““My poodle, Lilly, is a finicky eater and gets tired of things fast,” says Emma. “I have to constantly rotate her foods, or she just turns her nose up.” To complicate matters, Lilly is allergic to beef, which limits the menu even more. Or at least it did before Emma discovered that beef, chicken, turkey and lamb, while still the standbys, are no longer the only protein sources available. “I was amazed to learn you can now get things like bison and ostrich for pets.” Emma admits she was initially a little reluctant to try these alternative meats, but Lilly had no qualms and enthusiastically welcomed the tasty new foods.
Why feed alternative meats?
Alternative meats have increased in popularity over the last few years for several reasons. More and more animal guardians want their companions to enjoy an enhanced quality of life, and that includes diet. “Pets are being incorporated into their human families,” says Josie Bell of Blonde with Beagle, makers of Barking Bison, a natural dog kibble made with buffalo meat. “As a result, they’re getting more sophisticated diets.”
Thanks to customer demand, these diets are not only becoming healthier – as demonstrated by the increasing availability of high quality raw or packaged foods made from whole, natural ingredients – but they also encompass a widening selection of special meats once unheard of in the pet food industry. And they’re not hard to find. Amoré, Bravo!, Urban Carnivore and Arusha all sell alternative meats in the form of frozen raw diets and bones, while Nature’s Variety and Blonde with Beagle also offer packaged options. Depending on the company, you can get anything from bison, venison, ostrich and emu to duck, rabbit, quail and wild salmon. Some manufacturers even include goat, llama and elk in their product lines.
Also driving the demand for greater variety, as well as better quality, is the increase in diet-related allergies and food sensitivities in dogs and cats, which often manifest as intense itchiness or chronic diarrhea. “Allergies occur when animals eat the same thing all the time,” says Natasha Betancor-Leon of Amoré. “We’ve always worked closely with holistic vets and they were the first to request meats that dogs wouldn’t show an allergy to.”
A varied diet has other health benefits as well. “It enhances nutritional balance and soundness,” says holistic veterinarian Dr. Cynthia Harcourt. “Each meat has a unique biochemical makeup and amino acid structure. Feeding your animal a variety therefore gives him a broad base of amino acids and nutritional components.” Scott Freeman of Nature’s Variety agrees: “Feeding the same protein for a long time can cause dietary deficiencies. Some meats are higher in taurine than others, for instance, and they all have a different spectrum of proteins, amino acids, EFAs, vitamins and minerals.” Bison, for example, is not only low in fat and cholesterol, but is also an excellent source of protein, iron, zinc and selenium. “Ostrich and emu are also low-fat as well as rich in EFAs, especially arachodonic acid, which is essential for cats and has to come from an animal source,” says Natasha. “These meats are excellent for animals with damaged immune systems.”
How are these meats raised?
Like Emma, you might at first feel a little uncomfortable about feeding your companion something like emu or bison. “I had quite a few questions,” says Emma. “I wanted to be sure the meat was clean and safe for Lilly, and I also wanted to know where it came from. Because I think of buffalo or ostrich as wild animals, I had images of someone going out into nature and hunting them.” In fact, with the exception of wild salmon, alternative meats used for pet food are raised on farms and ranches, not harvested from the wild. And because the goal of premium food manufacturers is to provide healthy, high quality products, they are just as careful about where they source their alternative meats as they are their beef and chicken.
“Bison, ostrich and emu are all grass-fed,” says holistic veterinarian Dr. Nancy Scanlan. “Not only do grass-fed animals have higher levels of Omega-3 fatty acids in their systems than those that are fed grain, but they’re also cleaner. It’s a totally natural thing, so there’s no chance of something like mad cow disease showing up.”
“The bison we use is free-range,” adds Josie. “It’s raised on very expansive ranches. And the meat contains no steroids or hormones, so it’s a very pure, uncluttered protein source.” In fact, according to Natasha, it’s impossible to raise bison in a factory farm environment. “They have to be out in the open. You can’t keep them confined, because they just die.”
Although not native to North America, emu and ostrich are now raised on domestic ranches and are also free-range. “There are emu ranches all over the U.S. and Canada,” says Natasha. Smaller animals like rabbits can’t be raised free-range because of the threat of wild predators, but most premium food manufacturers are careful to choose suppliers that do the next best thing. “We buy our rabbit from only one source,” says Natasha. “He keeps the animals in an above-ground enclosure with bushes all around it.”
Venison, another popular alternative, is also raised commercially. Because of concerns with chronic wasting disease among some domestic deer and elk, the venison is imported from New Zealand, which is free of the illness. “The animals are raised on pasture, not in feedlots, and contain no hormones or antibiotics,” says Scott. “In fact, you can now pretty much get any meat, alternative or otherwise, from natural sources because demand is forcing the industry to raise its animals this way.”
Can I feed all these meats or should I just stick to a couple?
Whether you’re feeding your companion alternative or traditional meats, variety remains important. “Allergies are much less of an issue when the animal doesn’t eat the same things for long periods,” says Dr. Scanlan. “Think about what happens in the wild – predators eat whatever is numerous at the time. They might go with mice early in the season, then baby deer, then full-grown deer, and so on. They aren’t exposed to any one meat for a long stretch.”
Some foods might agree with your dog or cat better than others, however, so you may want to consult your vet before trying new things. “An individual animal’s health issues are always unique,” says Dr. Harcourt. “He may not be able to tolerate certain proteins depending on the health of his gut and the integrity of the mucus membranes and intestinal flora. As much as possible, though, I suggest rotating foods so that mainstream protein sources are used alongside alternative ones.” By regularly feeding different foods, stresses Scott, you can expose your animal to a healthy variety of EFAs and amino acids. “People who rotate foods and flavors have really good results with their animals.” And because alternative meats are generally only slightly more expensive than beef, lamb or poultry, introducing them to your companion’s diet isn’t going to break the bank.
What about non-meat protein sources?
Because canines and felines are naturally carnivorous, meat must form the basis of their diet, especially in the case of cats. But that doesn’t mean you can’t occasionally supplement your companion’s meals with non-meat protein sources to add even more nutritional and flavor variation. “I use organic eggs, goat cheese and yogurt, nuts, especially almonds, and seeds,” says Dr. Harcourt. Other options, adds Dr. Scanlan, include cottage cheese, beans and soy foods. “Soy is the very best of all vegetable proteins,” she says. “It’s very balanced. Although some larger breed dogs might not be able to tolerate it and may bloat, other dogs can actually do better on soy-based diets, especially if they are allergic to meat proteins.”
Now that Emma has discovered alternative protein sources for Lilly, she has never looked back. “Lilly’s in better health and actually looks forward to mealtimes. She especially loves bison and rabbit, and also likes a little cheese and egg from time to time. It’s such a pleasure to see her enjoy her food!”