A presentation I see on a regular basis, the severity of which an owner will often underestimate, is that of the parrot demonstrating feather destructive behaviour.
Feather-plucking and feather-chewing can represent serious underlying disease processes or psychological problems.
A diagnostic investigation is involved, potentially frustrating, and demands a significant amount of patience on the part of owner and vet.
There are often a combination of factors that lead a parrot to self-traumatise, but before addressing behavioural issues the vet has to rule out or treat any underlying disease. Blood tests and faecal screens are used to preclude infectious diseases such as psittacosis and beak and feather disease, X-rays and endoscope imaging to identify causes of internal pain, and feather microscopy to demonstrate parasites or bacterial skin infections.
One very common contributory factor is inappropriate nutrition. If an African Grey is fed sunflower mix diet and is not yet showing evidence of inadequate calcium or vitamin A, then it is only a matter of time.
Once physical problems have been addressed, it is often necessary to consider psychological problems, the likelihood of which correlate to the intelligence of the species. Behavioural causes of self-trauma are far more common in African Greys, Cockatoos and Eclectus Parrots, which are estimated to have the intelligence of a three-year-old child, than in budgies for instance.
Psychological causes include frustration, boredom, obsessive compulsive disorder, fear and anxiety, but all occur when a bird is prevented from behaving in a natural manner. Problems are far more common in hand-reared birds than parent-reared birds because they have never been instructed in how a bird should behave. Consideration should be given to natural day lengths. Typically if exposed to more than 12 hours of light a day they behave like grumpy teenagers.
Stimulation is imperative. Foraging games should be encouraged and toys rotated. Social interaction is also really important. An awkward part of a consultation can be explaining to an owner how they have inadvertently been flirting with parrots and their feather-plucking reflects sexual frustration.
Prevention is better than cure, and we would advise talking to a vet before acquiring a parrot.
By SAM PRESCOTT,
Director and Vet