Is your bird neurotic? Well, perhaps “neurotic” is too strong a word, but some pet birds definitely exhibit self-destructive or distressing behavior. Veterinarians often have to help pets and pet owners work through these types of problems, which are complicated by the fact that animals can’t speak for themselves. However, it’s frequently possible for your vet to piece together the facts and evidence and make suggestions that significantly improve the situation. Sometimes the problem is medical, but other times it’s, well, psychological.
A bird might begin chewing, biting or plucking out its own feathers for a variety of reasons. One study found that 10 percent of pet parrots exhibit this syndrome. Some of the explanations include:
• Dietary problems, such as a lack of certain minerals, may cause skin to itch and feathers to become brittle and frayed. Your vet can analyze a blood sample and look for specific problems, such as low calcium levels or elevated amounts of bile salts. Ask your veterinarian about your pet bird’s diet, including supplements and foods to avoid.
• Pain is bewildering to a bird. If your pet bird has arthritis, an infection, or has ingested harmful substances, it might start plucking behavior.
• Boredom might cause your pet bird to self-mutilate. Living in a cage, with all the necessities in easy reach, may make birds listless, cranky or self-destructive. They simply have too much time on their, er, wings. Our readers will recall that we explored the topic of captive foraging in our last blog. The remedy for boredom might be to make it a bit of a challenge for your bird to get at its food. You can use toys and props to conceal food, as long as you start with easy challenges and build the difficulty gradually.
• Lack of toys, whether or not food-related, can also contribute to boredom. One cited case involves introducing small cotton mop heads into a cockatoo’s cage. The bird started nibbling on the mop material and left its feathers alone.
• Dark environments may depress your bird. Most birds like sunlight and a bright environment during the day. In addition, lack of sunlight may cause a Vitamin D deficiency in your pet bird, which might be linked to feather plucking. Note that glass blocks the UV rays necessary for Vitamin D production, so it’s a good idea to open a window near the cage as long as the weather isn’t too extreme. Always leave a shady area in the cage in case the sun becomes too intense. Some birds benefit from light therapy provided by a special lamp placed above the cage — ask your vet for more details.
• Stress may be driving your bird to distraction. Whether for reasons real or imagined, stress can disturb your pet bird’s equilibrium. You veterinarian might prescribe a sedative, calming supplement or antidepressant for your bird if the cause of the stress can’t be determined or fixed.
• Loneliness is one source of stress that you, as a pet owner, can do something about. You might commit to spend more time with your bird every day. Also, ask your veterinarian about getting a compatible second bird. Many birds are highly social creatures and the presence of another bird can be just the tonic for a lonely avian.
• Cage location might be a problem. It might be stressful for your bird to have sight of doors opening and closing as people enter and leave the room.
• An overly dry room may cause your bird’s skin to dry out and itch, triggering feather plucking and/or scratching. You can monitor the humidity in the cage area and, if necessary, add water to the surroundings. In addition, your vet might suggest a supplement to help keep the bird’s skin hydrated. Beware that dry, itchy skin can be a symptom of organ damage, so let your veterinarian investigate this possibility. Dry skin can also result from a lack of the proper fats in your pet bird’s diet — ask your vet about this.
• Sex hormones may cause a bird distress. If a mate is not possible, your vet might be able to administer medication to help reduce hormone levels and the resulting behavior.
• Other possible causes include parasites, overexposure to zinc and environmental toxins.
Your veterinarian will conduct tests to check for physical causes for your pet’s symptoms and, if nutritional, should be able to prescribe a change in diet. Whatever the cause, feather plucking should not be tolerated and it’s up to you, the pet owner, to find and fix the problem with the help of your vet.
Dr. Paul has a strong interest in avian and exotic animal medicine and surgery, as well as small animal internal medicine and surgery.
He has provided services for numerous breeders, kennels, aviaries, and mini zoos.