safe and successful.
So, are you ready to start taking action to get feather plucking under control once and for all?
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