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what causes liver disease in parrots?

Fatty Liver Disease in Parrots (And What To Do About It!)

Last Updated on January 28, 2024 by Carrie Stephens

Fatty liver disease (hepatic lipidosis) occurs when fatty deposits replace healthy liver cells. This reduces the liver’s ability to remove toxins and optimize blood sugar levels.

Fatigued liver disease usually progresses due to diet and lifestyle problems. All parrot species can develop hepatic lipidosis, but Amazons, Quakers, cockatoos, lovebirds, and budgies are most vulnerable.

You can prevent fatty liver disease by avoiding diets high in seeds and nuts and providing exercise. Also, take parrots for routine veterinary assessments.

Although fatty liver disease is severe, most parrots recover following early identification.

Fatty Liver Disease Meaning

Fatty liver disease arises when a parrot consumes excessive fat or carbohydrates. The body can’t process and metabolize fat, leading to fatty deposits in the liver.

Birds are more likely to develop a fatty liver than other animals. If a parrot has hepatic lipidosis, the liver will cease functioning to its maximum potential.

Animals describe the liver as “the forgotten organ,” citing a comparatively limited understanding of its importance. This liver is responsible for functions including:

  • Detoxifying the body, processing waste, and filtering toxins.
  • Producing around 50% of the cholesterol in the body.
  • Regulating hormones, including adrenaline, insulin, and estrogen.
  • Metabolizing fat, carbohydrates, and proteins, converting them to energy.
  • Creating heparin, an anticoagulant that prevents blood from clotting.
  • Storing vitamins and minerals, including vitamins A, B12, D, iron, and glycogen.

The most crucial role of the liver is producing bile, which is used to break down fat from food. The liver can’t keep up if a parrot consumes excessive dietary fat.

How Fatty Liver Disease Affects The Liver

There are 4 stages of fatty liver disease:

SteatosisAs a consequence of the liver becoming swollen and damaged, excessive fibrous tissue is produced. This results in scar tissue on the liver, known as fibrosis.
SteatohepatitisA parrot with steatohepatitis, the second stage of fatty liver disease, will have a swollen liver. This can result in organ damage.
FibrosisAs a consequence of the liver becoming swollen and damaged, excessive fibrous tissue is produced. This results in scar tissue on the liver, known as fibrosis.
CirrhosisIf fibrosis is left untreated, the liver will eventually contain more scar tissue than healthy tissue. This leads to cirrhosis (end-stage liver disease). At this point, the damage to a parrot’s liver is irreversible.

Causes of Fatty Liver Disease

Some parrots inherit fatty liver disease from their parents. However, most cases are triggered by inappropriate diet and lifestyle. Owners must understand the causes:

Unsuitable Diet

Excessive fats and carbs are frequently responsible for fatty liver disease.

Not all fats are inherently bad for parrots. For example, Omega-3 and Omega-6 are responsible for the growth and repair of muscles. These fats aren’t stored in the body but can be instantly metabolized.

Other fats and carbohydrates are more problematic. All-seed diets are connected to hepatic lipidosis as the bird consumes excess fat and carbs without balancing this with enough nutrients.

Wild parrots require carbs for rapid energy conversion for flight. Carbs serve no other function for birds. As captive parrots don’t fly long distances, stored carbohydrates become fat.

As mentioned, fat will accumulate in the liver. The same applies to excessive fats in commercial bird food, notably seeds, although pellets can also be problematic.

Choline, a mineral often compared to B vitamins, is indispensable for metabolizing fat. If a parrot lacks choline in its diet, fat deposits will remain in the body and attach to internal organs.

This makes choline deficiency a common cause of fatty liver disease.   

fatty liver disease signs in parrots

Obesity And Overeating

Parrots are prone to overeating, especially if left with free access to food. This results in boredom, which causes stress. Anxious parrots may self-soothe through food consumption.

A parrot must exercise regularly to maintain a healthy weight. If a parrot doesn’t burn sufficient calories, fat deposits will continue to accumulate and attach to the liver.

Toxins

While hepatic lipidosis is usually gradual, consumption of toxins can lead to acute fatty liver disease. Toxins come in many forms, including:

  • Inhalation of airborne toxins through gases, scented candles, or aerosol sprays.
  • Consumption of cleaning products, human medications, paints, or foods treated with pesticides.
  • Exposure to bacteria or fungi in an unsanitary environment.

Toxins can also arise in the body because a damaged liver struggles to filter and detoxify unwanted metabolic waste to produce urine and fecal matter.

Toxicosis can escalate issues surrounding hepatic lipidosis and hasten the progression to liver failure.

Health Concern

A vet will test for issues surrounding the thyroid gland. If a parrot has an overactive or underactive thyroid, it’ll struggle to regulate the distribution of hormones throughout the body.

Symptoms of Fatty Liver Disease

Note the following signs that a bird’s liver isn’t performing well:

  • Lethargy and depression.
  • Swelling around the abdomen.
  • Changes to droppings, including green fecal matter and diarrhea.
  • Poor-quality, discolored feathers.
  • Overgrown, misaligned beak.
  • Muscular tremors.
  • Seizures.

Hepatic lipidosis can result in lumps of fatty tissue the size of golf balls. This tissue must be surgically removed, or it’ll continue to grow.

Fatty Liver Disease Diagnosis

Pet parrots should be taken for a health check at least once a year. The vet will check for signs of fatty liver disease during these assessments.

A blood test can determine if the liver is performing well, and cholesterol levels can be reviewed. The health check will end here if these tests don’t produce concerning results.

If a vet is concerned about fatty liver disease, x-rays will reveal if the parrot has a swollen liver or heart. Some vets will take a biopsy, assessing the liver to check for disease.

Parrot Species Vulnerable to Fatty Liver Disease

While all parrots can get fatty liver disease, the following species are most at risk:

  • Amazon parrots.
  • Budgies.
  • Cockatiel.
  • Cockatoos.
  • Lovebirds.
  • Quaker parrots.

These parrots are drawn to high-fat diets, especially nuts and seeds.

Fatty Liver Disease Is Curable

The liver can regenerate itself and repair damage if intervention occurs early enough.

If a parrot has experienced symptoms of fatty liver disease for some time, it’s less likely to recover. The issue can still be stabilized, preventing the condition from progressing.

According to Seminars in Avian and Exotic Pet Medicine, fatty liver disease must be treated holistically. A vet will recommend dietary changes, lifestyle adjustments, and prescription medication.

Low-Fat Diet

Don’t just reduce a bird’s food intake and force it to fast, as this further strains the liver. Existing fat supplies will be converted to glucose, producing more metabolic waste.

A parrot must gradually transition to a new diet. A vet or avian nutritionist will recommend a diet plan based on the parrot’s species and the severity of the condition.

hepatic lipidosis in parrots

Physical Exercise

Parrots should exercise because it provides essential mental and physical stimulation.

If a parrot has hepatic lipidosis, it may need encouragement to exercise. Fatty liver disease often leaves a parrot weak and lethargic, while the associated weight gain can make it harder to move.

Play interactive games that’ll get it moving. Also, set targets for short, intense bouts of activity. Check if the parrot struggles with its heart following exercise, like shortness of breath and distress.

Medication and Supplements

While no prescription medication can treat fatty liver disease, a parrot may need treatment for issues related to this concern. A vet may also recommend supplements, including:

  • Artichoke protects the liver from damage and encourages the regeneration of damaged tissue.
  • Burdock to purify the blood.
  • Chlorella reduces the amount of fat in the liver.
  • Dandelion root is a natural diuretic that encourages waste flushing through urine.
  • Psyllium binds toxins to the intestines and removes them as waste.
  • Red clover removes waste from the blood.
  • Silymarin (milk thistle) boasts antioxidant properties and promotes healthy tissue regeneration.
  • Turmeric acts as a natural detoxifier.

Never introduce a medication or herbal supplement without consulting a vet.

Fatty liver disease can be reversed if detected early. However, the condition’s impact, like a strained heart, can have a lasting effect on the bird’s wellness.

Hepatic lipidosis isn’t an issue that merits a wait-and-see approach to treatment.

How To Prevent Fatty Liver Disease

Reduce the risk of a parrot developing fatty liver disease with the following adjustments:

  • Only provide pellets and low-sugar fruits and vegetables (raspberries, blueberries, bell peppers, broccoli, etc.) Avoid high-fat foods, like seeds and human junk food.
  • Don’t leave unlimited food in the cage to avoid overeating.
  • Encourage the parrot to exercise outside the cage.
  • Regular health checks (blood tests, scans, biopsies, etc.) with a vet.

If you follow these protocols, you can minimize the risk of fatty liver disease in parrots.