Birds normally moult twice a year; a full moult, including wing and tail feathers, just prior to spring, and a smaller moult in autumn. This ensures that birds do not lose so many feathers at one time that they are rendered unable to fly. Losing large numbers of feathers, revealing bare skin patches, is considered abnormal loss and should be investigated.
Identifying Causes of Feather Loss
There are several causes of feather loss in birds – the first step toward treatment is to determine the cause. Obvious physical clues give us a direction to pursue, not a diagnosis. Birds have a limited number of signs to tell us they are sick; these few signs represent a large number of illnesses. Feather picking or feather loss is only one sign. It is up to the avian veterinarian, with diagnostic tools, and the bird owner, with information on environment and history, to put together these clues to find a cause and/or remedy.
Polyomavirus and Psittacine Beak and Feather Disease are serious diseases that may result in feather loss. We can perform the appropriate tests to determine if these diseases are present. Research is ongoing in this field. Prevention is important, as once a bird contracts one of these viruses and feather damage becomes evident, the disease is almost always fatal.
Cnemidokoptes (scaly-face, scaly-leg) is a skin parasite often seen in pet birds. Budgerigars and canaries are most often affected. It is first noticed as a thickening of the tissues of the cere and/or legs. Even though the signs are visible, the organism should be confirmed by microscopic examination before treatment is started. Remedies found in pet stores can, in some cases, create additional feather problems and often take long periods of time to work. Modern prescription drugs work rapidly and effectively.
Red mites, feather mites, or lice are also external parasites that infest birds, causing skin irritation.
Feather problems are rarely the result of parasites but, if parasites are suspected, a veterinarian should confirm the diagnosis and can recommend treatment.
Giardia, a protozoan parasite found in the intestine, has been implicated in some cases of self-mutilation. This intestinal parasite can be identified by microscopic examination of fresh droppings, requiring that the sample be collected at the West Toowoomba Vet Surgery.
Bacterial – Fungal Disease
Staphylococcus or Pseudomonas are bacteria that may cause skin irritation resulting in feather loss due to self-mutilation. Your veterinarian can do a skin culture to identify these organisms.
Aspergillus and Candidiasis are fungi (yeast) that may cause skin irritation, and require a dermatological workup including skin scraping or culture for identification.
Dietary deficiencies can contribute to skin/feather disorders. Vitamin A deficiency has been implicated in nutritionally related feather disorders, and an extreme lack of nutritional protein may affect normal moult. Your avian veterinarian can advise you on changing or supplementing your bird’s diet to prevent or correct these potential problems.
Self-mutilation (feather plucking or skin tearing), can have primary or secondary behavioural causes. Birds in the wild would have a mate or flock with which to interact. In captivity, human counterparts cannot fill the vacancy. Dominance factors, breeding frustration, boredom, territoriality, mate-bonding, and nesting drives, all triggered by hormonal development, are rarely satisfied in a captive environment. The perception of threat from other household pets may initiate stress if the bird is continually harassed. All of these factors can result in frustration-grooming, which often becomes obsessive, turning into a vice, causing self-mutilation and feather damage or removal. We can make recommendations on environmental changes or hormonal therapy. (Our brochure “Enhancing your bird’s life” provides valuable information on preventing boredom.)
Attack by Cage mates
If a cage mate is suspected to be the cause of feather loss, the victim-bird should be separated for a minimum of six weeks (to allow the feathers to regrow) to make this determination. If only a part of the feather has been removed, it may not regrow until the next natural moult. If cage mate trauma is the cause, permanent separation may be the cure.
Other Possible Causes
External causes of skin irritation could be cage trauma, insect bites or stings, topical application of inappropriate ointments, or improper wing trim (permitting cut feather ends to touch the skin). Outside factors such as chronic exposure to inhaled irritants (cleaning products, tobacco smoke, or toxic substrates) can also result in feather picking. Pet (cat, dog, rodent) attack may also result in feather loss.
Chronic diseases (liver, kidney, gastrointestinal, respiratory, or heart disease), can manifest themselves as both stress-related feather disorders or as self-mutilation. Feather cysts, tumours, and injury are also possible stress-related causes of feather loss.
If a bird suddenly seems to have a dirty face or broken or missing feathers around the beak and eyes, check to see if it can easily reach food or water and that the dishes are full. Birds trying to reach food-remains dropped out of reach below cage floors develop dirty faces or broken face feathers from trying to push their heads through soiled wire. If empty food containers do not appear to be a problem, the dirty face may be caused by vomiting and your veterinarian should be consulted.
Protection from airborne toxins or irritants, aggressive cage mates, or other household pets is essential to the life and health of the pet bird.
An annual check-up may be the most effective way to protect your bird’s health. Birds tend to mask discomfort or illness, making it difficult to determine their general well-being. A thorough health check may reveal internal disease, external parasites, or systemic diseases that can be identified and treated by us before feather signs are obvious.