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Best in faux: Conscious consumers turn to vegan pet food

Appetite for plant-based and lab-grown pet food feeds market for animal-free brands

vegan pet food

As global leaders gathered in Glasgow to negotiate the latest UN climate agreement, a small Colorado-based company struck a quietly disruptive deal with one of the world’s largest pet food manufacturers. Bond Pet Foods announced in November an industry-first partnership with Hill’s Pet Nutrition (a subsidiary of Colgate-Palmolive) to develop “cultured meat proteins” – meat grown in a lab.

“This alternative protein source marks a step forward on our sustainability journey to use science to help provide the best possible care for pets,” Hills said in a statement.

Bond first announced the creation of “the world’s first animal-free, cultured chicken meat protein” in 2020. Their Hill-branded products are still in development but are part of a growing trend of pet foods that don’t include meat from animals.

In September, pet food company Wild Earth announced plans to develop dog and cat food made with cell-based meat, with the help of a US$23-million gift from investors who included billionaire entrepreneur Mark Cuban. Wild Earth first partnered with Cuban via a deal made on the business reality-TV show Shark Tank, when Cuban agreed to invest $550,000 for 10% of the company.

Since then, Wild Earth has secured an additional $16.2 million in funding from other investors.

According to research conducted by Insight Partners, the global market for vegan pet food is forecasted to grow from roughly US$9 billion in 2021 to almost US$16.7 billion by 2028. What’s driving that growth? The rise in vegan pet owners and plant-based diets is a major factor. Pet food companies like Hill’s are also looking to reduce their carbon footprints.

In a 2017 study, Environmental Impacts of Food Consumption by Dogs and Cats, University of California Los Angeles professor Gregory Okin found that meat consumed by cats and dogs in the U.S. alone produces the equivalent of roughly 64 million tons of CO2 per year – an impact equal to 13 million cars being driven for a year. The study calculated that pets are responsible for 25 to 30% of the environmental impact of meat consumption in the U.S. “If Americans’ 163 million Fidos and Felixes comprised a separate country, their fluffy nation would rank fifth in global meat consumption,” reads a UCLA press release, “behind only Russia, Brazil, the United States and China.”

For pet parents seeking to reduce their carbon paw prints, pet foods created with plant proteins such as peas, brown rice and oats, plus nutritional supplements, are becoming an increasingly accessible lower-carbon option. According to Allison Macabobby, a buyer with PetSmart, demand for the products is burgeoning. “We’ve carried plant-based dog food for several years and continue to see growing interest in these products,” she says.

This alternative protein source marks a step forward on our sustainability journey.

-Hill’s Pet Nutrition

One pioneering California-based brand, Natural Balance, has had a vegetarian dog kibble (which is actually vegan) on the market since 2008. Founded by actor and animal welfare advocate Dick Van Patten in 1989, Natural Balance’s meat-free food made of brown rice, oat groats, barley, peas and other ingredients is sold alongside the brand’s traditional animal-based products in mainstream pet supply stores across Canada and the U.S. and is priced similarly.

Natural Balance CEO Brian Connolly says the brand’s plant-based product “has maintained its position among the top performers across our Natural Balance dog food portfolio” and describes latest quarter sales across the U.S. as “showing positive gains.” In general, Connolly explains, “the plant-based dog food market is reflecting what a growing number of consumers are looking for in their own food today.”

Other exclusively plant-based brands such as V-dog (known as V-planet outside the U.S.) can be bought online and in some specialty shops, while California-based Plantiful sells dog food online and delivers it frozen across the U.S., but mainly in California. Owner Gayl Hyde, a licensed naturopath, says she and co-owner Eric Bandner were motivated to create the animal-free, whole-food product after becoming disenchanted with the quality of meat-based dog foods on the market.

“I came to the realization that the commercial pet food out there is not so healthy or holistic,” says Hyde. She went back to school to study canine nutrition and became interested in the idea of plant-based dog food. “I wanted something that I knew would be healthy not just for my dogs, but also healthy for the planet.”

Plantiful is made with human-grade ingredients, including organic lentils, peas, potatoes and more, and complies with the necessary standards of the Association of American Feed Control Officials. AAFCO is a non-profit membership association of local, state and federal agencies – including the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency – that “establishes the nutritional standards for complete and balanced pet foods,” according to its website. While AAFCO standards are not official regulations, most U.S. states have adopted a version of the AAFCO model into their own laws and regulations.

According to Canadian veterinarian Jonas Watson, meeting AAFCO standards is key to ensuring that animal-free foods satisfy dietary requirements. Watson warns that some commercially made vegan dog foods have been found to be deficient in certain amino acids, “which could lead to health risks for dogs.” He stresses that “it is important for pet food manufacturers to review their formulations to ensure the nutritional adequacy of these diets.”

Reports of nutritional insufficiencies in some products have fuelled controversy around feeding pets a plant-based diet. Justine Shotton, president of the British Veterinary Association, recently stated that the organization does not recommend putting cats or dogs on a meat-free diet. “It is theoretically possible to feed a dog a vegetarian diet, but owners would need to take expert advice to avoid dietary deficiencies and associated disease, as it is much easier to get the balance of nutrients wrong than to get it right.”

I came to the realization that the commercial pet food out there is not so healthy or holistic.

-Gayl Hyde, co-owner of Plantiful

The statement came after a veterinary professor at the University of Winchester, Andrew Knight, found through his research that cats and dogs “had as good, or better, health outcomes on plant-based diets as they did when fed on meat pet foods, provided these were carefully formulated with additional synthetic nutrients,” according to The Guardian.

In the U.K., news tabloids have been warning that pet owners can be prosecuted, fined or jailed for not providing their animals with a diet that meets all their nutritional needs, though this does not specifically apply to a plant-based diet.

“There is a lot of misinformation out there,” says Hyde, “that people think dogs need meat versus dogs need nutrients. They need amino acids; they need protein, not meat.”

The topic of feeding cats a vegan diet is even more controversial. Unlike dogs, which are considered omnivores, cats are categorized as obligate carnivores, meaning their physiology requires animal-based food for survival. In particular, cats need an amino acid called taurine, which can be consumed only through meat or supplements. While there are some supplemented plant-based cat foods on the market, Watson believes that lab-grown meat will be the “game changer” for cat food.

Lab-grown meat is largely still at the development stage. Although in August 2021, Philadelphia-based start-up Because, Animals announced the “world’s first-ever cultured meat product for pets,” the Harmless Hunt mouse cookies for cats, manufactured with mouse meat made without killing any mice. In late 2021, the company debuted plans to open a new laboratory in Vienna, Austria, ahead of its products hitting shelves in 2022, depending on regulatory approval.

A 2020 study by the IBM Institute for Business Value found that nearly 60% of those surveyed were “willing to change their shopping habits to reduce environmental impact.” Consumers are increasingly embracing social causes and seeking products and brands that align with their values. For conscious pet owners, this means hunting for ethical ways to feed their furry friends. For the pet food industry, this means bringing plant- and cellular-meat-based products to an eager and growing market.

Update: A study from 2020 looking at the global impacts of pet food production found that the emissions impact of pet food may be much lower: 1.1%−2.9% of global agricultural emissions. Though this still amounts to a significant environmental footprint.

 

Jessica Scott-Reid is a freelance writer covering animal rights and welfare and plant-based food topics. She is also a co-host of the Canadian animal law podcast Paw & Order.

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