Pellets v. a Fresh Diet: The Great Pet Food Debate

There is a recurring discussion in one of the online parrot groups that I moderate about whether or not pellets should be fed to parrots.  Well, actually, to be more accurate, the pellet v. fresh food debate recurs throughout aviculture, on the regular.  It’s an ongoing thing.  But recently, in the aforementioned group, one woman posted the following:

I just had a vet tell me that I am feeding my parrots too many fresh vegetables and that pellets should make up 60% of their diet.  I’m not sure what to think about that…

Harrison's Pellets

What followed was a barrage of comments, many of which were people telling her that her vet was wrong and stupid and that she should stop going to him immediately, and that vets probably only recommend pellets because they get kick-backs from the pet food companies or are conspiring with them to make money off their unsuspecting victim-clients.  But there were also people who were taking the opposite stance: telling her that vets know best and that pellets are more nutritionally balanced than fresh food, so yeah, just feed pellets, or mostly pellets, anyway!

chopnfreeze013012

My response was long and rambling and not particularly brilliant, but I decided to re-post it here, because I feel like what this debate is frequently missing is someone who has had both the veterinary and gen. pop. perspective.  People have a tendency to be either “Science=Pellets!” or “Nature Good; Doctors Bad!”  Both sides are handicapped by their limited point of view.  What they see is only one facet of companion animal care, and that myopic viewpoint warps their opinions on the subject.  It’s like the classic fable of the three blind men encountering an elephant for the first time and asked to describe it:

The first grabbed the elephant’s trunk and said, “Elephants are a kind of snake!”  The second grabbed the elephant’s leg and said, “No, they are like a tree trunk!”  The third grabbed the elephant’s tail and said, “You are both wrong!  They are like a rope!”  None of them were wrong or right; they simply were experiencing different facets of an elephant.

elephant perspective

Through no virtue of my own, I’ve had the privilege of stumbling through life all Mr. Magoo-style and ending up with a wide variety of perspectives: as a pet owner, in many types of veterinary hospitals as kennel tech, receptionist, and veterinary technician, in a mobile veterinary practice, in barns, in an aviary, in rescue groups, in wildlife rehab facilities, as a pet sitter, and as a behavior consultant.  Few people have the opportunity to see the issues from as many perspectives as I have been able to.  So, with that in mind, this was my response:

Inre: vets getting kickbacks from or being in collusion with pelleted food companies: absolutely false. Those vets who sell Harrison’s, or any other pellet, for that matter, do so because they believe in the product and believe in offering their clients the very best options. In fact, most vets make lower profit margins off of the foods they sell than pet stores do, because they buy in smaller quantities (smaller quantities=fresher ingredients) and charge less than pet stores. 

Veterinarians are not stupid; neither are they infallible. Like all of us, they establish their beliefs based on a combination of what they have been taught and what they have experienced directly. That means that they are as susceptible as any of us to misinformation and/or flawed logic; however, they have also been trained to approach every concept through the scientific method: data-based, peer-reviewed information. 

We also have to remember that the field of medicine is vast, seemingly infinite. No veterinarian can be an expert in every field. ALL vets – and human doctors, for that matter – select one or a few specific fields, focus on and specialize in those fields, and then rely on the recommendations of their peers as well as whatever generalized training and education they got in every other field outside of their specialty. That means that a vet may be at the top of their game in, say, infectious disease, but really know jack squat about nutrition beyond what is widely recommended by the mainstream medical opinion of their time. All medical professionals rely on the work of others to fill in their own information gaps–as they must. No one could possibly be an expert in everything.  And even the experts know a far cry from everything.  What we know is only the merest fraction of what remains to be known about the universe, or even just about nutrition.

In other words, just because a vet makes a nutritional recommendation that doesn’t necessarily make sense to you doesn’t mean that they are a bad vet, nor does it mean that their advice should just be dismissed out of hand. It ALSO does not mean that you should just blindly follow your vet’s advice, because they ALSO have the potential of being mistaken. It simply means that, if they tell you something that doesn’t feel right in your gut, you should look for second, third, fourth however many additional opinions you need to feel like you have a recommendation that sits well with you and seems to work for you and your birds. Mainstream medical opinion, after all, isn’t always right.

So what is wrong with the mainstream medical opinion about nutrition? Well, to answer that, we need to start with what’s right about it: as someone said above, the medical community makes decisions based on hard, cold data, rather than conjecture, feelings, impressions, or hearsay. Data collection takes time–a lot of time. It is meticulous work to do research and perform studies, eliminating as many variables as possible in order to isolate the effects of just one piece of the puzzle. What’s good about this is that they have solid evidence of the truth of something before they can agree, as a community, that it is true. What’s bad about this is that the scientific community is VERY slow to make changes–so what many of us feel to be true by looking at anecdotal evidence or using common sense may take the scientific community decades to agree with and stand behind. What’s ALSO bad about it is that the medical community is made of up humans, who are as fallible as the rest of us. Many studies that actually make it into peer-reviewed journals and become the foundation of many scientific theories turn out to be flawed by the omission or misinterpretation of data, ignorance of additional variables that were unknown to scientists at the time the study was performed but that actually made a huge difference to the outcome, or, worst of all, by the purposeful manipulation of the data to skew the study towards the funding organization’s agenda. After years of reading countless research findings and peer-reviewed studies, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wanted to bash my head against the wall in sheer frustration by some obvious flaws that sneak past the peer review boards. BUT! What’s great about the scientific method is that its meticulous nature and requisite transparency means that eventually, most such flaws are caught and corrected by the scientific community. What’s bad about the scientific method is that those changes and corrections can take a long time to occur.

So blahblahblah. Why am I talking about all of this?  Because: there is A LOT that we still don’t understand about nutrition. Avian veterinary nutritionists are acutely aware of this. However, they are manufacturing pellets that meet all of the *average*, *most basic* known nutritional requirements of birds *in general*. They know the system isn’t perfect; however, it’s a lot better and more precise than just flying by the seat of our pants. THAT is why many veterinarians recommend an all- or mostly-pelleted diet.

The formulas in these pellets meet specific ratio requirements that are based on the most up-to-date information that we believe most parrot species need. If you start adding in more than 20% fresh foods, you throw off those ratios, and therefore aren’t really offering a balanced diet anymore. So let’s say that the ratio is 33% protein, 33% fat, and 33% carbohydrates (it isn’t, but this is just an example for simplicity’s sake). If you add in a 50% fruit and vegetable diet on top of the pellets, you have just added in a lot more carbohydrates but not an equal amount of fat and protein. Uh-oh. So that perfectly-balanced diet that they just formulated for optimum health is now off. Now it’s, say, 20% protein, 20% fat, and 60% carbohydrates. And that’s just talking about macronutrients. That’s not even talking about micronutrients, which get exponentially more complicated.

So pellets are the safest, most scientifically established way to feed a bird. Most vets, by virtue of being part of the scientific community but not necessarily well versed enough in nutrition to be able to make their own nutritional recommendations, are going to tell their clients to feed their birds the “safe” route. But here’s the thing: we don’t live in a 100% guaranteed safe world. There’s no way to feed a parrot a diet that’s 100% perfect and 100% guaranteed, and as many people have pointed out in this thread, there are many, MANY birds who do really poorly on an all- or mostly-pelleted diet. Feeding a diet that is a combination of fresh and pelleted foods, or feeding a diet that is ALL fresh foods and no pellets, are methods that are higher risk, but also higher reward. There is absolutely the potential to make your birds healthier and happier by feeding a fresh, varied diet–but there’s also the potential to cause massive malnutrition, illness, or even death that way.

I want to talk a little bit about Jean Pattison [Jean “the African Queen” Pattison is a bird breeder who used to feed her birds a fresh diet and then switched to a 100% pelleted diet, and all of her birds became healthier, had better feather quality, bred more frequently and more successfully, and her baby birds became healthier.  One of the commenters brought her up as an example of why birds should be on a pellet-only diet.], and I’m glad she was brought up, because she is a perfect example of what I’m talking about. When she was feeding a fresh diet, she was feeding mostly a combination of fruits and vegetables. That is not a balanced diet for most parrot species, and very few parrots would do well on that diet. Additionally, she breeds African species, and mostly Poicephalus species. Being savannah and/or arid mountain species, most Poicephalus naturally would eat a much higher ratio of grass seeds/grains than species of parrots who inhabit rainforests, like Eclectus or Macaws, who primarily would have access to fresh leaves, flowers, nuts, and insects. So a Poicephalus has a higher chance of success on an all-pelleted diet – made primarily of grain – than on a fresh fruit and vegetable diet. And we also need to take into consideration that her birds are breeding birds, who need far more fat and simple sugars as well as a higher overall caloric intake than companion parrots. If I feed a diet of predominantly Harrison’s pellets with a smaller ratio of chop to my Red Belly, as Jean Pattison feeds her breeder Red Bellied Parrots, she instantly turns into a hyperactive, super-agitated, nesty little horndog. That’s great for a breeder who wants her birds to be hormonal and nesty, but TERRIBLE for me as a companion parrot owner who does NOT want a hormonal, nesty bird.

So, in summary, vets are not stupid, nor are they maniacal, nor are they greedy, for recommending an all- or mostly-pelleted diet to their clients. That is certainly one way to feed birds that does work for some birds, and is a far cry better than what most of their clients feed their birds, which is crap. Vets, knowing that most of their clients have no interest in busting their asses to laboriously make their birds’ meals, would rather have their clients feed a relatively safe, balanced diet. They believe that is the lesser of two evils. But that does not mean that you *have to* or even necessarily *should* feed your bird that way. Nor does it mean that you have to quit going to your vet if you disagree with them about how you feed your birds. It is up to each of us to figure out what works best for us and our birds, and to make that decision based on the *results* of that diet rather than some emotional or ideological attachment to that diet. We must all be aware that EVERY SINGLE FEEDING METHOD has pros and cons, risks and rewards, and that what might be working for our birds during this phase of their life may not be what they need in 6 months, 1 year, 2 years, 10 years, whatever. We need to be willing to modify their diets as needed based on what is currently happening in their bodies, instead of stubbornly feeding them based on what we *believe* is right or what *used* to work for them. We also need to be completely honest with our vets about what we are feeding them, whether or not our vet agrees with our feeding methods. If our birds get sick on the diets we feed them, maybe it’s time to listen to veterinary recommendations. If our birds do awesome on the diets we feed them, maybe we will contribute to changing our vets’ minds about what works and what doesn’t. But calling our vets stupid or nefarious and dismissing what they have to say simply because we disagree with them isn’t going to do anyone any good.

Photo of a severely obese Budgie due to a poor diet, courtesy of avianstudios.com

Photo of a severely obese Budgie due to a poor diet, courtesy of avianstudios.com

This conversation was about birds, but the topic is relevant to every species of companion animal.  We might as well be talking about raw and home-cooked whole food diets for dogs and cats.  It’s the exact same issue.

When I worked in vet clinics alone, I used to be completely against raw feeding.  Why?  Because the only raw fed animals we saw in the veterinary setting were the ones who were sick or dying.  We saw all the failures of a raw diet, and none of the successes.  It wasn’t until I got out of the veterinary setting and started doing pet sits and behavior consults, going into people’s homes and talking to them as someone who wasn’t representing the veterinary community, that I got to see all the success stories.  Without fail and without exception, when a raw diet was properly balanced and implemented, I got to see animals with a whole host of health and/or behavioral issues miraculously recover, becoming completely new and different creatures.

raw dog food

So why the major discrepancy?  It turns out that most raw feeders have learned the hard way that most vets are radically against raw feeding, so they either lie to their vet, don’t take their pets to a vet, or find a vet who does support a raw diet.  That’s all fine and good for them, but the result is that the veterinary community isn’t allowed to gain another perspective.  They continue to only see the cases that don’t work and don’t get to see the cases that do.  So the polarization continues, and feeds itself in a vicious cycle.  Neither side is wrong; they just see different facets of the issue.

So I guess my point is this: as long as we continue to draw lines and take sides, as long as we continue to view the issue as vets/science v. pet owners/nature, as long as we continue to royally suck at communicating openly and honestly with each other, sharing our experiences with each other, and trying to see each other’s point of view, we are going to continue to thwart our own efforts to understand and learn more about nutrition and provide optimum nutrition for our companion animals.  So let’s all get down off our high horses, check our egos at the door, and start being willing to learn from and listen to each other, mkay?  I never in a million years thought I’d ever be saying this, but maybe we should heed Vanilla Ice’s advice: stop, collaborate, and listen!  Har har har!  Ohhhh, when I start busting out the cheesy jokes it’s time to stop…

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About Emily Strong

behavior consultant. veterinary technician. crazy parrot lady. lifelong animal lover. cellist. yogi. hula hooper. horse rider. swimmer. singer. reader. writer. dreamer. music lover. amateur gardener. nutrition enthusiast. eternal student. language lover. aspiring polyglot. tattoo canvas. water drinker. overthinker. bountiful laugher. overenthusiast. attention deficit meditator.
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4 Responses to Pellets v. a Fresh Diet: The Great Pet Food Debate

  1. beerab says:

    Personally my birds on mostly on a pellet diet (roudybush) because I believe that it gets my birds the nutrition that me giving them fresh veggies and fruits each day miss. I also supplement nutriberries for a bit of seed in their diet, and they are trained using safflower and mini sunflower seeds (training with these seeds has been a Godsend for my conure that is terrified of everyone).

    I think if you are knowledgable, and you take your bird to the vet on a regular basis with no issues, then there is no reason to discontinue your method of feeding as long as your bird is doing well.

  2. Nicole says:

    Wonderful post!!!! I think the same argument could definitely be made for human nutrition as well. Thank you for presenting the different sides of the argument from the perspective of the many hats you have worn. Great information.

    • Emily Strong says:

      Thank you for the kind words! I agree; the same argument can definitely be made for human nutrition. As we can see, every nutritional philosophy has its own scientific studies to back it up, as well as its own host of anecdotal success stories of people who had xyz health problems and were healed by their dietary changes. This is consistently true, even though each of these dietary philosophies vary greatly from each other, and indeed sometimes directly contradict and are mutually exclusive of each other. If there truly was only one, true way to eat healthily, only one of those nutritional camps would have the science and the anecdotes to back it up, while the others would not. That’s why I always get annoyed when someone tries to get snooty about their nutritional beliefs and say something like, “I like to base my nutritional decisions in science.” In addition to sounding incredibly arrogant and condescending, sentences like that are functionally meaningless when we assess and acknowledge how complex the field of nutrition is, and how vast the varieties of successful dietary methods are.

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