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  • Writer's pictureSandra Witt

The Pellet Predicament ...

If you own a parrot then you know the passion with which parrot owners come to the subject of pellets. Some will tell you this or that pellet is inferior based on ingredients or base on their personal preference. In the end it's really up to the owner to read the ingredients and research how those ingredients impact their parrot's health.

Let's take a look at why pellets were developed in the first place.

Pellet development.

The pellet was developed to provide an easy way for parrot owners to offer sufficient nutrition. Up to that point, the 'recommended diet' was seeds and, well, yeah that's pretty much it. Why? Well, because although bird ownership has grown to be the fourth largest pet in America (behind dogs, cats, and fish), there is surprisingly little research around Psittacine nutritional needs.

The science of feeding birds has lagged behind studies on other species because there was the perception that the diets available were sufficient. There also were no financial incentives for universities or manufacturers to employ nutritionists for the numerous parrot species. That, along with the difficulty that goes along with studying the nutrient requirements of a large group with such a broad base of species and metabolic conditions made the complexity and expense prohibitive.

Many of the current beliefs on what to feed come from aviculturists with years of trial and error to develop diets that are "successful for the individual." Some of these practices have been modified and passed on; but the basics are generally accepted by aviculturists and bird enthusiasts. Improvements to the diet as far as adding fresh fruits, vegetables, and nuts have resulted in providing the nutritional profile that seeds alone can't possibly provide ... but that discussion is for another time.

Nutrition is a critical link to a bird’s good health.

There exists a vast array of interrelationships between different nutrients that must all be evaluated to protect against imbalances and interferences, and to ensure proper amounts of nutrients are being consumed and absorbed by the bird. One of the most frequent mistakes made is to assess nutrient adequacy solely on the total amount of a nutrient in the food. One must go beyond the quantitative approach and evaluate both the quality of the nutrient and the animal’s actual intake; only by evaluating the intake level (will the bird EAT it) and the quality (bioavailability) can the total body uptake can be determined.

It is important that the individual nutrient levels be balanced with respect to the energy content of the food because the food intake is largely dependent on the total caloric density. There is a lot more to this point but, in relation to pellets, this is a key factor of the ingredients selected.

Many pellets contain sunflower seeds and peanuts and many don't believe sunflower seeds or peanuts should ever be fed. However, pellet manufacturers use sunflower seed because they contain essential fatty acids and have high linoleic acid content. Linoleic acid is an essential omega-6 fatty acid required by the body in small amounts, but too much is actually detrimental to health. Pellet manufacturers use this ingredient to supplement or fortify the pellet. It's also, likely that this is the reason for the abundance of sunflower seed in commercial parrot seed mixes. The problem is that too much of a 'good thing' is still ... too much.

Consider a few key points.

The pellet formula you choose should be in line with the "life stage" of the bird you're feeding. While we don't encourage breeding in the U.S. (obviously), an egg-producing hen needs to be fed a nutrient-adequate diet rich in the essential amino acids, energy, linoleic acid and all of the required vitamins and minerals for normal cell division, growth and maturation. If a hen is fed a nutrient-deficient diet can result in embryo development that is abnormally affected.

In the growth phases a young bird's requirement for amino acids is further increased for feather development; feathers are comprised of more than 90% protein (on a dry matter basis), so they can approach up to 10% of the total body weight in the young bird.

In the 'maintenance' phase, the requirements of an adult bird are the lowest than any other time of the life cycle. The bird’s greatest need at this time is to provide adequate energy to maintain body temperature, metabolic functions, and the appropriate activity level. Protein requirement is minimized, because the primary need is for the replacement of dead cells or of amino acids used in various metabolic systems (ie, enzymes). Similarly, the need for vitamins and minerals is only to replace those that are lost through metabolic processes.

So now what do I do?

Feeding practices and beliefs are deeply instilled in a bird enthusiasts’ anthropomorphic views (i.e., the tendency to “humanize” the pet). There is often a belief that nothing is too good for "my baby" so the animal is offered an incredible variety of what is often not-so-nutritious and in many cases deleterious.

On top of that, the companion bird community has been inundated with self-proclaimed experts who have unprecedented access to the general public through social media and the internet. Granted, many are truly trying to help bird owners do the best for their pets, albeit from a somewhat "passionate" perspective. Others are trying to achieve personal gain or recognition through their emphatic and frequently unsupported recommendations of certain feeding programs.

All I can advise is ... please, please, please, spend as much time doing your OWN research as you spend on social media. Don't take anyone's word at face value, look up their claims and assess them based on the collective research you have done, make your own decision based on your first-hand knowledge of your bird and the information you have researched and verified. And finally, discuss your diet plans with your Avian Veterinarian. Closely monitor your bird's weight, attitude/mood, and physical conditions, and follow up with regular vet checks with blood work to confirm the health of your parrot.

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