Parrots are not naturally fat. They have evolved to be light boned and able to fly. Wild Parrots need often to fly distances to forage their foods; they get plenty of exercise.
Although wild Parrots often eat high fat items (think of African Greys eating palm nuts or Galahs in Australia gutting a wheat field) once these species are captive bred they will need far less calories and far less fat and they still need exercise.
How can you tell if a Parrot is fat? You feel the keel bone. It should be nicely covered but easy to feel. If it is covered with wedges of flesh on either side, the bird is overweight.
Conversely, if the keel bone sticks out and can be seen with the naked eye, the bird is underweight and needs immediate attention.
An accurate way to determine weight is to invest in a pair of scales and weigh weekly. Buying a scale is not an extravagance because this gives you a reliable result. You can buy them here.
Your vet or breeder will be able to tell you what the correct weight for the age and the species should be. Especially if you are handfeeding a chick, unless you are very experienced, weighing before and after a formula feed is invaluable.
You can weigh smaller chicks in a basket. Bigger chicks can learn to stand on a scale during the hand-feeding period.
Some carers (I am one of them) like to weigh pet birds regularly each week or so to check that they have maintained their weight. Once the bird is at the correct weight, the weekly weigh-in won’t vary more than a few grams from week to week.
If a sedentary bird has a lot of exercise including flying, fat turns into muscle so the bird may look trimmer but won’t weigh less.
Some species are more prone to gaining weight than others: Budgerigars, Galahs, Amazons and Cockatiels. But the problem can arise in any species where, if every day, the calories eaten provide more energy than the bird expends in its activities. After all, a lot of birds spend too much time in a cage with nothing to do but eat. They use neither muscles nor wings. Flying uses up 20 times more energy than perching.
Getting fat isn’t a natural process for Parrots, as it can be for a species that hibernates - like bears or, dormice come to mind. However, bird’s energy needs will fluctuate.
My Parakeets live 24/7 in an outdoor an aviary in East Anglia. Winters can be harsh. To offset the cold, I increase their rations of sunflower seeds and human grade monkey nuts. The results have been satisfactory with one pair of Kakariki even producing a clutch which fledged in October.
Obesity in Parrots and other pet birds can occur from two main causes: unsuitable or overabundant diet and lack of exercise. Other facts are climate and stage of life.
Parrots in cold climates need more energy- providing food than ones in tropics. A bonded pair mating laying eggs, brooding and then feeding the hatched chicks until fledging (and sometimes beyond) need a greater amount of energy foods than a sole elderly caged Parrot.
An excess of fat, and particularly protein, in the diet of growing chicks can produce malformations and metabolic bone disease (rickets).
Problems with diet
With so much conflicting advice on the best way to feed being given, it is not easy to find the right solution for you and your birds. That’s why I favour a scale.
Sunflower seeds used to be one of the main ingredients of seed mixtures fed to Parrots. They are too high in fat (50% of seed’s content is fat) to form a major part of the diet.
Many vets now advocate pellets as 50% or more of the diet with fruit and veggies and a few nuts making up the rest. Every carer must decide. And choose a pellet that is low enough in fats and protein.
Growing birds need more protein than mature birds. But the science of Parrot nutrition hasn’t yet provided us with formulas that will work every time.
The properly fed bird shows that her nutrition is suitable by her demeanour, her bright eyes and shiny feathers. Unfortunately, an overweight bird may not necessarily look unwell. Therefore, in order to prevent obesity, pet Parrots should be allowed plenty of exercise and given a varied diet low in fat, consisting of a mixture of seeds, vegetables, fruit and some pellets.
A vet’s view: Alan Jones now retired told me
Certainly, obesity is a serious and big issue amongst captive pet Parrots. We saw many cases while I was in practice, and most were the result of a very poor diet (too much sunflower seed and junk food, and not enough fruit and veg). Second was the lack of exercise, with most pet Parrots cage-bound all-day long. Wing clipping was the least important issue, as even full-winged pet Parrots allowed out would just sit still on top of their cages most of the time. Treatment involved serious dietary advice, regular weighing sessions, and attempts to get the owner to improve the bird’s opportunity to exercise.
Diseases caused by obesity
These are growths made up of localised fat deposits. They look unsightly but are not fatal. Sometimes if they grow too large they can be surgically removed. Once they have developed, they rarely disappear even with more exercise and a low-fat diet. Therefore, surgery is sometimes performed to remove them.
This starts by sore feet. You notice the skin is reddened. IF it is neglected the bird can get ulcers. The heavier the bird the more pressure he puts on his feet. So, with this condition the bird goes lame.
You will need padded perches and a visit to the vet. Foot and leg conditions are aggravated by a sedentary lifestyle and an unsuitable diet. Although Pododermatitis (gout to you and me) can become serious enough to cause death, prompt treatment when you spot foot problems can resolve the condition.
It isn’t just an inadequate diet - lacking in certain vitamins - or too much fat that cause gout - it is also poor cage and aviary hygiene which harbours germs, dirty perches and perches that are the wrong size.
This is cholesterol crystals collecting under the skin. Overweight Budgies suffer from the condition. The condition is usually seen on the tip of the wings it makes a swelling that bleeds easily. In severe cases the vet may amputate the wing tips.
Atherosclerosis is common in medium to large Parrots. Similar to people, atherosclerosis is more common in sedentary Parrots that consume a high energy 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 difficult to reverse.
Interestingly, although it is rare to see a fat African Grey Parrot, this species is particularly predisposed to atherosclerosis.
Being overweight is also the cause of fatty liver disease. Amazons are prone to this. The prognosis is such cases is guarded.
Fat birds have problems in breeding. They have difficulty flying and perching and an overweight cock cannot always mate.
Obesity with my birds
When my local vet visited the aviary, he remarked that my birds were all thinner than the ones he saw in the surgery. He put that down to the amount of flying that they did.
Now that I have 2 free flying Macaws, they eat a lot. Far more nuts than the recommended amount. Benni Macaw is thin but in the normal weight range. Mina Military has got a bit stout lately. I presume because of her autumn habit of foraging in the oak tree and consuming acorns daily. When I call her down she squawks politely then turns her back. She comes down when she is ready.
Three of my rescue birds suffered from obesity related problems. BigBoy, a sweet natured, wild caught Timneh, suffered badly from gout. We treated this but he died of a stroke just three weeks after he had relearned (after being caged for 20 years) how to fly.
Even sadder, was Benson a wild caught 17 years old African Grey hen or thereabouts. Her owners had been very fond of her but never realised the harm that a diet of sunflower seeds and junk food for 15 years had done.
After 8 months here, enjoying a better diet she succumbed to Atherosclerosis. There is not much can be done. Benson died at the vets. Casper whom she had chosen for a mate appeared to mourn her for 8 months. He plucked his chest feathers out and perched all day outside their nest box. He also lost 20 grams in weight. Years later he is fully feathered and his weight stays the same at 460 grams.
How to avoid obesity
Much the same way that we do for ourselves – a healthy diet, and plenty of exercise and avoidance of junk food. For birds, an environment that allows them to be as natural as possible.
I end with Catherine Tofts’ remark, ‘Animals do not thrive when kept in barren, unenriched environments, where they are forced to be physically and mentally inactive and socially isolated, in a manner uncharacteristic of wild counterparts.’
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