Medicine may block bird's urge to pluck feathers

4/6/97

Dear Dr. Spiegel,

Our cockatoo, which we've had for several years, has been displaying odd behavior. He has always been a "feather plucker," but lately he has been pulling out his blood feathers. He screams in pain as he does it, but continues plucking until he goes to sleep. We had him checked out at the vet's and no sign of parasites or disease was present. We originally purchased him from previous owners who didn't have time to spend with their pet and kept him in the cage around the clock. He was somewhat scraggly then, but we were told he was molting.

An article I have read suggests that these parrots can go insane. The vet did mention that once they get into the habit of plucking, they usually do not outgrow it. I'd hate to think this was the case, but it's a pitiful sight to see this bird without feathers and bleeding most of the time. It's also become very embarrassing to have family and friends visit our home and see this bird in such poor condition. The bird is very much attached to my husband, and gets good care and lots of attention from us both. What could his problem be and do you have any suggestions?

Sincerely,

M.F., Wilmington


Dear M.F.,

Imagine that you are a cockatoo (or parrot, perhaps). For millions of years you flew about the jungles foraging freely on fruits and nuts and the like. You established territories based on good food (energy) bearing trees, water availability and protection from predators.

You not only feed yourself, but you care for all the needs and facets of your life. You groom yourself; you live for/through courting potential mates, and you assist them with the protecting/providing for of your hatchlings. They follow your lead and example, and they grow up to find a life/home for themselves in the jungle.

So here you are a young cockatoo that has been hand-raised and sold through a pet store to owner # 1, who never really understood that birds are highly social and active creatures who have not spent millions of years evolving for lives in cages. Life in a cage with busy owners can be a highly stressful and unfulfilling existence.

Feather preening and the picking of dead feather sheaths are a part of normal grooming behavior in birds. Grooming is an essential part of personal care/hygiene. We groom ourselves, as do cats, dogs, rodents, birds, etc.

Grooming can also occur (often briefly and intensely) when an animal is in conflict, or when it is stressed or bored. And while there are numerous potential factors which can lead to feather picking (medical, nutritional, parasitic, etc.), what may start with a concrete cause commonly becomes a full-blooded behavioral problem.

What ultimately happens to feather-pickers is essentially the same as in other forms of self-mutilation (self-abuse) problems that exist in many other species. When a feather is plucked, the bird experiences pain, which the bird's body responds to by releasing endogenous opiates (endorphins). These substances produce a feeling of pain-relief/comfort/pleasure within the bird. In time, some birds get hooked. And, as twisted as it may seem, by plucking their feathers, they have a reliable way that they can control and deliver feelings of pleasure to themselves. They have essentially learned how to access their body's drug supply system, though they invariably pay a high price in the damage that they inflict upon themselves.

There are numerous potential treatments that have been used in attempts to treat feather picking. Specific recommendations necessarily depend on the particulars of a given feather picker's situation. My general preference, once underlying medical causes have been ruled out is the use of a medication which blocks the release of endorphins. By blocking endorphin release in these birds, their attempt to access those pleasure inducing drugs by pulling at their feathers is met with only pain... no pleasure. Combine this with appropriate behavioral/environmental modifications to most effectively meet the bird's psychosocial needs, and provide it with alternate ways to access pleasure, and you can positively shape your bird's choice of ways to gain pleasure in the seriously pleasure limited world of captivity.

Shine your dancing shoes... Spring Dinner Dance to benefit the Cecil County SPCA, April 19th. Contact Dolores Allsworth @ 410-392-6604.

Get out on your bikes... Pedal for Pets to benefit DE Humane Association, April 28th. Contact Jim Ferguson @ 302-325-9532.