Pelleted Diets, Veterinarians and the “Idiot Factor”
Why I Don't Recommend Pelleted Diets (Except for one!)
by Sally Blanchard
This is a long article but well worth reading if you aren't sure that pellets are a healthy diet or if you think they are and want some facts.
Contributing To the Death of Many Parrots? Who Me?
- This updated article is in no way intended to insult anyone who is taking the time to read it. My purpose is to try and explain why so many avian veterinarians, manufacturers, avian professionals, and nutritionally ignorant people on the Internet push a 80% to 100% of the food parrot should eat pelleted diet (especially Harrisons) as the absolute best way to feed a parrot. In fact, many of these people will tell you that you are destroying the integrity and balance of the food and dooming your parrot to malnutrition if you don’t follow their advice and feed a manufactured diet as at least 80% of your bird’s diet. I consider the majority of this information to be advertising hype that tries to sell these diets by convincing people to do what will sell more product despite the fact that pellets are actually a horrible diet for parrots. My goal in this article is to logically convince people that the feeding a processed manufactured diet full of synthetic nutrients and other questionable ingredients as a high percentage of any parrot’s diet is extremely questionable as a healthy way to feed companion parrots. I will present facts and opinions based on research and experiences.
A few years back, I did extensive research on pet foods with an emphasis on the ingredients of all manufactured parrot foods that were available at the time. It shocked me and made me become much more anti-pellet and pro-fresh foods. Ultimately there was only one pellet that I would feed my parrots and that is TOPS Parrot Food. Why? Well, because it is uniquely and positively different from every other pellet on the market. TOPS is made with sustainably-farmed foods made into powders. They are cold-rolled and retain their nutrients while extruded diets are heated at such high temperatures that they lose important heat sensitive nutrients. Most of all TOPS doesn't have soy, corn, wheat, peanuts or any synthetic chemical nutrients. The company has never recommended their pellet and doesn't consider their food to be a total diet. That is why it is the only pellet I feed or recommend. I will discuss why I won't recommend or feed any of the others in this article.
Several years ago, a manufactured diet company representative suggested to me in front of an audience that I was contributing to the death of many parrots because I refuse to recommend any pelleted food as a Total Diet or even as any of the diet. Considering the chemical ‘soup’ ingredients in the horrible product that he represented, I believe that this was a good example of a diversion from the facts. I believe his statement was based on marketing and what I call the “idiot factor.”
A veterinarian, who knew I feed a varied diet of fresh veggies, grains and fruit, etc. to my parrots, told me that my caique, Spike was suffering from malnutrition because his feet were too smooth. However, I knew that caique feet are normally smoother than the feet of a lot of other parrots. More recently another veterinarian e-mailed me a thorough correction after I had given one of his clients nutritional information. He accused me of practicing avian medicine without a license. I also mentioned that she should have her lory checked for Iron Storage Disease because of changes in the normal color of the bird's feathers and the veterinarian wrote to me that it had never been discovered in Lories. I sent him a reference to an article in the AVA journal about Iron Storage Disease in Lories. He didn't contact me again. Among other transgressions, I had evidently challenged his authority by recommending fresh foods as something other than occasional treats ... he is a member of the Harrison’s ‘cult’ who follows that companies guidelines 100% and pushes the food without mercy on his clients; probably even those clients who actually understand a lot about nutrition.
So besides the profit motive, why are some veterinarians pushing pellets as a total or near total diet? I think that most veterinarians have seen so many parrots suffering from malnutrition and obesity that they seem to make the assumption that NO ONE understands nutrition well enough, cares enough about their parrots, and/or are too lazy to feed a healthy fresh food diet without feeding pellets as close to 100% of the diet. I talked to an avian veterinarian not too long ago and he lamented that he still sees so many parrot family birds that are still being fed a total seed diet. When he examined Paco, he commented on her health and vigor at 38 when of course, she is just middle-aged and not elderly. He told me that many of the Amazons that he sees at that age have some serious health problems because of the malnutrition of a diet of seed and human junk-food. He believes that if he can get people to switch to pellets instead of seed, there will be far less malnourished parrots. I don’t disagree with him because there are a percentage of bird owners who simply won’t take the time or are too lazy to feed their parrots a healthy fresh diet. They just don’t want to learn, but most of all it is too much bother to try to get their parrots to eat a healthy diet of fresh nutritious foods. They want easy and a seed only diet is easy ... so is a pellet only diet. They believe the labels that tell them that vitamin enriched seed is all their parrots need because it is easy. Now we have manufactured diets for parrots and these companions have many parrot owners totally convinced that these chemical laden highly processed pelleted diets are all that a parrot needs to eat because their product has vitamin and mineral supplementation... but there is much more to food than vitamins and minerals and chemical synthetic nutrients will never have the health benefits of nutrients from fresh food. It is difficult for me to have a lot of sympathy for people who read about the advantage of a fresh food diet but continue to feed seed, pellet-only diet when their parrot dies way before its time of liver disease, renal failure, cancer or some other possibility caused by malnutrition or a highly processed synthetic nutrient chemical diet.
By the way, with some exceptions, veterinarians don’t study nutrition extensively in their academic studies. For the most part, avian veterinarians study poultry nutrition. There are those who have studied the subject extensively and the ones I have talked with believe that pellets should not be such a high percentage of the bird’s diet and that people shouldn't depend on them or even feed them at all. Of course, others do. One manufactured diet, Harrison’s, is pushed by many avian veterinarians as being the ‘only’ food to feed. Of course, some veterinarians do have financial incentive to sell the food. In fact, some veterinarians make money by reselling the product to breeders and local bird shops. I have observed an almost cult like recommendation of this food as the only food to feed and anything else fed in addition should be considered a treat and be no more than 5 or 10% of the diet. Several people have reported to me that they have been 'guilt-mongered' by their vets who say that they are killing their birds if they feed anything but Harrison's pellets. To say the least, this infuriates me.
I hear it all the time; people argue that Harrison's is an organic food because it says so on the label and their marketing. While Harrison’s does have organic base ingredients, the synthetic chemical supplementation is NOT Organic. It is common sense to understand that it is not organic and how the company can call it that is beyond me. Any food that has nutrition based on synthetic chemicals should not be called organic. Is it a bad food? In my opinion, I believe it is and that the company is conning the public by calling it organic. Soy is also one of its major ingredients. At this point I have learned enough about soy that will not feed a diet with soy in it. Is it the best food? Not in my opinion, but more about that later. While not all parrots have allergies to soy, corn and peanuts, some do so if your parrot is eating Harrison’s and is feather picking or showing other signs of allergies, you should discuss the possibility of allergies with your avian veterinarian if he or she is not in the Harrison's “cult”. I am also hesitant to recommend or even feed a soy based diet as the major part of my parrots’ diet. There is so much controversy in regards to soy and it is ubiquitous - some form of soy seems to be in just about every processed food on the market today. I even have a difficult time finding “natural human foods” without soy. More on soy later in this article ...
So What Is the Idiot Factor?
Simply put, it has been explained to me (as if I was an idiot) on quite a few occasions by several too patronizingly “patient” manufacturer’s representatives that the vast majority of people who own birds are not knowledgeable or ambitious enough to feed them a balanced healthy fresh diet but one also used the words too stupid and lazy. Therefore, according too many of these manufacturer’ reps that anything these nutritionally “ignorant bird owners” feed in addition to or instead of a pelleted diets will cause malnutrition and disease leading to early death for their parrots. Of course, this concept sells pelleted diets to those who either believe the hype or want an excuse to feel good about feeding their parrots an easy diet that consists of nothing but the chemical soup that most pellets are. In my opinion, this type of hype is also pure snake oil sales baloney and are potentially dangerous for the health and longevity of our parrots, particularly if people don't take the time to learn enough basics about nutrition to feed their parrots intelligently. Feeding parrots intelligently involves knowing what fresh foods vegetables and fruits, grains, and quality proteins should be fed in what balance to insure that your parrot will thrive and lead a healthy life. I have provided this information for years based on sources from several genuine nutritional experts and common sense about what nutrients are available in what foods. .
At a conference several years ago, there was a panel that promised to give us good information about nutrition. However, I was terribly disappointed since it was simply a panel of representatives of the various manufactured parrot diets extolling the virtues of their particular products. A representative from one of the product manufacturers exclaimed, “We want to control your bird’s diet.” Of course the profit motive is important in any business so a great deal of their motivation is financial. If you feed nothing else, the seller and the manufacturer essentially get all your money. None of it is shared with the supermarket or health food store. Considering how horrible many pet industry foods and their ingredients are for all animal companions, I generally don't trust the pet food industry to do right by our beloved pets. If you pay attention to the history of pet foods and the number of recalls there are all the time, you have to realize that the welfare of our animal companions is not at the top of their priorities. Yes, there are some companies that are concerned but they are few. Advertising and marketing hype convince too many people that companies foods are “the best” but some of the best known companies puts out some of the most horrible, even deadly, pet foods and get away with it because people believe their marketing.
A Parrot’s Digestive System Evolved to Eat Fresh Foods
- My emphasis is behavior and I believe providing a varied diet for companion parrots is essential for their physical AND EMOTIONAL well-being. Most parrots are opportunistic omnivores, which means that they will eat just about anything that is edible when they are foraging. Their digestive system evolved to eat fresh foods of all kinds … not a dry pellet or extrusion as a total diet; especially not a manufactured highly processed diet with synthetic and chemical additives. I don’t believe that any one food should be a ‘total diet’ and I abhor the trend to recommend feeding nothing but a manufactured diet to parrots.
Trusting the Pet Industry?
After the Companion Parrot On-line Magazine issue with nutritional information and pellet ingredients in it was published, a reader e-mailed me. She stated that she had contacted one of the pelleted diet manufacturers and they had told her that their food had been tested for years on a group of parrots. She stated, “That is good enough for me.” And she wasn’t going to stop feeding their diet because of my information. One of my responses would be for her to ask me what the best books on parrot behavior were. Of course, my answer would be the ones that I had written. This is not egotistical of me, why would I write information that I didn’t believe would be the best information available? The conference program I wrote about previously, each of the veterinarians and manufacturer’s representatives made it very clear that their product was by far the best on the market even though the most pushed one at that conference is, in my opinion, the worst because it is full of synthetic chemical nutrition, artificial food color, Menadione, and other ingredients I wouldn't feed to my outdoor squirrels. There is always a bias to push a product when people manufacture, represent or sell a product.
A quote from Herbs for Pets by Mary L. Wulff-Tilford and Gregory L. Tilford
“Many pet owners think that as long as an animal is getting a ration of premium brand food - one that is proclaimed to be a complete and balanced diet - then all of their pet’s nutritional needs are being met. After all, many state-of-the-art diets have been scientifically engineered to contain absolutely “everything that is required to maintain optimum health.” It says so right on the label, so it must be true, right? Wrong! The truth is, most commercial diet formulas are based on scientific averages that cannot serve the variable requirements of each and every animal.” I believe that this is truer of parrot diets than those for dogs and cats because we are talking about different species from different habitats on different continents not just different breeds.
I would like to quote this entire book in this article because it makes some very significant points about why complete and balanced pet diets are neither complete nor balanced for every animal. Many pet foods also contain ingredients that are not only unhealthy but may be toxic if the food is fed as the major part of the diet for a long period of time. I would recommend that you read Herbs for Pets and Gudrun Maybaum’s What Happened to My Peanuts? If you are curious enough to learn more about a holistic and healthy way to feed your beloved parrot companions, these are interesting publications.
Can we really trust the pet industry to do right by our parrots? Anyone who believes that every pet food manufacturers genuinely have the welfare of our animals as a priority is fooling themselves. I also remind people who love their animal companions of the problem not too long ago with melamine from China in dog and cat foods that killed many wonderful pets. On March 15, 2007, FDA learned that certain pet foods were sickening and killing cats and dogs. FDA found contaminants in vegetable proteins imported into the United States from China and used as ingredients in pet food. The white powder melamine is mixed with formaldehyde to form a durable plastic. How did it end up in pet foods that killed people's beloved animals? I presume that the pet food companies didn't check the quality of the ingredient before they sent it out to feed our pets. Some of the dog and cat foods were marketed as quality foods so the people who purchased them believed it and their beloved pets died. It certainly made me wonder if we can actually trust the companies who try to convince us to feed their diets and nothing else to our beloved animal companions. The bottom line with too many product manufacturers seems to be financial reward and they tend to disguise the problems of their ingredients with the smoke and mirrors of hype. Purina is a perfect example by refusing to answers any questions the FDA asked them in regards to Beneful and this deadly food is still being marketed as a wonderful food. An increase of positive PR will convince people to keep feeding this food that has been responsible for the deaths of pets. This brings me to another PR question; why do we think that a food product is good if the company does good deeds in regards to animals? I am thinking of the Kaytee Foundation – yet their parrot pellet is full of synthetic chemicals and highly questionable ingredients. Some of the pet food advertising hype reminds me of the big oil companies that run marketing with their ‘good deed’ ads after they commit a tragic oil spill that kills thousands of birds and animals.
The Shocking Ingredients in Dog and Cat Foods
Many pet foods clearly contain problem ingredients. According to several reliable animal medical sources, there has been an alarming increase in cancer in dogs in the last ten years. While some of it may be environmental, there is compelling evidence that one of the major causes may be some commonly fed brands of dog food and their ingredients that are creating this increase. Even a declaration of “real meat” can be misleading.
I have paid very close attention to the world of parrots for over 4 decades. I never heard about as many parrots dying of cancer as in the last two decades or so. Is it a coincidence that this started when pelleted diets became the only food recommended by companies and misinformed veterinarians? Does the increase in cancer have to do with the reliance on chemically laden pelleted diets like it does in dogs? One ingredient that is in almost all pelleted diets is Menadione (it has middle and last names like Menadione 'Bisulfate Complex” but it is the same horrible stuff if it starts with Menadione) other also called “A Source of Vitamin K Activity” by some companies. It is banned in human foods in the U.S. and pet foods in several countries in Europe because it is considered a carcinogen but it is in so many parrot pellets that it is disgusting to me. Of course the companies will tell you that there is so little of it that it isn't a problem, but then they want you to feed their product as a total diet every day for the rest of its life – which could be a lot shorter if you do.
The ingredients of some dog and cat foods would probably shock people who feed them to their beloved pets if they really cared about them. These may include rendered pets who have been euthanized using sodium pentobarbital. This chemical that is used to KILL animals is in the tissues of these animal and ends up in the foods that are produced for our pets. Other ingredients may include rotten meat from supermarkets, the carcasses of sick or diseased animals, used grease from restaurants, and road kill. The entrails, bones, feet, fur, feces, and all parts of the dead animal are rendered for use in pet foods and animal feed. These are often referred to as “animal by-products.”
Preservatives can also be a problem with the chemicals ethoxyquin and BHA leading the list. I have also read that any animal feed that lists fish meal or fish solubles as an ingredient has to be preserved with ethoxyquin, whether it is listed or not. Even an expensive cat food that I purchased at a high-end pet boutique listed fish meal as an ingredient. Fish meal is a slurry of all of the fish and fish parts that aren’t fit for human consumption. It is stored in large vats and must be kept from rotting with preservatives. This includes heads, eyes, bones, scales, fins, entrails, and feces. I have read that if the pet food manufacturer buys fish meal that comes from the source already preserved with ethoxyquin, the label on the food doesn’t have to say that the product has this dangerous preservative.
According to an article in New Living Newspaper, March 2001: “Ethoxyquin is the most common antioxidant preservative in pet foods. It has been found in some dogs’ livers and tissues months after the animal stopped ingesting it. Ethoxyquin is manufactured by Monsanto Chemical, the largest manufacturer of bio-engineered foods. Referred to as EQ, it is listed as a hazardous chemical by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and is considered a pesticide by the USDA. It is still illegally used in some US dog food, but is banned in Europe.” It was found in the Purina Beneful food that made dogs sick and killed them along with another problem ingredient. Ethoxyquin was banned in human foods (except some spices) long before some companies removed it from their pet foods. The FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine requested that pet food manufacturers voluntarily reduce the maximum level for ethoxyquin by half to 75 parts per million.” By the way, most likely because this preservative has such a bad reputation, I have read that ethoxyquin is now being called santoquin; it is my understanding that it is the same thing.
Monsanto is a huge company and it seems they will do anything to make money including genetically modifying our food (GMO). They also have enough money and power to keep the fact that food products that contain their Genetically Modified Organisms off labels. The consumer has to do the research ... so much for the government protecting people as opposed to huge corporations. Scientists, consumer and environmental groups had warned that there are many health and environmental risks with GMO foods. So if your food or your parrot food doesn't say “no GMOs”, “organic” or “sustainably farmed”, chances are it is GMO soy, corn, wheat, canola, et al.
How about Nutri-berries?
- I no longer feed Nutri-berries or Avi-cakes because they are highly processed foods with some questionable ingredients. Some of their literature promotes these foods as being a total diet. ARGH!!! Nutri-berries label lists Maltodextrin as its 8th ingredient which is problematic for humans and no doubt dangerous for parrots. It can spike blood sugar, suppress the growth of probiotics, is made from GMO corn, may cause allergic reactions and has no nutritional value. Maltodextrin is used as a thickener, filler or preservative in many highly processed foods. It’s an artificially produced white powder that can be enzymatically derived from any starch, most commonly made from corn, rice, potato starch or wheat. Generally speaking, if a food additive is a problem for people, it is a problem for other animals including parrots. This food also contains corn, soy, wheat, and canola oil which aren't labeled non-GMO.
Most pet foods also contain corn, wheat, soy, and/or gluten. In dog and cat foods, these are often used as a cheap ingredient instead of meat of one kind or another as a protein source. These grains are often difficult for the animal to digest. They can also be a source of skin allergies. These base ingredients may also be a source of allergens for parrots.
Pet foods also contain a vast number of other ingredients besides preservatives that are questionable. These include artificial food coloring, artificial flavor, pH control chemicals (one is used to alter the staining possibility of urine - how does that affect the animal?!?), emulsifiers, solvents, and a myriad of chemical additives. The Animal Protection Institute states that, “Of the more than 8,600 recognized food additives today, no toxicity information is available for 46% of them.” There are quite a few ingredients in pet foods that are banned for human consumption. I love my pets and one thing I can tell you for sure is that I don’t feed them foods with any ingredients that are banned for human consumption or aren't human grade food based. I have fed a turkey/oatmeal/veggie food to my dogs and a diet I make for my cats (more difficult!) for years as about 75% or more of their diet. My large Ranch Airedale (96 lbs), Tigger, lived to be 16, my Silky Terrier; KT lived to be 21, and my cat Nimbus lived to be 23 so I think that provides some evidence that they got a healthy diet. I got all 3 of them at 1-? years old with little knowledge about what their diet had been.
When I do feed a manufactured dog food, I read the label very, very carefully and I have reached the point where I know which ingredients I don’t want my animals to ingest. I even found a dog food with the word 'Holistic" in the brand name. Yet it contained Menadione which is a synthetic source of vitamin K that is BANNED in human foods. Rachel Ray's Nutrish contains Menadione and it is marketed as a natural dog food – calling a food “natural” has no meaning at all. Like an old ice cream ad used to state, if you can’t pronounce the name of an ingredient, you probably shouldn't be feeding it. At least do some research because there are some ingredients that are OK and do have complex names. I also look at the label for natural ingredients that I know are healthy for my pets. Every time I see someone drag a 40 lb bag of Ol'Roy or Purina out of a store, I want to scream at them, “Do you really love your pet!!!” Years ago I had a friend who worked at a Purina pet food plant. After talking to her, I never even looked at another one their products for my pets. Purina Beneful got away with killing people's dogs.
Parrot Food Ingredients
So many dog and cat food companies have failed our pets with cheap, questionable and even toxic ingredients and some people are now educated about this. They will spend the money needed on a more holistic diet for their dogs and cats. People who want their pets to live long and healthy lives need to read and understand pet food labels and reject foods with questionable ingredients.
In the legal environment for several years and especially now, it appears to be very unpopular to rule against corporation and for the people. Many people and veterinarians were concerned that dogs were getting sick, having seizures and dying from eating Beneful, a highly advertised Purina dog food. According to the ‘Truth About Pet Food’ website, Purina Beneful walked away from any accountability despite thousands of sick and dead pets, the fact that Purina didn't cooperate with the FDA investigation, veterinarian testimony was thrown out and an illegal ingredient was used in the food. From the Truth about Pet Food Website, “The FDA found…
-Six samples of Beneful Dog Food tested above legal limits for cyanuric acid and melamine (the very same poisonous combination responsible for the 2007 pet food recall).
-Six samples of Beneful Dog Food tested to contain ethoxyquin which was not listed on the label (it is illegal for a pet food to include an ingredient but not list it on the product label).
- Purina refused to provide FDA with copies of records.
- Purina refused to disclose the safety tests the company performs on ingredients to FDA.
- Purina refused to disclose the actual contents or weights of individual ingredients that went into lots of foods consumers had reported killed or sickened their pet.
- Purina refused to allow FDA to take photographs of manufacturing plants.
Even though the FDA found sound scientific and legal reasons for a recall (melamine and ethoxyquin), the agency ended their investigation into Beneful with a ‘talk’ with Purina; no recall, no accountability to the families of dead pets.
However, the FDA ‘talk’ with Purina didn’t stop the reports of pet death and illness linked to Beneful from continuing. One in particular – Frank Lucido, a California pet owner whose 3 dogs became ill and one died linked to Beneful – led to a class action lawsuit (filed early 2015) against the pet food which ultimately represented the families of 1,400 sick or dead pets all linked to consuming Beneful Dog Food.
November 16, 2016 – the legal action against this pet food with a long, long history of consumer complaints was dismissed by a California court. Purina wins, walks away with no accountability to thousands of families.
Why was the lawsuit dismissed?
The court’s dismissal order states two expert witnesses – veterinarians – were not qualified as experts and their testimony was not taken into consideration.
Veterinarian #1 testimony not taken into consideration…
Many years ago Purina made a parrot food; I believe it was called AVN. There was a lot of talk about the fact that a breeder in Texas received bags that were improperly mixed and all had vitamin D hotspots that killed many of the breeder's macaws. A hotspot happens when the food is not properly mixed and a high amount of an ingredient ends up in a lot of food. So much of that ingredient is ingested that it is toxic to the animal that eats it. There was a quiet lawsuit but the word got out among breeders and other bird people. The product went off of the market – now Purina makes Mazuri – would I ever feed it or recommend it? Hell no!
Parrot Foods Aren't Any Better.
- Are the manufactured diets for parrots doing any better? With only a few exceptions, I would give a strong negative response to this question. Some of the same questionable chemical additives in dog and cat foods are also in manufactured diets for parrots. I think we need to start reading the labels on parrot foods too. Am I suggesting that parrot pelleted diets have the same problems as dog and cat foods? Since animal by-products and animal protein are very rare in parrot manufactured diets, I am not as concerned about these ingredients. However, in doing research of the ingredients of all of these diets, I have been shocked to realize how many of these popular diets are made from a sort of “chemical soup.” Most pelleted diets also contain corn, wheat, soy and some contain peanuts. These can be allergens for parrots and they are GMO unless they say they are not or that they are organic or sustainably-farmed.
Natural Parrot Behavior and Foraging
- Wild parrots are foragers and much of their behavioral stimulation involves foraging, which includes food gathering, food manipulation, and food consumption. I think that food is too important as a behavioral and psychological stimulus to feed a dry pellet as the major part of their diet. None of my parrots ever made the pleasure sounds eating pellets when I tried them that they make eating fresh foods. The manufacturers of the parrot diets seem to want us to completely negate these incredibly important aspects in the lives of our parrots. I am not convinced nor will I ever be convinced to recommend feeding even the one pellet that I recommend as more than 25-30% of any parrot's diet and the only one I would recommend at all is TOPS as mentioned before and again. For the most part, my parrots have been quite healthy over the years. I did have a few rescues and birds I got who had problems when I got them. I lost my Bare-eyed cockatoo a few years ago but she came to be when she was 21 and had eaten pretty much a seed only diet her entire life before I got her to eat fresh foods. I had her for 10 years. I was able to convert her to a healthy diet but 21 years of a bad diet was ultimately too much to overcome.
- By the way, many seed mixes don’t just contain seed; they may also contain chemical preservatives, artificial colors, and synthetic nutrients. Many are preserved with ethoxyquin. Again, I recommend reading the labels and if you do feed seed or a seed mix as part of your parrot’s diet, make sure it is clean without a lot of questionable synthetic additives. I prefer to find organic seeds or feed quality fresh nuts.
I am not a nutritionist but I have studied the topic extensively and can only offer nutritional information based on reading and conversations with knowledgeable people in the field including avian veterinarians who don’t believe in the pellet-only regimen. Some of my information came from my early nagging of two people in the field of animal nutrition. One of them developed a commercially available parrot diet, which originally was promoted as part of a parrot’s diet and not the near total of the diet. Eventually the company changed their policy and also started using artificial coloring in their food. I am not suggesting that my search for knowledge on the subject means that I am a nutritionist but I am stating that I have taken a great deal of time and energy to learn as much as I can about parrots and studying their nutrition and diet is an important part of that knowledge
Visiting a Big Box Pet Store
The “idiot factor” does exist in regards to ... a visit to the bird department of almost any pet super store such as PetSmart or Petco. These stores offer proof that the majority of bird owners still feed their birds a substandard mostly seed diet. They stock what the public demands. A great quote someone told me, “Asking a clerk at a pet super store how to feed your parrot is like asking the bag boy at the grocery store how to feed your children.”
If the majority of bird owners wanted pellets instead of seed, these stores would stock a tremendous variety of manufactured diets. Most only carry a few choices and unfortunately they are not the one that I would ever recommend. In fact, most of the warehouse type stores I have been in still have rows of shelves with about 80% seed mixes providing evidence too many bird owners still feed a predominately seed diet. How can these people remain so ignorant in a time of instant information, do they not care, are they too busy, too lazy … ? Have the seed companies really scammed that many people into believing that a “vitamin enriched” seed mix is a great thing to feed their parrots? Reading the ingredient list of many seed mixes is even as scary as reading the ingredients in the manufactured diets for parrots, but I want to presume that readers of this article already know the health problems associated with a primarily seed diet. But sadly too many people falsely believe the bird industry hype that a pelleted diet is healthy as a total diet. It isn't!
Back to the “Idiot Factor”
Although the term certainly sounds judgmental, “the idiot factor” must be considered in any aspect of education. Whether they know the label “idiot factor” or not, this is a concept believed in by many animal professionals most likely because of their frustration with people who just won’t do right by their companion animals. It has much more to do with willingness to learn than it does with IQ or innate intelligence. In any endeavor, there will be a percentage of people who want to take the time and energy to be educated. They will analyze new information and use what is appropriate for their situation in a positive manner. Parrots are lucky to have caregivers like this!
At the other end of the spectrum are people who are totally closed to learning. They aren’t receptive to any new information, think they already know everything, and/or are not concerned enough to learn. This is sad when it involves sentient animals in need of proper care.
I devoutly believe parrot people who read my writing are the type of people who are more willing to learn and apply new information to the care they give their parrots than the general bird-owning public. If I didn’t believe this I would probably give up totally trying to educate anyone about parrots, especially in regards to diet. It would certainly surprise me if a long-term reader told me they were still feeding their parrots a nutritionally abusive seed-only diet, but I am also surprised when I hear that a subscriber has decided to feed nothing but a pelleted diet. I had a discussion with a breeder who has many parrots and told me that she was no longer going to feed fresh foods and just feed seed mixes, nuts, and pellets. ARGHH! Has she become lazy, cheap, or does she simply no longer care about the welfare of her parrots? Sounds like a seriously profound step backwards in the care of her parrots and I stopped recommending her when she told me that.
Not A ‘Total Diet’
I will always be a fan of fresh foods! While manufactured diets are advancement over seed, I will NEVER believe in them. However, after my extensive research, I only recommend TOPS Parrot Food because it is the one food that lacks the questionable ingredients in the other manufactured diets such as Menadione, artificial food coloring and preservatives, soy, corn, peanuts and synthetic chemical nutrients. Perhaps manufactured diets can claim balanced nutrition within the parameters of what is known about the nutritional needs of parrots. But does anyone really know if the same nutritional parameters apply to all the different species of parrots kept as human companions? There are nutrients that are essential to health that are not found in most pellets. Among many possibilities, these include such the lesser known phyto-nutrients, antioxidants, bio-flavonoids, enzymes, and all sorts of natural holistic nutrients that continue to be discovered and researched. Some vitamins do not have a long term stability in manufactured diets because they are heated at such high temperatures during their processing. This is true of one of the most important nutrients for our parrots … beta carotene (vitamin A). This is why one of the pellet manufacturers suggests feeding a small amount of high vitamin A foods in addition to their diet. It is also why some of the extruded diets seem to be greasy and have a limited shelf life. Because extruded diets are manufactured at such high temperatures that the heat sensitive nutrients need to be added to the outside with oils to adhere them to the food. While we can’t feed our parrots the same diets that they eat in the wild, we can come a lot closer with a good nutritional balance of fresh foods. Other essential nutrients aren't stable at high heats. Most vitamins are sensitive to heat. The high heat that is used to produce extruded diets can destroy vitamins (particularly A, C, and E), minerals, phytochemicals, antioxidants and enzymes.
However, it is not just the nutrients that determine the value of a food. Not all manufactured parrot diets are of the same quality. The quality of ingredients, the method of manufacturing, and the way the nutrient are delivered can all make a tremendous difference. For example, the manufacturer of one diet told me that he had searched throughout the United States for a clean source of fish meal (as a protein source) and couldn’t find anything that he felt was of good enough quality for a bird food. At the time, several manufactured diets contained fish meal – this is no longer true but if it was, this ingredient would be listed on the package if it is in the product. I have already mentioned that I have read that fish meal is preserved with ethoxiquin (banned in human foods and not healthy for parrots!) but if the fish meal is sold with ethoxiquin in it, it doesn't have to be listed as an ingredient on the food label.
The vast number of pelleted diets for our pets including parrots contain synthetic chemical nutrients combined with ingredients which may be harmful to parrots on a long term basis. Menadione is a source of vitamin K activity and vitamin K is essential in a parrot’s diet. Most greens contain this vitamin naturally. Synthetic nutrients including Menadione do not work in the same way that natural nutrients do. Not only do they not provide the same quality of nutrition, they have a negative effect on the way other nutrients work in the body. It is a known fact that more natural a food actually is, the healthier it is for parrots (and people). The more processed a food is, the more unhealthy it is and most parrot and other pet foods are highly processed. I will never understand why, with the knowledge we have about problems with artificial food coloring that people continue to feed foods that almost glow in of the dark with color to their parrots. I also will never understand the lure of a product with artificial fragrance to make the food “smell good.” I don't know that these are still used but to me the odor of these foods is sickening.
Eclectus Should Not Eat Any Pellets!
- In my opinion, if a company produces foods that they say are specifically manufactured for selected parrot species, my guess is that at this point, it is more of a gimmick than an actual determination of what that species needs in their diet. For example, although it is now common knowledge that Eclectus have problems with supplements, artificial and chemical ingredients in their diets, Pretty Bird’s Eclectus diet still contains artificial colors, Menadione, synthetic nutrients and other questionable ingredients that I would personally not feed or recommend feeding to any parrot especially an Eclectus.
After years of working with people and their parrots, I believe that I have a valid understanding of how total pelleted diets affect certain species. Parrots evolved to eat natural, ‘organic,’ unprocessed foods and I believe they have a relatively low threshold for synthetic and artificial additives in their diets. There are several species that I believe suffer serious problems when fed a total or near-total manufactured diet … especially one with artificial food coloring, menadione, and other synthetic ingredients. These include but are not limited to Eclectus, Great-bills, Cockatoos, Caiques, and African Greys. In a death survey I did in the Companion Parrot Quarterly I found that several caiques on primarily pelleted diets with artificial food coloring and synthetic nutrients died way before their time at about 15 years old of renal failure and liver disease.
A few years ago, I received a call from an upset man with a sulfur-crested cockatoo. The bird was 12 years old and had eaten NOTHING but Pretty Bird; an artificially colored highly processed manufactured diet full of synthetic nutrients like Menadione for his entire life. In my not always humble opinion, this is the worst parrot food on the market today. He trusted the breeder when she told him that this was all the bird needed to be healthy. Of course, she sold Pretty Bird. The bird had been a feather plucker for years and about a year or so before the man called me, the cockatoo had started mutilating its skin. A week or so before he called me, his bird reached back and bit off two of his back toes. The bird’s serious mutilation had continued until the bird had reached the point where his vet was recommending that the man put the bird down. We talked for awhile before I asked about the diet. His veterinarian had evidently never asked him what he was feeding his cockatoo probably satisfied because the bird was on a pelleted diet. Very sad situation but the man never called me back with his decision. Do I think it was the diet that did this to this cockatoo – You betcha!
While this story is the worst example, I have worked with many parrots who had feather problems, especially Eclectus, that were solved when the caregivers changed their diet to fresh foods and if they wanted to feed a pellet as part of a diet, I recommended TOPS Parrot Food which is the most natural pellet on the market and the only one I recommend. Until I blocked her, a woman I knew who knew nothing about nutrition harangued me for recommending TOPS Parrot Food. She will never understand why it is truly the only quality pellet on the market today because she believes the marketing hype of the other pelleted diets as a healthy balanced total diet. They are NOT!
I sincerely believe that the long term use of manufactured diets with food coloring, Menadione and other synthetic nutrients will eventually cause health problems for our parrots. Some of the parrot foods on the market today are so brightly colored; it most likely takes a great deal of artificial coloring to make them this bright. ‘But, it is what the public wants!’ is what I have been told. They want to feed an easy diet and think that they are doing the right thing. Unfortunately, my response is that too much of the ‘public’ is generally uneducated about nutrition and the proper care of their parrots. I found a discussion on a list where members were talking about what the “best” parrot foods were. There was no discussion about the nutritional content or the quality of the ingredients. People were only evaluating foods by if their parrots ate them or not. The consensus was that if a parrot ate a particular food that it must be a good food to feed the bird. There was also a discussion about what color pellet their birds liked best as if a specific color of artificial food coloring was a criteria for a good food. In my opinion, the only true criteria for a food is if it has nutritionally-sound quality ingredients that are truly healthy and have NO possible side-effects or health problems being fed on a long-term basis. However, at this time I know of no independent studies that have been done that are creating statistics about various manufactured diets and the health of the parrots who have been eating them on a long-term basis.
Well-spoiled or Spoiled Rotten?
Consider the amount of junk food we all eat despite the fact that we know it is not good for us. Can we afford to feed our parrots foods that may create health problems for them just because they seem to like them and will eat them? There are spoiled rotten parrots and well-spoiled parrots. A spoiled parrot like a spoiled child is allowed to determine what he will eat whether it is good for him or not. These birds will eventually have health problems because of artery-clogging fats and the toxic ingredients in the junk foods they are fed. A well-spoiled and well-loved parrot is fed a nutritious diet with fresh foods that will help guarantee them a long healthy life. The vast majority of our parrots can be converted to most healthy foods if the owner is knowledgeable, consistent, and patient. To use a trite cliché, if I had a dollar for every time someone said “my bird won’t eat that,” I would retire and be touring the birding and parrot hotspots of the world: first stop Australia!
Bright artificially colored pellets became popular because one manufacture had great success with them and many others decided to duplicate that success with similarly colored foods rather than try and create a new market for a more natural, healthier food. I would never feed my parrots an artificially colored food and I recommend that my clients don’t feed them either. I believe this so strongly that I have never accepted advertising for manufactured diets with artificial food coloring in my magazine. No amount of money would convince me to advertise a manufactured diet loaded with food coloring, and the chemical soup that seems to comprise too many of the diets available on the market today. Parrots do love color in their food but it should be foods colored by nature.
Make Smart Choices
Most pelleted foods are advertised and promoted as being nutritionally balanced if they are fed as a total diet. While I question this information, it is important to realize we DO need to know a bit about nutrition to make sure that the fresh foods we are feeding will complement any manufactured diet that we do feed so that the diet is healthy and balanced. Unfortunately, people often feed extra foods that don’t have good nutritional value. A stated before, junk food as more than the rarest treat can create serious health problems. Instead of feeding junk food snacks, and the types of fruits and vegetables that have low nutritional value, the extra foods should also be a quality source of vitamins, minerals and amino acids. While pizza, French fries, peanuts, mashed potatoes, tacos, cookies, crackers, etc. may make a parrot very happy on a short term basis, they won’t keep him very healthy if fed as more than a very small portion as an extremely rare treat.
Nutritional Values of Vegetables and Fruits
Not all veggies and fruits are good sources of healthy nutrients. The most popular parrot people foods seem to be apples, grapes, and corn. While these foods may make an enjoyable snack, they don’t contain high nutritive values and are pretty much empty calories. Although I do feed these from time to time, I try to make sure my parrots eat at least one high vitamin A vegetable each day. These include dark-fleshed sweet potatoes, yams, winter squash, carrots, pumpkin, peppers, broccoli, collard greens, turnip greens, kale and mustard greens. The fresher the better. Sweet potatoes and squash are best gently cooked by steaming.
Healthy Food Mixtures
I try to feed a mash or rice/corn/bean type of mix once a week. My birds love these mixes but I know they are not a complete diet. For example, Crazy Corn was a product marketed as part of a complete diet. I used to cook up a large batch and freeze it in servings for my parrots. After I reheat it and before I put it in their food bowls, I usually stir in some chopped fresh veggies or a small jar of baby food sweet potatoes, winter squash, or carrots. I also usually add a spoonful of nonfat yogurt, and a squirt of Essential Fatty Acid. Now I add these same ingredients to quinoa to make my “glop” … which is my parrot’s favorite food.
These soft food mixes are a great vehicle to provide other nutrients. Most parrots enjoy them or will and added natural supplementation such as organic baby food and EFAs will adhere to the ingredients guaranteeing the nutrients will actually get into your bird.
It is important to realize that bean/corn/rice mixes are high in phosphorous (as is seed). A balanced calcium/phosphorous ratio is essential for our parrots’ health. Calcium supplementation may be needed to keep bones and muscles strong and the nervous system functioning properly. If you feed corn/bean/rice mixes as a food staple in your parrot’s diet, make sure that you are using a supplement that only contains calcium. There is no need to provide extra phosphorous as there is enough of this mineral in the foods being fed.
A Little Extra Work
With knowledge and a little extra work, it is possible to feed parrots a balanced diet without pellets or using TOPS pellets as part of a healthy diet combined with nutritious human foods added for variety. There are those parrot owners who don’t care if a diet of pizza, burritos, corn, crackers, French fries, grapes, cheese, potato chips, and such junk foods are just as nutritionally abusive as a total seed diet. They may not have the inclination, time, or energy to prepare nutritionally-sound foods. These are the people the pelleted diet company representative was referring to and they should probably be feeding a manufactured diet instead of a diet full of human junk food. Years ago a man at a bird club meeting actually told me he didn’t want to feed a good diet because he didn’t want his parrot to outlive him. That shocked me but then over the years I have heard a lot of attitudes about parrots that have shocked me. Despite this, I believe that people who want to feed their parrots a healthy lifelong diet, will do the extra work and their parrots will benefit from not only a longer life but a higher quality life. Chances are that the caregivers will spend a lot less money at the veterinarian’s office.
It does take more knowledge, time, and effort to prepare nutritious parrot meals but with solid nutritional information, it is possible. My parrots have TOPS pellets available most of the time but watching them crunch on their carrots, munch on their almond butter and Garnet yam sandwiches, unshell their almonds, or hearing pleasure sounds while they devour their “glop” makes the extra food preparation worth it to me.
A quality diet with fresh vegetables and fruits, whole grains, and quality protein sources such as quinoa or well-cooked chicken with TOPS as part of the diet will most likely save money in the long run ... money that would otherwise be spent on veterinarian bills and medical treatment. Your parrots will be healthier, happier, more playful, and a lot more enjoyable for you.
There are several other helpful articles on this website about converting parrots to a healthy fresh food diet, the foods I buy and keep to make recipes for my parrots, the whys of foods that are toxic or problematic and some that are said to be bad but aren't, and percentages of food groups and the healthy foods in those groups.