What is Fatty Liver (Hepatic Lipidosis)?

The liver is a very important and essential organ, which is involved in the body’s digestion, detoxification, stores vitamins and minerals, produces proteins that aid in blood clotting, metabolizes carbohydrates, lipids and proteins, and is involved in the immune system. 

Fatty liver can occur in any bird but it is most common in lovebirds, cockatiels, cockatoos, Amazon parrots, Quaker parrots, and budgies.

This is a very serious condition, that if not treated can be fatal.  If your bird is showing symptoms of fatty liver (hepatic lipidosis) he should be seen by an avian veterinarian.

Fatty liver (hepatic lipidosis) in birds is a medical condition that occurs when there are large deposits of fat in the liver.  The accumulation of fat in the organ causes the liver not to function normally.

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Symptoms of Fatty Liver (Hepatic Lipidosis) in Birds

Symptoms may include:

  • Loss of appetite
  • Lethargic
  • Depressed
  • Overweight
  • Swollen abdomen
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Diarrhea
  • Abnormal green droppings
  • Poor feather quality
  • Discolored feathers
  • Behavior changes

Patients with end-stage hepatic lipidosis may exhibit the following symptoms:

  • Seizures
  • Loss of balance
  • Muscle tremors
  • Overgrown beaks and/or claws

Causes of Fatty Liver (Hepatic Lipidosis) in Birds

Fatty liver may be caused by: 

  • High fat diet ( for example feeding only a seed diet)
  • Nutritional deficiencies
  • Heredity
  • Not providing the bird outlets for exercise 
  • Bored birds tend to overeat

Pediatric hepatic lipidosis can be caused by:

  • Inexperienced handler over feeding young chicks
  • Not weaning the young bird and continuing to hand feed a high-caloric diet

Diagnosis of Fatty Liver (Hepatic Lipidosis) in Birds

The avian veterinarian will want to go over the medical history of your bird. Let the veterinarian know the details of the symptoms you have observed and when they started. The veterinarian may want to evaluate the patient’s diet, feeding routine, environment and housing. If your bird has been seen by another veterinarian, it is recommended that you bring the previous medical records.

The veterinarian will then perform a thorough physical exam.  He may suggest administering a gas anesthesia to the patient, before starting the physical exam.  An anesthetic may help the bird not to be overly stressed.  Young chicks should not need an anesthetic.

The physical exam may include weighing the patient, checking his eyes, beak,  and plumage and a palpation of the abdomen area. The patient’s heart, lungs and air sacs may also be checked.

The veterinarian may recommend bloodwork, such as a complete blood count and a biochemistry serum profile.  If the veterinarian suspects hepatic lipidosis he will usually draw blood from the medial metatarsal vein and not the side neck jugular.  Patients with fatty liver tend to have prolonged bleeding. Therefore, once the blood is drawn the veterinarian must be able to apply pressure to the area to stop the bleeding. 

A complete blood count will check the levels of platelets, red and white blood cells. The complete blood count can also determine if your bird has a bacterial infection. The biochemistry serum profile, can determine the patient’s organ functions, glucose, proteins, electrolytes and calcium levels. A bird with hepatic lipidosis may have elevated levels of bile, cholesterol, LDH, and triglycerides.  The bird’s bloodstream may also have an excess of lipids (fat particles), a condition called hyperlipidemia.

The veterinarian may recommend taking x-rays. X-rays can help confirm that the liver is swollen. An end-stage hepatic lipidosis patient may have a smaller than normal liver.

Treatment of Fatty Liver (Hepatic Lipidosis) in Birds

Patients with fatty liver (hepatic lipidosis) must be place on a low-fat diet, which includes low sugar fruits and vegetables.  If the bird is not eating, he may need to be tube fed. Supportive care may include providing heat and fluid therapy. Natural treatments may include milk thistle, policosanol and Ayurveda herbs.

A pediatric fatty liver (hepatic lipidosis) bird may need to be placed in a cool oxygenation chamber. The patient will need to be hydrated and hand fed small amounts of food.  Metabolic aids may include lactulose and milk thistle.

Recovery of Fatty Liver (Hepatic Lipidosis) in Birds

Patients treated in the early stages of fatty liver have a good recovery prognosis. End-stage fatty liver patients have a guarded prognosis.

Follow up visits will be necessary to monitor your bird’s progress.  The veterinarian may recommend the retake of the blood tests, to make sure the levels are returning to a normal range.  He may also suggest that x-rays be retaken to ensure the liver is a normal size.

The bird must continue to be on a balance low-fat diet, to avoid the return of the condition.  Your horse should also be provided toys and an outlet for exercise, which will help him not to gain weight.