Not long ago I wrote about feathers, the strong, lightweight and beautiful genetic adaptation that allowed birds to shed their reptilian ancestry and take flight. I soon heard from a woman with an umbrella cockatoo. She wishes she could appreciate her bird's feathers more -- or rather, that her bird would.
"Bianca looks like a plucked chicken, from her neck to her feet," wrote the woman. "I love her dearly, but it hurts to look at her. She will not stop feather-picking. What can I do?"
I wish I could offer a definitive answer, but there just isn't one. Birds pluck their feathers for any number and combination of medical and psychological problems, and birdkeepers and avian veterinarians alike practically tear out their own hair trying to find a fix for this frustrating behavior.
Feather-picking is not a disease -- it's a symptom of something else that's wrong with a bird. If your bird pulls out his feathers, the only hope you have of ending the problem is to fix the underlying problem (or problems, in many cases).
First step: Take your pet to a veterinarian who's up-to-date in avian medicine -- not all are -- or is a board-certified avian specialist. (Certified specialists will carry the designation ABVP (avian practice) after their veterinary degrees, initials that stand for the American Board of Veterinary Practitioners, an organization that oversees specialty testing and certification for in-practice veterinarians.) It's essential to get help for your pet at the first sign of trouble: The longer your bird has been picking, the greater the probability that the behavior cannot be cured.
Considering just a few of the triggers for feather-picking will give you an idea of how difficult this mystery can be for even the best avian veterinarians to solve. Here are a few of the more common reasons for feather-picking in pet birds:
-- Health problems. Medical conditions behind feather-picking include allergies, parasitic infections, bacterial infections, cysts in the feather follicles, vitamin deficiencies and hormone-associated problems. And that's the short list.
-- Low humidity. Many birds come from extremely humid environments, and our houses can't hope to duplicate the conditions of a rain forest. The dry air of most houses can be a factor in feather-picking and can also set the stage for some secondary medical problems.
-- Boredom and pent-up energy. Birds are active and intelligent, and they don't handle well the strain of sitting around in a cage all day. Without activities to exercise their minds and bodies, birds may direct all their energy toward tearing out their feathers.
-- Psychological problems. Although birds need to have their wings trimmed for safety, a bad wing trim -- too short, with no allowance for an "easy landing" -- can upset a bird so badly that he starts tearing at himself. Obsessive-compulsive disorders can also trigger feather-picking.
-- Attention-seeking. You love how your bird looks. He starts tugging at feathers and you freak, imagining your beautiful bird with the broiler-chicken look. Every time he touches his feathers -- even for normal preening behavior -- you rush over. See how this works? "Aha!" thinks your bird. "All I have to do to get attention is pull a feather!"
After your bird receives a clean bill of physical health, follow your veterinarian's suggestions for environmental adjustments, such as changing the cage size or location, misting the bird frequently, adding toys and increasing interaction. Prepare for the project to be a long one! Start a diary to record your changes and any effects they may have on your bird's behavior.
When I shared this information with Bianca's owner, she immediately responded with, "Are you sure this will help?" Alas, there are no guarantees, despite the best efforts of a birdkeeper and veterinarian. We must do our best for our pets, but when it comes to feather-picking, we must realize that sometimes, with pets as well as people, you just have to love them the way they are, even if they look like plucked chickens.
PETS ON THE WEB
Bay Area Doglovers Responsible About Pitbulls (BAD RAP) is a group based in the San Francisco area that's dedicated to correcting misinformation about these dogs and getting them placed into informed, caring homes. The group's Web site (www.badrap.org) is packed with fascinating information on the history of the breed and what kind of homes are best for them.
The breeds and mixes that fall under the "pit bull" umbrella -- including American pit bull terriers, American Staffordshire terriers, Staffordshire bull terriers and more -- were once thought to be outstanding family companions, and many still deserve that reputation. The BAD RAP site is pretty honest about the pros and cons of these dogs, including a fair assessment of their aggressive tendencies, especially toward other dogs. They aren't for everyone, surely, but these are animals that deserve better than they often get.
Cats magazine is no more. One of the best animal publications, Cats magazine was a wonderful blend of cutting-edge health and behavior information, entertaining features, breed profiles and even cat-themed fiction. Doing a good job for cat lovers wasn't good enough for publisher Primedia, which recently informed the staff that the August issue of the magazine launched in 1945 was to be the last.
In a related move, Primedia closed the Chicago offices of Dog World (founded in 1916) and moved operations (without the Chicago employees) to New York City, where the staff of Cats will take over the publication. The day I heard about the changes, the August issue of Cats magazine hit my mailbox. "Last issue! Renew now!" yelped the subscription reminder wrapped around the cover. Guess I won't have to, but I miss it already.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: Because they shed so much, we've wondered whether it would be a good idea to have our two longhaired cats shaved. We recently saw a cat whose owner had him shaved (in what looked like a poodle cut) by a groomer, and he looked great.
We currently live where it can be quite hot. In a few weeks we'll be moving to upstate New York, where the weather can be cold and snowy. We always keep our cats inside (largely because of your convincing arguments to do so), so a thick coat would not be as necessary to protect them against cold weather or in fights with other cats. What do you think about having them shaved by a professional groomer? -- D.A., Davis, Calif.
A: My biggest objection is an aesthetic one: You have two beautiful longhaired cats, and you want to make them look like poodles? Gee, isn't it bad enough that poodles have to look like poodles, shaved, fluffed and fussed over in some garish dog-show parody of haute couture?
I also worry about the stress of grooming on the cats themselves. Are they comfortable with regular trips to the groomers, or do they get upset at the mere site of their carriers? Ideally, it would be better if you fought shedding by grooming your cats regularly. The hair you catch on a comb or brush won't end up on your sofa, after all.
Beyond these considerations, though, there's no reason why your protected indoor pets can't be kept clipped short -- but not shaved to the skin. Be aware that turning your longhairs into shorthairs won't eliminate shedding, however: Your cats will shed short hair instead of long.
Although I have always preferred cats left to their natural glory, I do recommend clipping for those cats and dogs who are badly matted. It's too hard on the owner and the pet to try to comb out a coat full of mats.
Q: I agree with you that "Beware of Dog" signs are not a great idea. I once attended a seminar on dog law, and the attorney cautioned against any type of sign that indicated you thought your dog to be a threat to others.
I prefer the breed-specific signs that look like street signs and say "Lab Crossing" or "Poodle Crossing." They let someone know there's a dog in the yard, but imply no threat. I also keep a "pet alert" sticker in the window by my front door. The main purpose is the safety of my dogs when in the house alone, but the sticker serves the dual purpose of letting someone know there is a dog in the house for other reasons.
As a professional pet sitter, I provide a safety sticker for each of my clients. It's not difficult to convince them of their merit, not only for the safety of their pet, but also for home security. Would you pass along this suggestion? -- Tonya Berger, "The Critter Sitter," Sacramento, Calif.
A: I too have a "pet alert" sticker in my front window, which I bought at a pet-supply store. I hadn't thought about its potential as a security device, but I do see your point now. Of course, in my case having a pair of large black retrievers staring out the front window is probably a bit of a deterrent, too, even though they're as friendly as can be.
Gina Spadafori is the award-winning author of "Dogs for Dummies," "Cats for Dummies" and "Birds for Dummies." She is also affiliated with the Veterinary Information Network Inc., an international online service for veterinary professionals. Write to her in care of this newspaper, or send e-mail to writetogina(at)spadafori.com.
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