As next-gen pet parents seek natural nutrition in a more environmentally conscious way, the demand is increasing for more sustainable protein alternatives. In response, pet brands are launching plant-based food and treat recipes. Supporting this notion are the results from an Internet-based question, published by the journal Research in Veterinary Science, in which dog owners who fed plant-based diets to their pets reported fewer health problems, “specifically with respect to ocular or gastrointestinal and hepatic disorders. Dog longevity was reported to be greater for dogs fed plant-based diets. Owners feeding plant-based diets to their dogs relied less on veterinary associates for nutrition information, versus dog owners feeding meat-based diets.”
What do the pet brands feel are the important aspects of plant-based proteins and their relation to pet nutrition? Pet Age recently contacted select pet brands seeking their views on the plant-based category.
What are the main differences between animal-protein, insect-protein, and plant-protein dog food and treats?
CLIF PET (Gregory Lok): Rather than choosing any one type of protein for your dog, it may be better to provide a wide variety of foods for a more balanced diet. For example, animal proteins typically contain all essential amino acids as well as high levels of heme iron and vitamin B-12, while some plant-based foods may lack these nutrients. Comparatively, plant proteins contain plant-specific nutrients, antioxidants, and fiber that animal proteins lack.
Earth Animal (Dr. Bob and Susan Goldstein): While food-grade animal protein, insect, and plant protein may be similar nutritionally, their sustainability impact far exceeds their nutritional benefits. For example, animal protein (cows, pigs, and chickens) is largely sourced from factory farms or big agriculture. Mounting evidence suggests that the raising and slaughtering of 70 billion animals annually in unsanitary conditions takes a toll on the quality and safety of the meat produced, as well as its direct negative impact on the planet. Herbicides, pesticides, and GMO crops fed to factory-farmed animals are thought to be carcinogenic and a threat to the animal’s immune system, especially to those animals who are immune compromised or genetically more prone to cancer.
The more important issues when comparing proteins are their ability to supply the 10 essential amino acids required by dogs and cats as well as the bioavailability of those proteins. For example, protein from animal by-products such as hair and hooves, while high in protein, does not supply the essential amino acids required for health. Food grade meats, insect protein, and properly fermented and cultivated plant-based proteins will provide the essential amino acids dogs require. Insect protein faces the perceived “yuck factor.”
Guardian Pet (Jim Galovski): There are several differences between these three types of protein. The first and most obvious is the ingredient source itself. The second is the nutritional level of each protein source. A third difference is the production/harvesting of the ingredients and a fourth difference is an impact on the environment. Each option shares several “pros:” they require a smaller environmental footprint, they don’t require antibiotic use, they may help with allergies, intolerances, and sensitivities and finally, they don’t require the large-scale slaughter of animals. They also share some “cons:” current costs are high, some of the ingredients are highly processed and there is very little information in regard to long-term feeding studies.
Open Farm (Mark Sapir): In total much is similar, being all of our product’s feed well, have similar digestibility rates, performed well on stool studies and all products meet all AAFCO standards and are complete and balanced. The real difference is how we deliver the nutrition being a plant, insect, or animal protein. Also, plant and insect proteins really help support our desire to be kind to the planet and minimize carbon emissions, acres, and water required to farm and manufacture.
Phelps Pet (Rick Ruffolo): Animals, insects, and plants all can be good sources of protein, and each source can play an important role in helping your dog achieve a nutritious, tasty, and well-balanced diet. There has been much written about how “protein diversity” can play an important role in healthy diets, and we have expertise across all these options. While each has unique benefits, plant-based recipes pack a strong protein punch without the need for higher fat/higher cholesterol associated with animal meat.
At Phelps, we have created proprietary recipes and cooking methods that make it impossible to distinguish between the look, taste, mouthfeel, and smell of jerky dog treats made with animal meat versus treats made with insect or 100 percent plant-based ingredients. Additionally, plant-based treats are highly attractive because they provide important eco-friendly benefits. The global food supply chain has seen significant change over the last few years, and there is growing recognition of the higher costs and negative environmental impact of the processed meat industry. Many brands and retailers have set specific environmental goals over the next few years, and plant-based jerky treats are a relatively easy way for these organizations to make progress towards these goals.
Shameless Pet (Alex Waite): All of these options have nutrition to offer on a spectrum of environmental friendliness. While many brands are taking a stance in elevating their animal protein offerings – such as certifications around their protein sourcing – others are looking to provide less resource-intensive options like using insect protein and plant protein. At Shameless Pets, we offer treats with sustainably sourced meat as well as completely plant-based nutrition to cater to a variety of consumer preferences.
Wild Earth (Dr. Abril Estrada): The most important thing when it comes to feeding dogs, is ensuring they are receiving the proper nutrients. Just like humans, dogs can get their protein from a variety of sources like meat, insects, plants, fungi, and more. When comparing the main protein source in Wild Earth, dried yeast (a fungi), to beef, they have similar amino acid profiles and contain all 10 essential amino acids dogs require from their diet. Yeast, when compared to beef, requires dramatically fewer resources like water and land to grow. Additionally, yeast cultivation does not require the slaughtering of animals.
All in all, the nutrient profiles are similar. When including other plant-based protein sources like peas and potatoes, it can really round out the amino acid profile and provide dogs with enough protein to thrive. Traditional dog food and treats contain animal proteins such as beef, chicken or lamb which may sound like great protein sources but are actually the top known allergens for dogs. In fact, repeat exposure to these animal proteins can result in a host of issues such as skin irritation and digestive problems.
What is the value of retailers offering plant-based dog food and treats to consumers?
CLIF PET (Gregory Lok): Treats are an important aspect of a dog’s diet and are a great way for a pet and parent to bond. However, treats should only consist of up to 10 percent of a dog’s daily caloric requirements. Knowing they can only treat their dogs so frequently, pet parents will want to purchase treats that are delicious, nutritious, and provide fiber, vitamins, and antioxidants, like CLIF PET Plant Based Jerky. Dogs are best classified as “opportunistic carnivores” – they will gravitate towards meat if it’s available but thrive on a diet that includes a variety of foods, including meat, fruits and vegetables, and carbohydrates. Retailers can benefit from offering plant-based choices like CLIF PET, as these offerings provide sought-after variety and plant-powered, eco-friendly alternatives for consumers.
Earth Animal: There’s a high level of value for retailers following trends, especially when they are sustainable. Sustainability in our industry has long attenuated fingers, reaching out and touching the health of the dog or cat, the planet, and animal welfare. The plant-based movement in the pet industry has an opportunity to significantly make a difference in these three vital areas. Consumers of like mind and especially those already eating plant-based foods will align with a retailer whose purpose is to educate and to help heal. This alignment is a loyalty and trust builder.
Guardian Pet: Consumers are looking for plant-based treats and dog foods and if you don’t offer any options, they will shop elsewhere. At a deeper level though, offering plant-based products is providing a healthy option for a subset of dogs that need an option that is free of animal protein. While very few dogs are truly allergic to animal proteins, many have sensitivities or intolerances. By offering plant-based alternatives, you are providing healthy and easily accessible options for them. There is also a subset of pet owners that want plant-based alternatives that mirror their ethics. This can be about animal welfare, environmental impact, and/or sustainability. Whatever the reason, these consumers are looking for good, healthy choices to support.
Open Farm: There is organic demand for plant-based food, and we have clearly seen a big unlock on the human side. As interest in plant-based solutions has grown, pet options always follow. Pet parents are looking for options that provide great nutrition but are also keenly interested in solutions that positively impact the planet, and plant-based fits that intersection well. While perhaps still early adopters, more pet parents are open to plant-based alternatives, with more pet parents appreciating that dogs are omnivores and more understanding while not for everyone, having a viable offering on the shelf from a trusted brand will meet these growing needs.
Phelps Pet: “Plant-based” food is the No. 1 consumer trend and growth engine in the grocery channel for the last several years. It has now become the No.1 pet humanization trend. Eating vegan, plant-based, and/or “flexitarian” diets has many benefits and has become mainstream for many Americans. Now, consumers are starting to choose plant-based dog treats, as well. I am proud to say Phelps Pet Products was at the forefront as we were the first to introduce 100 percent plant-based jerky dog treats at Global Pet in February 2020.
We have evolved the recipes across dozens of brands and retailers using unique combinations of superfood, upcycled, and functional ingredients. Brands and retailers have found that including at least a few 100 percent plant-based jerky treat SKUs is a key strategy to expand the appeal and relevance of their assortments. Our Table Scraps Disney brand includes two dog treat SKUs that are 100 percent plant-based recipes out of a total of eight. We did the same with our Callie’s Kitchen line, and in both cases, they are the top sellers in their respective lines. This strategy of “optionality” recognizes more and more shoppers are looking to increase plant-based foods in their diets and that of their dogs.
Shameles Pet: Sales of plant-based human food have increased quite significantly over the past few years. With the concurrent trend of the humanization of pets, it’s no surprise to see that demand has increased in the pet space as well. In fact, sales of plant-based dog food have grown over 35 percent, according to a Nielsen study from September of last year. Though meat will always be a staple in the pet industry, consumers are excited about exploring alternative options as they become more readily available, particularly in the treat space where consumers tend to be more exploratory.
Wild Earth: As more people begin to explore plant-based products, flexitarianism, vegetarianism, and veganism, it only makes sense that they’d want their dogs to experience the same health benefits. It’s no secret that recalls continue to plague the pet food industry and that harmful chemicals and ingredients have been found in standard meat-based kibble. Offering consumers nutritionally complete, vet-developed, meat-free dog food such as Wild Earth offers peace of mind to those who want to do better by their pets, and the planet.
What are the benefits of plant-based dog treat recipes?
Earth Animal: Plant-based proteins offer a safe and sustainable alternative to meat. Due to the side effects of agriculturally raised farm animals, include the quality and safety of the meat itself and the environmental impact caused by factory farming (91 percent of the Amazon deforestation and 18 percent of greenhouse gases) coming from factory-farmed animals. These benefits alone far outweigh the feeding of meat, strongly suggesting plant-based diets. All animals can benefit from plant-based regardless of age, breed, or individual wellness or healing needs. Dogs and cats who are protein sensitive or allergy-prone respond favorably to plant-based foods and treats. We recommend feeding plant-based for animals with GI and skin issues, arthritis, and allergies.
Guardian Pet: Dogs with allergies, sensitivities, and/or intolerances to animal proteins. Studies have shown that dogs experiencing skin issues and joint inflammation may also be great candidates for plant-based diets. Many of the alternatives are high in protein, low in fat, low in cholesterol, and rich in heart-healthy Omega-3s. When it comes to benefiting the planet, The World Economic Forum reported that 112 liters of water are required and that 254 square meters of land are needed to produce one gram of protein from a cow. Compared to insect-based protein which requires 23 liters and 18 square meters. In addition, cows emit 2,850 grams of greenhouse gases per kilogram whereas insects emit only two grams per kilogram.
Open Farm: Clearly a positive impact on the planet, diets require less acres, less water, and emit less carbon, but for many are a great way to navigate a solution for food sensitive pets. Plant- and insect-based kibble work as a nice “elimination” diet, creating a clean slate to start with, for pet parents. For those who are looking for clean hypoallergenic solutions can find much success in this arena.
Phelps Pet: At Phelps, we believe positive change happens with one choice/one decision at a time. There is ample evidence proving that reducing our reliance on animal meat as a key source of protein for both humans and our pets is better for the planet and for our health. We view this decision to be largely an individual choice – or rather a set of choices each of us makes every day. The concept of a “flexitarian” diet has become increasingly relevant as either a stepping stone to an eventual vegan diet or simply as a lifestyle option that leads to healthier and more environmentally conscious food choices. I recently heard a statistic that if there was a country called “U.S. Pets,” it would be the fifth largest meat-consuming country in the world. That stat is staggering and certainly is reason for pause. While I’m not suggesting everyone should go “cold turkey” – no pun intended – I do think shifting towards a more “flexitarian” lifestyle featuring less consumption of meat and more consumption of plant-based foods must be better for all of us.
Shameless Pet: A recent study by UCLA calculated that feeding dogs and cats makes up 25 to 30 percent of the environmental impact of meat consumption in the U.S. Switching even a portion of your pet’s meat consumption to plants can make a significant environmental impact. While these diets are still relatively new, treat time can be a great opportunity to switch to plant-based knowing their food continues to provide necessary nutrients.
Wild Earth: There are many benefits to putting your dog on a plant-based diet from allergy and digestive relief to improved overall health. According to two studies published this year, dogs fed a meat-free vegan diet were not only healthier overall, but also have been shown to live up to 1.5 years longer. Who doesn’t want more time with their dog? Additionally, 86 percent of Wild Earth customers reported health improvements after switching to Wild Earth and have seen everything from relief from severe allergies to senior dogs acting like puppies again. In terms of the environmental impact, meat consumption by pets is a massive source of carbon emissions – meat-eating by cats and dogs is responsible for 64 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year. That’s the equivalent of the annual emissions from nearly 14 million cars. Industrial meat production requires a staggering number of resources.
Compared to a plant-based diet, meat requires more energy, land, and water to produce, and has greater environmental consequences in terms of erosion, pesticides, and waste. A serving of red meat requires 100 times as much land and emits 20 times the greenhouse gasses as a serving of vegetables. When pet parents consider switching from meat-based to plant-based, their number one question is, “where is the protein?” Well, one pound of yeast contains more protein than one pound of beef (40 percent versus 30 percent).
How can brands educate consumers that a plant-based diet can offer complete nutrition for a dog?
CLIF PET: The pet food industry likes to draw a straight line between domestic dogs and wolves because it’s a great way to sell more meat-focused foods. Because wolves are carnivores, many incorrectly believe their doggy descendants to be as well. While dogs and wolves share similar DNA, they display important differences in behavior, instincts, and digestive and metabolic traits. Modern dogs evolved to eat many kinds of foods tossed aside by our human ancestors, making dogs opportunistic carnivores.
We at CLIF PET want to educate consumers on the benefits of a balanced diet for dogs, inclusive of meat, fruits and vegetables, and carbohydrates. Plant-powered ingredients provide an abundant source of antioxidants as well as both soluble and insoluble fiber (fiber helps support digestion). And remember that only up to 10 percent of your dog’s daily caloric intake should come from treats. CLIF PET Plant-based Jerky treats are crafted with just seven simple ingredients, including nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables and are a delicious way to add variety to your dog’s day.
Earth Animal: Dr. Bob’s recent presentation with Dr. Jeff Feinman and Holistic Actions on holistic nutrition and plant-based pet food along with Dr. Michael Fox’s pioneering work in protecting factory-farmed animals and the planet are great sources of educating consumers. Dr. Bob and Susan suggest connecting with plant-based companies requesting seminars and demos along with local holistic veterinarians who endorse the plant-based feeding of foods and treats. We recommend having a plant-based testimonial share in the store and online. Plant-based foods and treats should be organized in a special section in the store with highlighted POS benefit signage. Sampling plant-based food or treats at the register or on a demo table works like a charm.
Guardian Pet: The single greatest challenge in the pet industry is how manufacturers market their products and communicate with consumers. We need to stop talking about ingredients and focus on nutrients. If we can educate consumers on nutrients and the importance of digestibility (and bioavailability), the product landscape would look very different. You can have an insect-based or plant-based dog food, but if it is highly processed, denatured through high heat and high-temperature extrusion, and requires lots of artificial and synthetic additives, is it really any better for your dog? In addition to NOBL, a few companies like Bramble (plant-based) and Bond (cultured meat) are doing it right and I suggest giving them a try.
Open Farm: It is a journey and can’t be heavy-handed, but we believe plant and insect-based diets are an option. We believe it provides solid and safe nutrition, are careful to work with vets to design, careful to ensure fully AAFCO compliant, and careful to do appropriate testing. But beyond that, pet parents need to be ready, we do our best to lay out the advantages of all of our diets and ultimately let the consumer decide what path is best for them and their pet.
Phelps Pet: It will take intentional efforts each day until this new habit can take hold. The entire human/pet food industry needs to be transparent about the pros and cons of plant-based food. We should view our roles as helping inform – not persuade – consumers about the positive benefits of plant-based products – as well as any potential stumbling blocks. Transparency is key, and there really is no need to oversell/overhype the benefits nor run head-first into this change.
We should deploy long-term studies on the dietary implications of a plant-based diet. For most people, I would suggest a good first step is to embrace a “flexitarian” lifestyle that focuses first on adding plant-based treats to your dog’s diet. Assuming your dog has responded favorably to the treats, you can follow by adding plant-based toppers and, eventually, plant-based food. Besides plant-based being more sustainable, eco-friendly, and healthier, there is a compelling economic argument why plant-based products may offer the same/lower pricing and better value. Importantly, this choice does not come with a taste/texture tradeoff. We’re not talking 1980s-era tofu. These are “Made in the USA” plant-based jerky treats cooked in smokehouse-style ovens and tested by dogs all over the country.
Shameless Pet: While pet owners are expressing interest in plant-based nutrition, they also want to feel confident they are providing all the nutrients necessary for their dog to thrive. At Shameless Pets, we clearly call out health benefits delivered by superfood ingredients in our treats, so consumers feel confident that treats can be tasty and fun for their pets, while also contributing to their pets’ overall wellbeing.
Wild Earth: At Wild Earth, we’re on a mission to educate pet parents about the many benefits of a meat-free diet, and as more studies continue to be published, we can point to those and reinforce what we’ve known for some time. The fact is dogs that are fed a meat-free diet are healthier than those fed a standard kibble diet. This means fewer vet bills and more time with your furry friend. Beyond science, we strive to share our own experiences as pet parents with our customers. We want the best for our dogs, and theirs.