Identifying causes of feather loss

There are numerous causes of feather loss in birds – the first step toward treatment is to determine the cause. Obvious physical clues give us a direction to pursue, not a diagnosis. Birds have a limited number of symptoms to tell us they are sick; these few symptoms represent a myriad of illnesses. Feather picking or feather loss is only one symptom. It is up the the avian veterinarian, with diagnostic tools, and the bird owner, with information on environment and history, to put together these clues to find a cause and/or remedy.

Viral Disease

Polyomavirus and psittacine beak and feather diseaseare serious diseases that may result in feather loss. Your veterinarian can make the appropriate tests to determine if the causative agent is viral. Research is ongoing in this field. Check with your avian veterinarian about vaccinations to prevent viral diseases affecting feather growth or loss in birds. Prevention is important, as once a bird contracts one of these viruses and feather damage becomes evident, the disease is almost always fatal.


Knemidokoptes(scaly-face, scaly-leg) is a skin parasite often seen in pet birds. Budgerigars and canaries are most often affected. It is first noticed as a thickening of the tissues of the cere and/or legs. Even though the symptoms are visually apparent, the organism should be confirmed by microscopic examination before treatment is initiated. Remedies found in pet stores can in some cases, create additional feather problems and often take long periods of time to effect a cure.
Prescription drugs work rapidly and effectively.

Red mites, feather mites, or liceare also external parasites that infest birds, causing irritation. Feather problems are rarely the result of parasites, but if parasites are suspected, a veterinarian should confirm the diagnosis and can recommend treatment.

Giardia, a protozoan parasite, has been implicated in some cases of self-mutilation. This intestinal parasite can be identified by microscopic examination of fresh droppings, requiring that the sample be collected at the veterinarian’s office.

Bacterial – Fungal Disease

Staphylococcus or Pseudomonas are bacteria that may cause skin irritation resulting in feather loss due to self-mutilation. Your veterinarian can do a skin culture to identify these organisms. Aspergillus or Candidiasis are fungal diseases that may cause skin irritation, and require a dermatological workup including skin scraping or culture for identification.

Nutritional Causes

Dietary deficiencies can contribute to skin/feather disorders. Vitamin A deficiency has been implicated in nutritionally related feather disorders, and an extreme lack of nutritional protein may affect normal molt. Your avian veterinarian can advise you on modification or supplementation of your bird’s diet to prevent or correct these potential problems.

Behavioral Causes

Self-mutilation (feather plucking or skin tearing), can have primary or secondary behavioral causes. Birds in the wild would have a mate or flock with which to interact, but in captivity, human counterparts rarely fill the vacancy. Dominance factors, breeding frustration, boredom, territoriality, mate-bonding, and nesting drives, all triggered by hormonal development, are rarely satisfied in a pet environment. The perception of threat from other household pets may initiate stress if the bird is continually harassed. All of these factors can result in frustration-grooming, which often becomes obsessive, turning into a vice, causing self-mutilation and feather damage or removal. Your avian veterinarian may make recommendations on environmental changes or hormonal therapy.

Attack by Cage-Mates

If a cage-mate is suspected to be the cause of feather loss the victim-bird should be separated for a minimum of six weeks (to allow the feathers to re-grow) to make this determination. If only a part of the feather has been removed, it may not re-grow until the next natural molt. If cage-mate trauma is the cause, permanent separation may be the cure.

Other Possible Causes

External causes of skin irritation could be cage trauma, insect bites or stings, topical application of inappropriate ointments, or improper wing trim (permitting cut feather ends to touch the skin). Outside factors such as chronic exposure to inhaled irritants (cleaning products, tobacco smoke, or toxic substrates) can also result in feather-picking. Pet (cat, dog, rodent) attack may also result in feather loss.

Chronic diseases (liver, kidney, GI, respiratory, or atherosclerosis), can manifest themselves as both stress-related feather disorders or as self-mutilation. Feather cysts, tumors, and injury, are also possible stress-related causes of feather loss.

Dirty-Face Syndrome

If a bird suddenly seems to have a dirty face or broken or missing feathers around the beak and eyes, check to see if it can easily reach food or water and that the dishes are full. Birds trying to reach food-remains dropped out of reach below cage floors develop dirt faces or broken face feathers from trying to push their heads through soiled wire. If empty food containers do not appear to be a problem, the dirty face may be caused by regurgitation and your veterinarian should be consulted.


Protection from airborne toxins or irritants, aggressive cage-mates, or other household pets is essential to the life and health of the pet bird.

An annual checkup may be the most effective way to protect your bird’s health. Birds tend to mask discomfort or illness, making it difficult to determine their general well being. A thorough health check may reveal internal disease, external parasites, or systemic diseases that can be identified and treated by your avian veterinarian before feather signs manifest themselves.

More Tips for Pet Bird Health – Things to Avoid

  • Sandpaper perches
  • Air pollutants, such as cigarette smoke, insecticides, and toxic
  • Fumes from overheated nonstick cooking utensils or cleaning solutions
  • Mite boxes or mite sprays
  • Easily dismantled toys such as balsa wood, small link chain items, toys with easily detached metal clips or skewers, toys with lead weights
  • Access to toxic house plants, ceiling fans, leaded glass (or any lead), cats, dogs, or young children
  • Access to cage substrate
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