Vet Talk

Team Bird-Cat: Partners in Picky Eating

There is no one-size-fits-all solution for picky eaters

November 20, 2020 (published)
Team Bird-Cat. Photo by Megan Marshall Steele

The Brussels sprout hit the bottom of Nikolai’s living room aviary with a satisfying clang. The humans in the room shook our heads and resumed our dinners. Moments later, Sir L., the “retired gentleman cat,” stalked to his assortment of bowls, sniffed the wet food – a fresh scoop of the same brand that was perfectly acceptable yesterday – and let out a Siamese-patented “MEOWWWW,” giving us a disdainful look from mostly blind eyes.

Welcome to the adventures of Team Bird-Cat, the picky-eatingest pardners in all of Texas – well, at least on the cul de sac.

Nikolai, a 16-year old cockatoo, and Sir L., a gentleman cat of a certain age, may be at different life stages and of different species, but they share a deep love of making the household humans jump through culinary hoops. In fact, meal and snack prep for each member of Team Bird-Cat involves many of the same questions:

  • Is the water fresh?
  • Is everything the right temperature? Not too hot (Nikolai especially, lacking lips, is at risk of burns from hot food). Not too cold (Sir L. scorns the faintest hint of refrigeration). Just right (I fully expect to see a curly-haired child scarfing a bowl of oatmeal in the aviary or on the cat mat one of these days.)
  • Is this the most recently favored food? Brussels sprouts? Sooooo last week. Brand X of cat food? For plebians.
  • And, most importantly…. Are their nutritional needs being met?

That last question is, of course, the primary physiological reason for food – to provide energy and nutrients. Seems like it should be simple.

It turns out there’s more to feeding time than just balancing a diet. And the “more” differs between animals.

As any cat owner familiar with the plaintive “I can see the bottom of my bowl through the food; clearly you are trying to starve me” yowl can attest, there is a social and mental component to meal time for cats. Likewise, parrots like Nikolai are social eaters and foragers. Providing a balance of brain output to calorie input is critical to keep coddled cockatoos from disassembling the world. However, what works for cat will not work for bird and vice versa.

Sir L. tends to thinness and has several “pre-existing medical conditions” appropriate to his advanced age and species. Nikolai is a healthy adolescent. While food puzzles and occasional treats can be great adjuncts to feline feeding, they’d be wasted on Sir L., who is mostly blind and lives for meals, sunbeams, and snuggles. On the other hand, if Nikolai had free access to calorie-dense food like Sir L., well, all that energy has to go somewhere, and I’m not certain the state of Texas couldn’t be brought down by one determined parrot.

Although balanced nutrition is Goal One for both members of Team Bird-Cat, each has a specific secondary goal that occasionally takes precedence: calorie intake and weight gain for Sir L.; mental and emotional engagement for Nikolai.

Whereas cats are hunters, cockatoos are foragers. Cockatoos gain nutrition throughout the day from a variety of sources instead of chomping a couple of small rodents or lizards and calling it done. In a household, this means that while Sir L. is (somewhat – we’ll get back to that later) contented with meals that look and taste more or less the same, Nikolai needs each offering to be a culinary adventure.

Birds have speedy metabolisms and, except for raptors, tend not to eat much in one sitting. For foraging birds like parrots, too many easy calories convert to fat and stimulate sex hormone overdrive. In the case of a large, heavy-chomping parrot such as Nikolai, this means aggression, destruction, screaming, mayhem, and fire-breathing rampages through downtown Tokyo – wait, was that last bit a movie?

Nikolai’s base diet consists of pellets formulated to meet the nutritional needs of a busy parrot on the go. However, the pellets, while nutritionally sound, have all the gastronomic zing of plain oatmeal. While Nikolai does eat pellets, his favorite thing to do with them is to hide them in his wing feathers and listen to them clang to the bottom of the aviary. Clearly, wing accessorizing isn’t a sustainable means of garnering nutrition, so his diet is supplemented with fresh vegetables and fruits, ideally ones that require dissecting such as snap peas and peppers -- bits of seed-cake, and the occasional treat such as a cashew (must be Trader Joe’s for him; all other brands will be flung back at the bearer). He also gets a bird-safe portion of the human dinner; household meals are prepped to be avian compatible in small amounts: plant-based, low salt, and avoiding potentially parrot-poisonous ingredients such as onions, avocados, and mushrooms.

Calorie-dense foods such as the coveted cashew (referred to in-house as “the sacred nut”) are used as training rewards for things like weighing in at bedtime, a nightly Nikolai ritual, nail trims, or are incorporated into forage toys.

Sometimes, to engage Nikolai’s terrifyingly active velociraptor brain, we will wrap his entire meal in paper or fill paper coin rolls or the cells of a cardboard honeycomb with pellets, seedcake bits, and the occasional nut. Small pumpkins and squashes are also excellent for lots of messy parrot mayhem. You haven’t lived until you’ve witnessed the beak-grinding carnage of a cockatoo disemboweling a pumpkin.

And now we shall leave Nikolai, pumpkin entrails dripping from his beak, and return to Sir L., the ever-patient sunbeam seeker. If Auxiliary Goal #1 for Nikolai is “Keep him busy,” the corresponding goal for Sir L. is “Get calories into him.”

This senior picky eater should ideally eat only his medically recommended diet; however, Mr. Finicky will happily shed precious ounces rather than eat “what he should.”

This makes things tricky. As obligate carnivores who have made their way through history on a steady diet of pocket-sized creatures, cats have unique nutritional requirements. One of those involves not missing many meals. They also need the right mix of amino-acids (the molecules that make up proteins), vitamins, minerals, fresh water, and carbohydrates, or they develop all manner of medical problems such as diabetes, heart disease, kidney disease, and more. Yes, all species require balanced diets, but feline physiology tends to be less forgiving of food crimes than some.

Unlike Nikolai, Sir L.'s body doesn’t so much require variety as it does consistency. Lately, however, the dials of nutritional desirability and consistency have had to be tweaked in favor of intake at all. As I write, there are no fewer than four brands (in several flavors each) of canned food and one bag of kibble in the house.

Picky eating can be a sign of dental pain in cats, but Sir L. is being looked after by a wonderful veterinarian, and he will happily chomp bits of kibble or other crunchy things. For a blind cat, he can hunt a piece of cheese popcorn like you wouldn’t believe.

For the moment, for Sir L. the best approach seems to be a mix of premium senior cat food and low-brow, supermarket-staple, feline favorites. While not medically perfect, this gives him a mixture he will eat while hopefully meeting most of his nutritional needs.

So, what do you do with a picky eater? As Team Bird-Cat has aptly demonstrated, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. The answer will depend on your pet’s species, age, overall health, and body condition, not to mention your budget and patience. Just remember, even superheroes need medical care, so be sure to work with your veterinarian to figure out the right menu for your caped crusader.


Katy J
November 27, 2020

I so enjoyed this article.  I had a CKD oriental I plied with food for a year.  Trips to boston market, and the pet store were frequent as I tried to get at least 100 kcals into her lean, wasting frame. Mirtazapine did help a great deal, however the middle of the night snuggles destroyed my sleep cycles! Great suggestions for birds.  Enjoyed this so much!

November 21, 2020

Great article filled with great info and humor! Thank you!

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