Well, not actually you, but rather your dog.
Before food purists get up in arms over this topic, consider that numerous human cultures have historically viewed insects as acceptable and even highly desirable food items. And today, our ever-expanding human population and the increasing need for sustainable sources of food have led to increased consideration of insects as food in almost all human cultures.
So, it’s not much of a jump to ask – what might this mean for feeding dogs?
It’s all about the protein: Protein is the most expensive nutrient in the diet of all animals, including humans. It is expensive both in terms of the monetary cost of its production and its ecological impact upon the environment. In the spirit of sustainability (a buzzword that pet food companies and other corporations love to trot out) and with the goal of reduced production costs (i.e. making foods more cheaply), pet nutritionists at The Nutro Company recently identified a number of potential alternative protein ingredients for dog and cat foods. Bugs, being plentiful, cheap, and protein-replete are included on that list.
And protein is all about amino acids: Although we talk about a dog’s protein requirement and about a food’s protein level or quality, the actual requirement that dogs and all animals have is for the essential amino acids (the building blocks of the dietary protein) and the nitrogen that dietary protein supplies. The reason that the parlance of nutrition centers on dietary protein is simply because foods contain protein, not individual amino acids. It is during the process of digestion that a food’s protein is broken down in the small intestine into its component amino acids, which are then absorbed into the body. So, at the level of an animal’s metabolic needs, it is the amino acids that actually count. This is why one of the first steps that nutritionists take when examining a potential protein-containing ingredient is to examine its amino acid composition.
So, can insect protein supply all of the essential amino acids that dogs require? The nutritionists at Nutro and at the University of California at Davis decided to find out (1).
The Study: A wide variety of different plant, algae and insect species were identified as potential alternative (and sustainable) protein sources for pet foods. Within the group of insects, the researchers focused on the adult and larval forms of various species of flies, cockroaches, and ants.
All of the bug samples were analyzed for total protein and amino acid content. (I will spare you the details regarding sample acquisition and preparation in case you are reading this during your lunch hour). Amino acid analysis included measurement of the 10 essential amino acids plus taurine, a special type of amino acid that is found primarily in animal tissues. Many readers are probably familiar with taurine as an essential dietary nutrient for cats. Because there is evidence that taurine may be needed during periods of physiological stress in some dogs, it has recently been classified as a “conditional essential amino acid” for dogs as well. Because sources of taurine are limited, it is an important essential nutrient to measure when considering new ingredients for dog and cat foods.
Results: Larval and adult forms of five different insect species were analysed. Here are their primary findings:
- High in protein: Total protein levels in all of the insect species were quite high. When reported on a dry matter basis, concentrations ranged between from 46 % in Black Soldier Fly larvae to 96 % in cockroaches. (Cockroaches? Who knew?).
- Bugs can do it: All but one species of insect (Black Soldier Fly larvae) were found to contain sufficient concentrations of protein, essential amino acids, and taurine to meet or exceed the NRC requirements for growth for dogs and cats. The finding for taurine was rather surprising because it has been previously assumed that rich sources of taurine included only skeletal muscle and organ meats.
- Ants and flies are best: Two groups of insects, ants and adult flesh flies, contained the most concentrated sources of taurine. However, these initial results suggest that all three of the groups that were studied – ants, cockroaches, and flies – may be nutritionally acceptable protein sources for dog and cat diets.
Take Away for Dog Folks
Dogs and cats (like humans) require nutrients in their diet, not ingredients. Therefore, if a particular protein ingredient can supply most or all of the dog’s essential amino acids, is nutritious when fed, and is safe and palatable, then it technically meets the criteria (ick factor aside) to be considered as a potential dietary ingredient. Having passed the first test of adequate protein and amino acid content, where do insects fall on these other criteria?
- Nutritious when fed: This refers to how digestible and bioavailable the essential nutrients of the ingredient actually are, when fed to the dog. For example, some insects and plants contain anti-nutritional factors, compounds that interfere with the ability to digest or use certain nutrients. Some of these compounds can be toxic or so potent as to cause illness, making their presence a clear “no-fly zone” for pets (pun intended).
- Safety: Many species of bugs have ways to protect themselves from becoming someone’s meal. They produce toxins that cause illness or consume plants whose by-products are toxic to animals. They may also just taste really, really nasty. Clearly, toxic bugs are out.
- Acceptability: Living with four dogs, one of whom is a notorious poop-eater, I would venture that the acceptability issue is as much about the human side of the equation than it is the dog side. Still, dogs must not just accept a bug-flavored food, they must relish it.
Will owners accept it? Might Cockroach Recipe for Seniors or Fly Formula for Active Dogs be a hard sell? My (gut) instinct is to say yes, especially in the US. We all project our own preferences and desires onto our dogs – it is our nature to do so. This is why dog foods that depict entire roasted chickens and sirloin steaks on their front panels sell so well (however misleading such graphics may actually be).
Still, seeing that there is a booming market for dog foods containing alligator meat, brushtail (Australian Possum), and Unagi (freshwater eel), along with treats made from dried bull penises, pig hooves and cow tracheas, one must admit that the bar is already set pretty low. Will insect dog food be next up?
Cited Study: McCuster S, Buff PR, Yu Z, Fascetti AJ. Amino acid content of selected plant, algae and insect species: A search for alternative protein sources for use in pet foods. Journal of Nutritional Science 2014;3:e39;1-5.