You Make The Diagnosis: Naked Bird

Ni is a female African Grey parrot of unknown age.  She loves to mimic noises.  Her repertoire includes meows, barks, trucks backing up and even a bomb drop.  She says “hello” in two different voices, a low masculine one and a soft feminine one.  Ni loves having her head scratched.   

About 50% of Ni’s diet is Harrison’s High Potency pellets.  The rest is primarily vegetables with a few fruits and nuts thrown in.  She has a large cage filled with toys, perches of various sizes and a box to hide in.  Even though Ni hates baths, she receives two or three a week.  She is toweled for her nail trims every 8 to 12 weeks.  Her wings are left untrimmed.  

Study her picture and answer the following questions:  What condition does she suffer from?  What causes it?  Are there any cures?  



Unfortunately, feather picking or plucking is a common problem of African Grey parrots.  Notice the normal feathers on the head compared to the abnormal body feathers.  This condition is self-induced.  It starts with the bird chewing on a few feathers and progresses to large areas of baldness.  In severe cases, the bird might even mutilate themselves.  I had one patient chew through the skin and muscles along the keel.

There are a wide range of causes for this condition.  For convenience they are divided into two groups, medical and non-medical.  Medical causes include a wide range of disorders from nutritional deficiencies and food allergies to heavy metal toxicities and cancer.  Hormonal, behavioral and emotional factors make up the non-medical causes.  

Identifying the underlying cause is difficult.  My basic work-up for a feather picker/plucker is blood work, x-rays, gram stains of the crop, choana and cloaca, fecal check for parasites and a skin scrape.  If these tests do not reveal the answer, a feather follicle and skin biopsy is the next step.  Quite often, the cause is never identified.  All of Ni’s test results were ‘within normal limits’.

Feather picking/plucking has multiple treatments depending upon the cause.  For birds like Ni, the most common approach is behavioral modification therapy.  A combination of drugs, environmental changes and behavior techniques are used.  I reserve e-collars and body gloves for birds that mutilate themselves.  Unfortunately, nothing worked for Ni.  Hopefully a better treatment program will emerge in the near future, although I fear Ni’s feather follicles might be too damaged to ever grow normal feathers again. 

Published by kristennelsondvm

Dr. Kristen Nelson grew up on a farm in Watertown, Minn., where she developed a deep love for animals of all kinds. She received a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree from the University of Minnesota, College of Veterinary Medicine. Kris then completed a small-animal internship at the prestigious Animal Medical Center in New York City. In addition to writing and speaking, she cares for small and exotic animals in Scottsdale, Az. Dr. Nelson is widely quoted in the media. Her credits include Ladies’ Home Journal, USA TODAY, the Los Angeles Times and numerous radio and television interviews. Dr. Nelson has written two books, Coated With Fur: A Vet’s Life and Coated With Fur: A Blind Cat’s Love. Kris and her husband Steve share their home with rescued cats, birds and a dog.