The Frustrations of Dealing with a Feather Picker

So, going away to school caused a lot more problems than I originally thought it would.  While I was away, my beautiful pearl cockatiel, Erin, decided to turn into a horrible feather picker.  And while up until this point I have dealt with a lot of problems in my birds, I had never dealt with picking.  And I can now say it is one of the most frustrating and heart killing conditions a bird owner will ever have to deal with.

I live down on campus during the school year because my course load is very heavy and my house is very distracting.  If I lived at home, I would want to work, which takes up a lot of time.  Then, I would also have four birds, a dog, a cat, a rat, a pig, a lizard, and some odd fish to distract me.  Plus, my father and mother, who when I attended CCAC did not seem to understand that I needed to study and would constantly interrupt me and try to get me to spend time with the family, my sister Leah and our friend who lives with us, Jamie, who share a room with me and would never allow me ample time to study, and my brother Lucas, who has friends over often, and who when he wants to go out, it is my job to taxi him around.  So, living at home would not help my education.  When I’m down at school, I have a lot of homework, so I don’t come home very often.  So, I rely heavily on my family to maintain my animals and give them the attention they need.

Well, they don’t do it like I do to say the least.

So I came home for spring break and on the car ride home my mother decides to tell me that Erin had started ripping her feathers out a while ago and hadn’t stopped.  Nice to tell me then.  At the time, Erin had only managed a patch the size of a dime on her left breast. 

I got online and looked up avian vets in the area and made an appointment to take Erin to see Dr. Dorn.

I have a huge gripe with so-called ‘avian’ vets in the area.  Most of them see dogs and cats and really do not work on birds, nor do they have any real experience working with birds.  Most of them, I know more than they do.  I took Taylor to Metvet once because he was puffed up at the bottom of his cage and not being himself, but I couldn’t pay the emergency fee to take him that day.  So I made an appointment for the next open appointment, two days later, put him in a hospital box on a heat mat and started him on marvel-aid, and when I took him to the vet, they charged me $70 and told me to keep doing what I was doing.

Well, my trip with Erin was roughly the same way.  I made an appointment and took her in.  I very firmly said I wanted tests run on her and I didn’t just want to have her looked at and told to keep doing what I was doing. I also mentioned at the desk that Erin was handicapped, but that wasn’t the reason she was at the vet, the feather picking was.  However, as soon as we got into the room, I was asked “Whats with her legs?  Has she been like this all her life?”  I tried hard not to roll my eyes and bit back answering that no, she was born normal and I twisted her legs like that so she’d look cool. 

So, they ran a gram stain on her.  I learned a little about gram stains in bio, but I didn’t know if it would test for giardia or not, which is what I really wanted her tested for, but I assumed a ‘avian vet’ would know to test a cockatiel who was picking her feathers out for giardia.  So, I trusted him and assumed she was tested and came back negative. He immediately wrote it off as behavioral, charged me $95, and gave me some anti anxiety drugs to give Erin.

I started Erin on the meds and almost immediately she lost her appetite and stopped eating.  Weighting only 76 grams, Erin is a small cockatiel and cannot afford to lose anymore weight.   I pulled her off the medicine and began treating her myself again.  I also got suspicious about a gram stain checking for giardia, because I know giardia is a protist while gram stains detect bacteria.  So, I asked Dr. Morrow, the vet at Duquesne who has become my unofficial advisor, and she confirmed that a gram stain will not check for giardia.  So, currently I am surfing the web looking for an avian testing lab that I can send samples to check for giardia.  In the mean time, Erin has oregano on every meal, which is supposed to be able to kill giardia naturally.

So, after my wasted $95 at the vet, I was back to figuring it out on my own.  I read every piece of literature I could on feather picking and ways to cure it.  I bought her a vest from the same site that sells my beloved bird diapers.  However, the vest only covers the front of her chest, so Erin just moved up to plucking under her wing.  I also can’t leave the vest on her all the time, for fear she will develop sores where the straps go, or it will rub her feathers off.  So, I take the vest off when I am home and downstairs to watch her, and spray her chest and under her wings with Cease, which works for a little while.  I invested $50 in new shelf perches and toys and re did her cage.  I gave her toys with coconut fibers to rip up instead of her feathers and paper shreddable toys to pull  apart.  I bought her a foraging toy and filled it with cut up pieces of millet spray and ripped up paper, hoping she will decide foraging is better than picking.  However, Erin refuses to use her new shelves and perches, and hasn’t touched a new toy once.  She gets daily showers with warm water or bird bath spray.  I moved her cage away from the other birds, thinking maybe she needed a new change of scenery or felt threatened being so close to Bella.  She also has spent an increased time out of her cage each day. Nothing was a solution.

My next step is to change Erin’s diet to a different formula of food for birds with allergies.  Although it’s a shot in the dark, as Erin has been eating the same pellets since I brought her home and she has never had a problem before, its worth at least trying.

I feel that Erin may have started her feather picking from an itch or stress, but now it has become such a habit that she just does it out of boredom.  Not only does she pull her feathers out, but she will also bite and irritate the pore where the follicle comes out, mostly because I’m guessing the feathers itch when they grow back in.  So she takes them out before they can even feather.  And although I am trying my best to have Erin out of the cage as much as possible, lets face it: I can’t always be there to entertain her.  Next year, I’m going to take Erin to school with me, and she will have the three other girls in my suite as well as me to spend as much time as we can with her.  But shhh!  Don’t tell Duquesne!

Out of all my birds, I would have thought Erin was the most secure, most well-adjusted, and least likely to pick her feathers out.  However, I was wrong.

Feather picking is exceptionally heart breaking to the owner because the owner is the only one at fault.  Other than medical reasons, such as bacterial infections or giardia, there is no cause for feather picking that is not human induced.  Your bird is too bored, or too stressed, or too unhappy.  And that’s really hard for me to try to deal with, because I have always tried to make my birds have the best life possible.  I know they don’t understand the whole ‘going away to school thing’ but honestly, what other choice do I have?

Dealing with Erin’s feather picking is a day by day battle.  We have good days and bad days, ups and downs.  Some days she’s very good and has a whole chest of pin feathers and I start to feel confident we’re going to beat it, and the next day she has pulled them all out.  Some days her chest looks great, and the next day it is red and irritated from her biting it.  It’s a hard battle.

I want to take Erin back to a vet and be tested again for anything else that can be causing it.  And I would like to take her to see an animal behaviorist who may be able to help me  figure out what is causing the picking.  But I’m wary of taking my birds to anyone anymore.  It seems like it’s always a waste of money.

I’m going to keep trying to combat Erin’s feather picking.  I can only hope I can cure it before she has destroyed the feather follicles and her feathers won’t grow back anymore.  Without her feathers, Erin looks like a sad, weak, plucked chicken, and it’s quite heart breaking.

If anyone has dealt with, cured, or has suggestions about feather picking, please contact me either by email or comment and let me know anything that might be helpful.  I just want my little girl to be happy again.


2 responses

  1. Hi. I found this blog today, and I felt so sorry for Erin. Have the vet made an x ray to check if she ate some kind of metal? sometimes metal poisoning can cause this problem. Has she worn an elisabethan collar? It may prevent from picking. I have known of a bird that wears one all the time, and even had procriated without taking it of. I hope I helped…

    • Aww thanks so much for your advice and concern! Luckily, Erin has improved dramatically since this last post! She still picks, but only mildly. Its mostly a stress induced thing and separation anxiety, so I just take her to school with me now, and she also wears an anti picking vest when I’m not around. I’ll try to post some pictures of her currently! I’m going home from school today so I’ll be posting lots of new pictures and stories of the birds!

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