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what causes liver disease in parrots?

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

(Last Updated On: May 12, 2023)

Fatty liver disease, or hepatic lipidosis, happens when healthy liver cells are replaced with fatty deposits. This reduces the liver’s functionality, with potentially life-threatening consequences.

In most cases, fatty liver disease is a slowly-progressing medical problem caused by an unsuitable diet and lifestyle. All parrot species can develop hepatic lipidosis, but Amazons, Quaker parrots, cockatoos and cockatiels, lovebirds, and budgies (American parakeets) are most vulnerable.

You can prevent fatty liver disease in parrots by avoiding a diet high in seeds and nuts, ensuring it engages in regular exercise, and taking it for regular health assessments.

As serious as fatty liver disease is in parrots, it should recover if the condition is identified early.

What Is Fatty Liver Disease in Parrots?

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

Birds are more likely to develop fatty liver than other animals. That’s why foie gras paté involves overfeeding ducks and geese fat to enlarge their livers before serving them as a dish.

If a parrot has hepatic lipidosis, the liver will cease functioning to its full potential.

What is the Function of the Liver?

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

  • Detoxifying the body, processing waste, and filtering toxins.
  • Producing around 50% of the cholesterol in a parrot’s 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 within the body, including Vitamins A, B12, and 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 too much fat. That’s why the organ ends up covered with fatty deposits, which reduces the efficiency of the liver.

How Does Fatty Liver Disease Affect the Liver?

Hepatic lipidosis is a slow, insidious sickness that worsens before you realize a parrot’s in danger.

There are 4 stages of fatty liver disease, which are as follows:

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 living with steatohepatitis, the second stage of fatty liver disease, will lead to a swollen liver that is visible on an x-ray. 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, which is known as fibrosis.
CirrhosisIf fibrosis is left untreated, the liver will eventually contain more scar tissue than healthy tissue. This leads to cirrhosis, aka end-stage liver disease. By this point, the damage to a parrot’s liver will be irreversible.

A liver can function normally when up to 80% of the organ is damaged.

What Causes Fatty Liver Disease in Parrots?

Some parrots inherit fatty liver disease from their parents. However, most cases are brought on by diet and lifestyle, so it’s pivotal that owners understand the causes.

Unsuitable Diet

The most common answer to the question, “What triggers hepatic lipidosis?” is an inappropriate diet. Excessive fats and carbohydrates 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 essential nutrients.

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

As discussed, this 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.   

Obesity and Overeating

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

A parrot will also need to exercise regularly to maintain a healthy weight. If a parrot doesn’t burn sufficient calories, the fat deposits will continue to build within the body and attach to the liver.

fatty liver disease signs in parrots


While hepatic lipidosis is usually a slow and steady build, consumption of toxins can lead to acute fatty liver disease. Toxins come in many forms for parrots, 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 parrot’s 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 to progression to liver failure.

Health Concern

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

There could even be a more concerning health issue responsible, including liver tumors.

Symptoms of Fatty Liver Disease in Parrots

Be mindful of the following warning 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 that grow to the size of golf balls. This tissue must be surgically removed, or it’ll continue to grow.

How Is Fatty Liver Disease Diagnosed?

Pet birds should be taken for a health check at least once a year. During these assessments, the vet will check for signs of fatty liver disease, especially if a parrot is from a particularly vulnerable species.

The first check will be a basic blood test to confirm if the liver is performing well and enable a vet to review the bird’s cholesterol levels.

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 may be taken. These will reveal if the bird has a swollen liver or heart. If this is the case, you must commence a treatment plan.

Some vets will take a biopsy, assessing the parrot’s 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 particularly drawn to high-fat diets, most notably nuts and seeds.

Is Fatty Liver Disease Curable in Birds?

‘Cure’ is perhaps not the right term for remedying fatty liver disease, but the concern can be reversed. The liver can regenerate itself and repair damage if intervention is made early enough.

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

As per Seminars in Avian and Exotic Pet Medicine, fatty liver disease must be treated holistically. A vet will ascribe a treatment package involving dietary changes, lifestyle adjustments, and prescription medication.

Low-Fat Diet

Diet is the most essential component in reversing fatty liver disease in parrots.

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

Don’t immediately withdraw all seeds and nuts from a parrot’s diet because this could send them into shock and result in mortality. A parrot must undergo a gradual transition to a new diet.

A vet or avian nutritionist will provide a diet plan based on the parrot’s species and condition. The idea will be to switch the bird to a low-fat, low-carbohydrate, detoxifying meal plan.

hepatic lipidosis in parrots

Physical Exercise

Parrots should be encouraged to exercise because it provides essential mental and physical stimulation. Most parrots should spend 2-3 hours outside the cage daily.

If a bird 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 difficult to fly and climb.

Convince the parrot to exercise in small, controlled bursts. Play interactive games with the bird that’ll get it moving, and set targets for short but intense bouts of physical activity.

Check for signs the parrot is struggling with its heart following this exercise, and don’t push the bird too hard if it is fighting for breath or is otherwise visibly distressed. Gradually increase the activity level.

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 for fatty liver disease, including:

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

Never start a medication or herbal supplementation without discussing this with your vet.

Does Fatty Liver Disease Ever Go Away?

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 Can You Prevent Fatty Liver Disease in Parrots?

Steps should be taken to reduce the risk of a bird developing fatty liver disease:

  • Only provide nutritious pellets with 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 because this will lead to overeating.
  • Encourage the parrot to exercise outside the cage for 2-4 hours daily.
  • Take the bird for regular preventive 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.