Tired of reading? Listen instead!
Anybody can make claims, but how they are supported is what matters! Buckle up for this blog post, because we're not just diving into the problem with these claims, but also myths and misconceptions surrounding research in parrot nutrition!
Whenever I see a company claim that their bird food is the healthiest you can find, without providing a complete nutrient analysis or conducting feeding trials, I view this as pretty similar to a diner claiming they have the “world’s best coffee.” It’s marketing an opinion as a fact that, generally speaking, is unverifiable. However, unlike with the "world's best coffee" in which the greatest risk of making this claim is disappointing customers, there are real risks to claiming your bird food is the healthiest without having scientific data to back it up.
Your bird fully relies on you to feed them a nutritious diet, so feeding them one that has been scientifically shown to improve health outcomes is incredibly important. With baby birds, nutrition related disorders can become apparent pretty quickly as they can affect growth and lead to disorders such as rickets. However, it’s a different story with birds that are no longer actively growing. In this case, nutrition related disorders can take years (even decades!) to become clinically apparent (although laying females may be more likely to exhibit signs earlier on). As such, the anecdotes of a person whose bird has been on a certain diet for a period of a few months or even years do not compel me to change my own bird’s diet or advise others to do so. Even if that diet seems to be working for that bird, it does not mean it will generally work for other birds.
Though research in nutrition specifically on parrots is admittedly behind that of dogs and cats, there is a significant amount of scientific knowledge on the dietary requirements of domestic poultry and even a few species of parrots in captivity. Exact nutrient requirements likely vary somewhat between species, and given there are ~400 species of parrots, it's unlikely there will ever be enough motivation or funding to research the specific nutrition requirements of EVERY species in captivity. That said, feeding a diet that is at the very least formulated to meet the basic nutritional requirements of your bird is a great way to ensure that they don't end up with massive gaps in their diet. Once the base diet is covered, we can start to take into account species specific knowledge acquired through studying their wild diet and listening to repeated observations made from avian veterinarians and skilled aviculturists.
For example, it has been suggested that macaws and other canopy dwelling South American species have lower vitamin D3 requirements than other parrots. This has been substantiated by the observed lower vitamin D3 toxicity threshold in some macaws. On the flip side, African greys have long been known for developing calcium-related neurological disorders resulting from insufficient vitamin D3 levels. The current recommendation for African greys in particular is to provide both dietary (from fortified pellets) and UVB sources of vitamin D3. Do these two pieces of information mean we will throw out everything else we know about avian nutrition and start from scratch for these species? Definitely not! But it does mean that it’s reasonable to pay special attention to the vitamin D3 content in pellets depending on the species of parrot you have. This of course can only really be done if we know exactly what nutrients are in the food and in what quantity. In other words, we need to at the very least have access to a nutrient analysis that goes beyond a typical guaranteed analysis to make informed decisions.
Now, whenever I bring up the topic of parrot nutrition, I almost always receive messages from concerned companion parrot owners who've heard that research in this area is outdated or bought out by pet food companies. First, just because research is older does not mean that it's no longer valid. Much of the time, it simply means that the original findings have been substantiated time and time again, and thus, there isn't much interest in continuing to publish in that particular area. Further, research in companion parrot nutrition is absolutely ongoing. For example, at the time this blog post was written, this paper by researchers from Louisiana State University School of Veterinary Medicine on Vitamin D levels in Amazon parrots was only published a few months ago in April.
Second, contrary to what many claim, research related to pet food or generally animal nutrition is not always funded by pet food companies. And even in the cases where researchers do receive support (be it financial or in the form of food samples) from pet food companies, this does not automatically invalidate the findings. This is especially true when said findings are similarly reported by other independent researchers. Oftentimes, I hear individuals not just speculate on the research itself, but also on their veterinarians by claiming that the pet food companies have vets in their pockets. Let's clear this up: the nutrition education veterinarians receive is not funded or sponsored by pet food companies, and claiming such ultimately aims to undermine veterinarians’ knowledge, skills, and integrity. In addition to taking at least one course specifically in nutrition in vet school, veterinarians have years of education in subjects that form the foundation for understanding nutrition science, such as chemistry, biology, anatomy, and physiology. Many veterinarians even have their bachelors degrees in animal science or other subjects closely related to nutrition. Of course, they also have hands on clinical experience, and many boost their nutrition knowledge with research or continuing education opportunities.
All of this is to say that there is research on avian nutrition, and from what I have observed, those that cast the most doubt on said research are often profiting (or are heavily influenced by those profiting) from selling products not substantiated by what has been scientifically and clinically proven. There is SO much misinformation out there when it comes to pet food and your bird’s diet. My advice? Be vigilant, watch out for marketing ploys that demonize ingredients to sell their own product, ask for scientific (not anecdotal) evidence that supports claims, and perhaps most importantly, talk with your avian veterinarian!
Stephanie Rosenbloom has her Ph.D. from Cornell University and has been caring for parrots her entire life. She believes that we can all benefit from asking more questions, seeking knowledge from reliable sources, and giving others the benefit of the doubt before drawing conclusions. She applies these concepts to her practice as a parrot trainer and behavior consultant.
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Guaranteed analysis: the minimum percent of crude protein and crude fat, and the maximum percent of crude fiber. Note that crude does not refer to the quality of the nutrient, rather to the laboratory method utilized to measure nutrient content. More info on pet food labeling can be found on this FDA site and this AAFCO site.