Feather Cysts in Birds

By Gregory Rich, DVM; Rick Axelson, DVM

What would a bird be without its beautiful feathers? Feathers serve as protection from the environment, provide cooling and warming, attract mates, display territoriality and, of course, are used for flying. Unfortunately, despite all of these benefits, there are times when feathers do not grow or mature normally.

What is a feather cyst?

A feather cyst is equivalent to an ingrown hair on a human, except it is much larger and wider (because a feather is a larger structure than a hair). Cysts occur due to malformation of the growing feather within the follicle, which is located under the skin. When a growing feather is unable to protrude through its natural opening in the skin, it curls up within the follicle into a mass of unopened feathers.

Feather cysts appear visibly as oval or elongated swellings involving one or more feather follicles. They may occur anywhere, but most commonly involve the primary and/or secondary feathers of the wings. Canaries may get large multiple feather cysts on the torso of the body, as well as the wings.

“They may occur anywhere, but are most commonly found involving the primary and/or secondary feathers of the wings.”

As the feather continues to grow, the cyst enlarges and yellow/white keratin material accumulates under the skin. These cysts can become quite large and sometimes involve numerous feather follicles in one cyst.

What causes a feather cyst?

Causes of feather cyst formation include genetic predisposition, viral or bacterial infection, malnutrition, trauma, feather-picking, self-mutilation, or any other factor affecting the growth of the feather.

All birds can develop feather cysts, but the highest incidence is seen in Sun Conures, Blue and Gold Macaws, budgies (budgerigars), and certain breeds of canaries (i.e., Glosters, Norwich, and Borders). In canaries, there is an apparent genetic link to feather cyst formation.

What can be done about feather cysts?

Any swelling on a bird should receive prompt care by an avian veterinarian. If the feather cyst is damaged or pulled out without proper care, they can bleed badly. Therefore, treatment should be provided by a veterinarian familiar with birds. Bothersome cysts, cyst involving self-trauma, or recurrent infections may need to be surgically removed. Never try to remove feather cysts at home!

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