Obesity in Birds

By Gregory Rich, DVM; Laurie Hess, DVM; Rick Axelson, DVM

As with other pet animals, obesity is a problem often encountered with all species of birds. It is more commonly noted in amazon parrots, budgerigars, cockatiels, and macaws. Obesity is a major problem in older birds on seed-based diets and can contribute to diseases such as arteriosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), atherosclerosis (fat deposits in major arteries), and fatty liver disease (hepatic lipidosis).

Pet birds are often confined to cages, have their wings trimmed to prevent flight, and receive little, if any, exercise. These conditions, in conjunction with high fat, seed-based diets, often lead to obesity and the medical problems associated with it.

What is obesity?

Dogs and cats are considered obese if they are at least 15% heavier than their ideal weight. There is no clear-cut definition of obesity for birds, so most avian veterinarians rely on a body condition scoring system in which they assign a number from 1-5 or 1-9 to characterize the bird’s weight. With this system, 1 represents a bird that is emaciated and 5 or 9 represents a bird that is obese. This system is not standardized in birds but provides a relative measure to assess a bird’s weight.

What causes obesity?

As in people, obesity in pets results when they consume more calories than they burn off through exercise or daily activity. Pet birds do not have as much opportunity for daily exercise as their wild counterparts. Wild birds exercise frequently during daily activities, such as flying to escape predators, playing with other flock members, foraging for food, and searching for a mate.

"A high-fat diet and no exercise predisposes birds to obesity."

Pet birds often burn off very few calories in their daily lives. Additionally, many bird owners incorrectly offer their pet birds a diet consisting mostly, or totally, of high-fat seeds. Seeds are deficient in many vitamins and minerals, such as vitamin A and calcium; many seeds and some nuts also contain high levels of cholesterol and triglycerides. Birds like seeds because the high fat content makes the seeds taste good, however, a high-fat diet and no exercise predisposes birds to obesity.

Are there any problems associated with obesity?

Obese pets, like obese people, have an increased risk of many diseases, including arthritis, heart disease, and cancer. Many obese birds develop arteriosclerosis, atherosclerosis, and/or hepatic lipidosis (also called fatty liver disease). These birds are extremely susceptible to heart attacks and strokes.

Obese birds have occasionally been known to die just from the stress of an examination at the veterinarian's office. The fat deposits in their blood vessels cause the walls of these vessels to be very rigid, inhibiting blood flow through these vessels and reducing oxygen delivery to their brains when their blood pressure rises.

Fatty tumors, lipomas, or other fat-based tumors called xanthomas are more likely to occur in obese birds. Obese birds also have a higher anesthetic risk than normal-weight birds because of their increased tendency to have a stroke or abnormal cardiac function.

How can reduce my pet bird's weight so he isn't obese?

Switching a bird from an all-seed diet to a more suitable diet consisting mainly of pellets, with smaller amounts of fresh vegetables and fruit, will decrease its overall daily intake of calories. Birds that are hooked on seeds may not easily switch to the preferred pelleted diet. Your veterinarian can give you tips on how to convert your bird to a healthier diet.

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