Avian Expert Articles

How To Switch Or Convert Your Bird From Seeds To Pellets: Case Studies

Amazon FrescaConverting a pet bird to a balanced diet is a task that many owners have had to take on. Whether it’s because a bird came into the home already eating a poor diet, the bird’s health changed and thus its dietary needs changed, or because the owners just didn’t know that certain foods in excess were not ideal, thousands of pet bird owners have had to work on making changes.

As a veterinarian I have personally counselled many owners on the importance of a healthy and balanced diet and how they should go about instituting a dietary change. And don’t worry, my advice has not come without personal experiences! I, too, have had to work on making dietary changes in my own pet birds’ diets at different times. So, I know firsthand the frustrations that can sometimes come along with asking our beloved pets to eat something they are unfamiliar with and maybe not too interested in.

Let me tell you about a few pet bird patients I know about or I have had to help make the all-important transition to a more balanced diet. I hope this also helps people see that they have comrades when it comes to the frustrations and fears of being a bird parent making our beloved feathered companions go through a dietary transition.

Be sure to check out our pellet conversion resources!

Fresca

Fresca, before and afterFresca was not a bird I got to see personally as a patient, but she was seen by a friend of mine, and her tale is one that can only be described as amazing. Fresca spent the first 35 years of her life living on a single perch in a corner of a room. She had been given to a family as a gift, but the family was not ready or committed to having a pet that could live for decades. The excitement she initially brought dulled quickly, and soon Fresca passed her days in boredom and solitude. Thankfully, one day Fresca went to a new home with a parrot-savvy owner who knew something was not right with her. Fresca was a red-lored Amazon, but her coloration was all wrong, which made it hard to truly identify her species. She was gray in areas where she was supposed to be green. Her red feathers were pink. If someone was looking at feather coloration alone, they may have suspected she was a rose-breasted cockatoo and not an Amazon parrot!

Sadly, Fresca subsisted on a diet of seeds and walnuts throughout her life without anything else. It was clear from the moment she entered a veterinary hospital that her ailments were due to dietary problems and an extreme lack of understanding for what a parrot needs. However, Fresca’s new owner was willing to do all that she could to save her. Blood work was performed, and Fresca was found to have liver disease, as many parrots with poor diets do. She also had thyroid problems. Fresca was started on liver support, thyroid medicine and, of course, a new diet.

Pellets, fresh vegetables, fruits, and grains were recommended to be the bulk of Fresca’s diet. Transitioning her to these new items was not easy though. She went on a hunger strike at various times, and Fresca’s owners had to try different things to coax her to eat. Eventually, she got hungry enough and began eating the much healthier diet. When she initially transitioned onto pellets, she loved the small size; however, these eventually became boring. They then figured out the larger pellets were more her style, and she started to eat those. There were bumps in the road along the way, but her new diet took hold and, with that, her journey to good health could really begin.

After some time, an amazing change began to occur. Fresca started to molt, and her green feathers began to return! The pink feathers grew back to a vibrant red! And she started to show various yellows and color patterns that seemed to have vanished previously. And not only was Fresca recuperating well with her colors, she also was happy in her new home and thriving.

A good diet has done wonders for Fresca but, as a reminder of her previously poor condition, she does retain some problems. Although she mostly regained her normal feather coloration, she has to stay on liver and thyroid supplementation. Fresca doesn’t seem too concerned by it though, as she gets to now run around the house, has daily outdoor time, and often visits her new mom at the computer daily.

Sasha

Sasha was an 18-year-old, female, pearl cockatiel. Sasha’s owners brought her to see me because she was lethargic and sleeping more than normal. They suspected she might just be getting older and slowing down, but her mate, who was the same age as her, was not any different from normal.

When I examined her, she was overweight, had red pressure sores on her feet, and had a slightly distended belly. Interestingly, her yellow feathers were a very vibrant yellow. The owners reported she had always been an egg-layer and would routinely lay 10 to 12 eggs a year, if not more. Recently, her egg laying activities were reduced, though she still acted like she wanted to lay.

I asked the owners about her diet. It turned out she was eating all seeds, with very little variety to the seeds she selected. Although there was a mixture in the bag, Sasha only ate about three seed types in the mix. They had been feeding her this diet her whole life. Although her mate ate this diet as well, he was a little better about eating the variety of items in the mix, which consisted of other seeds, oats, and the occasional pellet.

We ran some blood work on Sasha because her history and physical examination findings had me concerned that she could have certain organ and nutritional disorders. The blood work results confirmed my suspicions. Sadly, the limited types of seeds Sasha selected from her diet had finally caught up with her. They were not only causing her lipid levels to be sky-high from all the fat that they contained, but they were also causing her calcium levels to drop, as seeds are notoriously known for being low in calcium. Additionally, she had elevations in her liver values. This change was occurring not only because she had a high amount of fat in the diet from the seeds, but also because the diet was missing certain amino acids that, when deficient, can lead to fatty liver syndrome in birds.

Her other issues were likely linked to a poor diet as well. The red feet she suffered from was probably due to two issues: a lack of vitamin A in the diet and being overweight from a high-fat diet, thus causing too much pressure on her little feet. Her excessive egg laying could have been related to her diet as well. A diet high in fat can make a female bird feel a little more hormonal than a low-fat diet. Also, her calcium levels were not ideal to support her hormonal behavior, and that could have explained her lack of laying recently but still playing the part of being a hormonally active female.

After discussing her physical exam changes combined with her blood work results and history, I sat down with the owners and came up with a plan on how to get this cockatiel girl feeling better. We prescribed calcium supplementation and a liver support medication. We discussed ways to reduce her hormonal drive. But the most critical and important part about our plan for Sasha was to improve her diet. We discussed how this was truly central to the goal of getting her back to health. If we could get her diet improved, we could naturally get her fat levels lowered, her calcium levels raised, and maybe have some reversal to the damage done to her liver.

To get Sasha on a more balanced diet we decided to transition her to a combination of pellets and seeds. We discussed the fact that her current seed mix was not cutting it for her, and we should swap to something that had more variety but allowed her to get the seeds she still desired. Nutri-Berries were a great option for her because they contained the millet seed she loved so very much but delivered a more balanced nutritional profile due to the vitamins and minerals added to them after the seed hull was removed. We also mixed these up with pellets and encouraged the owners to offer some fresh vegetables. Lastly, to get her to start trying these different food options, we went over the exact amount she should be offered daily to prevent her from continuing to just pick out what she wanted to eat. With our strategy set and Sasha’s owners dedicated to her care, they left the office with a plan to return for a follow-up.

Sasha’s owners returned at various times along the way so we could check in and make sure all was going well. We kept a close eye on her weight so that we could make sure she wasn’t dropping too quickly and ensure she was taking to the new diet appropriately. Her owners reported that she was not interested in the pellets initially but took to the Nutri-Berries well. However, after about 1 week with the amount of food she was being offered she started to pick at the pellets and slowly began to like them.

We decided to recheck her blood work at six weeks from the start of the diet change. When the much-anticipated new blood results arrived, we were all very happy. Sasha’s fat levels and calcium value had normalized. She still had a slight increase in her liver values, but they were much better than what they were originally. Her examination was improved as well. Sasha was now a normal weight for a female cockatiel, and the red spots on her feet had resolved.

Sasha really came a long way in a short period of time. And the main change was getting her on a more balanced and healthy diet. Although she did have some lasting changes to her liver and she continues to stay on the liver support medication, her liver values are much better than what they were in the beginning of her journey toward a better diet. Sasha’s behavior dramatically improved as well, and she is living the type of life her owners wanted for her — one that is healthy and happy.

Norris

Norris was a senior nanday conure who had just moved into a new home after his previous owners were no longer able to care for him. His exact age was unknown, but what was known was that he had been fed a very poor diet that consisted mostly of sunflower seeds. I met Norris when his new owners brought him in for a wellness visit. On his physical examination, he outwardly looked normal other than having mildly dull feathers. I suggested we check some blood work on him and find out if there was anything going on internally, because he didn’t have the best diet. His blood tests revealed some moderate elevations in his kidney values.

Although there are many things that can cause kidney disease in birds, one thing we do know is that vitamin-A deficiencies can result in changes to the cells that line the inner tubules of the kidneys and result in disease. I suspected that this could have been the case given his history of a sunflower seed-based diet. These seeds have no vitamin A and, given that he didn’t have much else in his life, I highly suspected that this was the cause for his problems.

Norris began supportive care and started to receive a few vitamin A injections but, again, the most important thing for him was to get on a balanced diet. This was the core factor to getting him to health. The challenge with Norris was that he had never seen anything more than a seed. We needed to get him on a better diet, but it was going to take some coaxing and care to attract his interest in new foods.

Norris’s dietary goal was to transition onto a pelleted diet that comprised about 60 to 80% of his diet. We also wanted him to eat fresh vegetables, fruits, grains, and beans. This would make up 15 to 35% of the diet. The remaining 5% would be seeds and nuts as treats.

To get him started, we allowed only 1 tsp. a day of his former seed diet. He would have this mixed in with 2 tsp. of pellets and be offered 2 tsp. of a fresh food mixture consisting of vegetables and fruits that was chopped up into fine, little pieces and mixed. Inevitably, he went for the seeds first. The other items were just too foreign to touch. However, we wanted him to eat these new items, so we decided to model this for him and show him that all the things he was being offered were edible. Norris’s new family either ate the foods themselves or pretended to. They also made encouraging noises and excited facial expressions to show their interest. This captured Norris’s attention, and it didn’t take long for him to realize all these new items were things to eat.

Months later, after Norris had fully transitioned to a better diet, we rechecked his blood. It revealed some wonderful news and showed that his kidney values were now back to normal. We slowly got him off of his supportive care for his kidneys, and he continues to live a great life on a great diet.

Leonard DaFinci

zebra finchLastly, I will share with you the tale of my personal pet, Leonardo DaFinci. Leonardo was a hand-tamed, male zebra finch who I had hand-reared from just a few days of age after his mother passed away unexpectedly. I got him before veterinary school, when I was an undergrad in college, and didn’t know that he really should be eating more than seeds. I weaned him on to seeds thinking it was the best thing for him. After all, the bag of seeds at the pet store had a zebra finch on it, so I must be giving him the best stuff out there! Well, I was wrong.

Although seeds are a part of the zebra finch diet, they too need more variety than just a handful of different options in the bag from the store. The bag offering alone did not provide the various vitamins, mineral, and proteins his body needed. Eventually, after a few years of eating this, it caught up to him.

He started to be quieter than normal, and I took him to my veterinarian at the time. He told me that Leonardo had an enlarged liver, and it could have been related to what I was feeding him. I explained to the vet that I thought pellets were just for parrots and seeds alone were OK for finches. He told me that, although seeds are OK as a part of the diet for finches, it’s best for them to have some variety as well for all the same reasons it is important for parrots. He suggested I start a diet change for my beloved Leonardo.

Leanardo beforeI went home and tried offering my African grey’s pellets to Leonardo, but they were obviously too large for him. I tried crushing these pellets up, but he really just picked around them and went for the seed that I was offering. I tried a smaller size of the same pellet brand, but he still had no interest. I tried a different brand. I pretended to eat the pellets myself. I had him watch my African grey eat pellets. I tried to offer him only pellets in the morning and not give him the seed, but then he just went on a hunger strike. By noon I was pouring the seeds in his bowl because I thought he was famished and on the verge of dying from starvation! This went on for months. I would try something, he wouldn’t eat it, I would panic, and we were back at the seeds. How was I ever going to get my little guy on the road to good health?

Eventually, seven months into our diet trials, I knew I had to stop being afraid and get the job done. At that time, I discovered Lafeber’s finch granules and started to mix those in with his seeds. They were small in size and matched the color of the seed hulls, so they didn’t look too different from the diet he was used to. This made it so that when I mixed the two diets together, as he picked around the bowl, he was less selective and more apt to grab at the pellet. I also started to offer him only the amount of food he needed in a day so that once the seeds were finished, he had the pellets to satisfy his hunger for the rest of the day. Finally, it worked. Leonardo started to eat the pellets. And he seemed to enjoy them, too! He ate them as well as his seeds, so I was able to reduce the amount of seed and get him a more appropriate mixture of the two.

Leonardo went on to live a very fulfilling life, following me around the country on my adventures to becoming a veterinarian. My struggles with trying to change his diet taught me a lot about the labors an owner can go through to get a bird to change its ways. It also taught me that part of the difficulty is overcoming our own fears about changing diets. Ultimately though, it taught me just how important good nutrition is to provide a bird with a happy, healthy, and enjoyable life!

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