Francis Animal and Bird Hospital
at the PBR Conference
Updated October 2000
picking is a problem that has plagued and intrigued me for the last ten years. I
wanted to speak about it because I wanted you to know that we can help many-
perhaps 70% - of the birds that feather pick, but the journey is sometimes
frustrating, time consuming, and expensive.
also wanted you to know that the sharpest people in avian medicine are spending
a lot of time on this problem and that there are a number of exciting new
I wanted you to know how you should best spend your time and money in working up
this problem. I wanted you to get enough background information so that you can
help determine what approach might yield the most information about your bird. I
also want you to learn to be an accurate observer because your at-home
observations are usually the most critical part of the process.
presentation is going to be given in the same way that I discuss feather picking
with my clients. The first step is to acquaint the owner with the most common
causes of feather picking. The second step is the history and physical exam.
Third, we collect some minimum data bits. The fourth phase is general management
and record keeping recommendations. The last phase consists of specific tests
and trials that might be used to diagnose and treat the feather picking.
CAUSES OF FEATHER PICKING
The most common causes of feather picking are the
Primary Skin Infection
We will explore each of these in some detail when we
consider specific tests and trials used to diagnose the specific cause of
feather picking. These categories are introduced now to get us thinking about
what may be involved in this problem.
AND PHYSICAL EXAM
The history and physical examination helps us to assemble
what we currently know about the problem.
The history is important because it gives us clues as to
the cause of the problem. Try not to draw premature conclusions from the data.
Inaccurate premature conclusions may blind us to the true cause of the feather
picking. Questions we would like answered include the following:
What diet is the bird offered? What does he eat?
What type of cage does the bird have? What toys? Is there exposure to
heavy metals, especially zinc?
What is the source of the bird?
Does the bird live with any birds? Has he ever lived with any birds? What
What is the age and sex of the bird?
Any viral or chlamydia test results?
Is the bird vaccinated?
How long has the bird been feather picking?
What month did feather picking start?
Has the bird feather picked in the past, stopped, and then resumed
Is there a seasonal pattern?
Is the picking associated with the molt?
Is there an association with perceived reproductive activity?
Do you see the bird actually picking?
Does the bird pick when you are absent?
If the bird picks when you are present, how does he act?
Itchy or not itchy?
Does he scream or vocalize when he picks?
Will he interrupt a favorite activity to pick?
Is there a time of day when he picks?
If you see him picking, how do you respond?
Does the bird
personality standpoint, how would you characterize your bird? (You can choose
more than one response.)
Where does the bird sleep? How
much sleep does the bird get?
The physical examination involves visually
inspecting, palpating, and asculting the bird. The purpose of the exam is to
describe the disease patterns and to use the information to help 1) determine
the etiology or cause of the disease and 2) give us a baseline from which to
follow the progress (positive or negative).
You as the owner will play an important
role in charting progress. Often we will attempt a trial treatment and we will
evaluate the success of the treatment based on physical signs. If the bird's
feathers become totally normal, we have a tremendous response to treatment.
However, often we have only a partial response to treatment: 1) the bird may
grow in more (but not 100%) of its feathers, 2) red ulcerated areas may heal, 3)
the bird may be picking fewer feathers, 4) the bird may still look abnormal but
may seem less itchy, or 5) there may be no change. These observations will
greatly help us to know if we are on the right tract with our therapy. For this
reason we want you to be very involved in seeing what we see on the physical
Basic observations made on the physical
exam include the following:
Is the bird actually mutilating his feathers? Differentiate between:
Mutilation by cage mate
Abnormal feather formation (cysts, PBFD)
e. Feather picking
2. What is the pattern of feather loss?
At what stage are feathers picked?
When fully developed
Are feathers pulled or barbered? If barbered, to what level?
What is the condition of the skin?
What is the condition of the feathers (contours & down)?
Clean, shiny; down is fluffy
Any evidence of external parasites such as Knemodectic mites or lice?
Are wings clipped? How?
Is wing clip appropriate for the bird?
Does the bird know how to fly? To land?
Epithelium (poor to excellent)
Choanal papilla (poor to excellent)
Overall condition of the oral cavity
What about the rest of the bird?
Nares, ears, sinuses
Auscultation of heart/lungs
Palpation of abdomen
part of the initial exam, we minimally do the following diagnostics. These
diagnostics are inexpensive, non-invasive, and often steer us towards an
make impression smears of the skin. These will pick up hyperkeratosis, an
inappropriate inflammatory response, abnormal bacteria, or an overgrowth of
fungus. Depending on the findings, we may consider allergic, hormonal, or
thyroid disease; in certain cases, the cytology may suggest general
immunosuppression and may prompt us to look for diseases like aspergillosis.
Additionally, cytology may suggest specific types of treatment approaches.
FECAL CHECK FOR PARASITES
AND FECAL CULTURE
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This is a very general screen of the overall health of the bird. In my
mind, abnormal cultures usually reflect either immuno-suppression or abnormal
gastrointestinal function (versus a super infection by a specific pathogen).
Because many diseases of the bird lead to abnormal gastrointestinal
function, cultures are helpful but non-specific indicators of the overall health
of the bird.
GENERAL MANAGEMENT AND RECORD KEEPING RECOMMENDATIONS
following recommendations are general steps that will help with almost all types
of feather picking. We can get started with these steps while we are trying to
make an exact diagnosis of what is causing the feather picking. The
record-keeping recommendation will help us start to journal our progress and may
eventually provide the answer.
are encouraged to take the following steps:
helps birds on many levels. Bathing removes bacteria, molds, and general
allergens from the feathers and reduces their presentation to the immune system.
Bathing also makes the feathers less sticky and less likely to retain there
particles. It is still debated whether fungus such as malassezia or
aspergillosis are primary pathogens of the skin or whether they are able to get
a foothold due to inflammation brought on by an allergic or hormonal response.
Nevertheless, cleaning the skin reduces the ability of these organisms to get a
foothold and colonize the epidermis. Finally, bathing often helps birds with
separation anxiety by giving them something to do during the critical first 30
minutes after the owner leaves the bird.
CORRECT DIETARY DEFICIENCIES
ELIMINATE BROAD ALLERGIC IRRITANTS
not expose birds to perfumes, cigarette smoke, incense, cleaning products, or
aromatics of any sort. Owners may need to wash their hands before handling
IMPROVE ACCESS TO UVA AND UVB LIGHT
is likely important for calcium uptake and may be necessary for appropriate
thyroid metabolism. We may need to manage flicker associated with neon lights.
IGNORE FEATHER PICKING
a bird not to pick has never cured a single feather picking bird and can teach a
bird to use feather picking as an attention getting device.
TREAT ALL WOUNDS
will depend on the extent and character of the wounds. Never apply salves to
KEEP DAILY RECORDS
up a journal that is easy to use. The purpose of the journal is two-fold. First,
by recording events associated with feather picking, we may get clues as to the
cause. Record data such as the amount of feather picking, the time of day,
activities surrounding the feather picking, and food eaten that day. Over a
period of time patterns may become evident.
other purpose of the journal is to determine if there is a response to therapy.
Frequently, helpful treatments are discarded because they do not totally stop
feather picking. Recording incremental changes like a decrease in the amount of
feathers mutilated may help decide what is needed for a total cure.
SPECIFIC TESTS AND TRIALS
next phase of the process is to determine what tests or trials might be useful
in defining or solving the problem. We use findings from the physical exam, the
history, and the labs to direct us to the most likely cause of the feather
picking, and then do tests to confirm or dispute our hypothesis.
elaborating on the specific tests and trials I would like to make a few brief
comments about tests and trials. First, the lack of abnormal findings does not
by default mean the problem is behavioral. It may mean that we as yet do not
know how to test for the condition. Second, therapeutic trials can be a valuable
diagnostic mode. A therapeutic trial means trying a drug and looking at response
to treatment. This type of test is particularly valuable where an objective test
has not been developed (e.g. allergies) or where it is difficult to develop
(behavioral problems). This modality requires careful owner observation and the
ability to differentiate partial response from no response. The weakness of this
approach is that a positive response might be due to something other than the
drug. Further, we sometimes attribute the curative effects of the drug to the
wrong cause. An example of this is a positive response to metronidazole.
Response may mean that the underlying problem was giardia, but it may also mean
that the underlying cause was an overgrowth of bacteria or inflammatory bowel
final comment about tests is that some tests are more diagnostic than other
tests. High levels of zinc generally correspond well with zinc intoxication,
however other test results like aspergillosis serology can often be difficult to
interpret. Understanding that tests may not be absolute does not mean that we
should give up. In fact, this understanding of limitations of certain modalities
will help to give us a better long lasting solution.
The following material looks at how we
work up feather picking based on what we think is the most likely cause. We will
look at infectious disease, allergies, endocrine/reproductive disease, toxins,
parasites, hypothyroidism, primary skin infection, dietary deficiencies,
systemic disease, and behavioral problems. We will discuss when we suspect each
type of cause and which tests we do to rule in or rule out that particular
etiology. Sometimes it seems clear which path to pursue; sometimes we simply
start to systematically work thru the most likely causes.
Infectious causes of feather picking
include PBFD, PDD, and Aspergillosis.
Beak and Feather Disease (PBFD). The species most susceptible to PBFD are old
world birds. We suspect PBFD when we have abnormal feather development. Often
feather development becomes increasingly abnormal with each molt. These birds
usually do not aggressively pick feathers and are usually not pruritic (itchy).
Lovebirds may have few or no feather lesions. The PBFD PCR identifies the
organism in the blood and is a sensitive and specific test of this disease.
Dilation Disease (PDD). PDD affects all avian species. Signs include weight
loss, vomiting, passing whole seed in the droppings, and neurological deficits.
Additionally, many birds with PDD pick their feathers. The cause of this is
suspected to be either neurological or due to inadequate absorption of essential
nutrients or fatty acids. Currently a specific test for this disease is being
trialed at the University of Georgia. This test looks for the presence of viral
DNA in blood and feces and looks at antibody response. While this test is in
trial, we continue to screen for this disease with radiographs, crop biopsies,
and serial CK isoenzymes.
Systemic Aspergillosis has also been implicated as a cause of feather picking.
We suspect aspergillosis in birds with respiratory abnormalities or when a
screening complete blood count (CBC) shows a high count and monocytosis, and
protein electrophoresis shows abnormal globulin patterns. Aspergillosis can be
an illusive disease to definitively diagnose. Specific tests include antigen or
antibody levels. Some fungal granulomas can be confirmed by x-ray or endoscopy.
Positive antigen or antibody results may indicate exposure, infection, or even
an allergic reaction to the organism. Negative test results do not rule out
infection as a negative bird may have an infection with a walled off granuloma
or because it is not mounting an immune response. Treatment involves oral
itraconazole, intratracheal arnphotericin B and/or nebulization with
In general, allergic animals respond to
certain environmental proteins as if they were pathogens. These animals mount an
inappropriate immune response to inhalants (molds, pollens, dust), to certain
foods or drugs, and/or to contact materials (wool, cotton). Some animals also
seem to be sensitive to certain aromatics. It is this inappropriate immune
response that results in the signs we call allergies. In dogs, these signs
result in inflamed itchy skin often with secondary bacterial or yeast
infections. The gastrointestinal (GI) tract may also respond to certain
allergens. In cats, we may see itchy skin or we may see an asthmatic or GI
response. I suspect old world psittacines may manifest allergies with itchy
inflamed skin, while new world psittacines especially amazons and pionus may be
more prone to respiratory signs.
In general, I suspect that allergies may
be a problem if the bird seems very pruritic. These birds often scream or
vocalize when they pick and often pick the leggings. Allergies are also
suspected if the problem seems strongly seasonal, although some allergic animals
pick year round, especially if they are allergic to food, dust, or dust mites.
Allergies are also considered if the bird has hot spots or a super active
epidermis, especially if overgrowth of bacteria or fungus is present. Finally,
in my practice certain species, especially African Grays seem to be pruritic,
have seasonal episodes of hot spots, and respond well to allergy medication. We
diagnose allergies in the following 4 ways: response to therapy, elimination
trials, biopsies, and inter-dermal skin tests.
to therapy means we try certain anti-allergy drugs and see if they reduce
feather picking. Currently, I have best results with an antihistamine called
hydroxyzine in combination with omega 3 and 6 fatty acids (these are
anti-inflammatories). I am also investigating an antihistamine/anti-seratonin
drug called cyproheptadine.
Typically, a trial lasts 4 to 8 weeks. If we get consistent positive
reproducible results, we can generally believe that allergies are involved in
the feather picking. A lack of response may mean that the bird is not allergic
or it may mean that is simply did not respond to that particular
anti-inflammatory and that another drug might work. We are currently
investigating whether histamines, seratonin, or lymphocytes mediate this
response. When we understand this, we may be able to develop better drug trials.
Additionally, the response may be mediated by different pathways in different
trials involve the elimination of potentially allergenic foods or substances
from the diet or environment. A true elimination diet has limited protein
sources (usually two). We try this diet for several months and look at the
response. We can gradually add new foods and see if they trigger a reaction. An
elimination diet requires a diligent owner and a cooperative bird. Several of my
clients have methodically proceeded with elimination trials and have had
excellent results. Foods often suspected of being allergenic include corn,
wheat, and most processed foods. Interestingly, in human studies nuts including
sunflower are not typically implicated as being highly allergenic. A number of
my clients also associate the elimination of certain dyes with a decrease in
Elimination trials can also include
elimination or reduced exposure to environmental irritants such as aromatics,
cigarette smoke, or feather dust from other birds in the household.
biopsies are sometimes taken to see what kind of cells are involved in a lesion.
When the pathologist concludes that the response is lymphocytic/plasmocytic, we
make a tentative diagnosis of a hypersensitivity or allergic response.
skin testing has been the standard to definitively diagnose inhalant allergies
in dogs and people. This method involves injecting the allergen into the dermis
of the skin and looking for a wheal to form indicating a hypersensitivity to the
substance. After determining which agents cause a reaction, we make up an
injectable suspension containing the agents (allergens). The patient receives
injections from this suspension on a regular basis. This changes how the body
responds to the allergens and reduces or eliminates the allergic signs.
We are just now investigating if this
technique will work in birds. Dr. Tully of Louisiana State University and Drs.
Gill and MacWhirter of Australia have both attempted to allergy test birds. I
have tested 18 birds; my findings to date are more in harmony with the
Australian veterinarians. This year we will all refine our work. The purpose is
to determine if this is a viable tool for diagnosing allergies (I think it
likely is) and to determine if allergy shots will work as a treatment tool. My
findings suggest that birds may have a type 4 or delayed hypersensitivity
reaction. This type of response is mediated by lymphocytes. If this is true, it
will help us select what therapy may best mute the response.
Some interesting notes in my study: the
group consisted of 18 old world psittacines (cockatoos, African greys, and
cockatiels). All 18 responded to aspergillosis. Half of the birds (9) responded
to dust and 8 responded to dust mites. This is another good reason to encourage
A likely significant cause of feather
picking centers around endocrine or reproductive disease. Spaying and neutering
birds and hormonal injections seem in many cases to cause a cessation of
symptoms.' Typically, birds do not breed based on a monthly rhythm; instead they
breed because a variety of stimuli are present. The importance of the specific
stimuli vary depending on the species but can include a nesting site, increased
availability of food, weight gain, appropriate temperature, an increase or
decrease in daylight hours, and ascendancy in the flock. Many of our birds,
instead of cycling in and out of breeding condition, are constantly in breeding
condition. This seems in some species to lead to picking. Other conditions such
as follicular cysts may lead birds to be constantly in the prophase of breeding
and may be associated with mutilation.
We suspect hormonal involvement when
picking coexists with breedy type of behavior, with some seasonal picking, when
birds pick their leggings, and with certain cases of mutilation. Specific tests
that can be helpful include estradiol and androstenedione (University of
Tennessee Endocrine lab). Breeding readiness and follicular cysts can also be
suggested by radiographs and confirmed by endoscopy.
Drugs that have seemingly been helpful in
reducing feather picking associated with reproductive behavior include the
(medroxyprogesterone acetate) is synthetic progesterone sometimes used for birth
control in humans. This drug is not used much anymore in birds because of its
many side effects.
(human chorionic gonadatropin) is widely used and seems to have little in the
way of side effects. Practitioners report variable results with HCG. In my
hands, it is very effective with certain birds. To get a good effect, I seem to
need to use HCG on a weekly or biweekly basis.
(a synthetic analog of gonadotropin-releasing hormone) works by obliterating
blood levels of estrogen or testosterone for weeks to months. This drug is
currently in its trial stages and shows some promise for mutilators.
Other drugs which may have some effects on
reproductive behavior and which may help feather picking associated with
endocrine activity include a zona pellucida vaccine currently being investigated
by Dr. Ritchie, and cyproheptadine (an anti-seratonin drug) which may make some
birds less likely to breed because they perceive that there are inadequate food
supplies. Further, melatonin which affects the pineal gland and then ultimately
the adrenal gland seems to help many birds. Metatonin may be working by
decreasing estrogen or testosterone or it may simply have a calming or sedating
effect. Fluoxetine (prozac), which has prolactin effects, has not been useful in
my hands for feather picking. However, in combination with HCG, it has worked to
stop chronic egg laying in cockatiels. Perhaps prozac may be useful when used in
combination with some other drug.
In addition to actual drug therapies, it
may be useful to decrease the environmental triggers for reproductive behavior.
Where appropriate remove perceived nesting areas, decrease daylight hours, feed
a limited diet consisting of dry food only, and minimize if possible
masturbation by the bird. It is also appropriate to use behavioral training to
demote the bird to a lower status level.
The primary toxin associated with feather
picking is zinc. We suspect zinc as a potential cause if there is environmental
exposure to this heavy metal or if the bird shows neurological or
gastrointestinal signs (esp. GI stasis and a mildly enlarged proventriculus). A
blood test will give us accurate blood levels of zinc. Various chealators
including CaEdta and DMSA are effective at removing excess zinc from the body.
In psittacines, the ectoparasites
(external parasite) primarily associated with feather picking are biting lice.
These lice are approximately ¼ inch long and are easily visualized by owners.
In every case where I have diagnosed lice, the owner had seen the parasite and
was coming to me for confirmation. Endoparasites (internal parasites) can also
cause feather picking. The most common endoparasite associated with feather
picking is giardia. The mechanism by which this causes feather picking is
unclear, it may be an allergic response or it may be due to malabsorbtion of
certain essential nutrients. We screen all birds for giardia, but do not
consider this parasite to be a major cause of feather picking.
For a number of years we have suspected
that birds might suffer from hypothyroidism. In dogs, the same individuals that
have skin allergies are more likely to be hypothyroid as the same immune process
causes each of these diseases. Additionally, hypothyroidism makes the skin more
likely to develop secondary bacterial and fungal infections. We screen for
hypothyroidism if skin cytology reveals persistent bacterial and fungal
overgrowth, if the bird has overall poor feather quality, if the bird is obese,
or if the bird seems to have a delayed molt.
In birds, the T4 test to confirm
hypothyroidism has not been especially sensitive. In the distant past, almost
all avian tests reported undetectably low levels of circulating thyroxine This
did not mean that all birds were hypothyroid. It meant we did not have a
reliable test. A new test methodology offered by Auburn University offers a
significantly more sensitive measurement. Additionally, we may be able to
confirm these T4 tests by doing a TSH stimulation test.
Birds that are actually hypothyroid can be
treated with oral thyroid supplements. We typically periodically recheck thyroid
levels while on the supplement to be sure that replacement levels are adequate.
Further, we do not wish to have replacement levels that are too high. Birds that
are hyperthyroid suffer a variety of ills including possible cardiac disease.
Another cautionary note about thyroid
testing is that thyroid function may be different in birds than in mammals. Some
of the birds that I have tested seem to have seasonally wide fluctuations in
thyroid levels. I am beginning to wonder if thyroid function may in some species
(especially Amazons) decrease during breeding periods and then increase after
the breeding season ushering in the molt.
Feather folliculitis and/or skin
inflammation is usually secondary to other processes (viral, allergic, hormonal,
hyperthyroidism). However, it may occasionally be a primary infection. Skin
cytology and biopsies (feather follicles and skin) may be helpful in determining
if the problem is a fungal overgrowth, bacterial infection, or a generalized
We suspect that dietary deficiencies may
be causal if the owner describes a diet with significant inadequacies or if the
feathers or epithelium suggest gross deficiencies. Although dietary problems are
less common than in the past, some feather picking still stems from an
inadequate diet. Additionally, there may be some species-specific nutritional
needs that are not being met (e.g. increased selenium needs for African
species). We also find that many birds that pick seem to have low calcium
levels. It is a reasonable idea to be sure that all feather picking birds have
adequate UV light sources and perhaps some extra emphasis on calcium rich foods
in the diet. Some investigators think that extra methionine might also be
Systemic disease is usually not a primary
cause of feather picking. However, in my practice I can specifically recall a
macaw with cystic kidneys, and African grey with heart disease, and a pionus
with an aspergillosis granuloma who picked feathers in a tightly localized
region directly over the diseased organs. While this is not common, if the bird
seems systematically ill (decreased vocalization, lethargic, fluffed) or has
systemic signs (heart murmur, polyuric, polydypsic, etc.), it is important to
systematically look at the bird's organ function. Tests that are usually helpful
for this are the CBC, chemistry profile, and x-rays. Endoscopy may also be
I have long had a strong bias against
behavior as the cause for feather picking. This is due to two factors. First, it
seemed that veterinarians were doing a poor job of eliminating other disorders
before they concluded that the problem was behavioral. Typically a feather
picking work-up consisted of a CBC, chemistry profile, giardia check, and gram
stain. If no disorder was discovered, it was concluded that the problem was
behavioral. However, as we have seen, those specific tests rarely uncover much
about feather picking and there have been few specific tests that diagnose
allergic or hormonal disorders. Thus, concluding that the problem is behavioral
based on negative findings on a chemistry profile is at best premature. At
worst, it might keep us from finding the real cause of the problem.
The second reason that I chafed at a
behavioral diagnosis was that we couldn't, in a thoughtful reproducible
way, determine how to help those birds whose feather picking was truly caused by
behavioral issues. However, Dr. Kenneth Welle, with some truly original work,
has adapted to birds Karen Overall's behavioral scheme for dogs and cats. What
is excellent about this work is that by categorizing behavior we can select the
most appropriate therapies, tailor behavioral modification strategies, and
To detail what this means, I will use a
client's cat as an example. The cat has an insatiable need for the owner’s
attention, sprays when he is anxious, follows the owner constantly when she is
at home, and wails at her bedroom door for ½ hour ever night. We hypothesized
that this cat had separation anxiety, chose a drug (clomipramine) that is
effective for this problem, and instituted behavioral modification strategies to
reward independent behavior and ignore anxious behavior. We set up a timetable
for how long to continue the trial and used discreet criteria (time cat was
willing to spend alone, amount of spraying, length of time cat wailed at the
door) to measure progress. This is what we hope to do with birds with this
The following analytical scheme picks out
certain behaviors (signs) that point to a specific type of disorder (the
behavioral diagnosis). Making a specific behavioral diagnosis helps us to
clarify the underlying causes and develop well-targeted solutions. This list
should expand as we become more sophisticated with these concepts.
picking occurs when owner is not present. Separation anxiety is the disorder
most commonly associated with this sign. Separation anxiety is an important
issue for animals whose early life centers around a flock. Birds that have been
rehomed or improperly socialized are especially at risk. Behavioral modification
strategies center around rewarding independent play, teaching self-calming
strategies, and not rewarding anxious behavior. Since most animals with
separation anxiety act out most in the first half hour after the owner leaves,
you may wish to bathe the bird just before leaving, leave him a special toy, or
meal feed - giving the meal just as you leave. Drugs often useful on treating
separation anxiety are clomipramine and fluoxetine (prozac).
picking occurs when owner is present but is not paying attention to the bird.
Attention-seeking behavior is the disorder most commonly associated with this
sign. Owners frequently reinforce the feather picking by immediately speaking to
the bird and telling him not to pick. Appropriate behavioral modification would
be to ignore the behavior, act like you simply do not notice, or actually leave
the room when the bird is picking. If the feather picking is an
attention-seeking device, count on the behavior to significantly worsen when you
first begin to ignore the behavior. The bird will conclude that you simply did
not see and may amplify the behavior. Count on 200-300 episodes of ignoring the
behavior before the bird gives up.
In addition to ignoring behavior you do
not want, you should reward independent behavior and teach the bird other
appropriate means to demand attention (tricks, vocalizations, etc). Neutral room
work to reinforce commands or to teach tricks is often useful. Such work teaches
the bird how to earn good attention. Further, five to ten minutes of your
undivided attention is enough to satisfy many birds. At this time, there is not
a drug that is specific for attention-seeking behavior.
bird interrupts other behaviors to feather pick. Obsessive/compulsive disorder (OCD)
is the behavioral disorder most commonly associated with this sign. OCD in
animals manifests itself by stereotypic behavior such as cribbing in horses,
incessant tail chasing in dogs, wool chewing in cats, and certain kinds of
feather picking in birds. Some researchers feel that stereotypic behavior
distracts the animal from its anxieties; others feel that it is simply a visual
manifestation of anxiety. Another school of thought is that stereotypic
behaviors are self-stimulator and result in endorphin release. Finally, some
researchers feel that it is a manifestation of aberrant neuronal activity and
may be hereditary.
Drugs that have been used to deal with OCD
include the tricyclic antidepressants (esp. clomipramine), the ssri's (esp.
fluoxetine or prozac), haloperidol and naltrexone. Both pruritic birds and OCD
birds will interrupt satisfying behavior to pick. Before we can decide that a
bird has OCD, we need to rule out pruritic conditions like allergies.
feather picking bird exhibits signs of excessive fear or stress. Fear, phobias,
or panic may be displaced and translated into picking behavior. Recall that fear
can be an adaptive appropriate response. A bird’s high level of vigilance and
instant flight response is highly protective. In a wild situation, the bird will
dissipate fear-induced adrenaline by flying for a quarter of a mile. In our
lives, these birds may displace this energy by picking their feathers. A large
part of our socialization efforts are intended to get the bird to tolerate
stimuli that in the wild should provoke fear.
To behaviorally treat these birds we must
remember not to reward the feather picking with attention. We should remove
objects that generate fear and/or gradually habituate them to these objects or
circumstances. We should teach the birds self-calming techniques. Teaching birds
to fly may also help to build confidence. Patterning a variety of behaviors also
prepares the bird to deal with life with assurance. Finally, give them
environmental prompts, such as a raised cage or a partially covered cage, that
Drugs that may have some application in
treating fearful of phobic behavior include diazepam, haloperidol, clomipramine,
A bird stressed by a medical problem may
occasionally be mistaken for a fearful or phobic bird. It is a good idea to rule
out systemic illness in these birds.
' It is wise to consider that some treatments that seem to be effective may be working in ways we don't understand. For instance, antihistamines may not be treating allergies, but might instead simply be calming birds. Likewise, hormonal preparations may be working by decreasing estrogen or testosterone, or may in fact work by increasing endogenous steroids and thus be treating allergies. At this point, our understanding of the physiology is still under development.
Posted with author's permission October 22, 2000. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be copied or reproduced without the author's permission.
This article was originally presented at the 1999 PBR Convention, and was subsequently published in the Pet Bird Report, Issue 45, November, 1999.
Last Update: 03/26/01