Obesity in Birds

By Laurie Hess, DVM; Rick Axelson, DVM


As with other pet animals, obesity is a problem often encountered with birds. Obesity is a major problem in older birds on seed-based diets and can contribute to diseases such as 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. This, in conjunction with high fat seed-based diets, often leads to obesity and its associated problems.

What is obesity?

In dogs and cats, obesity is defined as a pet that weighs 15% or more than its ideal weight. We do not have as clear-cut a definition for birds; therefore, most bird veterinarians rely on a body condition scoring system (assigning 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 a pet is the result of taking in more calories than it burns off. Unlike their wild counterparts, pet birds are not given as much opportunity for daily exercise. Wild birds exercise frequently during daily activities. Such activities include flying to escape predators, playing, and looking for food and mates.

Pet birds often burn off very few calories in their daily lives. Additionally, many bird owners incorrectly feed their pet birds by offering a diet consisting mostly, or totally of high-fat seeds. Seeds also are deficient in many vitamins and minerals. Birds like seeds because the high fat content makes the seeds taste good. A high-fat diet and no exercise predispose 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 atherosclerosis and 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 inflexible, inhibiting blood flow through them, and lessening oxygen delivery to their brains when their blood pressure rises.

"Many obese birds develop atherosclerosis and hepatic lipidosis (also called fatty liver disease)."

Fatty tumors, lipomas, or other fat-based tumors called xanthomas are more likely to occur obese birds. Obese birds have a higher anesthetic risk than normal-weight birds because of their increased tendency to have strokes and heart disease.

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

Switching birds from all-seed diets 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 (for details, see the handout for feeding your particular species of pet bird). Birds that are hooked on seeds may not easily switch to the preferred pelleted diet. Your veterinarian can give you tips on how to gradually switch the diet.

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