The Behavior of Diet
Presenting Author: Scott Echols, DVM, Dipl ABVP (Avian)
Westgate Pet and Bird Hospital, Austin, TX
Interpretive Review and comments by Dr. Nemetz:
Dr. Echols proposed an interesting hypothesis which is based in fact. It has been suggested that 1 in 10 captive parrot species develop psychogenic feather picking behavior. Similar behaviors have been recognized and studied in primates. What could be the cause?
Foraging represents a natural behavior in birds and other animals. It is the simple act of searching for and finding food. Based on field studies, avian species spend >50% of their daily activity foraging and feeding. This is over half of their life!!!
Because of this daily activity, it likely has social and behavioral importance. In captivity, this is the most severely constrained behavior, which leads one to consider the potential implications of this common behavioral deficit on a bird's welfare. This is especially exaggerated when owners are placing multiple food dishes in a bird's cage several times per day, thereby extinguishing any need to "look" or forage for food.
There are 4 basic behaviors of birds. These are foraging, socializing with other birds, grooming/self-preening, and sleeping/resting. In caged birds that are isolated and have limited contact, this may leave grooming/self-preening and sleep/resting as the only "natural behaviors" a bird can conduct. Often when one behavior is altered or abolished, other behaviors become more emphasized, Dr. Echols proposes as behavioral displacement and Dr. Nemetz agrees.
Dr. Echols mentioned that the only non-medical risk factors associated with "feather picking" at this time has been limited to 1) being an African grey parrot, 2) being female, and 3) not displaying curiosity via play behaviors. Dr. Nemetz found this very interesting because some the worst cases of behavioral picking he has seen in practice are mature FEMALE, African grey parrots, that were POORLY SOCIALIZED as chicks and FEMALE, cockatoos, there were POORLY SOCIALIZED or removed from social contact with other birds or humans and do not demonstrate play behavior.
A study showed that birds given both physical and foraging enrichments had better feather scores than the control groups lacking these enrichments. Foraging enrichment requires a bird to simulate life in the wild by sorting (searching), manipulating, chewing, and/or opening objects to get to food, thereby intending the parrot to perform some form of work to retrieve food.
Dr. Echols set up a study to test these theories. Each patient was first evaluated for medical causes of feather picking including complete blood panels, aerobic cultures, and viral screening. Dr. Nemetz recommends checking for heavy metal toxicosis and radiographs to rule out foreign bodies and tumors leading to pain.
In those cases determined to be primary psychogenic, Dr. Echols had the owners introduce foraging toys and behaviors of ever increasing complexity to increase the bird's time that it would not focus on its grooming/self-preening behavior. He found as birds learned to forage more and interact with their environment, the exaggerated grooming behaviors decreased.
Psychogenic feather picking behavior is the most difficult form of what Dr. Nemetz calls "Exaggerated Preening Behavior" (Click here for handout). Since it does not necessarily have a metabolic origin and it must be diagnosed by ruling out the many medical causes, it requires a dedicated owner to work through the diagnostic path and be willing to initiate some of the long term therapies to correct these situations. With this dedication Dr. Echols and Dr. Nemetz have seen phenomenal success in otherwise thought of as "lost cause" case. Patience brings big rewards!