By Dr   BSc, BVSc, MRCVS, MACVSc (Avian health)

One of the most common problems that birds are presented to veterinarians for is feather chewing. This is partly because the problem is so highly visible. It is however one of the most complex problems to accurately diagnose and successfully resolve. Simplistic solutions like ‘Stop Pick’ sprays and collars mask but do not fix the problem.

The causes of feather chewing fall into three main categories

    1. Primary skin irritation – Birds can get bacterial, yeast, parasitic, allergic and viral inflammation of the skin. All of these conditions can make the skin itchy. Affected birds attempt to relieve this by chewing at themselves. Diagnosis is reached by examining feathers and skin grossly and under the microscope (including squash preparations of feather pulp, deep scrapings and biopsy).
    2. Internal diseases that make the skin itchy – Many generalized health problems lead to itchy skin e.g. liver disease, diabetes, some parasitic diseases and poor nutrition. Also some localised painful conditions under the skin (e.g. lung infections, pancreatitis, bone injuries) can also cause birds to chew themselves in particular areas. Diagnosis is usually reached through a thorough clinical examination, microscopic examination of the droppings and a blood profile. As the primary health problem is addressed, the skin becomes less itchy and the bird stops chewing itself.
    3. Behavioural – A diagnosis that is often reached prematurely. The diagnosis of behavioural feather chewing can only be made once testing has shown that the bird is in fact healthy and has no underlying medical problem that is making it chew itself.
      1. Basic training – Young parrots grow up as members of a flock. Interaction with other flock members teaches them what behaviours are appropriate. Hand reared parrots brought into human families particularly at a young age tend to recognize and interact with people as members of their flock. Basic training establishes a protocol where the young parrot can learn what are acceptable behaviours. The normal commands taught are ‘step up’, ‘step down’ and ‘stay’. Correct behaviours are rewarded with favoured food items and attention. Incorrect behaviours do not get a reward. Once established this protocol can be extended to modify other behaviours such as feather chewing.
      2. Normalise social interaction – Bonding to one member of the ‘human flock’ can lead to protective or territorial aggression as well as sexual frustration and then indirectly self mutilation. Multiple people should spend time with the bird and be involved with it’s primary care. Unwanted behaviour can be modified by using training protocols established earlier. Refer to our ‘Behaviour Handout’.
      3. Avoid unwanted behaviour – If certain activities e.g. spending long periods alone, running out of food or letting the household cat near the cage lead to unwanted behaviours, these should be avoided.
      4. Replacement of unwanted behaviour with acceptable behaviour – Behaviourists quote the 80:20 rule. In the wild parrots spending 80% of their waking time foraging and 20% on social interaction and feather maintenance. In busy human households time available for social interaction with a household parrot can be limited. The other maintenance behaviours such as grooming and foraging must fill this time. If food is simply found in a bowl at the end of a perch this frees up a lot of time for abnormal behaviours such as repetitive disorders, screaming and over grooming leading to feather chewing developing. By providing foraging activities not only are activities such as feather chewing likely to decline but the birds quality of life is likely to rise. Foraging activity can be stimulated by;
        1. Drilling holes into soft untreated wood and jamming food items such as nuts and fruit tightly into them
        2. Wrapping food bowls in newspaper. Ripping a small section at the top often encourages the parrot to start
        3. Wrapping food items in newspaper
        4. Concealing food items in bowls full of inedible items
        5. Commercial toys, foraging wheels seem particularly good
        6. Simply provide items such as non toxic tree branches, pine cones, the centre of toilet rolls for birds to chew and destroy.
          Refer to our ‘Foraging Handout’

Other things to consider

  1. Time is of the essence. Feather chewing behaviour quickly becomes a habit and the chewing itself can damage the skin and predispose to secondary infections that can in themselves make the skin itchy. Many parrots have been chewing themselves a long time before being presented to a vet. Some owners wait to see if the problem will go away, then consult the internet, then try a number of pet shop remedies before coming to the vet. The quicker the problem is addressed then the higher the likelihood of a good outcome.
  2. Regular bathing or spraying, access to full UV light and a nutritious diet will all help in maintaining healthy skin and feathers.
  3. Smoking – cigarette smoke is highly irritant to the skin of birds. If not the primary cause this will certainly exacerbate feather chewing behaviour in a bird.