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Kokoda - The Tail of a Plucking Parrot

When your parrot starts to pluck their own feathers out, your whole world changes. You start questioning your ability to properly care for them, you question every choice you have made in regards to their diet, enrichment and day to day routine. It is one of the most heart wrenching behaviours a parrot guardian can possibly experience. And unfortunately it is all too common in our companion parrots.

In November 2017 I got to experience all of this first hand when my young Eclectus parrot, Kokoda began engaging in feather destructive behaviour. In those early days she was primarily pulling out down feathers but by early December she had begun to pluck new pins from her neck area. Over the following 8 months we journeyed together through the mire that is investigating and addressing feather destructive behaviour and we have come out the other side, if not 100% successful yet, certainly in a much better place.

I want to share our story in the hopes that it will help and encourage others to keep fighting, to never give up because we can absolutely help them.

Koda - January 2018 in the early stages of FDB

Like the behaviour consultant I am my first response to Koda’s plucking was to immediately assess her environment and begin making changes. These changes included all of the usual recommendations - increasing her sleep from 10 hours up to 12 hours of covered darkness, increasing foraging opportunities, reducing dark 'possible nest' spots in her cage, providing daily fresh foliage, ensuring she was getting outside time 5 - 7 times per week, giving her 1 - 2 showers per day (her choice, never forced), trialling the removal of pellets from her diet (pellets are often indicated as a potential issue for Eclectus, although many do well on them), decreasing/removing sugary/high energy foods from her diet, giving her plenty of time out of her cage (3+ hours per day) and engaging in a variety of activities with her including training, playing and chill time, as well as implementing behaviour modification. I also kept a detailed diary recording everything including her daily meals, activities, routine, weight and behaviour so that I could try and tease out any patterns in her day to day life that may have been contributing factors to her plucking.

Due to my regional location (Port Hedland) I do not have easy access to avian vets, the nearest being nearly 1800kms away. So our first vet visit did not occur until early January 2018, at this time they did a general health exam, a faecal and crop wash to check for any bacteria or other contributing illnesses. Her health check came back with no issues. She was placed onto Meloxicam (an anti-inflammatory) in the hopes that her plucking was discomfort caused by new pin feather growth and that some relief may assist in preventing further plucking.

Koda's damage is spreading - March 2018

By late January/early February it was clear that none of the already implemented interventions were assisting, she was continuing to pluck and she had started to gradually pluck other areas including her back and chest, and for the first time she started pulling mature feathers as well as pins. With no other choice, I continued on with the interventions already implemented and began trialling others, such as ceasing showers for a time period to assess whether the hard water in our town may have been contributing and removing certain treat foods that I was still using from her diet. Still nothing worked.

In March we made another trip to Perth to see our vets. This time we ran full blood panels, another faecal, crop wash and on the vets suggestion we tested for psittacosis. As before her bloods, faecal and crop wash came back with great results, but she had tested positive for psittacosis. Finally we had something to work with. She was placed on Doxycycline. Due to the nature of psittacosis and how it lives in the body she would need to have it orally, twice a day, for 6 weeks. I was hopeful that once we had cleared the psittacosis up she would normalise and her feather destructive behaviour would cease. How wrong I was.

By late March her feather destructive behaviour had advanced again she had now plucked her entire back, her chest, her legs, around her vent, under her wings and spots on top of her wings. In many spots she had plucked herself bald. In early April she was displaying signs of motor tics (uncontrolled movements) including wing flipping and a full foot/leg twitch. She was clearly very poorly, she was no longer lively or engaged, she was often lethargic and extremely clingy, she was barely talking anymore, wanting nothing more than to spend her days sitting on my arm.
Koda's at her worst with presentation of neurological/motor tics, also known in eclectus as 'wing flipping and/or toe-tapping' behaviour - April 2018

Koda's chest in early April 2018

Throughout this period I was in regular email contact with our veterinarians giving them updates and receiving advice. I emailed them video of Koda’s motor tics and a decision was made to move her off Meloxicam onto Gabapentin, a medication used to treat neuropathic pain. This nerve pain may have been related to her psittacosis (a possibility as chronic infections can include neurological symptoms) or a result of plucking (also a strong possibility). The gabapentin helped to relieve the motor tics, not entirely but to a more manageable level. Unfortunately it had no effect on her feather destructive behaviour which continued to come in fits and bursts with no discernable pattern, some weeks she would begin to allow some new feathers to grow and then the next she was back to bald. Gradually the areas affected continued to spread and I began to worry that she may start on her flight or tail feathers and hamper her ability to fly.

Koda with an Elizabethan collar in May 2018, used to restrict FDB typically when the behaviour has become habitual and helps modify the habit if other behavioural interventions are not having an impact.

Koda in June 2018 - chest feathers returning!

At this stage we were beginning to run out of intervention options, one that we hadn’t tried was a hormone implant. So the decision was made to trial an implant and while she was under anesthetic we would also put a cone on her to prevent any further damage and allow the hormone implant to begin taking effect. This happened in mid May. By late May/early June it was again clear these interventions were not having the desired effect, Koda was still plucking any feathers she could reach at this point which included her neck, legs and vent area. It became clear that she needed some extra help, so her vets and I decided to trial her on a behavioural medication (Seranace/Haloperidol). This was started June 10th and she was titrated off gabapentin as her motor tics had subsided to the point it was no longer needed. I won’t claim that it was smooth sailing immediately once she started her new medication. In fact it was quite the opposite, like many medications there was a period of adjustment and side effects including lethargy, loss of appetite and increased fear responses. It was tough nursing her through this initial period and on more than one occasion I questioned whether it would be better to remove her from the medication but I stuck to it and I am grateful that I did. Nine weeks on since she started the medication and she is now cone free and has been for nearly 5 weeks (it was a gradual progression to this point we did short stints first and worked up to longer stints before removing it entirely). Not only is she cone free but she is lively and engaged again, more so than I have seen her in many, many months. Every day is a new joy.

Koda in late July 2018 when her collar/cone was being gradually removed.

She is not 100% ‘cured’, there are still mornings I wake up and she has plucked several pins out overnight, primarily from the area above her tail or her neck but there is also many mornings where she hasn’t pulled any out at all. She is now 99% feathered, the vast majority of her feathers are in good condition, she has no motor tics and is engaging in appropriate preening behaviour. All fantastic signs.

I also now have my suspicions as to what triggered her plucking. I don’t believe it was ONE trigger, in fact I don’t believe that most plucking is triggered by just one event but rather a variety of stacked triggers, although I do believe Koda’s plucking was more complicated than other cases of FDB. I believe it was a combination of all or a few of the following that triggered Koda’s plucking:
  1. Psittacosis (which was likely inactive / being fought off by her immune system before the onset of the stress events listed below at which point it became active)
  2. Stress caused by my absence on trips 5 times over 3 months (Sept - Nov)
  3. The onset of adolescent hormones (she was approx 1 year, 11 months at the time)
  4. The onset of a moult.

Koda today (August 2018), mostly looking and behaving as she used to.

During my journey into the world of a plucking parrot I realised there is a vast array of opinions and advice abounding. All well meaning. Some harmful. Including the attitude in some places that it is just a given and once it starts you have a ‘plucker’ for life, or that it isn’t harmful to the bird (anything that causes maladaptive behaviour is harmful regardless of the trigger) or the one size fits all ‘it must be diet or hormones’ approach (this is especially true for eclectus). These attitudes lead to parrots with plucking problems who go weeks or months without proper vet checks or behavioural intervention. For a behaviour where early intervention can mean the difference between resolving the problem or not, we need to be advocating for thorough early investigation including vet checks that don’t just focus on bloods, faecals, crop washes but also common illnesses including but not limited to psittacosis, beak and feather and heavy metal toxicity. We also need to be more open to the use of cones when needed and behavioural medication as supportive care. It is still taboo in many circles to utilise behavioural medication on parrots, but how many pluckers might not be pluckers if we removed the stigma and became more open to their use, and not just as a last resort. I am not advocating for every parrot who so much as plucks a down feather to be placed in a cone or on medication but rather for more open mindedness about the use of these interventions in the ongoing treatment of feather destructive behaviour especially when it is clear that other more commonly applied changes and behaviour modification are not working.

To those of you out there with plucking parrots don’t beat yourself up, you are not alone, you are not failing. Remember early intervention is key, don’t wait. Get to your vet as early as possible, contact a parrot behaviour consultant for a proper behaviour assessment and don’t give up. It may not resolve in a day, or a week or month but keep pushing keep investigating because there IS a cause and it will make all the difference in the world to your parrot’s life to get to the bottom of it.

A special thanks to The Unusual Pet Vets who have been more than liberal with their time, fast to respond and always supportive throughout our journey. ​​​​

Written by Lee Stone, Avian Behaviour and Training Consultant for Parrot Life®.
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