Sunday, March 13, 2011

Plucking Parrotlets, Benadryl

Hi, Sandee:

I wanted to first thank you for putting up the comment about not overreacting to plucking, as it is something that one wants to stop, just because they seem so uncomfortable, to be pulling out feathers (perhaps we empathize on what it would take to pull out hair for ourselves?).

I also wanted to ask what you think about giving a bird something like Benadryl (diluted, in drinking water)? Most of the human liquid formulations seem to have more additives (e.g., flavouring, alcohol) than would be safe, and it seems to me that it might also mask some symptoms, should there be an underlying fungal, bacterial or metabolic cause.

I have two parrotlets, who have both reached the "teenage" years (i.e., about 5 to 6 years old), and one (the male) starting plucking about two weeks ago (at first, I thought it was just another moult), but he is now including down in what is removed.
As well, the removal seems to increase after he has a bath, so I might even add chemicals in the water as a cause (although, touch wood, the female gets wetter, since she likes to sit right under the tap water stream).

One problem with bird care is trying to find a competent veterinarian - I moved to a somewhat remote community and am now planning on taking him to someone who is two and a half hours away, with the fallback after that, to take a five hour trip back to the vet he used to have before we moved (about a year and a half ago). So one help has been to keep in mind that trying the wrong cure (like the collars, on birds that walk as much or more than they fly) is infinitely worse than getting the right answer.


Dear Marilyn:

Thank you for your email.

Unfortunately, it is human nature to equate animals with humans although it certainly isn’t the same. Humans have free will and animals do not. They are programmed by instinct and react to things as Nature designed them to survive in the wild. These instincts can conflict with our desires when we keep them in captivity. You cannot equate a bird who engages in feather destructive behavior as the same thing as humans who pull out their hair. People who engage in trichotillomania do so because of emotional or physiological issues. Parrotlets on the other hand almost always do it because of stress or hormones. Rarely, it can be due to medical conditions such as feather follicle infections or internal parasites such as giardia which is why I always recommend a bird get a full veterinary examination. I will tell you that I always caution people about not getting too emotional over this condition because a) its unsightly but not life threatening and b) birds are very empathic to our emotions and constantly watching and worrying over a bird that plucks is going to exacerbate the problem. I once had a very well-known bird behaviorist tell me she almost always see feather destructive behavior in ‘over indulged” birds and birds who owners constantly watch and worry about them. So its best to really develop the attitude of ‘I don’t care…” After all, the bird does not have cancer or some other catastrophic medical condition, its mainly unsightly for the person and we being people assume it is painful (it is not, its like cutting your hair or hair or nails not pulling them out) and that they must be severely distressed or emotionally damaged. Again, not true in most cases involving parrotlets. Its pretty much environmental.

I would never give a bird Benadryl. There is no indication this is allergy related and if it was, then you need to find out what is causing the allergy by working with your vet and change the environment. I would not even know how to figure out a safe amount to give a bird – indeed, Benadryl is often used to put birds to sleep so it is highly toxic and too much can certainly kill your bird very easily. Smaller amounts of Benadryl can be toxic to the liver and kidneys so I would not be experimenting with it to see if you can stop plucking. You may succeed at the cost of your bird’s life.

I will also say that your birds are not going through their ‘teenage years’ which is really a euphemism for puberty. Parrotlets go through that at 4-8 months of age. Your birds are in their prime of their adulthood and if they were in the wild, would be breeding. Indeed, they are at the age of their highest reproductive cycles. That is probably what is causing the problems – hormones. Nature designed them to breed when they are mature, have a secure environment, a reliable source of food and you have a male and female. I would imagine they are getting more than 10 hours a day of daylight and very simple things in their environment, including food cups, can be give them nest-like structure in which to reproduce. Or in this case, getting their hormones worked up and aberrant behavior such as feather destruction is how they react. If your birds are free-flighted this will exacerbate the problem. I would clip their wings immediately. Free flight, especially around the house, can increase hormone production.

As for baths, they are usually very good for parrotlets. In fact, I often recommend that birds with feather destructive problems be sprayed daily with warm water from a plant mister. This will encourage preening and help the bird learn how to properly groom its feathers as well as distributing the necessary oils on the feathers in order to keep them healthy. Most parrotlets do not like to bathe and rarely do they enjoy being held under a stream of water (very dangerous) nor are they real ‘bathers’ like canaries and budgies like to use bird baths. This is because they come from a very dry, desert-like area and they only time they get wet is when it rains. I would recommend spraying the birds instead of holding them under a faucet or placing them in a bowl or bath of water. That is probably stressing the male out as it is very unnatural and could make the bird afraid he is going to drown. I’m not sure where you live but in most Western nations our tap water supply are the safest in the world and the amount of chlorine used to disinfect the water is negligible. If children can drink it, your birds can safely bathe in it.

I do hope you can find a competent vet who can help you with this situation. It is extremely important to rule out organic or medical problems. Once that is done, then it is a matter of trial and error until you find what works for your birds. However, there are cases that no matter what is done, we can’t stop them. However, as I say in my article, unless the birds are mutilating their skin or causing bleeding, this really something we as humans may have to learn to accept.

I do wish you the best of luck and please keep me posted.

Sincerely yours,

Sandee L. Molenda, C.A.S.
The Parrotlet Ranch, Owner,
Join the International Parrotlet Society, – the World’s Largest and Oldest Parrotlet Organization
A Chattering Bird Builds No Nest.
Camaroonian Phrase

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