The Wilder Side of Protein

Today's pet parents are not just bringing home the bacon, they are bringing home the wild boar-and bison, ostrich or kangaroo-as exotic-protein pet diets gain popularity.


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Searching for pet food that is healthful, flavorful and free of unnecessary ingredients can be a daunting experience for pet owners when faced with the seemingly unlimited options that fill pet specialty stores.

Yet, despite the array of new specialized pet diets on the market these days—organic, grain free, limited ingredient—protein remains integral to maintaining the health of dogs and cats, and therefore continues to be a focal point on store shelves. With that in mind, manufacturers are striving to develop the next big pet-food breakthrough, featuring a growing selection of exotic proteins.

During the late 1990s, bison meat began appearing on restaurant menus as a solution for health enthusiasts who sought alternatives to beef. As this, and other exotic meats such as ostrich and elk, became more widely accepted for human consumption, the natural course was to consider these as options to expand offerings within pet-food market. “I don’t think there’s any question that the popularity of exotic proteins as a human food alternative has played a role [in the growth of exotic protein pet food],” says Ward Johnson, owner and president of Sojos. “The challenge for manufacturers is to meet the demand with non-traditional, novel protein sources that are readily available.”

Lean and packed with iron, bison burgers and steaks grew in popularity for human consumption, followed by omega-3 rich salmon and native Australian kangaroo meat only a few years thereafter. These days, exotic meats continue to occupy space in the supermarket butcher section as pet-supply retailers devote more room to the expanding product lines in this category.

According to Ron Jackson, assistant to the president of Hi-Tek Rations, manufacturer of the Leonard Powell Signature Series Dog Food, “A number of manufacturers have begun to offer protein sources that are outside of traditional proteins in the manufacture of their cat and dog foods. Today’s offerings include wild boar, elk, venison, kangaroo, rabbit, duck and game bird, among others, in addition to traditional protein sources such as chicken, fish and lamb.”

Locally sourced foods with fewer ingredients have become increasingly popular for humans and pets during the last year, as well. “Pet foods with exotic proteins are a good fit for consumers that want to have their pets on a limited-ingredient diet and want to try something different. Diets with exotic and unique protein sources give pet parents more formula options for their pet,” says Heather Govea, general manager of Natural Balance Pet Foods, Inc. Once consumers sought greater simplicity regarding their own grocery purchases, the natural path was to demand the same standards for their pets’ food.


The New Nutrition
High-protein diets are often lauded as a tool to maximize the performance of active humans. The same theory regarding protein-heavy diets is now being applied to pets that are expected to perform at a high activity level. “High-protein pet foods deliver essential nutrients for building muscle, coat and skin, and also support energy levels in active dogs,” says Govea. “Protein supports muscle strength and offers calories that can sustain the needs of active pets.”

As pets are included in summer family activities, whether outdoor hikes or traveling long distances, optimum health and stamina, which can be achieved by supplying high-protein foods, are necessary for safe journeys and enjoyable activities.

While not every pet needs to perform at a competitive agility level, monitoring pet weight and activity is important for maintaining overall health. The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) reveals protein from birds and fish provide taurine, an essential amino acid necessary for optimizing many aspects of feline health, including vision, hearing, heart function and reproduction. Ten percent of daily calories in a canine’s diet must also be sourced from protein to ensure proper nutrition and, according to the NAS, most dogs prefer eating meat.

“Whatever the age or lifestyle, dogs of all stripes love the awesome taste and aroma,” Johnson says. “Given that exotic proteins in Sojos Wild are lean, healthy and delicious, we consider them appropriate for dogs of all lifestyles. Active dogs benefit from the higher protein content—but at the same time, the leaner qualities help with weight management in less-active dogs.”

While many pet-food manufacturers have devoted resources to develop formulas based on exotic proteins, others have focused on their traditional offerings, while adding only a small selection of these new products. Jackson says, “At Hi-Tek Rations, we continue to focus on proven, sustainable and highly nutritious protein sources such as chicken, fish, and lamb, although we do offer consumers desiring different proteins two formulations using ‘exotic’ meats, in this case bison and duck.”

Adhering to original formulas and carefully selecting ingredients to develop only a few exotic-protein offerings allows manufacturers to cautiously enter this niche category. This also affords companies the ability to keep a pulse on the trend while maintaining a trusted reputation for producing traditional foods.


The Role of Exotics in Retail
Educating pet parents regarding foods that use familiar protein-rich ingredients, such as beef, chicken and turkey is relatively easy, as these meats have been used by trusted brands over many years. When selling exotic proteins, it is most important for retailers to listen closely to consumer needs, as each pet presents specific needs, says Jackson. “At Hi-Tek Rations we look more to balance and overall formulation than to whether a given protein source, no matter how exotic sounding, is better than another. [For instance,] an allergy to chicken may suggest moving to lamb.”

Echoing this sentiment, veterinarian and board-certified veterinary nutritionist Cailin Heinze of Tufts University offers a caveat to the industry. The search for safe, wholesome exotic protein sources, is much more difficult than sourcing beneficial familiar ingredients. “The exotic protein sources can be harder to source, so quality can actually be worse than easy-to-source ingredients such as chicken, egg or beef,” she says.

This difficulty has led some manufacturers to change their formulas, as the challenge of sourcing quality exotic proteins outweighed the benefits of producing these items, adds Heinze.

Despite these challenges, however, the exotic-protein category is gaining momentum. As retailers consider the needs of their customers, many manufacturers, such as Natural Balance, have responded to consumer demand with exotic protein options. “Our customers were requesting more unique L.I.D. Limited Ingredient Diets protein options, and we responded with some exciting new choices,” Govea says. “Our L.I.D. Limited Ingredient Diets Legume & Wagyu Beef Dry Formula, L.I.D. Limited Ingredient Diets Potato & Kangaroo Dry Formula and our brand new Wild Pursuit Wet and Dry Formulas with protein sources such as quail, guinea fowl and trout offer pet parents exotic proteins, quality ingredients and more selection than they’ve ever had before.”

However, providing food formulated with exotic proteins is not the only consideration for these manufacturers. Choosing preparation options that retain the nutritious characteristics of the protein is extremely important. “Obviously, every protein source has a distinct nutrient profile,” Johnson says. “In many ways, I think it’s just as important to consider how the meat is prepared. That’s because cooking quickly diminishes the healthy benefits of any protein source. Sojos, on the other hand, uses a patent-pending process that protects the naturally occurring enzymes and nutrients in raw meat—and delivers it in a safe, easy to digest form.”

As manufacturers address increasing consumer demand for exotic proteins, more products with these ingredients will appear on retailer shelves. To meet this demand at the retail level, store associates must know their clientele and be familiar with all aspects of these exotic products, from ingredient sources and preparation to packaging and health benefits.

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