Feather Picking In Pet Birds

What do I do if my bird is plucking out feathers? Is over-preening a sign that my bird is sick or unhappy?

Preening feathers is a normal bird behavior. Molting is normal. However, aggressively picking feathers to the point that the bird has bare spots or uneven plumage is cause for concern. Our avian expert, Dr. Laurie Hess, shares a few common causes below:

Watch Feather Picking Or Over-Preening In Pet Birds on YouTube.

Video Transcript

Hi, I am Dr. Laurie Hess and I’m here with my bird, Elmo, to talk to you about a really significant problem that I see in practice every day at my animal hospital, which is feather picking. It’s a really, really common concern among bird owners who bring in their birds and they notice that feathers are missing or they see their birds actually plucking out their feathers at home. And there are so many different reasons for this horrible situation, this horrible behavior that can be so upsetting when you think you have a happy, healthy bird and then suddenly, the bird starts to pull out his feathers.

So first of all, there is a difference between preening, which is a normal behavior where a feather emerges from the skin, you know, birds molt their feathers all year round and they molt those little teeny down feathers all the time. And then they have a specific sequence by which they molt their larger feathers. You know, they don’t want to molt all at once because if they were in the wild, they’d be eaten by a predator. They wouldn’t be able to fly away. So, there is a sequence by which they molt one feather at a time, usually on both sides of the body simultaneously.

But if you see that your bird is suddenly dropping a lot of feathers or you see him pulling out his feathers, that’s definitely a problem. There are really so many different causes. And when you see a bird doing that, if you do see a bird doing that, you want to bring your bird to the veterinarian right away to have that checked out.

Now, what can cause this?

There are certainly truly medical conditions that can lead to feather picking – things like nutritional deficiencies. You know that birds need a lot of vitamin A in their bird food to be able to maintain healthy feathers and skin. Vitamin A is a very important component in their diet, as is protein. Feathers are made out of protein. And when your bird is not getting enough, adequate protein or Vitamin A or other vitamins and minerals in their bird food, then they can potentially develop nutritional disease, nutritional problems that can eventually affect their skin and feathers.

In addition to nutrition, there are truly infections that can occur – bacterial infections, fungal infections, viral infections, a whole host of problems that your veterinarian would have to go through and try to diagnose if you bring your bird in for feather plucking or feather picking – over preening as we call it. And that’s something that involves a series of steps, blood work, X-rays, a thorough discussion with you about what’s going on at home to try to diagnose.

And then there’s a whole host of what we call behavioral problems. And behavioral problems encompass so many different categories. They include just boredom. We know that these birds, many of these birds are as intelligent as toddlers, human toddlers, three-year olds. And they do need a lot of stimulation, a lot of mental stimulation so that they don’t get bored and just pluck out their feathers, almost like nail-biting. I mean, sometimes, we’ll just pick on our cuticles or bite our nails. People do that when they’re bored, sometimes when they’re frustrated. And birds will pull out their feathers for the same reason. So try to understand the behavioral things.

Stresses can be a cause or can incite feather picking in birds – new things in the environment like a new baby, a new piece of furniture, for example. I had a bird, a patient of mine pick out all his feathers because the owners put a refrigerator in the room with him and they didn’t realize that was a big deal but it really was quite scary to this bird. 

Change in environment, a new home, a new cage, anything that goes on, even construction in the environment, new noise, a new person living in the house whether it’s a baby or a new relative who’s moved in, lots of commotion now with COVID, you know we have a lot of things changing in our lives, different people coming and going in the house, more people home with the bird, a change in their schedule – all of those things can throw off a bird and incite feather picking.

There’s also sexual frustration. We know that birds are very, very social in the wild. They live in flocks of hundreds to thousands. And when birds live individually, like Elmo here at home, I do everything I can to make him happy but obviously, he may be bonded to me, but not maybe with me, obviously. So, there is that level of sexual frustration that can eventually lead a mature bird who’s reached puberty, and that’s different for different birds, different ages. But a bird who is previously healthy and happy can then suddenly start to pick out their feathers because they’re sexually frustrated. And that’s something that you can work on with your veterinarian. There are hormonal treatments right now that work wonderfully to help solve that problem.

The most important thing I can tell you is if you do see your bird doing this behavior, that you do address it. Know when it happens. Are there inciting causes that you can identify in the environment? What time of day? What’s your bird doing? Are you home when it happens? Are you not? Is it when you are not at home? Try to take some notes because your vet is going to ask you that. And also, think about, you know, any potential changes that have occurred in the environment. Get as much information to your veterinarian as possible and try really hard not to accidentally reinforce this behavior by going over your bird and saying, don’t do that, don’t pick your feathers, or yelling at the bird because the bird just sees that as attention for a behavior that he’s doing and he doesn’t understand that that’s a negative attention, even though that’s what you mean it to be.

So, again, don’t be overly distraught. There are lots of cures and lots of therapies for lots of these causes. But you do have to, you know, pay as much attention as you can, gather as much information and talk to your veterinarian.

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