Q: My African Grey parrot is losing his feathers, and my veterinarian wants to run lab tests. I thought feather-plucking was a behavioral problem. What can lab tests tell us?
A: Feather-destructive disorder is a common and complex problem in birds. Among the species in which we typically see it are cockatoos, African Greys, macaws, conures, cockatiels and lovebirds.
It's normal for birds to preen, or groom, their feathers to remove dirt or parasites, but when they start chewing the feathers, pulling them out altogether or even mutilating their bodies, the cause can be medical, behavioral or a combination of the two.
Underlying medical causes of feather-plucking can include inflammatory skin disease, low levels of thyroid hormones, liver or kidney disorders or tumors, to name just a few. Among the possible environmental causes are low humidity, poor lighting or changes in the bird's routine. Behavioral causes include boredom, anxiety and frustration. Sometimes the condition can have multiple causes. Because of this, diagnosing it can be a challenge.
A thorough medical history and, ideally, an environmental and behavioral evaluation are the foundation of a diagnosis, but a complete blood count, chemistry profile, screening for infectious disease, bacterial and fungal cultures, fecal exam and skin and feather follicle biopsies can all provide valuable information.
Treatment takes time and patience, and it may not lead to a complete cure. Depending on the cause, medication can help to reduce inflammation, itchiness and anxiety. Even if the cause is medical, enriching the bird's environment with interesting toys, opportunities to climb or fly and foods that require the bird to work to get at them is a valuable component of treatment.
• It's National Pet Dental Health Month. What are you doing to keep your dog or cat's teeth clean? The basics include brushing teeth frequently (daily is best) and getting a professional exam and cleaning annually by your pet's veterinarian. To help dogs or cats enjoy tooth brushing — and, by extension, ensuring that you enjoy brushing your pet's teeth — here are some tips: Start small; brush just a few teeth at a time. Give pets a reason to enjoy the experience: Practice with peanut butter for dogs or tuna juice for cats. Reward pets with a dental treat after brushing.
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Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and journalist Kim Campbell Thornton of Vetstreet.com. Joining them is dog trainer and behavior consultant Mikkel Becker. Send pet questions to askpetconnection@gmail.