Fatty liver disease (hepatic lipidosis) is caused by the gradual build-up of fat around the liver, compromising the detoxification process. Left unresolved, this nutritional disease can lead to sudden death in parrots.
Fatty liver disease commonly occurs when parrots are fed a high-fat, seed-based diet. This condition leads to the accumulation of fat around the liver, seriously impairing its functionality. Symptoms include fat deposits on the abdomen and chest and a fast-growing beak and claws with black spots (areas of hemorrhage).
Because parrots are so prone to fatty liver disease, it’s something that owners must know about and recognize. Learning the signs allows you to identify the condition at an early stage. The liver is one of the few organs that can regenerate, so early diagnosis and lifestyle modifications can lead to recovery.
What Is Fatty Liver Disease in Parrots?
Hepatic lipidosis is one of the most common nutritional diseases affecting parrots and other birds. Amazon parrots and Quaker parrots are especially prone to this condition.
Fatty liver disease occurs when fatty deposits accumulate around 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 leads to a decrease in functional liver tissue, which stops the liver from functioning optimally. In many cases, the liver becomes enlarged and causes other health problems.
As a result, excess fat accumulates around the heart, compromising the organ’s function. Hepatic lipidosis can be severe and lead to sudden death as your parrot will no longer be able to cope with normal stressors.
What Causes Fatty Liver Disease?
The following are the most common reasons why parrots develop this liver condition:
High Fat Diet
An unhealthy, unbalanced diet is one of the leading causes. Obesity is one of the main signs of fatty liver disease, which a high-calorie, seed-based diet contributes to. Seeds, nuts, and pellets should only make up about half of your parrot’s daily food intake because they don’t provide all of the nutrition that your parrot needs.
Overeating is a problem. A parrot that stands still on a perch all day requires 5% of the food than the average flying parrot. Though many owners don’t mean to, they overestimate the amount of food their pets need.
Don’t leave an endless amount of food for your parrot to consume. It won’t be able to regulate its caloric 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.
Juvenile parrots must be weaned when they are between 10-25 weeks old to avoid liver problems later in life.
The MSD Veterinary Manual claims that nutritional disease is still common in pet birds, even though the situation has improved in the last decade. Many owners choose store-bought seeds as the primary form of sustenance and fail to add fresh fruits, vegetables, and leaves to their parrots’ 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, resulting in inadequate nutrient consumption. The liver has to work harder to remove excess nutrients from the body, putting the organ under a greater strain.
Some parrots have a genetic predisposition to this disease. If one or both of the parrot’s parents had fatty liver disease, the juvenile is more likely to develop the condition at some point in its life.
The parrot must be fed a nutritious diet to keep it healthy. Also, if you’re getting a parrot for the first time, ask for a history of its parent’s health so that you can determine if hereditary fatty liver disease is a possibility.
Lack of Exercise
Too little exercise creates obesity, which is one of the main causes of fatty liver disease. It’s hard to ensure that parrots receive the right amount of activity, but it should be a standard part of their daily routine.
Your parrot should feel excited about doing its daily exercise. Without it, the parrot will develop high cholesterol levels and triglycerides, a type of natural fat. A high level of triglycerides increases the risk of stroke and heart disease.
A healthy cholesterol level is 200. Any higher and the parrot is at risk of fatty liver disease and diseases of the heart and kidneys, cutting its life expectancy significantly.
Fatty Liver Disease Symptoms
While fatty liver disease can be life-threatening, several symptoms are commonly observed in parrots with hepatic lipidosis. These are:
A journal published by Niles Animal Hospital explains how obesity is common in birds with fatty liver disease. Not only will parrots with this condition appear overweight, but there may be larger pockets of fat on the chest and abdomen. The abdomen may appear distended as a result, and the liver may be visible below the keel.
Hepatic lipidosis can cause the parrot’s beak to grow faster than it usually would. It may also become misshapen and soft, making it harder to eat and drink. A parrot’s claws may also grow too long in a short space of time.
Vets will notice this when the parrot is brought in for a routine beak trim and can advise on managing the overgrown beak and claws. So, owners must stay up to date with their pet’s health checks.
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 may appear on the parrot’s beak and toenails, where hemorrhaging has occurred. These spots look like old, small bruises.
An enlarged liver is hard to see 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 skin once you’ve finished examining your parrot.
Obesity isn’t always a symptom. It may be that your parrot needs to go on a diet, but x-rays and blood tests can determine if this is the case.
Due to the excess bilirubin in the system, parrots with fatty liver disease experience greenish diarrhea or urine. This is similar to jaundice in humans. 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.
Poor feather quality is another sign. 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 its feathers. If you notice any change to the quality or appearance of the feathers, get the parrot checked over by a vet.
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 is beginning to shut down.
Loss of Appetite
Sick parrots will lose their appetite and reject their high-fat diet. This could be because it’s tired of eating fatty foods, or the foods may be causing pain as they’re digested.
This reduction in appetite will ultimately cause weight loss and lethargy. Parrots sometimes consume excessive amounts of water to counteract the lack of food in their body.
Some parrots develop sudden difficulties breathing and repeatedly open and close their mouths in the more advanced stages. This gives the impression that the parrot is panting, but it’s actually struggling to breathe.
Ensure that the parrot isn’t sitting in direct sunlight and has access to fresh water. You need your parrot to be comfortable during the recovery stages.
If the above symptoms are identified sufficiently early, the parrot has a high chance of recovery. However, you mustn’t leave the condition untreated in the hope that it will get better.
Diagnosis of Fatty Liver Disease
Only a veterinarian can provide an accurate diagnosis. While owners need to understand the symptoms, self-diagnosis can sometimes prevent your parrot from getting the most effective treatment.
A vet will ask for details of the parrot’s medical history. Take note of all the symptoms you’ve observed so that nothing is left untreated. Provide a thorough analysis of your parrot’s eating regime and dietary preferences.
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 parrot 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 required 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 action 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 a treatment tailored to them. However, treatment will be similar across all affected parrots and usually starts with its 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. 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 will assist:
Parrots must be fed an organic diet that’s rich in fiber and low in fat. Cheap, commercial bird foods contain pesticides that can damage the liver if eaten for too long.
A parrot’s staple diet should consist of dry food that’s free from artificial flavors and colors. Incorporate fresh fruits and vegetables into the diet as they’ll 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 (Aflatoxin) could damage the liver and should be avoided, even if your bird likes the taste. The following foods, vitamins, and nutrients will assist with the detoxification process, so incorporate some of them into your parrot’s diet:
- Citrus peel
- Brussels sprouts
- Red peppers
- Dark green leafy vegetables
- Animal protein
- Whole, unprocessed grains
- Vitamin C
- Foods rich in vitamin B2, B5, B6, B12
Provide Nutritional Supplements
Nutritional supplements support liver function in various ways. There’s a correlation between vitamin deficiency and the development of fatty liver disease, so adding them to your parrot’s diet is beneficial. Choline, biotin, and methionine are essential for fat metabolism and guard against the damage of fatty liver disease.
Brewer’s yeast, legumes, and wholegrain cereals are high in choline. 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 fish and meat.
In the wild, parrots fly hundreds of miles each day. In captivity, they need opportunities to exercise and release energy. If they don’t expend enough energy, fat will start to accumulate.
Ropes and ladders encourage parrots to climb. Foot toys promote good exercise habits as parrots kick them across their cage, alleviating boredom while working the muscles. Use some of your time to play with your pet parrot. Take it out of the cage and give it space to play and spread its wings.
Milk thistle (silymarin) can support a damaged liver. It’s a waxy-lobed, thorny plant that grows wild in Europe that contains a range of 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 parrots range from 100-150 mg/kg every 8-12 hours.
Dandelion leaves remove toxins from the body. Parrots enjoy the taste and will eat them with little encouragement. The leaves and roots are beneficial detoxifying herbs.
The leaves are also diuretic, removing excess fluids from the body without depleting potassium levels. They also relieve joint pain, reduce uric acid and cholesterol, and lower blood pressure levels. If your parrot gets skin irritation due to brittle feathers due to fatty liver disease, dandelion tea can be misted onto the skin.
Even if your parrot doesn’t have fatty liver disease, take steps to prevent it while it’s young. The condition can develop without you realizing it, so place your parrot on a healthy, low-fat diet and offer fruit and vegetables to get your parrot used to them early on in life. Also, ensure that your parrot exercises regularly.