Exotic Protein Diets for Dogs

With the ability to enhance a dog’s well being while delivering a novel taste experience, exotic protein diets are gaining traction among pet owners, making this a category worth paying attention to.




It’s an oft-repeated expression…too much of a good thing can actually be bad. It may surprise dog owners to learn that when it involves their pet’s food, the same dynamic can sometimes be in play, particularly where it concerns the more common proteins like beef, chicken and tuna. The fact is that a steady diet of these proteins, even if initially well-tolerated, can, in some cases, begin to cause issues with long-term exposure.


Many experts are advising rotating more novel or exotic proteins—venison, rabbit, mussels, mackerel, lamb, ostrich and kangaroo—into the pet’s diet, says Heather Hickey, vice president of sales for Ziwi USA Inc. based in Overland Park, Kan. The company, with air-drying kitchens in Christchurch and Mount Maunganui, New Zealand, provides small-batch air-dried dog and cat diets, such as Ziwi Peak New Zealand Mackerel and Lamb, and Ziwi Peak New Zealand Venison, along with air-dried dog rewards and chews.


“Novel proteins may help prevent the development of protein-related sensitivities or allergies,” Hickey explains. “Many of the customers seeking exotic proteins are doing so to alleviate their pet’s allergy issues. But we also see consumers rotating in exotic meats to introduce different nutrients into the diet and to hopefully help avoid allergies or food intolerances.”


Addressing or avoiding allergy issues aren’t the only benefits behind the growing appeal of exotic protein diets. These proteins can be good for a pet’s overall health, and especially for weight control, says Brad Gruber, president of Health Extension Pet Care, a Deer Park, N.Y. provider of GMO-free pet food for dogs and cats, as well as vitamins and supplements. The company offers a wide variety of proteins, including those incorporating exotic meats such as the Italian Feast Venison Recipe and the Tuscan Style Quail Recipe.


“It’s estimated that 50 percent of dogs in the U.S. are overweight or obese, which can lead to other more serious health issues like arthritis or diabetes,” says Gruber. “Since exotic proteins are leaner, have fewer calories and less fat than conventional proteins, introducing them into a pet’s diet can be an effective way to reduce and/or alleviate these other health issues.”


Demand & Challenges

According to Matthew Koss, president and founder of Primal Pet Foods, Inc., demand for exotic protein-based diets has been steadily growing for the past several years, driven in part by the increase in food-related allergies. Located in Fairfield, Calif., the company manufactures raw frozen and freeze-dried foods and treats for dogs and cats, as well as goat milk and bone broth. Exotic protein offerings include venison and rabbit formulas in both frozen and freeze-dried formats.


Jen Loesch, general manager for Sojos Pet Foods, agrees there’s been evolving consumer interest in these proteins and in healthier, high-quality minimally processed diets—such as shelf-stable raw alternatives—overall. Headquartered in South Saint Paul, Minn., the company provides raw, shelf-stable foods, toppers and oven-baked dog treats. Included in the offerings is Sojos Wild, made with select freeze-dried venison, wild-caught salmon and wild boar, and incorporating superfood fruits and veggies.


“Concerned pet parents are hyper-focused on nutrition as being the key to whole-body health and longevity,” she explains. “And, exotic protein diets have gained traction as pet parents look to not only add variety to their pet’s meal, but also added nutrition. So the demand for exotic proteins is growing. Beyond the novelty and wilderness imagery, more and more pet parents are discovering their unique nutritional attributes.”


Still, this burgeoning popularity comes with a bit of a downside—supply and sourcing, especially where it concerns securing a reliable domestic supply, says Gruber. He adds that Health Extension’s relationship-building efforts with suppliers has enabled it to establish a consistent network of clean, high-quality sources.


Loesch agrees that sourcing can sometimes be challenging. “Particularly for quality pet food manufacturers who offer the assurance of nothing from China,” she says. “That said, Sojos Wild is made with wild-caught salmon from Alaska, wild boar from the Southern U.S., and free-range venison from New Zealand.”


Some states have placed restrictions on bringing in certain proteins, says Hickey. However, she adds, this hasn’t affected Ziwi; it sources all of its proteins—such as green-lipped mussels, wild-caught mackerel and grass-fed, free-range lamb—from New Zealand and sell them throughout North America.


Increased manufacturing costs associated with producing these kinds of diets are another concern, since this can translates to higher pricing for consumers, says Koss. However, as Loesch reminds, exotic proteins don’t necessarily have to comprise the pet’s entire diet, which can put these formulas more in reach of consumers on a budget.


Exotic Retailing

Although, as mentioned, these diets are becoming more popular, they are nevertheless not on every pet owner’s radar. And even those who are aware of exotic protein diets may still not have a full understanding of their benefits. Consequently, says Loesch, pet specialty retailers must bring themselves and their staffs up to speed about these diets in all their forms so they, in turn, can educate consumers and make the most of a category that is experiencing heightened interest.


“This is essential to ensure team members are well-versed on the brands they carry, as well as the ins and outs of freeze-dried raw food and the benefits of particular ingredients,” she says. “There’s no question that quality exotic protein foods can make mealtime more satisfying for dogs and their owners, and properly trained, knowledgeable sales associates can quickly break down the perceived barriers.”


This is especially the case when it comes to addressing cost concerns. A thorough discussion about the features and benefits of these diets can often encourage purchasing once pet owners understand what they, and their pets, stand to gain by paying a little more.


It’s important for retailers to know the source/country of origin of the exotic protein foods they offer, says Hickey. “Also, were the animals free-range? Wild caught? Are they naturally preserved? Quality sourcing is vitally important for both novel and traditional proteins,” she says.


As for directing customers to the right choices for their needs, retailers should first ask if there are any health issues the pet owner is looking to address.


“Whether it is allergies or food sensitivities they can then make an appropriate recommendation as to which exotic protein would work best,” Gruber says. “For example, if the pet is adverse to poultry, retailers might recommend staying away from a protein like quail and giving venison a try. They may also want to suggest starting with a protein that’s a little less exotic, including that into the pet’s diet and seeing how the pet reacts.”


As for merchandising exotic protein products, signage is key, Gruber says. Retailers should be certain this signage not only directs customer to these items but that it clearly spells out the features and benefits.


“If space allows, retailers should create a section geared specifically for exotic proteins,” Gruber says. “Endcaps are a great way to catch consumers’ attention. They can even get creative by displaying culinary props, like a fake menu, to make the section stand out.”


Finally, offer an ample selection of exotic protein products and traditional foods as well, says Koss. “Retailers offering a wide variety of diets, including those made with exotic protein, have an opportunity to differentiate themselves and become a solution-based partner for their customers.” PB


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