Tumors: Xanthomas in Birds

By Gregory Rich, DVM; Rick Axelson, DVM

Xanthomas are discrete masses or diffuse, thickened areas of skin that are a yellowish-orange color with a dimpled surface. They are accumulations of fat and cholesterol that are primarily seen in cockatiels and parakeets (budgies), especially in females.

"Genetic predispositions, high fat or high cholesterol diets ,and trauma may be contributory to their formation."

The wing tips, breast region, and the area of the bird's ventral abdomen (between the legs and around the vent) are the most common sites of xanthomas. They are often locally invasive and destructive. This infiltrative tissue is weak or friable and can be easily damaged or ulcerated, especially as it proliferates and gets bigger. Birds will sometimes cause self-trauma by picking at them. The specific cause of xanthomas is currently unknown. Genetic predispositions, high fat or high cholesterol diets, and trauma are thought be contributory to their formation.

Are there any treatments for xanthomas?

It has been reported that some individual birds will respond to nutritional therapy. Often these birds are on high fat, all seed diets. Weaning slowly onto a balanced diet (pellets and vegetables, with limited fruit as treats), plus supplementation with vitamin A or vitamin A precursors, may be successful. If the xanthoma continues to enlarge, or becomes ulcerated, bleeding, infected, or painful, surgical removal is required. If the mass is left untreated, it may become large enough to impair the bird's movements. In addition, the bird becomes susceptible to sudden bleeding episodes and may bleed to death.

"The more complete the excision, the less likely the tumor will recur."

The goal of surgery is to completely remove the xanthoma and any surrounding fatty, necrotic, or ulcerated skin. The more complete the excision (removal with a sharp instrument), the less likely the tumor will recur. Sometimes the tissue spreads so far into the surrounding skin that surgical excision may be incomplete; in these cases, the mass will be debulked as much as possible. In some cases, the xanthoma is so large that to remove it all would not leave enough healthy skin to close the surgical wound. Suturing incompletely removed xanthomatous tissue is complicated by the fact that the tissue is weak and may not hold the sutures well. Often times, the only way to remove a xanthoma from the wing tip is by surgical amputation. Large xanthomas on the abdomen are extremely difficult to remove surgically, as there is usually not enough healthy skin to close the surgical site, so early intervention and a health exam is critical.

Consult a veterinarian familiar with birds for further guidance.

Related Articles