In a new world of Impossible Burgers and Beyond Meat, where eating cicadas is considered an actual protein-rich option and adopting a plant-based diet is a legitimate, intelligent choice, what do we do with all those carnivores and omnivores sleeping on the backs of our sofas and chasing squirrels around our backyards?
What do we put in KittyKat's supper dish if not meat? What do we give good ol' Bowser? How do we ensure that what we feed our pets is not only good for them — rich in protein and all the nutrients needed to keep them healthy — but good for our planet, too?
Science, of course. Science is the answer. Or that's the hope.
"It's all doable," says Greg Aldrich, a research associate professor and the coordinator of the Pet Food Program in the department of grain science and industry at Kansas State University. "I can formulate a vegetarian diet for a dog, I can make a vegan diet for a dog. It's just a lot harder to get it all balanced ... and then to get them to like it."
The Problem with Pet Food
The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals estimates that more than 160 million dogs and cats are living in U.S. households. The Pet Food Institute puts that number at 180 million. Whichever, the American Pet Products Association reports that Americans spent more than $42 billion on pet foods and treats in 2020.
That's a lot of furry family members eating a lot of foods that are, for the most part, animal-based. That, clearly, is not helping our planet. A 2017 paper written by UCLA researcher Gregory Okin found that American dogs and cats are responsible, through the food they eat, for the release of up to 64 million tons (58 million metric tons) of harmful greenhouse gasses each year.
The challenge, then: getting Fido and Fifi off the animal-based junk and onto something more sustainable.
It's not as if we're feeding our pets big slabs of brontosaurus ribs and live chickens. Pet foods in the U.S. generally have plenty of grains included. Corn, in fact, is the No. 1 ingredient used overall in cat and dog foods, according to the North American Renderers Association.
But most pet foods have a huge animal component. The reason for that is simple: Dogs and cats (and you and I) need protein, and eating meat or meat byproducts is often the best, easiest and cheapest source of protein.
"The dog is an omnivore, like humans [eating both plants and animals], but their nutritional requirements are such that they're easier or better supported nutritionally if they consume animal proteins and fats at least as part of their diet," Aldrich says. "And the cat we consider to be an obligate [meaning, here, biologically necessary] carnivore.
"So what am I talking about there? Is it just because we label them as carnivores so thereby we have to feed them meat? No. It really comes down to some of their nutritional requirements, the metabolic utilization of things like amino acids and fatty acids."
Dogs and cats, Aldrich is saying, don't necessarily need meat. But they need what's in it, and meat is easier for them to digest. So how can we feed so many animals who biologically need meat — or at least are more easily or better-fed with meat — when the production of that meat is both harmful to the planet and, to many, morally objectionable?
Again. Science. Science to the rescue.
Bond Pet Foods is a pet food company in Boulder, Colorado, that is "using biotechnology to create food that's nutritionally comparable to conventional meat but without all the bad stuff." Late in 2020, Bond announced that it had produced the world's first "animal-free chicken protein" to use in pet foods.
Bond took a blood sample from a live chicken, extracted the genetic code, then combined it with some food-grain yeast. The mixture, grown in a fermentation tank, "churns out meat proteins that are identical to those typically produced on farm and field. It's a similar fermentation process that's been used for half a century to make enzymes for cheese, but Bond is reassembling the process to harvest high quality animal proteins."
The process produces "cell-cultured meat;" basically, lab-manufactured meat without the need or mess of raising and killing animals. Bond is not the only company experimenting with it. Because, Animals. is using a relatively similar process which harvests cells and grows them into tissue that can be used in treats and foods for pets.
"A new wave of responsible food production is emerging, working with the best that nature and science has to offer, and our team is leading this wave," Rich Kelleman, co-founder and CEO of Bond Pet Foods, said in a press release: "Our team's continued developments are laying the foundation to bring high-value meat protein and nutrition to dogs and cats, while removing farm animals from the equation."
The Challenges Ahead
A new era of pet foods made with a reduced environmental impact, more sustainability and more responsibility — no large fields for cows needed, no methane produced, no endlessly cramped chicken- or pork-raising facilities, no overharvested fishing spots, and none of that unconscionable killing of animals — is hardly just around the corner. This new way of feeding the household pet is going to take some time.
The science, for as far as it's advanced, is not quite big-time yet. For one, manufacturers will have to work out the best ways to ramp up the process. Large amounts of animal-based material — blood, tissue, whatever — might still be needed, at least initially.
"Whether or not they have got to where they can take it to scale — so instead of making a couple grams, making a million pounds — I don't know if they've got that all worked out yet," Aldrich says.
Another question to be answered, and not an insignificant one: Once this "cultured meat" is produced, will your pets eat it? Will they like it?
After that, companies will have to educate the public, which may be picky about what goes into Fido's dish. They may have to overcome environmentalists and animal-rights backers who may object, still, to the use of blood or other animal material that makes the base of the new food.
The companies will have to market it effectively. They'll undoubtedly face stiffer competition, as even the big pet-food makers jockey for position in a market in which good, affordable protein is increasingly difficult to come by. The new guys will have to make their product affordable.
So even though this new cell-cultured product may not be taking over the pet food aisle at your local Walmart or Target any time soon, the desire for an option to meat — a more humane, more sustainable option — is clearly there.
"It could be a viable niche in the marketplace in the next five to 10 years," Aldrich says. "As long as we have — what is it, 180 million dogs and cats in the U.S.? — there's going to be demand for proteins, so any additional supply of protein is going to help. Whether or not that cell-cultured meat becomes mainstream is probably going to be a ways away."