The earliest dog foods were our leftovers. The earliest commercial dog foods were made from ingredients deemed unfit for human consumption. That’s changed. Now, dog foods are increasingly competing with human foods as consumers of “human-grade” ingredients. This makes our pets’ environmental pawprints much larger than in the past; in fact, in the book Time to Eat the Dog, Robert and Brenda Vale write that a medium-size dog could have a footprint as large as an SUV!
One study found that in the U.S., dogs and cats consume about 19 percent of the amount of dietary energy that humans do. Through their diet, they constitute about 25–30 percent of the environmental impacts from animal production in terms of the use of land, water, fossil fuel, phosphate, and biocides. And it’s getting higher.
It’s not just sustainability. Vegans concerned about animal welfare balk at feeding their dogs products from slaughtered animals. But decreasing the use of farm animals in your dog’s diet is not as easy as giving your dog a bowl of carrots and beans. While dogs are omnivores, they are also card-carrying meat lovers; homemade or poorly researched attempts at creating non-meat meals too often result in poor acceptance or, at worst, malnutrition.
Several companies have taken on the challenge of producing pet foods that don’t rely on traditional meat sources. Could they be the way of the future?
There’s A Bug in My Food!
More like a few thousand. Insect-based dog foods are just one of the innovative new trends aimed at sustainable resources. People around the world eat bugs. Dogs eat bugs. Bugs are a compact source of high protein; they don’t take acres of farmland or eat tons of food; they don’t even need water. They don’t emit gases that are bad for the environment. And let’s face it, few of us feel all that guilty when they’re harvested, although at least one company does the harvesting after they’ve gone into hibernation, so they basically are unaware of their impending transformation into powdered protein. Bugs are high in protein, low in fat and cholesterol, and rich in nutrients like omega 3.
Several bug-based foods are on the market in Europe and Canada, but they’ve yet to garner FDA approval in the U.S. Dog treats, however, are already on the market. Jiminy’s (get it?) has a line of cricket-based cookies. Chloe’s also uses crickets as their insect of choice. Wilder Harrier uses black soldier flies, one of the most popular insects worldwide for food production. In Europe, Yora pet food is made of 40 percent grubs. There are others; in fact, insect-based feed companies are the largest funded up-and-coming agriculture companies at present.
Is it possible to create a plant-based food that tastes like meat? The “Impossible Burger” has been in the news lately because it does such an excellent job of mimicking meat’s flavor, texture, and overall experience that some vegans can’t eat it. Impossible Foods relies on soy protein concentrate as its main ingredient and a leghemoglobin “heme” protein that is supposed to imitate the bloodiness of a rare beef burger. Its competitor, Beyond Meat, relies on a pea protein isolate as its main ingredient and beet extract for color. It turns out that dogs have no problem at all snarfing down either of these vegan burgers just as readily as beef burgers!
So flavorwise, it is possible to create a vegan dog food, and several (Wild Earth, V-dog, Ami, Benevo, and Halo, for example) exist on the market. While most of these rely simply on the same vegetables we’ve been feeding for years, Wild Earth uses novel technology to produce their food.
Wild Earth relies on dried yeast as its main ingredient, touting it as a source of “high, clean non-animal protein and umami/ savory flavor and source of 10 essential amino acids.” The company also points to koji—a fungus traditionally used to ferment soy sauce, miso, and sake—as their secret sauce that is exceptionally high in protein and flavor. Reports are that dogs love it. In fact, dogs chose a yeast-based diet at a rate of 11 to 5 versus a control diet. Digestibility tests indicate the ingredients are being utilized as they should be; however, like most smaller dog food manufacturers, Wild Earth does no controlled or long-term testing of dogs eating their product.
It’s Alive! Sort of…
What if you could grow a steak in the lab? In a process that would make Dr. Frankenstein envious, scientists are pretty much doing that, and it could be the solution to guilt-free meat-eating. All it takes is a single cell from a chicken or cow or name your favorite meat source. The cell is placed in a fermentation tank and fed a nutrient-rich brew of vitamins, sugars, and minerals, along with natural microbes, and voila! Out walks a chicken. Well, no, that would defeat the purpose. The end product is actually a baby-food consistency slurry of chicken cells identical to the original cell, which can then be used just like chicken meal. And by the way, there’s no chicken by-products in it— just chicken muscle meat from which the original cell came. That chicken is then used just as any other chicken ingredient would be.
A company called Because Animals was the first on the market in 2019 with a cat treat made from cultured mouse cells. They have not yet introduced cultured meat products for dogs. Hot on their heels is Bond pet foods, which is taking technology a step further. Instead of using the whole chicken cell, for example, they are adding the chicken DNA sequence that encodes muscle protein (which can be 3-D printed) to single-celled microorganisms so that the microorganism produces the same proteins found in chickens.
But Will They Eat It?
These new slaughter-free meat protein technologies all share several pros:
- avoids the slaughter of vertebrate animals,
- reduces the environmental footprint required to raise these animals,
- reduces meat’s antibiotic content,
- reduces the chance of bacterial contamination of meat,
- increases the uniformity of ingredients,
- may be useful for dogs with food allergies.
But these foods also tend to share some cons. At present, they are expensive, most are highly processed, and none has been tested in long-term feeding trials. (As always, check with your veterinarian before switching to any new food.)
Then there’s one thing that manufacturers may find hard to overcome— the psychological barrier among the people purchasing the food. In human minds, there may be a significant “yuck” factor attached to eating bugs or meat substitutes grown in a lab.