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Demand for High Protein Dog Food Evolves

Canine sustenance is circling back to a high-protein, ancestral-based diet.


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Out on the hunt, Fido’s predecessors likely salivated at the prospect of a meaty repast. In lean times, scavenged fruits, nuts and greenery bolstered nutritional intake. The ancestors of today’s canid flourished, passing along a unique ability to adjust to available dietary offerings.

“As a flexible species, many dogs have adapted to starch-rich diets because that’s what has been convenient and economical for large companies to produce,” said Heather Acuff, product development manager for Nulo in Austin, Texas. “But their physiology is still characteristic of carnivores, and, as such, they thrive on a diet that is rich in meat.”

Savvy pet owners are looking to reduce the percentage of carbohydrates and increase the amount of meat they feed their pets, according to Sharon Durham, marketing communications manager for Ziwi USA in Overland Park, Kan.

“Feeding a complete and balanced high-meat diet can help pets maintain lean, healthy body mass and ensure they are getting all the nutrients needed for optimum health,” Durham said.

Other potential benefits include a reduction in food allergies and intolerances, improved digestion and better weight control, industry experts noted. Recent research indicates that a high-meat/ketogenic diet might prove beneficial in slowing or reducing cancer risks, Durham said.

Protein is an essential but often misunderstood nutrient, and the protein requirements of the modern pet can be controversial.

“Boy, do I hear it all when it comes to high-protein diets,” said Denise Strong, owner of Pawz on Main in Cottonwood, Ariz. “Dogs are carnivores, always have been, always will be, no matter their age.”  

Unfortunately, Strong continued, quality protein is expensive, and fillers, such as wheat or corn, found their way into dry food products.

“Years ago, manufacturers pitched scare tactics that high protein was bad for dogs, and people listened,” she said. “I hear that concern every day, but when has a dog ever been diagnosed as overdosing on protein? Maybe the wrong protein, but certainly not quality protein, and fresh meat is so superior.”

Strong noted that Pawz on Main offers both high- and low-protein food selections.

“The highest being Stella & Chewy’s raw freeze-dried at 45 percent protein,” she said. “I feel it is important to offer a variety of quality food products.”

Dog Krazy, which has five stores in Virginia, offers a mix of dog food selections, ranging from 8 to 38 percent protein, said owner Nancy Guinn.

“We also carry a large variety of raw foods,” she said. “I don’t focus on protein content with my customers. Instead I try to educate them about adding whole, less-processed foods to their dog’s diet.” 

Further, one diet does not fit all, and Guinn bases each recommendation on the individual pet.

“All dogs do not do well on the same diet,” she said.

Overall, however, feeding plenty of animal-based protein makes sense for the natural metabolic proficiencies of a dog, Acuff said.

“Protein is a source of essential amino acids, promotes satiety, increases muscle mass and strength, and can help pets maintain their ideal body condition when paired with an active lifestyle,” she said. “There’s a tendency for pet parents to associate these diets with very energetic dogs; however, higher protein can benefit dogs of all activity levels, sizes and ages.”

A growing number of pet owners appreciate the benefits of feeding their dogs a protein-rich diet, as long as it also meets their critical demands for purity, safety and quality, said Patrick McGarry, general manager of Gott Pet Products, parent company of Hound & Gatos in St. Francis, Wis.

“Years of experience has convinced us that canines of all breeds and ages thrive on high-protein, low-glycemic-index food containing animal protein without fillers, vegetables or starchy carbohydrates,” McGarry said.

It is all about finding the right nutritional fit, and factors such as age, breed, ideal weight and activity levels are considerations, according to industry insiders.

“While ‘calories in versus calories out’ ultimately determines a pet’s energy balance, we can help in shifting the pet’s metabolism to favor a healthier body condition by modifying the ratio of protein, healthy fats and carbohydrate in their diet,” Acuff said.

New Products

Fresh on the Protein-Rich Front

As pet owners continue to recognize the benefits of protein-rich meals for their dogs, manufacturers are developing foods to satisfy rising demand for these diets.

Nulo recently added pouches featuring real shreds of meat and flakes of fish in broth to its FreeStyle line for dogs. Offering six recipes, the easy-to-open, single-serving pouches are made simply, with six ingredients or less, and contain no starches, gums or additives, said Heather Acuff, product development manager for the Austin, Texas-based company.

The protein-rich and high-moisture pouches make it easy to complement and customize the canine meal, she added.  

Nulo’s savory FreeStyle bone broths feature 100 percent human-grade ingredients, made in a human-grade facility by a culinary-trained chef, according to the company.

“The broths are slowly simmered for up to 48 hours to extract nourishing collagen, and contain ingredients like parsley, thyme and turmeric to develop a savory flavor profile,” Acuff said. “Shelf-stable, the broths come in single-serve packets with three options: wild-caught salmon, grass-fed beef and organic chicken.”

Hound & Gatos was recently acquired by Gott Pet Products, creator of Charlee Bear Dog Treats, a no-compromise line of natural treats that have delighted dogs for more than 25 years, according to Patrick McGarry, general manager of the St. Francis, Wis.-based company.

“We’re currently working on new Hound & Gatos packaging to amplify shelf appeal and sales for our retailer partners nationwide,” McGarry said.

Ziwi USA’s recipes follow the whole-prey model and contain large inclusions of meat and organs.

“Our newest addition is our Free-Range New Zealand Chicken Recipes, each sourced from New Zealand farms,” said Sharon Durham, marketing and communications manager for the Overland Park, Kan.-based company.

The nutritious and highly palatable food is gently air-dried using 100 percent free-range chicken, organs and green-lipped mussel, and is also available in a canned, wet formulation, Durham said. The farms that Ziwi supplies from are independently audited and certified as humane, with no added hormones or growth promotants in the meat, she added.

Evanger’s Dog and Cat Food Co. added several new formulations this year, said Holly Sher, owner and president of the Markham, Ill.-company.

The Game Bird recipe for dogs is free of corn, wheat and soy and contains turmeric, an anti-inflammatory to aid in liver function and digestion, coconut oil for digestive, skin and coat health, as well as Actigen-branded prebiotics and Alltech-branded probiotics, which the company gets from Alltech, a Lexington, Ky.-based provider of solutions for the sustainable nutrition of plants, animals and people.

Evanger’s Chicken and Brown Rice sensitive-tummy formula is a gluten-free, single-protein recipe. Additionally, the Chicken with Sweet Potato and Pumpkin limited-ingredient recipe contains no red meat or gluten, and offers joint support from eggshell meal and New Zealand green-lipped mussel.

The Meat Lover’s Medley entrée for dogs has been upgraded to contain buffalo. The limited-ingredient formula contains no gluten, chicken, egg, carrots or fish. For weight management, a limited-ingredient Whitefish and Sweet Potato formulation is gluten free, with natural omega fatty acids 3 and 6 for skin and coat health, coconut oil and prebiotics.

Protein levels range from 24 percent to 33 percent in Evanger’s new formulations, Sher added.

Consumer Education

The Ancestral Looking Glass

In an endeavor to promote a longer, healthier lifestyle for today’s domestic dogs, educated consumers seek to mirror the higher-protein ancestral diet, while matching the lifestyle and characteristics of the individual animal.

For this reason, education and knowledge are cornerstones to marketing and selling high-protein dog foods, manufacturers and pet specialty retailers agree.

“I always discuss prior feeding habits, health issues that might be present, and age and activity level before recommending any product to my customers,” said Denise Strong, owner of Pawz on Main in Cottonwood, Ariz.

Nancy Guinn, owner of Dog Krazy, which has five stores in Virginia, agreed, adding that when helping customers with a dog food selection, the age of the dog, current diet, adverse reactions to a specific protein or food, activity level and medical issues are key inquiries.

“We educate our customers about whole foods and less-processed foods,” she said. “If they insist on feeding kibble, we provide samples of raw, freeze-dried, dehydrated and canned in an effort to help them understand that adding a more digestible food to a dog’s bowl benefits their health.” 

Guinn noted that an exception to this rule applies to a dog suffering from kidney or liver disease. 

“I refuse to sell kibble to a customer whose dog has these issues,” she said. “Their bodies need moisture, and kibble is the last thing I would feed a dog with these conditions. Its life and health is more important than the convenience of simply pouring food into a bowl to make life easier.” 

Meat as the lead on an ingredient panel—dried forms of meats especially, with no plant-protein concentrates—is an indication of a meat-based food for dogs, said Heather Acuff, product development manager for Nulo in Austin, Texas.

“When comparing products, the ingredient panel should always be included in the assessment,” Acuff added. “Two products may have the same guaranteed level of crude protein, yet they can contain vastly different sources and protein quality.”

Pet foods made with a high number of fresh meat ingredients might give consumers the impression that the kibble they are feeding is almost entirely meat; however, because of the significant water loss that occurs as the kibble is dried, the remaining nutrition, the nonwater components of meat, might be less than the ingredients added in a dried form, Acuff explained.

Defining the Category

No Formal Definition

There is currently no formal definition as to what constitutes a “high protein” food, said Heather Acuff, product development manager for Nulo in Austin, Texas. Foods with high-protein claims could range anywhere between 25-65 percent crude protein, she added.

With that in mind, the amount of protein does not give any indication of protein source or quality, Acuff noted.

The ratios of protein-carb-fat can actually be controlled when formulating a food and should meet the requirements of the activity or life stage for which the food is intended, said Holly Sher, owner and president of Evanger’s Dog and Cat Food Co. in Markham, Ill.

“The ratios really depend on the particular dog; for example, a puppy or lactating bitch will require a higher protein and fat ratio than a less active or adult dog,” she added.

To manufacture kibble, significant amounts of starches must be used, so a protein level of 28 percent, from all sources, including meats, rendered meats, meals and plants, would be considered a high-protein diet to most consumers, said Sharon Durham, marketing communications manager for Ziwi USA in Overland Park, Kan.

From a manufacturing perspective, incorporating higher levels of meat into an extruded diet like kibble does present processing challenges due to the moisture inherent with fresh meat, Acuff said.

“Alternative technologies, such as freeze-drying and canning, allow for even higher meat inclusions than kibble and can accommodate elevated moisture levels without compromising the quality of the finished products,” Acuff said.

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