"Probably most pet owners still think ‘seeds’ when it comes to food for their parrots," admitted Larry Nemetz, DVM, an avian-only veterinarian in Santa Ana, Calif.
"Nationwide, the pet owners who opt for a formulated diet for their birds are still in the minority." But he said the number of pet owners who are switching to a formulated diet is growing each year.
Avian veterinarians generally recommend that 70 percent to 90 percent of a parrot’s diet be comprised of an extruded or pelletized formulated diet, and the remaining 30 percent to 10 percent be made up of healthy table foods, fruits and vegetables, and seeds or nuts.
As veterinarians continue to get the word out about formulated diets, Dr. Nemetz believes, this type of food will become more popular. He estimates that 70 percent of his clients are feeding their birds a formulated diet.
Many veterinarians across the country have made similar observations.
"Pet owners are becoming more aware of the formulated diets," said Julie Burge, DVM, of Grandview, Mo.
In her area, many breeders are now weaning their baby birds onto pellets and instruct new bird buyers to feed them a formulated diet rather than seeds.
Still, Nemetz said, if pet owners do not buy their bird from a bird breeder who uses formulated diets, or if they have not consulted a veterinarian, then most of these people aren’t going to have a clue what a formulated diet is. "Sometimes I’ll recommend pellets to new clients and they’ll say, ‘Huh? What’s that?’ They think I’m telling them to buy rabbit food for their bird," Nemetz said.
He said he’s not discouraged by that, though. Formulated diets have been on the market only for about 20 years now, and it takes time to get the word out.
"Kibble dog food just started becoming popular in the early 1980s," Nemetz said. "It was out 20 years before it really became popular. The same is going to be true with formulated diets for pet birds."
That’s not to say formulated diets will take over the avian market completely.
"There will always be some people who prefer to feed their birds a seed-based diet," predicted Kitson Logue, DVM, vice president of research and development for Kaytee Products in Chilton, Wis.
"A lot of people see seeds as the more natural type of food for pet birds. The premium mixes with the different seeds, nuts, and dried fruit are really popular. People like that variety."
Even among people who use a formulated food as their bird’s base diet, many still buy seed mixes as a supplemental food.
For most veterinarians, the pros and cons of formulated versus seed-based diets is a regularly discussed topic with clients. Not only that, there’s also the discussion of which brand of formulated diet to choose. There are a variety of formulated diets, seed mixes and bird treats available on the market today.
One of the biggest trends in formulated diets in recent years has been the development of species-specific diets to meet the nutritional needs of particular birds. Several companies offer such diets. Pretty Bird of Minneapolis, for one, has developed 13 species-specific diets, including ones for hyacinth macaws, mini macaws, Amazons, cockatiels, eclectus, lories and softbills.
"Rather than a cockatiel diet just being a smaller sized version of the larger parrot diet, for instance, the nutrient levels have been altered to provide a better balance specifically for the cockatiel’s needs," noted Michael Massie, president of Pretty Bird.
Additionally, some manufacturers now offer specifically formulated diets targeted to birds that are obese, have allergies, are breeding birds, birds with liver or kidney failure, and birds that have proventricular dilatation disease. These formulations are normally distributed only through veterinary clinics.
Whether these specialized diets do what they’re designed to do is the subject of some debate among manufacturers and avian veterinarians.
"There is no research supporting the specific needs of certain groups or species of birds," said Darlia Morris, DVM, director of veterinary affairs for ZuPreem in Mission, Kan. She said she sees the specialized diets more along the line of "marketing gimmicks" rather than actual science.
"It’s very easy to come out with a diet and claim it to be something because there’s no standards that are actually forcing you prove those things," added Greg Harrison, DVM, Dipl. ABVP, in Green Acres, Fla., and president of Harrison’s Bird Diet.
"I could come out with a bird liver diet and an Amazon diet and a macaw diet. The trouble with that is there’s no one saying, ‘Prove that,’ and therefore it normally isn’t done,” Dr. Harrison said. "The cost of actually doing that kind of research can run a half million dollars or more and that kind of money usually isn’t available."
Manufacturers have also made modifications in seed mixes. Most now add pellets and dehydrated fruits and vegetables to their seed mixes in an attempt to balance and fortify the seed diet.
Jeff Clark, vice president of marketing for Sun Seed in Toledo, Ohio, said he believes these "premium" seed mixtures are a step forward from view that "birds like the mixes better because they’re more fun to eat than just straight seeds or straight pellets."
Massie agreed to a point, but added, "The premium seed mixes have also been a step backwards, because unfortunately it’s still a battle to make sure the birds don’t pick and choose the seeds and nuts from the mix. Too often the birds refuse to eat the healthy nuggets that are in there."
Finally, a number of new supplemental bird foods have been developed. Many manufacturers produce high-end treats such as human-grade dried fruits and vegetables as well as foods that need to be cooked.
Some companies have incorporated pellets along with seed into treat sticks or berries, so that the bird will at least have exposure to the formulated food while eating the seeds.
Others have created treats that look like human snack foods, so a bird that has been used to junk food may be willing to try the look-alike healthy treat.
Veterinary Tips and Tricks
Most veterinarians probably have definite ideas about which bird diets and supplemental foods they recommend to clients. But coming up with recommendations is only half the battle. How can you motivate your clients to follow your dietary suggestions? Here are some steps you can take.
Show, not tell. When clients come in with a bird on a seed-only diet, point out symptoms of nutritionally related disease that are starting to show up, Harrison suggested.
"Pet owners are usually much more willing to change their bird’s diet if they can see the effects of poor nutrition with their own eyes," he said.
If the bird is overweight, for instance, swab the skin with rubbing alcohol and let the owners see the fat underneath the skin. Explain the long-term health risks associated with obesity or nutritional deficiencies. If you’ve seen parrots die at 7 or 8 years of age from obesity resulting in fatty liver disease, pass on these stories.
Put your nutritional arguments down on paper. Put together some handouts on avian nutrition that you can give your clients to read at home when they’re not rushed or preoccupied with other things.
Nemetz has put together nine information sheets that deal with nutrition in some way.
"I give my clients this unarguable data and I ask them, ‘Can you live on a 50 percent seed diet that’s vitamin A deficient and calcium depleted for very long?’
"A lot of my clients are well-educated and very successful in their career fields. They realize that education and knowledge give them the power to make them successful," Nemetz said.
"When I come at them with a basis of knowledge and show them why this bird versus that bird lives longer and healthier, they tell me, ‘Makes sense, Doc. I’m willing to try it.’"
Discuss nutrition in human terms. If you always talk abstractly about why balanced nutrition is important for pet birds, the owners themselves can’t relate so they’re not interested, according to Nemetz.
He tries to relate his nutritional arguments to human health, to bring the point home to clients.
"I might talk with some clients about heart disease in parrots," he said. "I’ll ask them, ‘Well, how do we prevent it?’ I tell my clients it’s just like with people: You have to eat right. If you ate a bon-bon and potato chip diet, what’s the odds of you making it to the age of 17? A bird eating just sunflower seeds is like a person living on candy and potato chips. Everyone gets the point when I relate it to people."
Give your clients a sampling of healthy bird foods to take home. Dr. Burge has found that pet owners are more willing to give new food items a try if they have it in their hands–and they don’t have to drive around to particular stores looking for it. Her clinic has a variety of free samples available for owners interested in trying different diets for their pets.
"We purchase several types of formulated diets in bulk and repackage them into convenient sizes for owners to try without having to spend a lot of money on larger bags of food," Burge said.
"Since some people are concerned about food additives and preservatives, we offer some diets that are organic in addition to the standard brands,” Burge said.
If the samples are for dietary lines that only particular retail outlets carry, provide your clients with information about where to get it or how to order it. The idea is to make it as easy as possible for pet owners to feed their birds the right foods.
Help owners see the benefits of using seeds for rewards in training only. Avian veterinarian Brian Speer, DVM, Dipl. ABVP, of Oakley, Calif., said he believes nutritional arguments are not going to work with all pet owners.
"A lot of pet owners are used to hearing all the arguments about how their birds are going to die young if they live on seeds and it kind of desensitizes them to it," Dr. Speer said.
"It’s like people who smoke cigarettes who hear all the health arguments against it. It’s like ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know,’ and they don’t care."
The way to reach people in this category, Speer said, is by getting them involved with training their birds. His methods involve providing only pellets to the birds in their cage and then feeding just seeds (or other favorite treats) to birds when they have performed well in training sessions or working with behavior modification.
"To do this, your clients have to know what food their bird really values and then you assign ways that that food is earned," Speer said.
"The food is no longer the bird’s God-given right. If the bird’s going to get his favorite foods, he’s going to have to work for it."
The only food the bird gets all the time — without having to earn it–would be the formulated diet.
During an office consultation, Speer might show clients how to train their birds to wave or do a ‘high-four’ or perform some other kind of trick. Or, if the parrot is a one-person bird — for instance, it may hate the husband and love the wife — Speer will explain to his clients how they can use food rewards to teach the bird to like the husband.
"Suppose the bird would do anything for peanuts," Speer said. "You put the bird on a formulated diet and he only gets peanuts when the husband’s handing them to the bird. It’s amazing how rapidly the parrot will change his mind about the husband because now there’s no reason to chase that person away anymore."
Speer said this concept works really well with pet owners because they enjoy having the best trained parrot on the block.
"It becomes a win-win situation for the bird and the owners," Speer said. "The birds become well-behaved, they have better relationships with their owners and they are eating a healthy diet."
Rebecca Sweat is a frequent contributor to Veterinary Practice News.
Who to Contact For Educational Materials
Manufacturers provide a variety of pamphlets, brochures, posters and other educational tools to practitioners to help them keep their clients informed about avian nutrition. Here's what's offered and who to contact:
Harrison's Bird Diet
A variety of literature is offered either free or for a nominal charge; posters; a product brochure, "The Organic Difference"; a veterinary newsletter, "The Avian Examiner"; food samples; and a brochure about fecal Gram's stain. Veterinarians and veterinary technicians may also visit the company’s Web site (a password is needed, and may be obtained by calling the above phone number) to review research and download newsletters and other educational materials.
(800) KAYTEE-1 (ask for the Customer Service Helpline); www.kaytee.com
Kaytee offers the following materials to veterinarians free: a bird examination chart, informational sell sheets, brochures describing their products, and Technical Focus documents with information on general nutrition and conversion to new foods. These may be copied and given to clients.
(800) 842-6445; www.lafeber.com
Free literature packs with information about Lafeber’s products and avian nutrition are available to veterinarians.
(612) 282-3562; www.prettybird.com
Two brochures are offered free. One describes Pretty Bird’s species-specific formulated diets and the other provides information about its seed mixes.
(800) 345-4767; www.zupreem.com
Free literature for veterinary hospitals and clinics include a 16-page brochure, "Feed your bird a healthier diet for a longer life." Brochures are sent out 25 to a package with a holder for the clinic reception desk. Nutritional sheets are available on all the company’s diets and list ingredients, guaranteed analysis and nutritional benefits.—R.S
This article has been updated to reflect the latest contact information for Harrison's Bird Diet.