Stroll down the aisle of almost any pet-supply store and you’re likely to see dog food that rivals the offerings of a high-end butcher shop: salmon, venison and duck, plus pheasant, bison, rabbit and ostrich. You’ll even find critters that aren’t on anyone’s menu, including beaver and Australian brushtail possum. Mmmmmm good.
While the vast majority of dog owners stick to the basics — beef, chicken and lamb-based foods — a growing number are venturing into the exotics, despite the fact that they may cost substantially more than economy kibble. If an average dog owner spends about $227 a year on dog food, an owner who’s feeding the wild stuff will spend many times more, especially if the dog who’s eating it is one of the big guys.
Why are some of us going in this direction? “The most common reason an owner will switch to a food that’s made with a more exotic meat is that the dog has food allergies,” says Mark Newkirk, VMD, director of the Margate Animal Hospital in Margate, N.J. Owners also cite ethical reasons — for example, concerns over the “factory farming” system that generates the meat used in most pet foods — as well as a wish to simply improve their dogs’ diets. The food might be “better” because of what’s in it (higher-grade meat and other ingredients) as well as what isn’t (chemical additives, plus the hormones and pesticides to which the feed animal and/or plant-based ingredients were exposed).
The market for natural pet foods, which includes many products made with exotic or game meats as well as those containing certified organic or “natural” ingredients (that includes products such as beds and toys) had $1 billion in retail sales in 2007 and is expected to top $2 billion by 2012, according to the research firm Packaged Facts. Natural foods represent just 6 percent of total dog-food sales, but they’re growing about five times as fast as the pet-food market as a whole. And while U.S. consumers are increasingly interested in all manner of organic and environmentally friendly products, sales of organic dog food — roughly $84 million in 2008 — have increased at almost twice the rate of organic food intended for human consumption, according to the Organic Trade Commission. Nearly half of all pet-owning households now look for “natural” or eco-friendly pet products, according to another national survey (Packaged Facts).
Consider the Source
In the past few years, Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFOs —the “factory farms” that produce the majority of the meat consumed by Americans and their companion animals — have increasingly been in the news. Linked to environmental damage as well as to the emergence of antibioticresistant pathogens and other serious problems, CAFOs have also spurred vociferous animal-welfare debates. The U.S. cattle industry produces more than 13 million tons of beef (and slaughters more than 34 million animals) each year; U.S. poultry farms contribute more than 21 million tons of meat. From that, the U.S. produces more than six million tons of pet food every year and imports another 180,000 tons from abroad.
One way to avoid this issue is to skip meat altogether and feed our dogs a vegetarian diet, a strategy that’s fairly controversial (and not recommended by many veterinarians). Or, we can look for alternative meat sources for our dog — animals that don’t come from gigantic feedlots and slaughterhouses but rather live and die on smaller farms or ranches, or even in the wild.
Unfortunately, there’s no guarantee that the animal that begat the food lived (or died) happily, says Jennifer Larsen, DVM, PhD, assistant professor of clinical nutrition at the William R. Pritchard Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital at the University of California, Davis. “These animals are either hunted or slaughtered on farms,” she says. “They didn’t die in their sleep.” On the other hand, research shows that animals in factory farms are generally subjected to overcrowded, unsanitary conditions; are routinely given hormones and antibiotics; and are consistently less healthy than animals that live on more traditional farms, or in the wild.