By Dr. Becker
I met Baby, a 24 year-old blue-fronted Amazon parrot in September 2012. Her dad brought her to see me because he was concerned about some fatty tumors another avian vet had diagnosed three years earlier.
As I examined Baby for the first time, I noticed her feathers were dull. She was over-grooming her lower abdomen, so the feathers there were unkempt and tattered. But more concerning to me were the large fat deposits that were accumulating over her keel (her breastbone), as well as several lipomas, which are benign fatty masses, that I could feel on both her legs.
Parrots Like Baby Are Prone to Overeating
Many pet parrots develop issues as a result of a sedentary lifestyle. For example, Amazon parrots have a tendency to become obese if their guardians don't make weight management a priority.
Parrots like Baby who have been bred in captivity as pets are smart, vocal and animated. If you're owned by one of these delightful birds, you know they are foodies with feathers. In other words, they enjoy eating! Consequently, overeating can become a real problem over a 70+ year lifespan.
In addition, these parrots are very popular as pets because they have more of a type "B" personality – they prefer hanging out to the constant activity seen in type "A" parrot personalities. The combination of a love of food and laidback personality can be a recipe for metabolic problems with these birds.
Evaluation of Baby's diet revealed that like most pet birds, she wasn't choosing to eat a balanced diet. Given the option to eat either seeds (preferably sunflower and safflower seeds) or fresh food, she would eat only seeds – a very unhealthy diet. And like many people owned by parrots, Baby's dad fed his pet what she most enjoyed eating: high fat seeds. Although he did occasionally offer fresh foods, Baby preferred her seeds and didn't regularly consume fresh foods or pellets.
The Dangers of Obesity in Parrots
Many animals, including parrots, store excess calories as fatty masses called lipomas. In addition to being overweight (over fat), Baby had additional fat accumulations that caused her to be "lumpy" in places. My biggest concern about Baby's weight was that often when an Amazon's body grows obese, there is also the presence of a secondary and potentially fatal condition called hepatic lipidosis, or fatty liver disease.
Fatty liver disease is caused by excessive fat accumulation in the liver. The condition is typically a slowly progressive disease in which healthy liver tissue is replaced with fat. The many tasks the liver performs are eventually compromised, and when overall liver function is poor, birds begin showing symptoms.
These can vary depending on how much liver function remains and include mild to profound lethargy, weight loss, decreasing appetite leading to anorexia, a fluffed appearance, weakness, sitting in the bottom of the cage, labored breathing (tail bobbing), a change in stool color (usually it becomes much more green), diarrhea and a swollen abdomen.
Birds with chronic, low-grade hepatic lipidosis can also have beaks that grow unusually fast or a change in feather pigmentation. Sadly, if the disease is progressed, a bird can appear suddenly ill or even die before the owners have a chance to seek veterinary care.
I suggested to Baby's owner that we complete some blood work to check her liver function, and as I suspected, her liver enzyme (AST) was elevated (page 1). Thankfully, Baby's quality of life was not yet impaired by her liver condition.
Switching Baby to a Healthier Diet
I immediately informed Baby's dad that he would need to feed his bird differently. Baby needed to be weaned off her favorite seed-based diet and switched to a variety of fresh living foods to supply her body with enzymes, phytonutrients, antioxidants and fiber. For most birds (and their owners), a change in diet like this can be a wildly difficult undertaking.
Many birds are actually addicted to seeds, and like cats, they cannot skip meals without endangering their health. Birds can and will starve themselves to death, so the process of transitioning to healthier foods involves some trickery.
The first step with Baby was to start the transition with fresh foods she liked, which included apples, grapes and corn. We would use these three fresh foods as lures to open her mind and taste buds to other fresh foods with a higher nutrient value.
The next step was to finely chop other fresh foods like broccoli, blueberries, pomegranate, pepper, and dark leafy green veggies, and mix them with the three foods she liked so she could experience a bit of nutritional variety.
Some birds are so finicky about trying new foods that it's necessary to sprout their unhealthy seeds. Ironically, sprouting turns seeds from unhealthy and high fat, to very healthy and low fat. Mixing sprouted seeds with dry seeds, and then slowly increasing the amount of sprouted seeds while decreasing the dry seeds is another good way to transition a super-finicky bird away from an all-seed diet.
For Baby, I also recommended an organic bird pellet made by Harrison's Bird Foods. I instructed her owner to grind the pellets into a powder and add 1 tablespoon of powder to 1 tablespoon of seeds so that all the seeds were coated with the powder. Birds hull seeds, so as Baby picked up and shelled her seeds, she would roll the seed around in her mouth and acquire the new taste of a nutritionally balanced pellet. I also instructed her dad to add a tablespoon of whole pellets into this mix, since occasionally birds are inquisitive enough to try new foods without hesitation.
I also prescribed milk thistle, an herb that helps hepatocytes (liver cells) regenerate and detoxify, and asked Baby's dad to recheck her blood work in three months.
Within Three Months, Baby's Health Was Much Improved
At Baby's next appointment in December 2012, her dad reported that the diet change was successful. Fortunately, Baby liked the new organic bird pellets right away and he was able to gradually decrease the high fat seeds and ultimately eliminate them altogether. He was offering Baby a nice variety of fruits and veggies and she was eating well.
Baby's feathers appeared less dull at this visit, and more importantly, her liver enzyme values had improved, but were still too high (page 2).
I suggested Baby's dad continue the detox protocol and recheck her blood work in another three months. Thankfully, in March, Baby's liver function was back to normal (page 3). Her owner was able to discontinue her detox protocol, but of course continued with a diet of healthy fresh foods and organic pellets, as well as Sunshine Factor, a supplement to help improve feather health.
Baby's lean body mass was improving and her lipomas were not continuing to grow -- all good signs.
Optimizing Your Pet Bird's Environment
There are a number of recommendations I offer to all bird owners interested in optimizing their pet's environment, including:
- Ensure birds get 8 to 10 hours of restful sleep at night in a dark, quiet room (a nightlight is ok, but no additional light should be provided).
- Provide pure water, free from fluoride, chlorine and heavy metals.
- Provide UV light. Birds must have direct sunlight (not through a window) for optimal health. If you can't take your bird outside, get a bird light and leave it on 6-10 hours a day.
- Provide a variety of natural perches of various sizes for optimal foot health.
- Offer pesticide-free food. Organic fresh fruits and veggies are best. If you can't buy organic, wash all produce very well before feeding.
- Ensure adequate exercise. Birds were meant to fly. If you don't let your bird fly, you'll have to get creative on how to help him "dance" (flap on your hand or a perch), walk or move to maintain muscle tone and optimal weight.
- Birds should be weighed weekly to ensure they are maintaining their weight. Before birds become visibly sick they lose weight.
- Provide coconut oil. Organic, cold pressed, unrefined coconut oil is excellent for all birds. It provides lauric acid that supports a healthy immune system.
Eliminating Environmental Stressors
Part of optimizing a bird's environment is removing stressors. These include:
- Dowel perches and perch covers. Sandpaper covers cause bumblefoot, or open foot sores, so please don't use them. Trim your bird's nails if they are too long.
- Grit. Psittacine parrots do not need grit, so please don't offer it to them.
- Mite and lice cage fumigators. Because these ectoparasites are rare and the fumigation products designed to eliminate them are ineffective, the majority of birds trapped next to these toxic "accessories" derive no benefit from them, and they can be harmful.
- Wrapping or covering birdcages at night. This practice was recommended back when most houses were drafty, prior to the introduction of energy efficient homes. If your house was built in the last 50 years you don't have to protect your bird from drafts. Covering cages has been linked to increased respiratory disease in birds. If you have a drafty home, cover 3 sides of the cage with a light fabric.
- Cigarette smoke. Birds are tremendously susceptible to the toxins in second hand smoke. They are much more at risk than mammals, because birds have air sacs. There is no question a bird's health will be compromised if the humans in her home smoke.
- Pellets and seeds containing additives, preservatives, colors and dyes. Any brightly colored commercial diet you purchase for your bird contains dyes that are unnecessary for avian health. Birds are very susceptible to environmental chemicals, so read all labels carefully.
- Teflon. Burning food on Teflon pans creates a toxic gas that is fatal to birds.
- Toys made in China. Birds mouth everything. Make sure your bird's belongings are toxin free by buying only toys and cage accessories made in the U.S.
- Paint chipping off cages. Most paints and coatings contain heavy metals that birds can ingest as they use their beaks to climb around the cage. If your bird's cage paint or powder coating is beginning to flake off, purchase a new cage, preferably stainless steel.