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Feather Plucking In Your Bird: Causes, Symptoms, Treatment, and Recovery

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feather plucking in birds

What is it called when birds pluck their feathers?

Feather plucking is a common problem in pet birds and it can be managed or even stopped with the proper guidance.

Also called feather destructive behavior or feather picking, these behaviors range from over-preening feathers, to barbering feathers,  pulling feathers out, shaft and all, to literally causing skin damage and infections.

Why do my birds’ feathers look bad? 

I’m Diane Burroughs, LCSW of BirdSupplies.com.  I have been supporting feather plucking birds since the early 2000’s.  And, as a licensed psychotherapist and behaviorist, I’ve worked with thousands of birds over the years!

Often, people first notice that their bird's feathers look bad before they come to the realization that their bird is in fact feather plucking.  Birds often start messing with a small patch of feathers making it hard to detect a budding feather plucking problem.

Sometimes, people only realize that their bird is plucking only after it's become a full-blown problem and the bird is missing large patches of feathers.

Unfortunately,  feather plucking often progresses in severity overtime if it goes unaddressed. It is best to get into the habit of monitoring your bird's feather condition on a routine basis.

There are a number of reasons why a bird's feathers may start to look bad.  Oftentimes, there is an underlying medical issue. Whether the vet can detect it or not is a different story.

There are a number of medical issues that can cause feathers to look bad.  Some of these issues are known medical diagnoses.  Your avian veterinarian will ask questions, do a physical exam, and obtain lab work to rule out medical causes. 

What experts say about feather plucking birds

Your avian veterinarian will ask questions, do a physical exam, and obtain lab work to rule out medical causes.

Nutritional deficiencies is a very common reason for why feathers start to look bad.  The results of lab tests are harder to decipher because of lack of species specific dietary research.

That's why experts like Karmen Budai and Dr. Jason Crean strongly endorse a premium pellet and rich plant-based food diet.

 

Our pet birds have very high metabolisms. In other words, their body is constantly using energy that comes from the food that they eat. This is one of the reasons why you can observe bird grazing on food throughout the day.  And, it's also why they eliminate so frequently.

Animals and people with high metabolism have the following needs:

  • Staying hydrated by ​drinking more water  
  • Getting enough uninterrupted sleep  
  • Eating healthy, nutrient-dense foods  
  • Managing stress levels 
High metabolism bird doesn't store nutrients and vitamins in their body as efficiently as other animals.  When a bird doesn’t have access to healthy, nutrient-dense foods, and it's other wellness needs aren't getting met, it starts showing up in poor feather health.

What is the connection between nutrition and mental health?

People don't often think about this but nutrition and mental health go hand-in-hand. Without the proper nutrients the brain can go haywire resulting in anxiety, depression, and obsessive compulsive disorder. All of these mental health disorders have close ties to feather plucking in birds. 

Veterinarians at the Richard M. Shubolt Parrot Wellness Institute make the study of parrot wellness their mission. Our parrots are actually exotic pets, their wellness needs are quite different from dogs and cats.

Thanks to their impressive research, we're now finding that when a bird doesn't have its wellness needs met, it's more predisposed to developing a feather plucking problem.

Parrot wellness consists of six components:

  1. Specialized pediatric and geriatric care
  2.  Proper, species specific nutrition
  3.  Behavioral training
  4.  Ongoing enrichment
  5.  Consistent wellness check ups from an avian expert.
  6.  Pain management 

Check out this blog post to learn more about parrot wellness. Or, watch this video.

 

Is feather plucking bad for birds?

In and of itself, feather plucking in birds is not bad, per se. A domestic bird can live without feathers.

However, the underlying causes are the real problem.  A bird can live without its feathers, but the mere fact that this habit usually develops due to stressful physical, social, or environmental deficits is a big concern.

I have quite a following of parents of feather plucking birds and I always encourage my customers to get to the root of the problem. 

More often than not, there are several contributing factors which come together to result in a feather plucking problem.

What experts say about feather plucking birds

"More often than not, there are several contributing factors that come together to result in a feather plucking problem."

 

Resolving feather plucking can get complex. But, with a good behavior analysis we can usually get to the place where we are managing the problem.

Behaviorists are aware that accounting for parrot wellness is one of the best things that they can do to support their feather plucking bird. A bird that feels well has much less of a need to destroy its own feathers. But, we often have to address things from a behavioral perspective, too.

How do you tell if your bird is plucking their feathers?

I've been a proud bird mom since 1998. I stay on top of my bird's well-being by doing “daily spot checks” on each of them and their living areas.  It gives me time to socialize and bond with Smokey, the CAG, Timmy, the TAG,  Peachy, my M2, and Kiwi, my GCC.

Here's what I look for when I check on them each morning:

  • Damaged feathers on their bodies or on the cage floor
  • Untidy or dull looking feathers
  • Broken skin or any signs of blood 
  • Dry flaky skin and signs of scratching
  • Depressed, irritated or stressed out behavior

I can do these “spot checks” in just a few minutes.  The reason I like to have this routine is because I know that catching a feather plucking habit early is best for my birds. Like most medical issues the earlier you catch it the better the outcome.

Does plucking feathers hurt?

Simply put, feather plucking hurts! When a bird pulls out a feather, shaft and all, it rips the supporting skin tissue out too.  This is painful and causes skin inflammation. 

But, it also brings temporary relief from emotional pain that the bird may be experiencing.

As soon as the bird causes itself severe pain, the brain releases endorphins that are believed to quickly calm anxiety.  Since the bird immediately feels relief, the behavior turns into a compulsive habit very quickly.  Here at BirdSupplies.com, I've found that the longer a bird has been plucking and the more intense the plucking is, the harder that habit is to get under control.

Bird calming supplements can enormously benefit your stressed bird. 

Do birds feathers grow back after being plucked?

Bird’s can and often do grow their feathers back when you correct the causative factors and get to the real reasons why the bird is plucking.  Feather plucking is much easier to turn around when you catch the problem early.

One important key to regrowing is to address your pet’s nutritional needs and improve parrot wellness. 

Feather growth is much more nutritionally taxing on the body than most realize. Picky eaters and re-homed birds often do best with quality nutritional supports like UnRuffledRx FeatheredUp!

Shop FeatheredUp!

Piggybacking off of my comments above, I shared with you how plucking a feather out can cause damage to the feather follicle.  Once the feather follicle has developed a certain amount of scar tissue it can no longer support feather growth. 

This is yet another reason to catch feather plucking early for a better outcome.

What to do if your bird is plucking his feathers?

You suspect that your bird is plucking out its feathers, take action quickly. 

  1. Book a wellness checkup from an experienced avian vet now.

  2. Begin practicing parrot wellness to reduce as many physical and emotional stressors as possible.  Realize that most cases of feather plucking have a complex set of causes.

  3. Become a “bird behavior detective. Try to figure out what triggers the behavior in the first place and what your bird is getting out of this habit.  

  4. Work with a bird behaviorist to get to the root cause. A few sessions with a good bird behaviorist will help you get to the root causes of the problem.

    Bird Behavior
  5. Address the problem holistically.  This means taking into account your bird's physical, emotional, social, and enrichment needs.

  6. Learn  science-backed behavior change strategies that support behavior change.

Can birds recover from feather plucking?

Birds can and do recover from feather plucking. I've worked with several cases in which the bird has been rescued from an unfortunate situation, and with a holistic approach, has made remarkable progress in 12 to 18 months.

I've done case studies of successful feather plucking recoveries. The key in each of these successful feather plucking recoveries has been that the caretaker took a holistic approach to their pets recovery.

These dedicated caretakers simultaneously work on improving parrot wellness to include diet, sleep, exercise, and enrichment while being attentive to building trust with their companion.

They've reinforced and encouraged their bird to engage in normal parrot behaviors. But, they let the bird set the pace! My case study subjects were vigilant to watch their pets body language.

What experts say about feather plucking birds

They've reinforced and encouraged their bird to engage in normal parrot behaviors. But, they let the bird set the pace! My case study subjects were vigilant to watch their pets body language.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of myths in various groups and support circles which point to simplistic approaches to dealing with this complex problem.

Going for a one solution approach rarely works and these caretakers find themselves trying one solution after another to no avail.

In conclusion, the best way to help your bird recover from the distressing and addictive problem of feather plucking is to take a holistic approach while taking your bird's cues into account.

You suspect that your bird is plucking out its feathers, take action quickly.

  1. Get a wellness checkup from an experienced exotics or avian vet.

  2. Practice science-backed parrot wellness strategies that reduce physical and emotional stressors.  Realize that most cases of feather plucking have a complex set of causes that you need to address simultaneously. Explore diet, enrichment, bird training, sleep, and much more.

  3. Become a “bird behavior detective. Try to figure out what triggers the behavior in the first place and what your bird is getting out of this habit. Here's a blog post that may help.

  4. Work with a bird behaviorist.  A few sessions with a good bird behaviorist will help you get to the root causes of the problem and plan out a recovery strategy.  A good bird behaviorist is focused on teaching you science-backed behavior change strategies that support behavior change.

  5. Address the problem holistically. This means taking into account your bird's physical, emotional, social, and enrichment needs.

Related Posts:

How to do a time study for feather plucking

How to stop feather plucking while improving your birds well-being

References:


Diane Burroughs, LCSW is a licensed psychotherapist trained in ABA therapy techniques. She specializes in avian anxiety disorders and is certified in Nutrition For Mental Health. Diane has written a number of bird behavior books and she offers behavior consultations. She's developed a range of UnRuffledRx Science-backed Parrot Wellness Supplies.

Diane's products have been featured in the Journal of Avian Medicine and Surgery and at Exoticscon, a conference for exotic pet veterinarians. Her bird collars & supplements are stocked in avian vet clinics and bird stores throughout the US. With over 30 years in the field of behavior, Diane has created thousands of successful individualized behavior plans that help pets thrive.

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