Feather Damaging Behavior Associated with
Inflammatory Skin Disease in Parrots
Susan L. Clubb, DVM
3319 E Rd.
Loxahatchee, FL 33470
Inflammatory skin disease (ISD) in parrots is a reflection of underlying allergic or systemic inflammatory diseases. The predominant clinical sign is plucking or damaging the feathers. In severe cases birds may mutilate the skin as well. Feather damaging behavior (FDB) associated with ISD can begin in birds less that 1-year of age, or may take years to develop. ISD, like allergies in humans or other animals, is a chronic, on-going problem. It cannot be cured; it must be managed for the rest of the bird’s life.
Inflammatory skin disease is diagnosed by paired skin biopsy. In this procedure the bird is anesthetized and 2 growing feathers and a small section of skin surrounding each is removed to send to a pathologist. One sample is taken from an area of skin where the bird is plucking and another sample is taken from area of skin where the bird is not plucking or cannot reach (usually the head or neck).
The pathologist looks for inflammation around the blood vessels (perivascular inflammation) and the feather follicles (perifollicular inflammation). This is indicated by certain inflammatory cells (Lymphocytes and plasma cells) collecting around these sites. This inflammation causes irritation and itching.
The theory behind paired skin/feather biopsies is simple. If a bird is plucking they usually have inflammation in that area if only due to the trauma of plucking. But if the bird has inflammation in an area where he cannot pluck, this is an indication that he has a systemic inflammatory problem such as an allergy.
We frequently find other problems such as bacterial infections in the follicles, fungal skin infections, nerve inflammation and even iron storage in the skin. If inflammation is not found in the unaffected site, we assume the bird is damaging the feathers because of a psychological problem rather than a physical one.
Other tests may be recommended at the time of the biopsy. Thyroid hormone levels may be tested to detect hypo-thyroids. Blood zinc levels may be tested to detect underlying zinc toxicosis. Sources for zinc toxicosis may include cages, bowls, toys, etc. Zinc toxicosis may need to be treated prior to initiation of anti-inflammatory therapy.
Birds may be sensitive to molds and often have low grade aspergillois (infection with fungi of the genus Aspergillus). Treatment may enhance response to anti-inflammatory therapy. Environmental and dietary sources of excessive molds should be reduced as much as possible.
Unfortunately at this time we do not have skin tests or blood test by which we can determine what a bird may be allergic to.
The Rainforest Clinic Anti-inflammatory Diet
The goal of the anti-inflammatory diet is to reduce potential allergens, provide optimum levels of specific nutrients that help to control inflammation and enhance metabolism. We also try to balance Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids, which has been shown in other species to reducing inflammation.
Ideally in hypersensitive individuals, known allergens should be avoided as much as possible. Since we cannot test to determine which allergens should be avoided we must try to simplify the diet and reduce items known to be allergenic in mammals.
The anti-inflammatory diet consists of a staple pelleted (extruded) diet, an aqueous inflammatory supplement, and oil base anti-inflammatory supplement and a list of suggested supplemental foods.
Kaytee HA diet should be the mainstay of the diet, preferably offered in limited quantities twice daily. The aqueous supplement and oil supplement should be added to the HA diet, preferably in half of the daily quantity provided twice daily.
The quantity of HA Diet offered should be approximately 8-12 % of the bird’s body weight daily, divided into 2 meals. (Smaller birds will eat a higher percentage of their body weight). Preferably birds should be fed at the owner’s mealtime to reduce begging for human foods. Supplemental foods and treats should be provided from the list below.
Palatability of the HA diet can be enhanced by adding fruit juices, warm water, or favorite soft foods or table foods.
If your bird will not eat a pelleted diet you may consider conversion of the bird. Kaytee weaning/conversion diet may be useful in conversion. If conversion is not successful, or you choose to utilize a seed mix as the basis of the birds diet the same supplements can be utilized but with some alterations in the basic program.
If the bird is refractory to changing the diet a different inflammatory oil solution is tailored to supplementation of a seed diet.
Rainforest Aqueous supplement solution
The Rainforest Aqueous anti-inflammatory is a special blend of vitamins, minerals, Amino acids, enzymes and natural herbal anti-oxidants specifically selected to reduce inflammation in skin and other organ systems.
Included in the mixture are Vitamin A, Vitamin E, Vitamin C Ester, Vitamin D, Vitamin E, Thiamine (B1) Riboflavin (B2) Niacin (B3) Pyradoxine (B6), Folic Acid, Biotin, Cyancobalmin (B12)PABA, Choline, Inostitol, Chloride, Chromium, Magnesium, Manganese, Potassium, Selenomethionine, Zinc, L-Glutamine, Acetyl L Carnatine, DMAE, CoQ10, Pycnogenol (grape seed extract), and Tumeric.
Some components of the mixture settle. It is important to shake the solution well before dispensing. Dose at 0.1 ml/100 gm body weight preferably divided into 2 doses (morning and night). This is equivalent to 2 drops/100 gms body weight. If food is limited the bird will consume adequate supplement to fill it’s needs.
Refrigeration is not required but is suggested.
Rainforest Oil supplement solution
A blend of oils (Organic Flax Seed Oil, Salmon Oil, and Safflower oil) designed to provide the optimum ratios of Omega 3, Omega 6 and Omega 9 fatty acids in addition to potent anti-inflammatory compounds, Vitamin E, Vitamin A, Ester Vitamin C (Ascorbyl Palmitate), and Alpha Lipoic Acid.
Some components of the mixture settle. It is important to shake the solution well before dispensing. Dose at 0.1 ml/100 gm body weight preferably divided into 2 doses (morning and night). This is equivalent to 2 drops/100 gms body weight. If food quantities are limited the bird will consume adequate supplement to fill it’s needs.
Refrigeration is recommended.
Suggested supplemental foods
Supplemental foods should be chosen from the following list, as these foods do not contribute to skin inflammation. If the bird is begging for table foods at dinnertime offer these foods. They can also be used to enrich the diet and for treats. Supplemental foods should be offered in small quantities, preferably not exceeding 30% by volume of the total diet.
Spinach or Kale
Shelled Brazil nuts
Spirulina-(If Marine algae)
Sunflower seeds (limited quantity)
Low resting T4 (Thyroid hormone) levels are frequently seen in birds with inflammatory skin disease. This may be due to concurrent inflammation of the thyroid glands.
Ideally a stimulation test (TSH Stimulation test) should be performed to verify the significance of the low resting T4 level. With this test blood is collected for a pre T4 level. The bird is then given thyroid-stimulating hormone. Six hours later blood is collected for a second T4 level. The second T4 level should be 2-4 time greater than the initial baseline T4 level if the thyroid gland is functioning properly.
Supplementation of thyroid hormone may be recommended for your bird. We usually provide enough thyroid hormone to treat the bird for 60 days. Prior to using all of the thyroid hormone you should schedule retest of the T4 level to determine how the bird is responding and adjust the dosage as needed. The thyroid hormone can be administered in the drinking water (usual initial dose is 1 tablet (I grain) in 8 oz of bottled (non-chlorinated) water. If you prefer to administer the thyroid hormone directly orally a suspension can be provided.
Seasonal allergies often occur in birds with inflammatory skin disease. This may coincide with seasonal peaks in pollens, molds or other allergens. At these times some birds may benefit from treatment with antihistamines. But antihistamines don’t seem to work for all species, and in some species these allergies may be mediated by some pathway other than by histamine. Macaws seem to benefit most from anti-histamine therapy.
If antihistamines are used we prefer plain chlorpheneramine maleate without other ingredients such as decongestants. As this drug can be difficult to find over the counter, you can always obtain the drug from Rainforest Clinic for Birds. It is conveniently administered in the drinking water at the rate of 1 tablet in 1 cup (8 oz) of bottled water. Water administration works well because it allows continuous dosing, otherwise it must be given frequently. Some individuals respond well to children’s liquid Claritin.
Bathing is important for skin/feather condition. Bath the bird at least twice weekly but not every day as excessive bathing can dry the skin. Soak the bird with fresh water. Ideally the bird will be allowed to dry in sunlight. A solution of Aloe Vera Penetrans ( ) may be sprayed on the feathers and skin once weekly especially if the skin is very irritated.
It is important to avoid getting the oils on the bird’s feathers, as they will cause discoloration. If oils remain on the feathers they can serve as a substrate for fungi to grow on the feathers. If this occurs a weekly misting of Nolvasan solution (diluted 1:10 in water) can prevent the spread of the fungus from infected feathers to new ones. Bathing with fresh water between Nolvasan misting will reduce build up on the feathers. Oil from your hands, or oils from foods can also accumulate on feathers and be a substrate for feather fungus.
Improvement with anti-inflammatory therapy will be gradual, especially if feathers are broken, chewed of otherwise damaged because the bird must molt in order to replace the old feathers with new ones. Therapy must be continued for at least 3-4 months prior to assessing effectiveness.
Taking photos of the bird is a great way to monitor its progress. Preferably these photos should be taken in the same place with he same lighting each time for ease of comparison. Monthly digital photos are ideal.
When managing chronic problems, is very important to give any therapy adequate time before stopping or changing treatment. As the inflammation resolves the bird will feel better and it’s attitude and personality usually improve as well.