Feather Problems in Birds

By Gregory Rich, DVM; Laurie Hess, DVM; Rick Axelson, DVM

Feather loss is as much of a concern to bird owners as hair loss is to dog and cat owners. A bird’s feathers provide protection, insulation, flight, and visual signals to other pets. While feather loss in birds is usually not fatal, it is nevertheless disturbing to owners. Occasionally, feather loss can be the sign of a serious disease.

What causes feather loss?

Feather loss occurs either because the bird is truly losing feathers or because the bird, or its cage-mate, is picking out its feathers. If the owner can tell which is occurring, it often helps narrow down the possibilities of what is causing the problem.

There are several categories under the general classification of Feather Destructive Behavior (FDB). The most commonly identified categories are feather plucking, feather chewing, over-preening, and stripping the plume part of the feather.

"Feather loss occurs either because the bird is truly losing feathers or because the bird, or its cage-mate, is picking out its feathers."

Feather plucking may be a behavioral problem, especially in the larger bird species that are extremely intelligent and are tightly bonded to their owners (e.g., cockatoos, macaws, and African gray parrots). However, feather plucking and feather loss can also be caused by diseases that result in irritation or pain for the bird, damage to feathers, or inappropriate growth of feathers.

True feather loss (i.e., loss that is not associated with a normal molt) is typically the result of disease. Possible causes of feather loss include infection with viruses (e.g., psittacine beak and feather disease virus and polyoma virus), bacteria (e.g, Staphylococcus bacteria), or Giardia, an intestinal protozoal parasite. Cockatiels are susceptible to Giardia and a secondary effect is to cause FDB. Some internal organ diseases have been linked with FDB, such as chronic active liver disease, inflammatory bowel disease, and increased blood levels of uric acid secondary to kidney disease.

How do you diagnose the cause of feather loss?

Because there are many causes of feather loss, your veterinarian may request a variety of diagnostic tests to focus in on potential causes of the FDB. A good history (supplied by the owner) and a thorough physical examination are critical and may help narrow down the list of possibilities.

"Feather loss and feather-picking are complicated problems; for specific advice, your bird should have a thorough work-up by a veterinarian familiar with birds."

Your veterinarian will review your bird’s diet and help correct any dietary deficiencies. Routine diagnostic tests may be necessary to achieve a diagnosis, including various blood tests, fecal tests for parasites, X-rays, and microscopic analysis and/or culture of the feces, feathers, and/or skin to check for yeast and bacteria. If the feathers are abnormally shaped and are falling out easily, leaving large areas of bare skin, Psittacine beak and feather disease (PBFD) may be the underlying cause and needs immediate attention.

Sometimes, a feather and skin biopsy along with culture are needed to make a definitive diagnosis of the cause of the FDB. Occasionally, tests fail to reveal a diagnosis, and your veterinarian makes a clinical judgment as to the best course of therapy for your bird.

How is feather loss treated?

How feather loss is treated depends on its specific cause. Psittacine beak and feather disease is a fatal condition caused by a virus that suppresses the immune system and that cannot be treated. It does not cause FDB, but it causes feathers to be disfigured and freely fall out.

Other skin and feather infections caused by bacteria or viruses may respond to antibiotics or antiviral medications, respectively. Parasites associated with feather picking can be treated with antiparasitic drugs.

Behaviorally-based FDB is difficult to treat, as the cause of the picking may be difficult to pinpoint and change (stress, overcrowding, sexual frustration, a new person in the house, a new cage, etc.). Your veterinarian may suggest treating behaviorally-based feather-picking with behavior modification and occasionally anti-anxiety drug therapy, as a last resort. Soft collars, avian restraint collars, and Elizabethan collars should only be used under the supervision of an avian veterinarian, along with behavior modification and medical therapy.

Even if a diagnosis is reached, it may be difficult to prevent feather-picking in a bird once it has started, especially if the cause is behavioral. Feather loss and feather picking are complicated problems; for specific advice, your bird should have a thorough work-up by a veterinarian familiar with birds. Refer to www.AAV.org to find an avian veterinarian in your area.

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