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What you need to know about novel protein pet foods

By Dr Guy Sandelowsky of Omni

 

“Oh, actually, Mister Wiggles is fed on (insert fancy new diet here).”

We’ve all been there. As a long-time dog dad and vet myself, I frequently get chatting to other pet parents at the local park or in the clinic, discussing the ins and outs of different foods and treats, as well as shampoos, supplements, sprays, and more.

And even though as a trained vet I pride myself in understanding the science behind dog health, I’m not infrequently caught off-guard by the latest innovation in canine wellness. Alligator meat tops the chart of “odd things I’ve heard suggested at the dog park”, but staying on top of so-called “novel protein” pet foods can sometimes feel like running on a treadmill.

Novel proteins, for the non-vets in the room, are protein sources that are different or unconventional compared to the more ordinary sources. Most of us feed (or have fed) our dogs on the usual protein-packed culprits: pork, beef, chicken, turkey, duck, lamb. But dogs, being opportunistic omnivores, can digest a vast array of foods, including, yes, alligators, plants, insects, and even cultivated meat (more on this later!).

It was not until I started exploring (and subsequently working in) the novel protein pet food sector myself that I began to really understand it. My dog, a 15-year-old black Labrador called Bondie, has now been totally plant-based for three years and, despite his age, seems far younger and more spritely than he did on his old cheap-and-cheerful biscuits.

By “cheap and cheerful”, I mean that the food was relatively cheap, and I was pretty cheerful about that. But, the more I looked into it, the more I was forced to admit that it was, in reality, cheap for a reason.

 

Are we doing something wrong?

The first sign that something was wrong with the status quo is that one in four dogs will ultimately get cancer, according to the Veterinary Cancer Society. Sadly, Bondie became one of these dogs when he got mouth cancer aged just four. I began to wonder: if the rate of cancer is that high, isn’t that a sign that we as a society are probably (unwittingly) doing something wrong?

Then, in 2022, a study was published out of the University of Winchester in which over 2,500 dogs were studied. The researchers found the worst health outcomes in those dogs fed conventional (read: cheap and cheerful) meat-based diets. The best health outcomes, somewhat paradoxically, were found among those dogs fed either raw meat or totally plant-based!

There’s a caveat here, however: the dogs fed raw meat were statistically younger than those fed plant-based, meaning that, like for like, the novel plant-based diet did the best of all.

 

“But dogs are carnivores, right? They need normal meat… right?” 

I hear you. This is the crux of any argument against novel protein diets for dogs – that dogs need what we’ve always given them, and that anything else is against their nature.

Yet scientists knew back in 1987 that: “Dogs are in fact generally believed to be omnivores, and are more correctly labelled as opportunistic feeders… They can and do consume and receive nourishment from a variety of foods of both animal and vegetable origin” – Dr John Hilton, Chair of the Canadian Veterinary Association’s Nutrition Subcommittee.

Hilton did not know it, but at the time he was writing, a Border Collie in England called Bramble was already a happy nine-year-old. She would go on to live another 15 years, to the ripe old doggy age of 189, becoming the world’s oldest female dog and the sixth-longest living dog ever. And she was fed an unconventional, plant-based diet, getting her protein from the “novel” sources of lentils and vegetable protein.

Having evolved for more than 10,000 years by our side, dogs have the gut microbiome required to digest any number of different foods, whether made from plants or meat. So long as a particular cockroach-, pig-, plant- or alligator-based diet is nutritionally complete, they should – in theory – have no issue whatsoever in living a full, happy, healthy life.




 

Why bother?

Now that we have, hopefully, established that dogs can live on novel protein diets, you might be asking yourself: should they? After all, why go through all the hassle of changing your dog’s dinner away from their “usual” just because you can?

Diets made from novel proteins are currently booming in the pet market. Both plant-based and insect-based diets have existed for decades; both have made many dogs very happy, but both still raise eyebrows even within the dog community. Most adopters of novel proteins are motivated by their excellent nutritional value as well as their low allergenicity, although, for many, that’s not enough.

The climate impact of conventional diets has caused more still to shift away from the typical supermarket shelf brands. Our pets alone eat somewhere around 20% of globally farmed and fished animals, two of the most environmentally damaging food sources. On top of that, an area double the size of the UK is used just to produce dry pet food for our companions every year, not to mention the energy and water use that goes into putting dogs’ and cats’ dinners in their bowls. To solve that problem, many of us have started thinking outside the box.

For my part, I left the day-to-day life of veterinary practice in order to found Omni, the UK’s first vet-founded and peer-reviewed novel protein dog food company. By making perfectly nutritious (and tasty!) dog food straight out of plants, we’ve created something that an increasingly large swathe of the market has been waiting for.

But the sector is only just in its infancy. Novel protein foods are on the rise. Cultivated meat, another novel protein source, will almost certainly be the next ‘big thing’: meat that is real meat, just of better quality, more environmentally friendly, and (most importantly) produced without slaughtering any animals at all.

Ultimately, the pet food sector has always been one of innovation, and we need that innovative spirit now more than ever. Times have changed, and we, as animal lovers, change with them.

 

Dr Guy Sandelowsky

Dr Guy is a founder of novel protein dog food company Omni as well as a vet who has worked at many vet hospitals across the UK. He became a vet because he wanted to dedicate his life to improving the lives of animals. He is inspired by his 15-year-old black Labrador, Bondie, who survived mouth cancer at the young age of four. Guy has long questioned why, despite processed meat being linked to an increased incidence of cancer in humans, it remains the main ingredient in most pet foods.



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