Obesity in parrots and other pet birds can occur due to inappropriate diets and lack of exercise
When parrots are provided with appropriate diets and plenty of exercise, they tend to keep a good body condition and are not particularly predisposed to obesity. However, these factors are difficult to meet in captivity, and inappropriate diets and lack of exercise are the main causes of obesity in parrots, together with other obesity-related problems. Some species have a higher risk of developing obesity, such as Budgerigars, Amazons, Galah cockatoos and lorikeets.
What causes obesity in parrots?
Obesity is actually an imbalance where the energy intake is greater than the energy expenditure. Therefore, obesity does not depend solely on the food eaten, but also depends greatly on the energetic needs. As an example, a flying parrot consumes 20 times more energy than a parrot standing still on a perch. Parrots in cold climates also consume more energy than parrots in warm climates. Growing chicks and reproductively active females use more energy than adult, non-reproductive birds. In this way, a young, growing parrot living in an outdoor aviary in the UK will consume a lot more energy than an adult, non-reproductive parrot kept alone in a small cage in Florida.
How can obesity in parrots be prevented?
Sunflower seeds have a high fat content. Too many in the diet can lead to obesity in parrots and other pet birds
Traditionally, parrot diets have consisted of a mixture of seeds, with sunflower seeds being an important part of most diets (50% of the content of a sunflower seed is fat). Over the last decade, there has been an increase in the number of parrot owners that feed their pets commercial pellets; but this is also not a perfect alternative. Pelleted food contains more fat and protein than the amount most parrots need, and the oils added to the pellets (sometimes palm and coconut oils) may predispose to atherosclerosis (fat deposits in arteries).
Therefore, in order to prevent obesity, pet parrots should be allowed plenty of exercise and a varied diet not very high in fat should be provided, consisting of a mixture of seeds, vegetables, fruit and some pellets.
What secondary effects can obesity have?
Obesity can have secondary effects such as pododermatitis (also called ‘bumblefoot’). This is inflammation or infection of the foot. Initially there may be a loss of the normal scale on the feet and the skin may be red and thin. As the condition worsens, ulcers may form. The first symptoms owners may notice are swollen joints in the feet or toes and lameness. The heavier the bird, the more weight and pressure it puts on its feet, resulting in the development of pododermatitis. This is aggravated by lack of flying (birds do not put pressure on their feet while they fly, so birds that do not fly are more predisposed to pododermatitis and obesity). You should seek veterinary advice if you are concerned that your pet may have bumblefoot, as the progression of this condition carries a poor prognosis. Any treatment must involve weight loss, padding the perches, and stopping the progression of the wounds with topical treatment, painkillers and perhaps antibiotics.
Pododermatitis (‘bumblefoot’) in a cockateil
Xanthomatosis is the deposition of cholesterol crystals under the skin and is more commonly seen in overweight Budgerigars. The condition is usually seen on the tip of the wings, and produces a swelling that bleeds easily. Amputation of the wing tips is necessary in severe cases.
Atherosclerosis is the deposition of fat within the walls of the arteries, and it is common in medium to large parrots. Similar to people, atherosclerosis is more common in sedentary parrots that consume a very energetic diet. Atherosclerosis is not always associated with obesity in parrots, and, in fact, it is more common to see atherosclerosis than obesity. The prevalence of this condition seems to be on the rise, and unfortunately its diagnosis is not easy. Affected arteries become less elastic and narrower, which can produce symptoms such as intermittent lameness, strokes, acute death due to aortic rupture, self-mutilation of the feet, etc. Atherosclerosis is more common as the bird ages, and it is very difficult to reverse. Interestingly, although it is very rare to see an obese African Grey Parrot, this species is particularly predisposed to atherosclerosis.
This photo shows a lipoma in an obese budgerigar. The lipoma was removed following surgery
Lipomas are localised deposits of fat, most commonly seen in obese budgerigars. Once they have developed, it is unlikely that they will go away just with exercise and a low-fat diet. Therefore, surgery is sometimes performed to remove them.
Other problems that can be seen as a result of obesity in parrots include hepatic lipidosis, reproductive failure, and developmental problems in growing chicks.
Hepatic lipidosis (or fatty liver disease) is the accumulation of fat in the liver, which can produce a variable degree of liver failure.
Obese birds have difficulty flying and perching, and obese males may find it hard to chase the female and mate with her; in addition, large fat deposits on the abdomen can also interfere with copulation.
An excess of fat, and particularly protein, in the diet of growing chicks can produce malformations and metabolic bone disease (rickets).