Beyond kibble: Meat alternatives for pets

Beyond kibble: Meat alternatives for pets

By Genevieve Engleman

With pet owners increasingly looking for high-quality, plant-based, organic, non-GMO dietary options, consumer groups and the media have joined forces to apply pressure to the business community to take animal ethics into serious consideration, and businesses have been introduced to the potential untapped revenue that can be generated in the booming business of offering plant-based meat alternatives for pets.

The growing concern of pet caregivers for the welfare of their animals is shifting the conversation to the agribusiness industry, where groups like the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the Humane Society of the United States have been particularly vocal.

Agribusiness has significantly changed over the past century, transitioning from primarily family and/or small businesses to domination by large corporations. Ethical considerations range from ecology, economics, animal rights, and food safety to also include long-term sustainability (Fig. 1). Sustainability in the world’s food supply chain demands that all players from the political, business, finance, and academic sectors — driven by the needs and wants of the consumers — must work in collaboration to achieve an optimized result.


Figure 1.
Ethical considerations for agribusiness. Source: Animal Rights and the Implications for Business.


The plant-based food movement surge:

Pet food trends are closely aligned with human food and beverage trends, with plant-based ingredients and plant-based protein taking prominent positions in the mainstream pet food market.

As per the Plant Based Foods Association and SPINS data, human plant-based food consumption preferences are already being mimicked in the pet food market:

  • US retail sales of plant-based foods increased nine times faster than total food sales in the past two years.
  • Plant-based meat acceptance, specifically, is spreading, experiencing an 18.4% rise in retail sales versus a 2.7% growth in conventional meat during the same time period.
  • Credit is due to the COVID-19 pandemic for launching plant-based adoption into hyperdrive, with plant-based foods growing 35% quicker than all food in the four weeks post US COVID-19 case peaks in mid-March 2020.
  • Also following the increase in US COVID-19 cases, plant-based meat had a retail increase that was 50% higher than conventional meat.

Concerns about currently available meat-based options are the leading driver for consumers when considering switching to a plant-based pet food, with farm animal welfare and rights at the pinnacle. Pet owners have a tendency to also be animal-lovers and are more likely than other consumers to place an increased emphasis on the humane and ethical treatment of animals, even those raised for food production.

Strong growth drivers contributing to the promotion of plant-based pet food selection include an unhealthy perception of meat along with environmental and sustainability considerations over animal protein production. 

Challenges of shifting to meat alternatives in pet food:

Despite the momentum of plant-based pet foods, there are still some daunting hurdles to overcome in order to achieve mainstream acceptance and availability.

The PLOS ONE study found that complete nutritional profiles are the leading challenge for plant-based pet food, with nearly 75% of pet caregivers ranking this as a concern. Strong evidence of nutritional sufficiency and recommendations from veterinarians were noted as potential cures to lessen the nutritional completeness concerns of pet owners. Optimization of plant-based pet food protein with nutrients (vitamin and mineral fortification) and supplementation of the limiting amino acids (lysine, methionine, tryptophan, etc.) can help to diminish these concerns.

Pricing is another hurdle, with vegan pet foods checking out at upwards of twice as much per pound when compared to super premium meat-based counterparts. Lastly, many plant protein bases require additional ingredient labeling, raising concerns that plant-based pet foods carry an additional halo.

The search for a suitable meat analogue for pet food:

Due to a lack of progress relating to our communication skills with the animal kingdom at large, there is a shortage of data pertaining to details on the taste of modern day pet foods by the pet consumers. However, we can begin with what can be examined: the physical texture qualities of plant-based pet foods. 

The effect of sterilization and storage on a model meat analogue pet food was examined in a recent study. It was possible to create highly fibrous meat analogues via simple shear structuring. Sterilization and storage in three different media (water, jelly, and gravy) were reviewed for pet food and beef chunks as reference. Textural properties and proximate composition were compared for chunks before and after sterilization and storage. The fibrous appearance was retained after sterilization and storage for the model meat analogue. 

The model meat analogue had approximately twice the moisture uptake of that in traditional pet food, producing textural properties closely aligned with pet food after sterilization. The model meat analogue’s proximate composition and texture remained stable during storage in water and jelly but did not remain stable in the gravy (most likely attributed to the salt content in the gravy). The study concluded that the fibrousness and pet food–like texture after sterilization rendered the model meat analogue as “promising” for the development of plant-based pet foods.

Pet food sustainability:

In terms of sustainability, the pet food industry is unique, since it is based predominantly on byproducts and is closely interlinked with livestock production as well as the human food system. Driven by consumer demand instead of dietary nutritional requirements, commercial pet foods are often formulated in excess of current minimum nutritional recommendations. 

Commercial pet foods have a tendency to use ingredients that directly compete with the human food system, or they are consumed in excess by the pets, resulting in obesity and food wastage. Product design, manufacturing processes, public education, and policy change can potentially address these challenges and positively impact the sustainability of caring for pets at large. A coordinated effort across the industry among ingredient buyers, formulators, and nutritionists will be required for a more sustainable pet food system.

Humans and animals are able to consume and thrive on a variety of diets. While some species are quite particular in their dietary selection (i.e., herbivores and carnivores), omnivorous species are adapted to use a variety of foods, often prioritizing what is most available at any given time. In general terms, cats are carnivorous and dogs are more omnivorous.

Figure 2. Complexities of the pet food system. Source: Nutritional Sustainability of Pet Foods


When it comes to selecting the source of dietary protein, for example, sustainability is hinged upon not only whether an animal- or plant-based protein will be used, but also the exact organism from which it is derived and what part(s) of that organism will be used (plant: whole wheat, wheat germ, wheat bran vs. animal: entire body or just skeletal muscle or organ meats), and then the form in which it will be added (frozen, fresh, meal) — all aspects that ultimately impact the diet in terms of cost, nutrient composition and stability, manufacturing requirements, ingredient handling, transport, and storage.

The protein problem:

Animal performance is impacted by protein quality in terms of digestibility and how the amino acid profile of a particular food corresponds to the physiological needs of the animal. While the majority of today’s pet foods contain an excess of protein, unfortunately, specific amino acid ratios are rarely taken into account during formulation of pet food.

Metabolic considerations show that the inclusion of subpar-quality proteins or excess protein for energy is inefficient when compared with calories derived from digestible carbohydrates or fat. Although there is limited evidence to suggest that cats use protein calories more efficiently than other mammalian species, there is a downside of increased protein oxidation of high-protein diets contributing to increased urinary nitrogen and energy loss.

Certain physiological conditions may benefit from high-protein diets, such as high-protein, low-carbohydrate diets that elicit lower glycemic responses in comparison to diets with high concentrations of carbohydrate, which can benefit dogs with insulin resistance or diabetes. Research has shown that foods with an increased protein content (103 g/1000 kcal, or approximately 31% for a 3000 kcal/kg diet), along with higher fiber content, increased the amount and rate of weight loss and increased fat loss during weight loss in dogs. 

Dog foods with high protein contents have shown to facilitate the maintenance of muscle mass during weight loss. Also, high-protein diets can be supportive of performance in endurance exercise for dogs. For example, sled dogs fed a diet consisting of 35% of energy from protein had higher plasma volume when compared to sled dogs fed a diet with only 18% of energy from protein. The decreased protein diet also resulted in decreased VO2 max and a higher frequency of soft-tissue injuries.

Reported cat caregiver perception of the wellness and health of pet cats does not appear to be negatively impacted by being fed a plant-based diet. Owners did not report any body system or disorder to be at particular risk when feeding their cats a plant-based diet (since these were only reported results, the findings are subject to bias as well as methodological limitations).

Beyond plant-based: Are there other meat alternatives?

Plant-based diets have a number of advantages for health and sustainability, but it is unrealistic to consider them as the only solution. Therefore, a quest for alternative protein sources in insect-based foods or cultured meat, or an increased investment in important technologies enabling safer meat production could all render positive results. Three potential pathways forward include plant-based diets, insect-based foods, and cultured meat to provide benefits in terms of our ecological footprint, which is an important facet in light of predicted climate changes. 

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