Diet and Feather Picking
by gloria scholbe
The Right Cure
Feather Picking has many possible causes. So many, in fact, that to treat a bird for feather picking without an accurate diagnosis is the same as playing Russian Roulette with your bird’s life. Consider this hypothetical example:
Squeaky was a beautiful cinnamon-pied whiteface cockatiel who started to pull out her feathers. Squeaky’s owner became very distressed by this behavior so she asked the members of an internet chat group what to do to make Squeaky stop. Many people offered possible solutions, and one by one she began to try them. She sprayed bitter apple on her bird’s feathers to make her stop plucking. She tried aloe vera gel and Listerine to help soothe the itch. None of those things worked and more feathers kept disappearing. The owner next tried spraying her with apple cider vinegar (ACV) and even put it in Squeaky’s drinking water, but that didn’t help either. By now, Squeaky was a mess. Finally she took Squeaky to the vet to see if he could help.
The vet put Squeaky in a little collar so she couldn’t pull her feathers any more. He also gave her a prescription for a drug that would make her less hyperactive and smooth out her mood. The vet said that feather plucking is a behavior disorder and Squeaky was probably bored. Weeks went by and Squeaky was no longer the happy and playful little bird that her owner once enjoyed. She acted…strange, but her owner thought that it was probably the drug. Finally the feathers grew back and the collar was removed. Soon after, Squeaky’s owner found her dead on the bottom of the cage.
Although much effort had been made to stop Squeaky’s behavior, the plucking was just a symptom. Squeaky was dying from giardia parasites, or Chlamydia, or any of a host of other medical problems that were the underlying cause. There was plenty of time to save her, but she needed a proper diagnosis. Once the cause had been determined, then appropriate treatments specific to the illness could have been explored.
Causes of Feather Picking
One or a combination of things can cause feather picking. These include:
|internal or external parasites||metal toxicity||allergies|
|toxins (dietary or environmental)||nutrient imbalances (excess or deficiency)||nutrient malabsorption|
|hormone and endocrine imbalances||organ malfunction||bacterial infection, Chlamydia(psittacosis)|
|yeast infections||reaction to antibiotics or other drugs||lighting...|
...and more. A book could be written about the causes of feather plucking. This article will focus on dietary causes.
Skin and Feathers
The skin is the largest organ of the body. Its role is to regulate the body’s temperature and act as a barrier between the body’s internal system (organs) and the external environment (bacteria, and toxins.) Feathers, nails and beak are extensions of the skin. They and the epidermis (top skin layer) are composed mainly of keratin, which is an insoluble protein made of sulphur and amino acids, particularly tyrosine and leucine. In addition to being the largest organ, skin is the body’s primary organ of detoxification. Skin and feather problems are often a reflection of internal health.
If internal organs are not functioning optimally, then evidence of this can be seen in the feathers, nails, and skin. For example, discolored feathers can signal a malfunctioning liver. Skin inflammation can indicate the body’s attempt to rid itself of toxins not being handled by the liver and kidneys. Peeling or splitting nails suggest deficiencies of vitamin A and the sulfur containing amino acids.
Nutrients most commonly associated with skin and feather disorders are protein, vitamin A, minerals, and essential fatty acids.
- Cafeteria-style feeding – a bird restricts itself to favorite foods, leading to malnutrition.
- Insufficient essential fatty acids (EFAs) – the right fats are critically important to a healthy functioning body and to healthy, supple skin and vibrant feathers. See the EFA article in the June/July issue.
- Decreased ratio of Omega 3 to Omega 6 fatty acids - leads to sore joints, skin problems, brittle nails, hair, feathers, headaches, anxiety, irritation, and carbohydrate cravings. Omega 3 fatty acids are found in flaxseed oil and coldwater fish oils. For birds, I would recommend flaxseed oil or ground flaxseeed over fish oil.
- Mineral deficiencies – particularly calcium, magnesium, zinc, silicon, and sulfur.
- Lack of fiber in the diet – allows toxins to build in the digestive tract, creating some skin reactions when the body attempts to detoxify through the skin.
- Insufficient vitamin A - leads to rough, scaly skin and dull ragged feathers. Its lack also causes other health problems including susceptibility to infections and respiratory ailments. Itchy, dry skin can cause a bird to pluck.
- Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. Their deficiency results in the body’s inability to repair cells and organs or produce enzymes, antibodies, or feathers, which are made of protein. Birds that lack essential amino acids in their diet might pluck and eat their own feathers and also their eggs. An amino acid imbalance can cause the production of excess urates, which in turn can lead to gout.
- Vitamin E – protects cell membranes, acts as an antioxidant within the cells, and prevents fats from becoming rancid in the body. It also plays an important role in maintaining skin health.
Excess salt – results in salt toxicity, which can be lethal. A medium size parrot that consumes 3 snack chips has ingested the equivalent of what would be a teaspoon of salt to a human. Salt is needed, but excess salt can cause edema and itchy swelling of the skin.
Pellets – contain mainly cereal grains, vitamin/mineral supplements, artificial colors, flavors, and various preservatives. Allergens in pellet ingredients cause some birds to pluck.
Excess vitamin A – vitamin A in excess is toxic to the body. Symptoms include weight loss, joint pain, muscle soreness, dry and flaky skin, rashes, enlarged liver and spleen.
- Increased fat to protein ratio – means the appetite will be satisfied sooner so insufficient protein might be consumed. Feathers and skin are made primarily of keratin/protein, so sufficient amounts must be consumed for maintenance and repair.
Diet is what a bird eats. Everything that goes into a bird will have an effect on the bird’s overall health. Some of what the bird consumes are nutrients needed for energy, repair, defense, and reproduction. Other things consumed can be toxic, allergenic, or even physically damaging.
Our companion birds are in a unique position. They cannot forage for the variety of foods upon which they evolved in their ecological niche. Their captive diet is limited to what we feed them. If an individual bird requires an abundance of certain nutrients, that bird can no longer seek them. If we provide an excess or imbalance of other nutrients, our birds cannot avoid them.
Robert Stroud has this to say regarding diet and feathers: (from “Stroud’s Digest on the Diseases of Birds”) “birds are the recipients of no magical powers; they cannot make something from nothing. If your bird is confined where she can catch no bugs, fed on a straight grain diet, she may grow a full coat of feathers, but if she does, she will never be the same thereafter, for she can only do so by robbing the tissues of her own body. Birds need animal protein at every season of the year and that need is doubly great during the molting season.”
Juliette de Bairacli Levy agrees: (from “The Complete Herbal Handbook for Farm and Stable”) “Poultry to attain and maintain optimum health require quite large amounts of live protein, in the form of worms flies, beetles, etc, which they would collect to the benefit of the land in the normal free-ranging. The greatest error in modern poultry-keeping is the overfeeding of stock on highly rich cereal concentrates, usually waste products of the food refiners’ factories. Such feeding, as with all unnatural feeding, soon produces an artificial and depraved appetite.
“Over feeding of poultry, which are habitually spare feeders, must be strictly avoided. Birds that are over-fat do not moult well, and they are frequently infertile and nervous. Feather and egg eating and other depraved appetites are largely resultant from idleness. Hens should be kept scratching at the earth.” (In other words: foraging.)
My own personal observations just this summer have confirmed the validity of some of the above two statements. Although I cannot free-range my parrots, my outside birds do have the opportunity to forage off of five fenced acres that I allow to grow wild for them. This year my two runner duck hens are raising their clutches almost completely free of any supplemental feed from me. One hen is raising nine babies by the pond. I often see them chasing down water bugs or digging in the mud for pond creatures and plants. The other hen is raising her clutch of 10 babies in the field. They are eating bugs and plants they find amongst the grasses and weeds.
Today I caught a couple of the ducklings. (The only ones that did not escape into the weeds fast enough.) They are of good weight, healthy, and alert. I do put out feed for both hens, but the ducklings living in the field do not care for it yet. The pond ducklings do appreciate the extra calories that I supply.
Healthy birds in nature do not pluck. Therefore, the best diet for each bird is that which mimics the diet on which its species evolved, thrived, and reproduced in its country of origin. Unfortunately, this is difficult to provide. First, in order to understand the bird’s diet, we would need
Extensive field studies through all seasons of the year, which would completely document all the foods consumed by a statistical population of that species. Then
All those foods would need to be thoroughly analyzed for nutritional content. However Science has not yet discovered all nutrients used by the body, so it cannot test for them.
Many species of birds no longer exist on their evolutionary diet because they are instead raiding the crops of encroaching human civilization. Thus, we cannot study them in their original environment. Further, birds that subsist mainly on domestic crops often suffer malnutrition from a limited and inappropriate diet.
Therefore the best we can do is Provide a manufactured diet based on studies of what we know about the nutritional requirements of poultry, which are not raised for purposes of their longevity or better yet... offer a nutrient rich natural diet consisting of a variety of rotated foods, which have a better chance overall to approximate the nutrient profile of our bird’s ancestral diet.
Call them pellets, crumbles, dry mash, granules, nuggets, or whatever. Processing may differ, but base ingredients are similar. Most manufactured diets are composed of grains with supplements added to provide for what is known about avian nutritional requirements. This is the basis from which all pellets are formulated. From this base, the products begin to diverge. Some use all organic ingredients. Some include green foods like alfalfa and sea vegetables for their natural vitamin and mineral content. Some add sugar and flavoring to appeal to the bird’s palate. Some change color and shape to appeal to the consumer. Most add preservatives to extend shelf life.
In many cases, birds fed nothing but pellets will live longer and healthier than a bird fed nothing but seeds. Cockatiels, budgerigars, and some of the other grass parakeets from Australia are exceptions to this ‘rule’. Their natural evolution revolved around a diet of mainly grass seeds plus greens, berries, and bugs, which provided the nutrients missing from seeds.
If a bird is plucking because of a nutrient deficiency, then putting the bird on pellets could very well resolve the cause of plucking. This resolution might be only temporary, though, until the presence of additives, plus excess or absence of nutrients in the formula begins to cause other forms of malnutrition. The pendulum swings.
Manufactured Diet Flaws
Nutrients are missing from pellets. The only nutrients considered in the formula are those that science has studied.
Enzymes, which are heat sensitive, are destroyed in processing. Pellets are 'dead' food.
Sugar added to pellets to make them more palatable, contains empty calories burdens the pancreas, and contributes to obesity.
Most pellet brands contain no green food, animal protein, seeds, nuts, fruit, or vegetation, which forms a large part of many birds’ natural diet. Science is only just beginning to recognize that food contains many substances besides vitamins and minerals which contribute to health.
Birds are forced to consume everything in the pellet, even though some components of the pellets or certain amounts of those components might be having a negative impact on the bird’s health.
The exact same ingredients are fed day after day. The body can eventually develop intolerance to foods consumed daily. This does not happen with every food nor does it happen with every individual. When it does happen though, the food will begin to harm the body rather than nourish it.
A sustained nutrient load is fed day after day. Birds and other animals that forage do not receive a measured amount of the same macro and micronutrients on a daily basis. It is possible that consuming sustained amounts of some nutrients is not healthy long term. Seasonal availability of foraged foods for some species prevent this happening in nature. This is not true for those instances where birds evolved to subsist primarily on one specific food.
Each species of bird evolved with its own specific requirements. Although some product brands have made accommodation for certain species as those species’ needs are discovered, the bottom line is that all birds being fed nothing but pellets are participating in a long-term nutritional experiment. Some birds have died because of nutrient imbalances in their pellet diet.
Most preservatives and additives in pellets are either carcinogenic (cancer causing) or allergenic (allergy causing).
Here is a partial listing of common food additives, some of which may be found in pellets. Others may be found in some of things we offer our birds as ‘treats’.
FD&C Red No.2
not allowed in U.S.
E 123 Europe
|Dye, food coloring||Causes edema and hives|
|Artificial Sweetener||Causes altered brain function, behavior changes, allergic reactions and edema.|
|Food preservative in processed foods||Skin and respiratory allergic reactions|
BHA & BHT
|Prevents oxidation and retards rancidity of fats.||Carcinogenic, accumulates in body tissue, causes liver enlargement|
|Dye, food coloring||Breathing problems Allergic response Chromosome damage|
Cochineal extract Carmine dye
|Natural coloring in foods and cosmetics||Causes anaphylactic shock and allergic reactions including hives and itchy skin|
FD&C Red No.3
|Dye, food coloring||Breathing difficulties, chromosome damage|
| Fast Green
FD&C Green No.3
|Dye, food coloring||Bladder tumors|
| Indigo Carmine
FD&C Blue No.2
E 132 Europe
|Dye, food coloring|| Brain tumors
MSG Monosodium Glutamate
|Flavor enhancer in many foods||Nervous system stimulant and severe allergen|
Nitrite & Nitrate
|Preservative for processed meat||Carcinogenic|
Parabens methyl-, propyl-, butyl-
|Prevents growth of molds and yeast in food||Contact dermatitis, itching, skin pain, and anaphylactic shock|
|Improves bread texture||Carcinogenic, banned in all countries except US and Japan|
|Artificial sweetener||Bladder cancer|
|Maintains fresh appearance of fruits and vegetables. Found in many dried fruits.||hyperactivity, wheezing, hives, and vomiting.|
|Dye, food coloring|| Hives runny nose nasal congestion Allergies
|Dye, food coloring|| Allergies
Trigger for asthma
If your bird plucks, try checking for any of these additives in foods you feed. They can be contained in pellets or even in human food you share with your bird, like: frankfurters, crackers, regular bread, birdie bread, chips, colored pasta, cereal, juice, ice-cream, yogurt, dried fruit, canned fruit, and more.
According to CJ Puotinen, “most skin conditions respond well to a complete change in diet. Stop feeding dry or canned food and switch to a natural diet of fresh raw food. The simple removal of chemical dyes, preservatives, and additives from the diet has stopped allergic reactions in many dogs, cats, birds, and rabbits; replacing canned and packaged “complete” foods with fresh raw or growing foods supplies essential nutrients that convenience foods lack."
Feather picking is not the only symptom of an allergic response to a substance. Other allergy symptoms include: chronic sinus congestion, watery eyes, digestive problems, fluid retention, hyperactivity, phobias, poor muscle coordination, sensitivity to light, obesity, joint pain, and more. It is entirely possible that some birds treated with antibiotics for chronic respiratory problems that never go away, are displaying the symptoms of a food intolerance or allergy rather than a bacterial or viral infection.
An all seed diet lacks critical nutrients required for a bird to maintain good health. Like pellets, they are flawed as a complete diet. Specifically, seeds lack vitamin A, some of the sulphur-containing essential amino acids, some essential fatty acids, some vitamins & minerals, and a proper ratio of calcium to phosphorous. Seeds also do not contain phytonutrients found in fruits, vegetables, or greens.
However, seeds are loaded with natural rather than synthetic forms of vitamins, minerals, and essential fatty acids, which are protected by the seed coat rather than by carcinogenic antioxidants used in pellets. Additionally, seeds are live food and they can be sprouted for added nutrition. Although most of the seeds we feed are different than those that birds would forage as part of their natural menu, they are still closer to the natural diet than the ingredients found in manufactured diets.
Some of the ingredients in our seed mixes could be allergenic to individual birds. Peanuts, for example, cause allergic reactions in many humans. They also are prone to growing molds, which produce carcinogenic aflatoxins. Sunflower seeds, although highly nutritious, have been associated with hyperactive behaviors in some birds. This response indicates an allergy or intolerance to that food by individual birds.
Allergy Elimination Diet
If your plucking bird has been tested and found negative for most common medical reasons of feather picking, then you might want to consider trying an allergy elimination diet to see if a food or additive is responsible for the behavior. You begin by simplifying the diet and clearing the body of toxins.
You simplify the diet by limiting the bird to a few food components for a couple of weeks. Your bird will not suffer malnutrition if this limited diet is only continued for a week or two, and the foods you are going to feed it are rich with nutrition. This is the elimination diet I would recommend for a medium size parrot of good weight:
Fresh, well washed carrots, apples, dark leafy greens, and a plain non-fortified cockatiel seed mix. Do not feed pellets because they contain too many ingredients and it will be impossible to determine which of them is causing the reaction.
Feed the fruits, vegetables, and greens in the morning. Make sure they are well washed so no residue of pesticides or fertilizers remain. Organic would be even better. Feed ample amounts so your bird will have plenty to munch on all day. In the late part of the day toward evening, feed your bird its seed mix. In the morning, empty out uneaten seeds and feed the carrots, apples, and greens. After one week, you should see a reduction or elimination of plucking, if a food allergy is the problem.
Please do not attempt this diet until the bird has been tested and found negative for medical causes of feather plucking. Do not continue this limited diet beyond a couple of weeks. Its purpose is merely to establish that something in the bird's diet is causing feather picking.
Also, please keep this in mind:
If a bird has been plucking a long time, it may have become a habit. So even after the cause has been found and cleared, the habit could remain.
In addition, even if the plucking does stop, feather follicles may have become damaged to the point that no new feathers can grow.
The body may need to detoxify from whatever food/s have caused the plucking. Simply eliminating them from the diet may not be enough.
Here are different methods you can use to detoxify your bird. One may work where another might not. Herbs commonly used for detoxification are: burdock for the blood, dandelion for liver and kidneys, milk thistle or andrographis for the liver, red clover for the blood, and aloe for the digestive tract. These herbs can be purchased in combination with other purifying herbs in different forms.
Aloe Detox by NatureAde is a popular remedy that comes highly recommended by many bird owners. It contains several detoxifying herbs in addition to pure aloe gel. You can either use it in the bird’s drinking wate. Be sure to change that water several times a day because the nutrients in aloe will cause bacterial growth in the water. Or you can mix it into the seed mix and coat the vegetables and fruit with it. Watch your bird to insure that it doesn’t refuse to eat or drink if Aloe Detox is present. On her LandofVos website, Carolyn Swicegood has an article about using Aloe Detox formula. Note about aloe: Do not use whole leaf Aloe products because the inner leaf latex is a purgative. Only use products that contain pure gel.
Essiac formula can be found as a tea that you brew and offer to the bird in a separate water dish. You will have to watch to see if he drinks it. If not, then it will have to be administered another way. Make sure the bird has a separate water dish. If only tea is available and it refuses to drink the tea, it will become dehydrated. Essiac tea It also comes in capsule form. NOW herbs makes a product called Essiak that contains the same herbal formula as found in the tea. Nature's Sunshine produces a similar product called E-tea.
You can purchase the herbs separately in either powder or non-alcohol tincture form then mix them together in a separate stock container. The herbs would be best stirred into the moistened seed mix. Two drops of tincture or half a capsule of powder for an amazon size bird would be appropriate.
Continue the detox daily for one week, but watch your bird for any indication that the herbs are causing the bird any distress. Herbs also can cause allergies in susceptible individuals.
A slightly different approach should be taken for small birds like budgies, quakers, and cockatiels. These birds can lose weight much faster, and they could easily starve to death before you notice it. Cockatiels and budgies are less likely accept apples and carrots. Give these birds a regular non-fortified seed mix plus kabobs of apples, carrots, and greens. Or you could grate or chop the veggies and fruit together. If the birds will not accept any food except the seeds, then you could either feed the seeds after they have been soaked for 24 hours, and/or mix a product like Kyo-green into their moistened seeds. This would insure that they are obtaining nutrition beyond seeds.
Birds should not be allowed to lose an appreciable amount of weight unless they were obese to begin with. Even so, rapid weight loss is undesirable. If the bird refuses to eat, a longer introduction to the elimination diet will be required . Obtain help and coaching from your holistic veterinarian or other suitable counselor.
After you have cleansed the body for approximately one week, then gradually begin to add new foods in addition to the seed mix, apple, carrot diet. One new food every other day would work nicely. It will give you time to observe any reaction to the food. If there is a reaction, then you know that the food is a problem, so do not feed it again. If there is no reaction, then that food is safe for now. However, if a diet is limited to the same foods fed day after day, the body can develop intolerance to that food. According to naturopathic philosophy, foods should be rotated. This will prevent the development of allergies or intolerances. Foods that cause reactions might once again be tolerated if they are rotated rather than fed every day.
Some naturopaths recommend that the same type of food should not be consumed again for four days. Others recommend seven days. That means if a bird is given blueberries on Monday, it would not be allowed blueberries or similar berries again until the following Monday. This concept goes for beans, grains, a family of greens, or any type of food. Foods with a higher protein value have the greatest potential for causing an allergic reaction. Non-food contaminants such as pesticides, preservatives, and dyes can also cause an allergic type response. Food intolerances are not allergies, but the reaction is similar to that of a true allergy.
Here is a sample rotation diet for birds that are opportunistic foragers in nature. (It would not be appropriate for grass keet species):
Monday: carrot, orange, blueberries, almonds, peas, cooked rice, hard boiled egg.
Tuesday: tomato, apple, squash (including seeds), spray millet, sprouted sunflower and flaxseed.
Wednesday: spinach, banana, sweet potato, pasta, walnuts, raspberries, well-cooked ground meat.
Thursday: jalapeno peppers, watermelon, pineapple, sprouted mung and adzuki beans, oat groats or oatmeal, leaf lettuce, cashew.
Friday: broccoli, pear, kiwi, cooked potato, corn, canary seed, buckwheat, brazil nut, sprouted safflower.
Saturday: cherries, Brussels sprouts, endive, cooked chicken, green beans, cooked quinoa, cantaloupe, pine nuts.
Sunday: cranberries, celery, pecans, peach, cooked amaranth with lentils, radish, radicchio, tiny amount of hard cheese (not soft processed cheese).
Please note that each day I included fruit, vegetable, grain, nut, seed, and sometimes legume. I also tried to balance acid against alkaline in order to achieve a neutral balance. Tomatos, for example, acidify. Apples, on the other hand, alkalinize. Another consideration was the need for vitamin A, so I included orange/yellow or dark leafy greens daily. Nuts and seeds were included for essential fatty acids. Grains and legumes are useful for amino acids and B vitamins. Occasional animal protein was included to balance the amino acids.
A number of herbs, weeds, and foods growing in your yard or nearby fields can be gathered for your bird if herbicides, pesticides, or fertilizers have not been applied.
CJ Puotinen suggests: "Herbal supplements: Aloe vera improves digestion. Chamomile sooths and reduces inflammation. Licorice root and yucca contain natural cortisone and help relieve inflammation. Wheat grass, barley grass, dandelion, chamomile, calendula, chickweed and plantain all help to clear skin allergies. For an all-purpose skin and coat supplement: combine equal parts of dried burdock root, cleavers, dandelion, garlic, kelp, horsetail, and nettles. Grind well in spice or coffe grinder. Add ¼ teaspoon per 10 pounds of body weight to food per day.”
Juliette de Bairacli Levy has this suggestion for birds:“All the aromatic herbs such as dill, anise, fennel, taken internally, are good for plumage growth and especially good are all the algae family – the seaweeds, kelp, bladder wrack, and dulse; also maidenhair fern, nettle, cleavers, and all the onion family including garlic. Excessive moulting can also be caused by an unnatural confined life. The birds cast their feathers and pull them out in their boredom."
Her recommended diet: "2 oz mixed cereals (corn, rice, oats) and two oz of bran and chaff mash with molasses, plus a small amount of flaked roots such as carrots, potatoes, Tree fruits: hawthorn berries, rose hips, nuts – beech, acorn, chestnuts (crushed fine or flaked) Some seaweed is a very important aid to glandular health and should be provided daily. A pinch of powdered seaweed per hen is the proved sufficient daily ration. It is the best and most potent source of natural iodine, and very rich in most other minerals. Weeds, grass, nettle, lambs-quarter, goose-grass etc. fed with their roots are a vital food. Abundant green foods should be provided both vegetables and herbs; sprouts, cabbage, watercress, all mints, wild peas and vetches, and parsley are especially good. So also are clover, chickweed, cleavers, comfrey, all plantains, groundsel, parsley, flax, shepherd’s purse, thistle heads, dandelion, fennel, and dill. Peas and green beans are rich sources of protein and an excellent tonic in the winter. Mullein roots should be grated. If potatoes are fed, they should be mixed with suitable roughage such as chaff or bran. Add one part roughage to four parts potato. Chop rue. Mix into bran mash. Also feed heather, clover, willow herb, meadow-sweet, rose bay, and flowering seeds”
Editor's note: although molasses is loaded with minerals, it is also high in iron. Birds sensitive to dietary iron should not be fed molasses. A substitute for this might be organic apple cider vinegar.
When feather plucking is from one of the nutrient deficiencies I mentioned earlier: protein, vitamin A, Vitamin E, some minerals, and essential fatty acids, then adding these nutrients as a supplement to the diet can be very important until balance is restored.
If your bird is already on pellets, do not add any more synthetic supplements to your bird's diet. The only safe 'supplement' to pellets would be those found naturally in foods.
Vitamin A and carotenes
Another caution involves supplementing with vitamin A. Fat soluble Vitamin A from fish and other animal sources is toxic in excess. This excess could cause a skin condition that encourages feather plucking. Supplementing with the water-soluble forms of vitamin A, which come from plants and are actually vitamin A precursors, are much safer. These are the various water-soluble forms of Vitamin A, called carotenes. Beta carotene is the one we hear about most often. Since they are water soluble, carotenes not needed by the body are excreted in the urine.
Good sources of carotenes come from foods that are orange, yellow, and dark leafy greens. Carotenes can also be supplemented by adding green food powders to your birds diet. Powders such as alfalfa, wheat grass, barley grass, and the various algae including chlorella, spirulina, and blue green algae are excellent.
Some people have found that the addition of MSM to their bird's diet put a satisfactory end to feather plucking. Methyl Sulfonyl Methane, or
MSM, is an organic sulfur compound found in vegetables, fruit, meat and dairy products. It occurs as one of hundreds of naturally occurring sulfur compounds in foods, particularly in cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower. Sulfur is part of the the body's cellular structure and is necessary for maintenance and repair. It is required for healthy hair, skin, nails, and joints. Although it is readily found in nature, birds whose organs are not functioning properly or who have been inadequately nourished might benefit from its addition as a dietary supplement.
Malcolm Green, owner of the Bird Care Company praises the properties of MSM: “It is a great source of bio-available sulfur with anti-inflammatory properties (useful for arthritis etc). It helps grow feathers (and fur in animals) because it saves the animal from breaking down the already scarce methionine to provide sulfur for other purposes. This web site shows Lady Gouldian finches that have been poorly fed for a while. This species tends to lose head feathers when they lack sufficient sulphur containing amino acids in their diet” http://www.ladygouldianfinch.com/st_rescue.html
Essential Fatty Acids
Seeds and nuts contain many of the essential fatty acids and an abundance of vitamin E. Wheat germ is also a good source of this vitamin.
Most seeds and nuts are low in Omega 3 fatty acids. Flax seed is an exception, but many birds will not eat flax seeds. One way to add flax to the diet is to grind the dry seeds in a coffee grinder or food processor just before you sprinkle it on the bird’s soft food. Flax seed has a pleasant nutty taste. The fatty acids in flax seed are very delicate and degrade rapidly once they are no longer protected by the seed coat. Thus you should not grind the seeds much in advance of serving. What you do not use immediately should be refrigerated. Flax is also an excellent source of fiber, which will help the digestive tract to detoxify.
CJ Puotinen recommends: "EFA supplements and small quantities of borage seed, evening primrose, flaxseed, olive, cod liver, and other oils on a rotating basis will improve your pet’s coat, especially if they are given with digestive or enzyme supplements. If the animal isn’t able to digest the fats, they only make the skin and coat greasy."
Instead of rotating the different oils, you can purchase them already combined and blended in a healthful ratio. Essential Fatty Acid blends can be purchased from the refrigerated section of your health food store. Since these oils are delicate, make sure they are stored refrigerated, are cold pressed, and are fresh. Blended oils should not smell rancid. If they do, return them to the store. One of the better blends is produced by Udo Erasmus. It is called Udo's Choice Blend. Barlean's also makes a good blended oil.
A good way to offer oils is to mix them into soft food that will absorb and carry them. A piece of bread would work well for this purpose. Oil supplements should not be baked into bread. These oils are very delicate and their properties change when exposed to heat.
Fats and oils should not be used to coat seeds or other non-absorbent foods. This method would cause the bird's beak to be coated with oil. The oil would transfer to the bird's feathers when the bird preens, which will make them heavy and sticky. This, in turn, could cause the bird to over-preen or pluck.
Some feather plucking allergies result because of poor digestion. Maybe the pancreas is not producing enzymes needed to digest foods properly. Adding digestive enzymes has proved to be a solution for some birds. Papaya and Pineapple both contain enzymes that break down protein. If the problem is fat digestion, then it would be better to use lipase rather than a protease.
CJ Puotinen wrote: “Supplements are important because most pets with allergies have impaired digestion and need help assimilating nutrients from food. Digestive enzymes, cider vinegar, bitter herbs, and acidophilus are all likely to help. "
A good digestive enzyme supplement that contains enzymes for breaking down a variety of food substances is a product called Prozyme. It contains enzymes for digesting protein, fat, and a variety of carbohydrates, including cellulose. For further information about the importance of enzymes, see our first issue. (click on Back Issues at the top of the side navigation bar.)
Microflora in the digestive tract help the body to digest foods. A regimen of antibiotics can destroy the good bacteria. Stress and invading organisms can also take a toll. Sometimes feather picking will cease if enzymes and probiotics are supplemented in the diet. Although there are probiotic products on the market developed for birds, I prefer to use the human product found in the refrigerated section of the health food store. They may not be 'species specific', but they have three advantages over a product made for birds:
human grade products are usually manufactured to better standards than pet products.
not all brands of probiotics deliver the numbers of viable organisms promised on the label. However, human brands have been tested by independent labs and the Flora Force brand, which is kept refrigerated, has a good reputation.
because of the nature of some bird diseases, I feel more comfortable supplementing my birds with organisms that have not been associated with other birds.
Hopefully this has given you some ideas toward solving your bird's feather plucking problem. The main things I want to stress are these:
First, do not waste time suppressing the symptom. Find the cause.
Second, do not give up. Feather plucking has many possible causes. Once you determine what that is, it will be easier to find a solution.
Third, do not listen if someone tells you that feather plucking is 'just' a behavior issue or a mental aberration. Those too will have an underlying cause that is quite likely medical or nutritional.
Only as a last resort, after all other avenues have been explored, should you consider mood altering drugs to stop your bird from plucking. Realize this will not heal, only suppress.
Please do not be so eager to try out the latest 'miracle cure'. It may not be appropriate for your bird. By now you should have a better understanding of why this is so.
James F and Phyllis A Balch. Prescription for Nutritional Healing
Randall N Brue. Nutrition; Harrison, Harrison, and Ritchie. Avian Medicine: Principles and Application
Robert E. Dolphin. Feeding and Nutritional Disorders; Diseases of Cage Birds edited by Elisha W Burr
Juliette de Bairacli Levy The Complete Herbal Handbook for Farm and Stable
Udo Erasmus Fats That Heal Fats That Kill
Bonnie Monroe Doane The Parrot in Health and Illness
Elson M Haas. Staying Healthy With Nutrition
Michael Murray and Joseph Pizzorno. Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine
Harrison and Harrison. Clinical Avian Medicine and Surgery
CJ Puotinen The Encyclopedia of Natural Pet Care
Humbart Santillo. Food Enzymes...The Missing Link to Radiant Health
Robert Stroud. Stroud's Digest on the Diseases of Birds
Alicia McWatters. Skin and Feather Care
Alex Oderkirk, Feather Picking and Cannibalism, Nova Scotia Department of Agriculture and Marketing, February 10, 1986 http://www.gov.ns.ca/nsaf/elibrary/archive/lives/poultry/laypull/feather.htm
Northern Allergy Center, Australia. Complete listing of E-Numbers
FDA Summary of Color Additives Listed for Use in the United States in Foods, Drugs, Cosmetics, and Medical Devices, November 2000