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.
And while scientific evidence for the health benefits of naturally raised foods is still slim for people (and practically nonexistent for dogs), many experts contend that foods made from animals and plants raised in non-CAFO settings are inherently superior. “When you switch a dog to a better food, you definitely see benefits because you’re making the dog’s body healthier,” Newkirk says. “Any kind of debilitation or chronic disease or problem will respond, to one degree or another, to a diet that’s made from healthy ingredients and not full of chemicals. That only makes sense.”
Moreover, while the “big five” dog food manufacturers have recently jumped on the natural bandwagon, the majority of foods made with game meats come from smaller companies, which tend to use higher-quality ingredients and produce their products in smaller plants. Some, such as Taste of the Wild, use only hormone- and antibiotic-free meats (and no synthetic preservatives). Others, such as Timberwolf Organics, rely on wild-caught, free-range and U.S.-sourced ingredients. The Canadian company Horizon Pet Nutrition says that none of its ingredients travel more than 100 km (or about 62 miles) to its Saskatchewan facilities. Champion Pet Foods, another Canadian company, uses regional ducks, free-range bison and wild-caught fish in its foods.
By far the most common reason for feeding a dog an exotic meat is a food intolerance or allergy, says Larsen. An intolerance generally produces digestive problems like diarrhea and/or vomiting (think lactose intolerance in people), while an allergy involves the immune system. Food allergies can present as gastrointestinal problems — diarrhea or vomiting or both — or skin problems such as excessive itching year-round. In some dogs, allergies produce both digestive and dermal symptoms.
Food allergies are triggered by exposure to a particular food (or more specifically, to a protein in that food) or food additives, such as preservatives, Larsen says. And many dogs are allergic to more than one thing, which makes it that much harder to find the culprit(s) in the dog’s diet. According to Larsen, dogs will often develop an allergy to a food or substance they’ve eaten regularly.
Some of the most common allergens for dogs are beef, chicken and grains, which are also the most common ingredients in commercial dog foods, says Newkirk. “If we suspect that the dog has a food allergy, we’ll put her on venison or duck or rabbit because her body hasn’t seen that protein before and therefore shouldn’t be allergic to it.” He also advises owners of allergic dogs to switch to a food that’s grain-free (meaning no wheat, corn or rice). “Grains are mostly carbohydrate, but they do contain some protein, too, and that can trigger a reaction in some dogs,” he says.
Before we begin swapping dog foods, however, it’s important to evaluate our dogs’ current diet as well as their diet history, notes Larsen. “I’m constantly amazed at people who think they’ve got to start buying ostrich [even though] their dog has never been exposed to beef,” she says. It’s also important that the new diet is both limited — incorporating a minimum number of ingredients — and based on a novel protein (something to which the dog has never been exposed). “Many diets with exotic meats also have a lot of other common ingredients, meaning there could be two dozen protein sources in a particular bag or can of dog food,” she says. There’s nothing magic about any one meat over another: “It’s really about exposure,” according to Larsen.
Identifying and eliminating a food allergen can be a lengthy process, and most vets advise an elimination trial of at least six weeks. Make sure that everything — kibble and wet food as well as treats and even chewable medications like heartworm preventives — containing potential allergens is removed from the dog’s diet. If the symptoms clear up after several weeks, re-introduce the food and watch for the symptoms to return.
Once the culprit is determined and a viable substitute is found, a big improvement in the dog’s health is likely, Newkirk observes. “The results are fairly remarkable. Of course, this may not be the dog’s only allergy and you may have other detective work to do, but it will probably make a major difference.”
Look at the Label
Consumers looking for a better commercial dog food must rely on manufacturers to make and label them correctly. Pet foods are regulated on both the national and state levels. Nationally, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) set the standards for labeling pet foods, including product identification, manufacturer’s name and address, net quantity and ingredients. Most states have their own regulations, which typically are modeled on the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAF CO) guidelines. AAFCO’s regulations stipulate specific information manufacturers must incorporate, including a guaranteed analysis of the food’s ingredients and a nutritional-adequacy statement, which shows that the food has been shown to be “complete and balanced,” meaning it will meet a dog’s basic nutritional needs. Foods without this statement may require the addition of supplements, such as vitamins and minerals, to complete the canine diet. (For more on label deciphering, see Rules & Regs on below.)
Commercial dog foods are generally lumped into a few categories, including “premium,” “super premium,” “ultra premium” and “gourmet.” Although it’s safe to assume that foods containing exotic meats will be classified thus, these words don’t have any official meaning: Dog foods that carry one of these terms on the label aren’t required to contain better ingredients or pass any more stringent nutritional requirements than ones that don’t.
Many dog foods, including exotic products, are labeled “natural” or “organic.” But this can be tricky, says Nancy K. Cook, vice president of the Pet Food Institute, a trade group representing petfood manufacturers, and chair of the USDA’s Organic Pet Food Task Force. The task force recommended a set of standards for dog and cat foods similar to those used for food intended for humans, but as of today, none has been adopted. That means that a manufacturer that touts its use of certified organic ingredients (or certified organic manufacturing facilities) and uses the official “organic” seal, which is issued by the USDA, must follow the same rules as manufacturers of human food, says Barbara Haumann, a spokesperson for the Organic Trade Association.
The term “natural” does have a definition, although it’s not exactly precise (or legally binding), Cook says. “Basically, a pet food is supposed to be made without artificial colors, flavors or preservatives in order to be called natural,” she says. That, at least, is the AAFCO definition. The FDA and USDA have no official definition of the term.
The bottom line: If you’re thinking of venturing into the exotic aisle, be sure to read the label carefully, says Larsen. Different doesn’t always mean better.