Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Tuesday's Time To ... Treat Feather Plucking In Pet Birds

Now in this picture above, you can't actually see that one of our birds has a feather plucking problem.  Even now, from a distance, he looks as if his plumage is as dense and shiny as all the other birds (we have only 4 of the birds pictured above, now ... the other 2 that you see in that picture there, have sadly passed away since that picture was taken).  In fact, it was only when his mate, the bird 4th from right, passed away that he (the bird 2nd from right) began to pluck at all - and in fact in this picture, apart from around his neck, where his mate overpreened him, he did not pluck at that time. 

Feather plucking is a problem in pet birds that causes a lot of distress - mostly to the owner, but also to the bird, especially if it begins to pick at its skin as well as actually pulling at its feathers.  Some birds chew the feathers rather than pulling them out, and others will just overpreen but not pull the feathers at all.  Our bird plucks his feathers at the shaft, so there are areas of his body (under the wings, and at the tops of what would be, if he had them, his shoulders) that don't have any feathers at all, and some that are completely untouched.  He has been doing this intermittently since his mate passed away 2 years ago.

The causes of feather plucking are many, but they can be medical, so if you have a bird that feather plucks, the first thing to do is to establish if there is a medical reason for this.  There are several illnesses, some fatal, that can cause either feather deformities, or skin irritation leading to plucking.  A simple blood test will be able to identify if your bird has any of these.  Once a medical condition has been ruled out, the next most common cause of feather plucking, as with our bird, is emotional.  Often it is caused by a reaction to a stressful influence in the bird's life - in our feathered friend's life it was the loss of his mate, but it can also be caused by boredom, overstimulation, too many changes, the desire to breed.  The list is endless and oftentimes it can be multifactorial, that is, there can be more than one cause.  Another very common reason for feather plucking, linked to medical causes, is diet.  Our vet tells us that over 90% of all pet bird illness is caused by the wrong diet.  I've written about this before - but it is worth looking into this, if you have a bird that is feather plucking, even if it does have a medical cause for its problem.  Some birds learn to pluck when they are chicks, and this is often becuase they have been overpreened by the parent birds whilse they were in the nest.  We have a bird like this, but in fact she does not pluck at all now - not herself, anyways!  She loves preening her nest-mates, and they will soon tell her if they want her to stop.  It isn't a problem at the moment, but we would need to watch her carefully if she ever has chicks of her own, because birds that were plucked themselves will often pluck their own young in turn.

What can be done to treat feather plucking in pet birds?

Well, this is the treatment regime that we are currently using for our birdie, and I am delighted to say that it is working!  At last!  Hence why I am keen to share with you what I have learned.

It was by trial and error that we have worked out what reduces the plucking behaviour most of all, and it has taken a long, long time.  It isn't cured completely, but it is very much reduced.  Whenever a stressful situation occurs (such as when I changed some of the furnishings in the living room around, or when there has been a lot of noise disturbance outside our apartment block) our wee guy will begin to pluck more.  Then he settles down, and the plucking is diminished.  But what have we done to get this far?

Well, it has taken a three pronged attack, to get to the stage that we are at now!  First of all, we looked at his diet.  Our plucker is a huge sunflower seed junkie, so the first thing we needed to address was how to get him interested in other foods apart from seed.  Some seed is better than others - millett is a relatively low fat seed that most pet birds adore.  We give millett only occasionally - perhaps once a fortnight - and the birds really enjoy it.  Many "bird parents" will recommend a pelleted diet for their birds.  We have tried this with mixed success.  Some of our birds (the girls especially) seem happy to eat this.  The guys are not so keen - and our plucker is the least keen of all.  The pellets are not cheap, and we were finding that the expense, added to the wasteage each day, was not worth the bother trying to get him to eat them.  After many months of trying, we switched over to a mixed diet of seed, human foods (such as birdie bread, birdie muffins, wholefood cereals and such) and a large quantity of greens.  Added to this they also get crushed mineral oyster shell, cuttlebone, and more recently, dried egg biscuit, which has added vitamins and protein.  They also all get a powdered multivitamin.  On this diet, they are all doing very well.  They get about 2 dessert spoons seed a day, which includes a mixed variety with perhaps 6 or 8 sunflower seeds each.  Still not ideal, but very much better than before.  I place their greens on the top of their cage (our birds spend almost all their waking hours outside their cage - they are flighted, and allowed to fly freely around the room.  Surprisingly, they do not make any mess, doing this, as cockatiels seem only relieve themselves when they are not in flight, and our birds do not choose to rest anywhere but on top of their cage).  Putting the food on top of the cage seems to appeal more to them, than having it in their bowls with their seed, or on the floor of the cage, where I use to put it.  All the birds eat greens very eagerly now.

The second element to our treatment plan is to introduce to the birds' environment as many opportunities to pluck and preen and distract themselves with toys and other activities.  This is one main reason why they are allowed to spend so much time out of their cage.  It is much healthier for them to do this than to be cooped up in a small space for hours on end.   Birds are supposed to fly - so ours do.  They are relaxed and calm, and enjoy being able to explore the cage inside and out.  I have hung lots of chewy, natural toys on both the outside and inside of the cage.  Things like hay cookies, the cardboard roll from inside kitchen paper or foil, cut into a spiral.  They have a foraging ball and box that I fill with goodies for them to pull about, and they also enjoy wooden clothes pegs that I clip to the side of the cage.  They have some regular toys too, but they definitely prefer these natural, homemade toys the most.  Keeping them entertained and occupied is important.  Our birds have the company of each other, also, but a bird on its own can become very lonely (they are after all flock animals) and this is when plucking can begin to manifest itself.  I would personally not ever recommend that you get just one bird, unless it is a rescue bird that doesn't get along with other birds.  Even then I think I might consider getting a bird of another species, such as a budgie, to sit alongside it in a separate cage, so that they can at least call to each other and see each other.  But really and truly if you are going to keep cockatiels, you need to think about getting a pair rather than just one.  They do far better when they have plenty of company.  Otherwise, they will become bonded to you, which is fine if you have the time and willingness to respond to their need for companionship whenever they require it, but if you don't (and almost everyone with any sort of commitments, beyond caring for their bird, won't) then be prepared to have a lonely and unhappy bird. 

The final element in our treatment regime is Bach Flower Remedies.  I had to do a lot of research on this before I worked out what was the best treatment plan.  Back Flower Remedies are a gentle, homeopathic treatment for physical and emotional ailments which were originally formulated by the early 20th Century Pathologist and Biologist, Dr. Edward Bach.  There are 38 different remedies, all derived from entirely natural sources, and they may be combined with each other or used alone.  They are safe for animals, babies, children and adults, and work very slowly and gently to rebalance and heal the body of many different ailments.  You can read more about them here

To treat an animal with Bach Remedies, you do need to follow a few precautions.  The most important of these is that in their bottled state, Bach Remedies are distilled with alcohol, so they must be diluted before they are given to a small animal like a cockatiel.  The quantity of remedy required is very tiny however, so for larger animals and humans it may be given as a drop on the tongue without being diluted.  Please seek further guidance from a qualified \Homeopathic Practitioner before using them if you are at all unsure.  Keep the bottles of remedy somewhere cool and dry once they are opened, and only ever use the dropper that comes with them to administer the dose.  Never allow the bird to come into contact with the dropper.  You can add the remedies to their drinking water, but if you do this you must make sure the water is kept clean.  Instead,  I use a regular bird spray bottle, filled with mineral water, to which I add 4 drops of each remedy, and spray the birds with this twice daily.  As they preen themselves afterwards, the remedy is swallowed and it also treats their feathers externally too.  Currently we are using white chestnut, impatiens, beech, crab apple and water violet.  I chose this combination to address the emotions I felt our birdie was most likely to be experiencing after his bereavement.  A cockatiel mates for life, so the loss of his wife must for him have been devastating, as well as having the wider ranging impact of affecting the whole group of birds, because this little bird's wife was the "alpha female", the only one of our female birds ever to have laid any eggs.  The whole balance of the flock was affected by her loss.  They have since re-established themselves, but it has taken a long time.  The emotions I thought that our wee guy would be most likely to be experiencing were abandoment, fear, grief, insecurity, lack of control and loss of self esteem.  The remedies are thus hoped to build up his confidence and help him to feel more settled, but just as importantly, I also chose this particular combination because it also soothes irritated skin and calms stress, therefore lessening the likelihood of the bird continuing to pluck.  There is definitely an obsessive element to feather plucking, much like nail biting or hair pulling in humans. The bird feels stressed, so it plucks, and the pain caused by the plucking induces a release of pain relieving endorphins into the bird's system which have a secondary effect of calming it.  Therefore it comes to associate the act of plucking with feeling relaxed and calm, and so it becomes addicted to the sensation.  Breaking this addictive cycle is what is the real challenge with feather plucking - but you need to go right back to the root causes to be able to do so.

It may seem like a lot of thought has gone into something that for those of you that don't keep pet birds probably seems to be a little excessive, maybe even extreme.  But we firmly believe that our birds have a right to live the best possible life they can while they are in our care.  They didn't ask to come and live with us, and we are obliged, as their "bird parents" to provide them with the best care that we can, having made the choice to invite them into our home.  Not only this, but a bird that has a feather plucking problem which is left untreated, is likely to suffer further illness as a result of its bare skin being exposed.  Feathers provide a protective covering from the elements that is meant to shield the bird, and without them, it is vulnerable to illness and disease that a fully feathered bird won't be.  It would be irresponsible of us, as pet owners, not to address this issue in the best way that we can.  And so we have put our energy and thought into trying to work out a treatment plan that helps - and so far, it looks as if we have found one!

There is one last factor that needs to be considered - for all birds, not just those that pluck.  Pet birds are very intelligent animals.  As I describe above, they can become bored very easily, especially if they are kept alone.  One of the most rewarding aspects about being a "bird parent" is the opportunity to get to know these amazing little creatures so intimately, and share in their daily lives.  Birds need attention - not just physical care, but interaction with us.  They can sing, talk and respond to us in so many ways.  And we need to remember to do this regularly - more than once a day - to ensure that our birds stay healthy and happy.  They are not just ornaments, but living creatures, and we owe them, at the very least, the respect due to any of God's creatures, as we share our homes with them.  We love having our birds in our home - and we hope they love being here too!

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