what causes liver disease in parrots?

Fatty Liver Disease in Parrots: Causes, Symptoms, And Treatment

Fatty liver disease is a serious health condition and is one of the most common diseases affecting parrots. It’s a build-up of harmful fat around the liver, compromising the detoxification process and causing the bird to feel extremely sick. In the worst cases, fatty liver disease can be fatal.

Fatty liver disease is usually due to a high-calorie, fatty diet, causing fat to accumulate around the liver. It can also be hereditary. Obesity, a fast-growing beak and claws, and black spots are the most common signs. Parrots must be fed a low-fat diet that’s rich in vegetables to deal with the disease. They must also be able to get more exercise.

Because so many parrots are prone to fatty liver disease, it’s something bird owners must be aware of. Understanding the signs and symptoms allows you to identify the disease and can help you spot it early. The liver is one of the only organs the can regenerate, so early treatment can lead to recovery.

What Is Fatty Liver Disease in Parrots?

Also known as hepatic lipidosis, it is one of the most common nutritional diseases affecting parrots and other birds. Amazon parrots and Quaker parrots are especially prone to the condition.

Fatty liver disease occurs when there are large amounts of fat in the liver. The liver is essential for digestion, detoxification, and storing vitamins and minerals. It also produces proteins that prevent blood clotting and metabolizes carbohydrates.

With fatty liver disease, the fat that has accumulated in the bloodstream infiltrates the liver. This causes a decrease in functional liver tissue, which stops the liver from functioning properly. In many cases, it becomes enlarged and causes many other health problems that can seriously affect the parrot’s overall welfare.

As a result, excess fat sometimes accumulates around the heart, compromising the organ’s function. Hepatic lipidosis can be severe and lead to death if left untreated.

What Causes Fatty Liver Disease?

It is one of the most common parrot diseases, primarily because there are several causes. Signs of the disease can also be similar to other conditions, which makes it difficult to diagnose.

Therefore, parrot owners need to be vigilant to keep their birds fit and healthy while preventing the disease from ever developing. Healthy parrots are more likely to recover from the condition. The following are some of the most common reasons why parrots develop the liver condition:

fatty liver disease signs in parrots

High Fat Diet

An unhealthy, unbalanced diet is one of the leading causes of fatty liver disease and other liver problems. Obesity is one of the main signs of fatty liver disease, which a commercial, high-calorie seed-based diet heavily contributes to.

Seeds, nuts, and pellets should only make up half of your parrot’s daily food intake because they don’t provide the nutrition your parrot needs.

Overeating is a problem, too. A parrot that stands still on a perch all day requires 20 times less food than the average flying parrot. Though many owners don’t mean to, they overestimate the amount of food their pet needs, causing their parrot to become fat.

Don’t leave an endless amount of food for your parrot to consume. It won’t be able to regulate its calorie intake and will overeat out of boredom. Also, as its stomach expands, it will become used to the extra food. Some owners take this as a sign that they’re not feeding their parrots enough.

While less common, some juvenile parrots develop fatty liver disease. The disease usually occurs in birds that have been over-fed or hand-fed for too long. Most formulas used for hand-feeding are calorie-dense. And because baby parrots don’t move much, the calories get stored as fat in the liver.

Juvenile parrots must be weaned when they are between 10 and 25 weeks old to avoid liver problems further on down the line.

Nutritional Deficiencies

The MSD Veterinary Manual claims that nutritional disease is still common in pet birds, even though it’s improved within the last decade. Many parrot owners choose store-bought seeds as the primary form of sustenance and forget to add fresh fruits, vegetables, and leaves to the parrot’s diet.

The most common reasons for malnutrition in parrots are a pure seed diet and a diet that allows the parrot to choose what they want to eat. This encourages selective eating and leads to inadequate nutrient consumption.

This means the liver has to work harder to remove excess nutrients from the body, putting the organ under more strain than it should have.

Genetics

Some parrots have a genetic predisposition to the disease. If one or both of the bird’s parents had fatty liver disease, the juvenile is more likely to develop the condition at some point in its life, meaning the disease is hereditary regardless of the steps taken to prevent it.

Therefore, the parrot must be fed a nutritious diet as early as possible to keep it as healthy as possible. Also, if you’re buying a parrot for the first time, ask for a detailed history of the parents’ health so you can see if hereditary fatty liver disease is a possibility.

Lack Of Exercise

Too little exercise creates obesity, which is one of the biggest causes of fatty liver disease. It’s hard to ensure that parrots receive the right amount of activity, but it should be a crucial part of their daily routine.

It should also be enjoyable so that your parrot feels excited about doing its daily exercise. Without it, the parrot will develop high levels of cholesterol and triglycerides, a type of natural fat. A high level of triglycerides increases the risk of stroke and heart attack.

A healthy cholesterol level is 200. Any higher and the parrot is at risk of fatty liver disease and disease of the heart and kidneys, cutting its life expectancy short.

Fatty Liver Disease Symptoms

While fatty liver disease can be life-threatening, there are several signs commonly seen in parrots with hepatic lipidosis. However, most birds showing the following symptoms are in a serious condition and must be taken to a vet immediately for treatment.

Obesity

A journal published by Niles Animal Hospital explains how obesity is common in birds with fatty liver disease.

Not only will parrots with fatty litter disease appear overweight, but there may be larger pockets of fat on the chest and abdomen. The bird’s abdomen may appear distended as a result, and the liver may also be visible below the keel.

Overgrown Beak

Hepatic lipidosis can sometimes cause the parrot’s beak to grow faster than it usually would. It may also become misshapen and soft, making it hard for the parrot to eat and drink. A parrot’s claws may also grow too long over a short space of time.

Vets will spot this when the parrot is brought in for a routine beak trim and can offer advice on how to manage the overgrown beak and claws. So, owners must keep up to date with their pet’s health checks.

Black Spots

One of the main symptoms of fatty liver disease is the inability of a parrot’s blood to clot properly. Because of the compromised liver function, black spots sometimes appear on the parrot’s beak and toenails, where hemorrhaging has occurred. These spots look like old, small bruises.

Enlarged Liver

An enlarged liver is hard to spot with the naked eye. However, when a parrot’s feathers are moistened with a small drop of alcohol, the liver can be seen through the skin. You can do this yourself but remember to wash the alcohol off the parrot’s skin once you’ve finished examining the bird.

Obesity isn’t always a symptom. It might be that your parrot needs to go on a diet, but x-rays and blood tests can determine this for certain.

Diarrhea

Due to the excess bilirubin in the system, parrots with fatty liver disease experience greenish diarrhea or urine. This is similar to jaundice, which humans with liver problems suffer from and turns the skin yellow.

Parrots don’t experience jaundice due to the lack of pigment that creates the yellow coloration, so the bilirubin is excreted through defecation or urination instead.

Feather Issues

Poor feather quality is another sign that a parrot is suffering from fatty liver disease. The feathers will feel brittle and break off easily, exposing areas of dry, patchy skin. Skin irritation may also cause the parrot to bite or pluck the feathers from its own skin.

If you notice any change to the quality or appearance of your parrot’s feathers, get the bird checked out for fatty liver disease.

Seizures

In the advanced stages of fatty liver disease, toxins build up in the bloodstream, causing disorientation or seizures. This is because the central nervous system is severely affected by the harmful toxins and will begin to shut down.

Loss of Appetite

Sick birds will lose their appetite and reject their high-fat diet. This could be because the bird is tired of its fatty foods, or the foods might be causing the bird pain as it’s digested.

This reduction of appetite can cause weight loss and lethargy, making fatty liver disease harder to treat when the bird needs more exercise. Parrots sometimes consume excessive amounts of water to counteract the lack of food in their body.

Labored Breathing

In the more advanced stages of fatty liver disease, some parrots develop sudden difficulties breathing and repeatedly open and close their mouths. This gives the impression that the bird is panting, but it’s actually struggling to breathe.

Make sure the parrot isn’t sitting in direct sunlight and has plenty of access to fresh water. You need your parrot to be as comfortable as possible during the recovery stages.

If any of the above symptoms are identified early enough, the parrot has a strong chance of recovery. However, you must not leave the condition untreated in the hopes that it will get better because it won’t.

Diagnosis of Fatty Liver Disease

Only a veterinarian can give a proper diagnosis. While owners should understand the symptoms, self-diagnosis can prevent your bird from getting the most effective treatment for the severity of its condition.

A vet will ask for details of the parrot’s medical history. Take note of all the symptoms you’ve noticed so that nothing goes untreated. Be prepared to give a thorough analysis of your bird’s eating regime and dietary preferences. This is one of the most essential factors in the treatment of fatty liver disease in parrots.

While you might be afraid of judgment, don’t underplay how much your parrot eats – be honest about how much you’re feeding the bird.

At this stage, the vet will be careful not to induce stress, as this can be fatal in severe cases of fatty liver disease. Because of this, the bird may need to undergo gas anesthesia so that the vet can perform a thorough medical exam. Juvenile parrots are unlikely to require anesthesia.

As well as checking the weight, the vet will feel around the abdomen area for any large pockets of fat. An x-ray may also be necessary to check the size of the liver.

Sometimes blood work is needed to check for infections, but the vet may recommend a less invasive course of treatment first, leaving blood work as a last resort.

How To Treat Fatty Liver Disease

When a parrot is diagnosed with fatty liver disease, a vet will provide the bird with a treatment tailored to them. However, treatment will be very similar across all affected parrots and usually starts with the diet.

As described by Research Gate, the parrot must be treated as a whole to regenerate the liver. Dealing with the organ in isolation isn’t enough to make the bird better. In some cases, the parrot can’t be cured, but the disease can be managed to improve its quality of life. To treat fatty liver disease, the following tips will help:

fatty liver disease signs in parrots

Improved Diet

Parrots must be fed an organic diet rich in fiber and low in fat and protein. Cheap, commercial bird foods contain pesticides that can damage the liver if eaten for too long. Organic foods have been grown without the use of pesticides and cause much less harm.

A parrot’s staple diet should consist of dry food that’s free from artificial flavors and colors. Incorporate plenty of fruits and vegetables into the diet, which will help detoxify the liver and intestines of harmful toxins.

Sprouted seeds are also a great dietary option as they’re lower in fat than other nuts and seeds. They can also help encourage parrots to eat fruits and veggies as the texture is similar.

Parrots and peanuts often go hand in hand. But peanuts and any other foods that contain mycotoxins (Alfatoxin) could damage the liver and should be avoided, even if your bird likes the taste.

The following foods help with the detoxification process, so try incorporating them into your parrot’s diet:

  • Magnesium
  • Walnuts
  • Broccoli
  • Citrus peel
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Asparagus
  • Garlic
  • Cabbage
  • Red peppers
  • Dark green leafy vegetables
  • Animal protein
  • Whole, unprocessed grains
  • Egg yolks
  • Legumes
  • Turmeric
  • Vitamin C
  • Foods rich in vitamin B2, B5, B6, B12

Provide Nutritional Supplements

Nutritional supplements can be helpful as they support liver function in various ways. There is thought to be a correlation between vitamin deficiency and the development of fatty liver disease, so adding them into your parrot’s diet can help manage the condition.

Choline, biotin, and methionine are essential for fat metabolism and guard against the damage of fatty liver disease.

Egg yolks, brewer’s yeast, legumes, and wholegrain cereals are high in choline. Nuts, fruits, brewer’s yeast, and brown yeast are sources of biotin. Methionine is an amino acid that isn’t available from plant sources but is found in eggs, fish, meat, and milk.

Increased Exercise

In the wild, parrots fly hundreds of miles each day. In captivity, they’re unable to do this, so they must have plenty of opportunities to exercise and release energy. If they don’t, fat can accumulate and cause significant health issues, including fatty liver disease.

Ropes and ladders encourage parrots to climb and allow them to move all muscles. Foot toys also promote good exercise habits as parrots will kick them across their cage, alleviating boredom while working the muscles.

It’s also a good idea to invest some of your own time to play with your pet parrot. Take it out of the cage and give it a larger space to play and spread its wings. This both helps your parrot maintain a healthy weight and allows you to bond with your bird.

Milk Thistle

Milk thistle (silymarin) can help support a damaged liver. It’s a waxy-lobed, thorny plant that grows wild in Europe that contains a range of potential antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.

When taken regularly, milk thistle has been shown to reduce the liver’s size to a healthier level. Suggested doses in birds range from 100-150 mg/kg every 8-12 hours.

However, It’s not an appropriate treatment for all birds, so seek advice from your vet before adding this natural herb into your parrot’s diet.  

Dandelion Leaves

Dandelion leaves are known to remove toxins from the body. Parrots also love the taste and will eat them with little encouragement. The leaves and roots are some of the most effective detoxifying herbs.

The leaves are also diuretic, which moves excess fluids from the body without depleting the body’s potassium levels. And there are loads of other health benefits, too: they relieve joint pain, reduce uric acid and cholesterol, and reduce blood pressure.

If your parrot suffers from skin irritation due to brittle feathers caused by fatty liver disease, dandelion tea can be misted onto the skin. Dandelions are commonly found in yards, too, making them accessible and easy to locate whenever your parrot needs them.

Even if your parrot doesn’t suffer from fatty liver disease, you must take measures to prevent it while it’s a juvenile bird. The condition is common and can develop without you even realizing it, so place your parrot onto a healthy, low-fat diet and incorporate lots of fruits and vegetables to get your bird used to them early on.

Exercise should also be regular – encouraging your parrot to move as much as possible will become part of its routine and is much easier to implement before problems arise.