Old Habits Die Hard

Pet owners and retailers must stay open to incorporating new knowledge into our pet care programs so we can keep pets healthy in the store and at home.


I sometimes wonder if being an “old-timer” in the pet industry, as anyone who has put in more than 20 years in this business can certainly be called, is a good or bad thing when it comes to knowing how to care for pets properly. After all, humans are a learning species, like parrots, and that means we understand how to live and care for ourselves and for others by watching, experiencing and listening to those who hopefully know better, like parents, employers, etc. The problem is that once we learn or believe something to be true and it appears to be working, it is harder to accept new information when it is discovered. How does this affect the way we care for our pets?

Here is an example: What we have fed parrots has changed radically over the past 30 years. At first, birds were fed an all- seed diet, and they really enjoyed eating the seeds. We assumed that if the pet birds really liked eating the seeds, it must be good for them. We were wrong. The truth was that the birds liked the seeds because the seeds were tasty to them. Offer a child something sweet versus something healthy and which would they eat? Birds also avoid eating foods like vegetables, often throwing them to the cage floor.

As adults, we may know better than to eat lots of sweets, but like a child, the birds do not know. The birds “learn” from us what to eat, and it is hard to change habits, for the birds and for us bird owners as well. But a lack of nutrients and high fat content catches up with the birds, as it does with people who don’t eat properly, so pelleted diets were developed with the idea that they would be made to be nutritionally complete.

However, it became clear after a few years with birds eating only pellets that this diet was not going to be the way to keep caged birds healthy in captivity. Yet the diet was still pushed strongly because it was better than seeds.

It was soon realized that birds must have variety in their diet, like we do, to keep them healthy in the long term. Vegetables, fruits, grains, pastas, meats, nuts, breads and so on should be fed along with pellets, and even some seed and possibly supplements, as needed. Obviously, it is not as easy to feed this type of diet, and getting parrots to eat new foods can prove a lesson in patience, so it may be difficult for owners and retailers to change. Of course, many manufacturers have started to make mixes to bring in the variety needed, and that certainly is a huge help, but some food items simply have to be prepared to really do it right for our birds.

Learning never ends when it comes to keeping pets properly, and there are times when I feel the more I learn, the less I know. I have studied parrots in the wild and will often tell people pets should be fed what they eat in the wild. But what about when they eat or how they eat? Wild parrots generally eat the most food early in the morning and then late in the day, with a little foraging in between. So shouldn’t we be feeding two meals with fresh food products in the morning and late afternoon, with maybe some pellets in a separate dish and healthy treats put in foraging toys for midday snacks? Most owners feed their birds in the morning, and old habits die hard. I love this industry because there is always something new to learn, but it can also drive a person insane at times. However, as pet caregivers and experts, we must stay open to incorporating new knowledge into our pet care programs so we can keep pets healthy in the store and at home.

Robyn Bright has a master’s degree in parrot biology and more than 25 years of pet retailing experience.

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