Feather Grooming Disorders


David McCluggage, D.V.M., C.V.A.

Commonly called [[quot]]feather plucking[[quot]], a much better term for this condition is Feather Grooming Disorders. Why? First, many birds don't pluck feathers; they chew them and over-preen them to the point that the feather becomes damaged. Most of these birds start the process by slowly developing excessive preening that then leads to further changes in how they damage their feathers. We will explain that further below.

Western Medicine And Feather Grooming Disorders

Many birds will improve feather growth using our Health Feather Formula

Some avian veterinarians will spend a great deal of time trying to find a physical cause for this problem. This is expensive, invasive to the bird, and not likely to prove beneficial. The vast majority of feather chewing and plucking problems and even self-mutilation (biting or scratching the skin until it bleeds) is based on behavioral, psychological and emotional conditions.

Some birds with dull feathers are hypothyroid and can be treated using our Hypothyroid Chinese Herbal Support formula

Certainly, there are often secondary skin infections or some of the feather follicles will develop infections that may need to be treated. Many birds come from aviaries and pet stores already sick, hide their illnesses, and (amazing but true) can carry these diseases for years before they become outwardly ill. These illnesses need to be treated but just because they are present in a bird that has feather-grooming problems does not mean that the disease is the cause of the problem. But, the underlying reason the problem developed to begin with is emotionally based.

We always recommend a visit with a competent veterinarian, have appropriate initial tests run, and have any significant problems treated. But, don't get into the cycle of treating with one medication after another in a vain attempt to finally solve a behavioral problem with a drug.

The Real Cause for Grooming Disorders

Why do so many birds in home or aviary situations develop feather-grooming problems when no birds that live in the wild have these problems? The reason for this is that parrots are wild animals. They should be living in the jungle, not in homes. Life in the wild is a full time job. The job is called staying alive, and it takes up a whole day full of activities. They simply have too much to do to develop any compulsive behaviors.

We can never hope to duplicate this experience in a home situation. How could we ever think that by simply supplying some toys to chew on, a television or radio to listen to, and a few hours a day associating with their [[quot]]people[[quot]] we are providing everything a bird needs to be happy? For any creature to be truly fulfilled, they need a purpose and a job in their life. Without this, many will develop one behavioral problem or another.

The first thing that may happen is that the bird will start feeling a bit ill at ease. When a bird feels upset, they naturally begin to preen their feathers. Feather preening is a meditative event for a bird that usually leads to their feeling much better, both physically and mentally. Preening feathers stimulates the bird's nerves, lymphatic, and blood vessels (Traditional Chinese Medicine calls this the meridians and acupuncture points). Birds preen along their meridians to move the energy or Qi of their body much like people do with yoga, Qi Gong, and massage therapy.

If a bird remains unsettled, common with so many birds in homes or aviaries, they will continue to preen and preen. This becomes excessive. They preen more than normal, damaging feathers as they continue their behavior. These damaged feathers don't feel normal, so they preen them even more and more, developing a cycle that is hard to alter (an analogy for us is if we have a broken fingernail, where we keep working it over, trying to smooth it out and make it feel normal again. something that usually only happens when we file the nail smooth!). By this continual over preening the bird may create one of several changes to their feathers:

  • They can rub off the outer pigment coat, causing what is called "bronzing". This looks like brown spots or a large swath of color change to a brown to gray appearance the surface on the feather. What you are seeing is a lack of the original color, since it is worn off by the excessive preening.
    • One theory about feather bronzing is that it is caused by liver disease. This is not true. There are a large number of causes of bronzing, including over-preening, nutritional, hormonal, behavioral (birds can play in such a way that they rub off the normal pigment of the feather that resides out the outer layer of the feather), and internal diseases. Liver disease can be a cause, but is only one of many reasons your bird might have feather disorders)
  • Or, the feathers can start to develop a frazzled look, where they don't lie down nicely into a normal soft even look. This often develops into broken off feathers, twisted feathers, and even a fuzzy appearance to the feather. A feather that has been chewed off down to the skin, with only the fuzzy base left intact, causes the fuzzy appearance.
  • The bird can start plucking out feathers; the result is that the bird develops areas of the body that are devoid of feathers entirely.
  • Finally, some birds will start scratching their skin, causing inflammation to the feather follicles or skin. This can lead to scabs and secondary skin infections. This severe form of abnormal grooming is often the most difficult to treat.
  • Birds that have feather-grooming problems are stressed. They may be only mildly stressed, but they are stressed anyway. Stress can often lead to secondary physical illness (reflect on how often we get catch a cold when we are stressed by work or family problems). As we have said, all birds that have feather problems should have veterinary examinations. But, if a disease is found, it is rarely the cause of the feather problem, only an other symptom of emotional stress, poor diets, improper housing, lack of love and nurturing, or simply not having that [[quot]]job[[quot]] that we all need to feel fulfilled.

Looking carefully at what I have said, you will see that the treatment of feather problems is very complex. First, we can't put the bird back into the wild, so the primary problem can't be corrected (again, birds in the wild never have feather plucking or chewing problems; their feathers are always in excellent condition). Then, all of the secondary problems that might develop (skin infections, feather folliculitis, nutritional deficiencies, systemic illnesses) must be addressed. Finally, the problem becomes a habit and habits are almost impossible to alter. So, what can we do?

What NOT To Do:

  • Placing collars on birds never changes the primary problem. We almost never collar a bird. The exceptions would be either a bird that is causing self-mutilation, or to try to grow in all the feathers one while we work on owner education and environmental changes that will benefit the bird.
  • We never use psychoactive drugs. Antidepressants, anti-stress drugs, antihistamines, mood modifiers, and similar drugs are not acceptable. First, in our experience they almost never almost work, period. If there is any change, the change is rarely anything more than a temporary improvement. We don't even know what these drugs do in birds (there are NO studies of their effects and side effect), but we do know that in people the side effects are often severe and very powerful. And, the bird is simply getting drugged when what he or she really needs is an understanding caretaker.
  • Don't give repeated antibiotics, steroids, hormones, and anti-inflammatory drugs. You are only chasing after secondary effects at best, while many doctors are simply hoping to find something, anything that might work.
  • Never let a doctor talk you into surgically removing the testicles or ovary. At best, the success rate is poor and it is likely that roughly half the birds that have these surgeries die from the surgery.

What TO Do:

  • First, understand that a bird with feather grooming problems is just fine as they are. This is vital to understand. This is not a severe mental problem, simply a mild compulsion. The bird, in all likelihood is quite happy as they are and all they need is for you to love them as they are. The only exception to this is those birds that cause their skin to bleed and develop infections.
  • Don't blame yourself; you are not the cause of the problem. You did not take the bird from the wild and you can't create a jungle in your home.
  • This does not mean that there are not plenty of things you can do to help your bird be less compulsive and live a fuller, happier life. There are many things you can do. Some of them are suggested in one of the books we recommend:
  • Accept the reality that birds are wild animals that are not trainable like dogs. They need to be free in your home to be themselves. They often will be happier if they are allowed the freedom to fly around the house. Many birds are far happier if you stop trimming their wings.
  • Work with a holistic doctor that can prescribe homeopathic remedies, nutraceuticals, and herbal therapies. These can make the bird feel better, not feel drugged.
  • Watch your bird carefully, listen to your bird, and, in your mind, keep asking your bird and yourself what she or he wants and needs. Don't listen to the average [[quot]]bird trainer or behaviorist[[quot]] and their list of solutions. Read what they have to say but filter most of it out because your bird is a unique individual. Besides, most of the behaviorist's theories reside in the mistaken belief that a bird can be trained. As I have already pointed out, birds are wild animals and are not trainable.
  • Finally, please always remember that it is up to you to understand their needs and desires and attempt to meet these needs, not try to alter the bird to meet your needs.