Free-ranging birds often spend the bulk of their time forging for food, flying miles from roost to feeding ground. Once birds have found an area to feed, they must climb up and down and fly from tree to tree.
Unfortunately the sedentary lifestyle of the companion bird makes obesity one of the most common forms of malnutrition seen in clinical practice (Fig 1). Pet birds are fed too much food or they are fed diets rich in sources of fat, such as sunflower seeds.
Potential causes of obesity in birds
- High fat diet
- Excess calorie intake
- Insufficient exercise
- Species predisposition
Companion bird species that appear to be predisposed to obesity include Amazon parrots (Amazona spp.), Budgerigar parakeets (Melopsittacus undulates), canaries (Serinus spp.), cockatiels (Nymphicus hollandicus) and cockatoos, as well as quaker or monk parakeets (Myiopsitta monachus).
Companion bird species predisposed to obesity
- Amazon parrots
- Budgerigar parakeet
- Cockatoos (galah, rose-breasted, etc.)
- Quaker parakeet
As in other taxonomic groups, obesity carries a host of potential health risks for pet birds. An overweight body condition can serve as the cause of or an exacerbating factor in a range of problems including cardiopulmonary, reproductive, orthopedic, endocrine, and neoplastic disease.
Health risks associated with obesity include:
- Hepatic lipidosis
- Diabetes mellitus
- Renal disease
- Cardiovascular disease
- Respiratory compromise (air sac compression)
- Egg binding
- Cloacal prolapse
Indeed even the existence of obesity alone is now considered a disease state in and of itself:
…[I]t has become increasingly evident that adipose tissue, long viewed simply as an energy depot, actively produces hormones involved in energy homeostasis plus cytokines, important modulators of inflammation. Therefore obesity is now recognized as a state of chronic, low-grade inflammation (Michel 2012).
Even behavioral problems can be seen in sedentary birds such as depression, repetitive or stereotypic movements, and feather destructive behavior.
Weight loss program
When formulating a weight loss program, the first step is to gather an accurate and detailed dietary history. Evaluate the patient’s health status with a complete physical examination as well as additional testing as needed. Obtain an accurate body weight in grams as well as body condition scoring. Estimate the patient’s optimal body weight keeping patient body condition and muscle condition in mind.
Communication and client education
Although weight management relies on reduction of caloric intake while increasing exercise, most weight loss programs will fail without proper communication and client education.
It is important that the owner… (Michel 2012)
- Understands and agrees the bird is overweight*
- Understands why weight loss is recommended
- Is willing and able to address the problem
*Even when veterinarians believe their client understands that their pet is overweight, a recent survey found that a discrepancy persisted between a dog owner’s perception of pet weight and the veterinarian’s evaluation of body condition score (White 2011). Imagine how much more difficult it is for bird owners to accept that their pets are overweight. After all one can rarely look at a bird from a distance and appreciate its body condition.
Use LafeberVet’s Nutritional Assessment Form to carefully question the owner about their pet and household and to identify potential obstacles to weight loss. Client answers will allow you tailor the weight loss program to your individual patient. For instance, owners that spend large amounts of time at home with the pet seem particularly likely to provide excess food or treats (Buffington 2004). The approach to this pet’s weight loss must differ from the pet owned by a busy client frequently away from the home. Be sure to determine who is the primary caretaker, since they will provide the most accurate information. If this individual is not available, send the dietary history form home. A pet food diary can also prove helpful. Dry foods should ideally be measured with an 8-fl oz measuring cup or gram scale (Michel 2012).
Tips for successful communication during the dietary history
- Ask open-ended questions that do not require yes or no answers (e.g. tell me about…, describe for me…)
|Table 1. Maintenance energy requirements (MER)
MER = (kcal/d) = K x BW (kg)0.73 (Klasing 1998)
|Taxonomic group||K value|
|Aquatic non-passerine birds||150|
|Terrestrial non-passerine birds||125|
Gradually reduce the high-calorie items fed such as seeds, nuts, and some table foods, while steadily feeding more vegetables. Introduction of a formulated diets can also reduce the confusion and subjectivity associated with many pet bird diets. Formulated diets low in energy and fat and high in fiber such as Lafeber’s Nutri-An Cakes for Foraging & Weight Maintenance can also prove helpful.
Since it is also possible to overfeed a formulated diet, instruct owners to measure out exactly how much their bird eats in a day.
Encourage the owner to also provide the bird with things to do other than eating:
- Large cage with multiple perches plus toys, swings, ladders, and platforms as well as multiple perch play gyms
- Encourage foraging behavior with food motivated play such as feeder puzzles and other enrichment tools
- Time in an outdoor aviary-style enclosure under supervision can provide fresh air, sunshine, while encouraging exercise
Careful health screening is particularly important before recommending exercise. Manage and stabilize any problems identified before beginning an active exercise program.
- Some birds respond well to interactive play exercise such as gradual wing flapping
- Although there are obvious potential dangers, consider free-flight training. In select individuals this rigorous exercise can benefit both body and mind.
L-carnitine has been shown to increase body fat loss while preventing loss of muscle mass (Ackerman 2008, Armstrong 1992). L-carnitine has also been shown to protect cats from hepatic lipid accumulation during calorie restriction (#6). There is one study in budgerigar parakeets that describes the use of a pelleted diet supplemented with approximately 1000 mg/kg L-carnitine (DeVoe 2004).
Involve all members of the household in the weight loss program whenever possible.
Provide clear, concise, simple instructions. Clients have been shown to best remember information given during the first third of any communication, so it is also important to organize the information provided accordingly.
Both oral instructions and written material are advisable. Confirm the client’s understanding by asking them to restate the instructions. Having the owner write down the instructions and review their notes can also work well.
Schedule regular follow-up visits to monitor patient progress and adjust the weight loss program as needed. In dogs and cats, the target weight loss is generally 1% to 2% of body weight per week (Michel 2012). Use the same scale, and ideally weigh the patient at the same time of day. Schedule visits at one to two week intervals initially.
Once the bird has reached its optimal body weight, the need for recheck exams and owner encouragement has not passed. Maintenance of this ideal weight can be difficult since it is easy for owners to slide back into their former habits (Ackerman 2008).