Pet food is a multibillion dollar industry, with hundreds of brands to choose from. This prompts brands to design pet food that is unique among the others on pet store shelves. One way brands attempt to stand out is by taking a novel approach to protein inclusion. Let’s take a look at why protein is important and if it is necessary for pet food brands to reinvent the wheel when it comes to the classic approach to pet food.
Protein is one of six macronutrients required by animals to survive and it is used for growth and metabolism. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein, with different protein sources containing different levels and types of amino acids. A certain number of amino acids are required by dogs in their diets, as they cannot synthesize them on their own. Both plant and meat protein sources can be found in dog food and are digested differently by dogs.
Traditionally, the primary way protein requirements were met in pet food was by adding animal products. Whether this was as a by-product or whole meat product from domestic animals like beef, chicken and fish. In recent years, certain pet food brands have been challenging this concept of protein by including their own novel ingredients.
“Bugs, ewe.” Is how a lot of people feel about insects. If this is the case, then why are some pet food companies using insects in their pet food? Insects are crawling (pun intended) with protein and may actually be a viable ingredient in pet food. A variety of insects such as mealworms, fly larvae, and crickets are currently being used in some pet foods to replace animal protein.
A 2014 study by researchers at Wageningen University in the Netherlands examined the protein quality of a variety of insect species for use in dog and cat food. It was found that all insect sources tested were very high in protein but when it came to digestibility, they fell short. Digestibility of the insects did not meet those of the plant or animal proteins tested. However, this does not mean that they are not a nutritionally viable option for cats and dogs. If pet food companies are using insects, they should be aware that they should have a higher inclusion of insects to account for the low digestibility and meet requirements.
Aside from nutrition, insects are also being used since they are a more renewable and environmentally friendly ingredient compared to traditional agriculture. Compared to animals and plants, insects require lower water, food, space and energy to produce. They also produce significantly lower gaseous and solid waste products when compared to livestock.
One drawback to insect protein may be palatability. Insects contain significantly less fat than animal proteins. This means that more picky dogs and cats may not find insects as tasty as other meat. Ultimately, insects are a viable ingredient in pet food but do come with pros and cons.
Continuing the trend of sustainability, vegan dog and cat food has also surfaced on the market. These are diets that replace animal protein with plant and yeast protein.
There is a common misconception that dogs are carnivore species. In fact, over hundreds of years they have become obligate omnivore species and accept much more plant products in their diets than their ancestral counterparts.
Vegan diets use ingredients like soybeans, peas, legumes, yeast and potato and can be formulated to meet protein nutrient requirements for dogs without the use of meat products. However, studies have shown that plant protein has a much lower digestibility in dogs than animal protein, meaning that the protein in plants is not as readily available to dogs. Protein in vegan diets should be over supplemented in order to avoid deficiencies. Unfortunately, there is little to no scientific studies on whole vegan diets. This means we cannot say for sure if they are a fully viable option.
Without the use of animal protein, vegan diets suffer the same problem as the insect diets and that is palatability. Dogs are naturally drawn to the scent and texture of animal protein and fat, therefore it may be more difficult to convince them to eat a completely plant and yeast based diet.
The use of ingredients like kangaroo or crocodile may sound bizarre but diets containing exotic proteins like these are actually designed as a hypoallergenic option for dogs with allergies. The most common diet-related allergens in dogs are protein ingredients like chicken and beef. This prompts the need to find protein sources that the dog’s immune system hasn’t been exposed to and won’t react to. This is where exotic proteins have started becoming popular.
Similar to other novel proteins, there is an extreme lack of research on exotic proteins. For this reason, they are more difficult and expensive to formulate, balance and source ingredients.
Ultimately, there are pros and cons to novel protein in pet food. With these new types of diets on the market, there is a need for more research on the safety and performance of specialty diets and their ingredients. Overall, traditional animal proteins may still be the best option for pet owners until more research becomes available but novel proteins do show some promise for sustainability. It is important for pet owners to consult the label of their pet food and feed their dogs a brand they are comfortable with.