The Behavioral Consultantís Approach to Feather Abusive Behaviors
By Pamela Clark
Feather abusive behavior (the picking, chewing or plucking of feathers) in parrots is an upsetting, complex and confusing problem to a bird owner. It can be a problem that is difficult to solve, and many timesÖnever is. That need not be the case, however. We must realize that the body of information surrounding feather abusive behaviors continues to grow with each day. We are learning to wade our way through the mythology surrounding this problem. Additionally, those of us who deal widely with these cases are learning to take a concerted, organized approach to the collection of information about the parrot in each case, which allows us to rule out the possible causes in a systematic manner, finally arriving at the source of the problem.
Until just the last several years, it was widely assumed by veterinarians and behavioral consultants alike that most feather picking was due to "behavioral" causes. It has been common for an avian veterinarian to, after performing preliminary testing, provide the opinion that the feather picking was behavioral. Often, it has been indicated that nothing further could really be done.
However, the most recent veterinary information of which I am aware provides the opinion that approximately 70% of all feather abusive behaviors are due to physical causes. (These are described in excellent detail in the article by Tammy Jenkins, DVM, which is posted on this website.) Other vets to whom I have spoken, agree, and my own experience would corroborate this.
Since feather abusive behavior can have both physical and behavioral causes, the problem can be a difficult one to solve. Solutions become further complicated because this problem provides an interface for veterinarians and behavior consultants, and yet sadly, veterinarians and behavior consultants have not yet learned to work hand in hand on such problems. Hopefully, the day will arrive when communication between these disciplines takes place frequently and regularly on each case.
Many cases become quite confused because there is often more than one reason for the feather abusive behavior a parrot displays. True, some cases are due solely to a specific physical cause. An example would be the well-cared for conure who enjoys abundant social interaction but starts feather plucking at the age of eight years, having had no problems prior to that time. A test for parasites reveals a positive result for Giardia, the bird is treated, and life returns to normal.
At the opposite end of the continuum, are the cases due solely to what we call "behavioral" causes. An example of such an instance would be the African Grey owner who, during our consultation, admits she has never felt safe in the world, and experiences an extremely high anxiety level each day. Further, her own personal circumstances have been such that she has had to break up with an abusive partner, re-establish her own life, and has repeatedly and for long periods boarded her bird while doing so. The Grey has understandably reacted by focusing his own increased stress on his feathers.
Further, sometimes environmental factors can be the sole cause of feather picking. The loving owner who strokes his cockatoo with nicotine covered fingers, or the conscientious owner who showers with her Grey and gets a little shampoo and soap on his feathers in the process will be puzzled by the chewing and picking which will result.
However, in most cases I find there are multiple causes for the feather picking, and these can bridge the gaps between physical (disease related), environmental and behavioral causes. This is the primary reason why so often the "waters" appear murky around such cases, and it is so difficult to affect a solution. An example of such a case would be the parrot whose immune system is adversely impacted by poor diet and social stresses, and contracts an aspergillosis infection. The aspergillosis can be treated, but it is also important that further stresses be minimized in the future.
The known causes for feather picking are many, and it seems we add to this list every year as our base of knowledge grows. Because of this, a cursory glance at a featherpicking parrot can not possibly uncover the source of the problem. It is crucial that a detailed history be taken in cases involving feather abusive disorders. This is the only way to determine the causes of the problem and the resultant solution.
When I take such a history, such documentation first allows me to see which veterinary tests have already been performed to identify the cause of the problem. Frequently, a parrot owner will assure me, "Oh, Iíve been to the vet and he did all the tests, and the bird is completely healthy! He says itís just behavioralÖ." However, a detailed list of the tests performed tells me that the parrot was not tested for aspergillosis, Giardia, nor zinc toxicity, as well as the lesser-known causes for feather picking. In most cases, I find myself in the position of sending the owner back to the vetís office for additional testing. Given that perhaps 70% or even more cases are due to physical causes, it is critical that the parrot owner be prepared to spend the money it takes to rule out all possible physical causes, even while examining behavioral components to the problem. To do less than this usually results in incomplete resolution of a case.
While the additional testing is taking place, I believe it is still appropriate to scrutinize closely all environmental and social factors that could possibly contribute to the problem. Such an approach allows the systematic elimination of all possible contributory factors, and will eventually, in the majority of cases, result in resolution of the problem. Further, it allows a complete approach to resolution, in that each and every possible contributory cause can be targeted and the attendant situation (i.e.diet) improved. It is often such a comprehensive approach which contributes to a full resolution of the problem.
The history form I use is linked below for use by anyone who might find it of interest. I regularly update this as I continue to learn more about the problem. Thus, there may be questions not included here that should be. However, I believe it provides a good starting place for diagnosis.
Last Update: 01/28/01