Protein is an essential part of a healthy diet for dogs. These days, many people associate protein with going to the gym, losing weight, and gaining muscle. But for us and our pets alike, it also plays a vital role in maintaining the health of hair, skin, nails, ligaments, cartilage, and more, in addition to building muscle mass.
As the Earth’s human and pet populations grow, so does the demand for protein. We’ve gone from 1.86 to about 7.4 billion humans on Earth in the past hundred years according to the United Nations. And as you can imagine, the number of pets living in our homes has also increased exponentially. This means the demand for protein has grown in a way that our planet simply can’t sustain.
Experts are searching for alternatives to traditional farmed proteins like cows, pigs, and chickens. At the top of the list for many are plant-based proteins, but others are turning to an unlikely source: insects! Dog food options made with insect protein aim to address the issue of sustainability in protein production by providing a high-quality alternative that can be produced in an eco-conscious manner.
In this post, we'll take a look at the surprising benefits of insect protein for dogs and explain how to choose a healthy insect-based dog food.
Why Do Dogs Need Protein?
We hear about “proteins” a lot, but really, what are they? We know proteins are good, necessary, and come from a variety of sources. But why are they good? Why are they necessary? And why are those sources such staples?
As explained by the experts at Khan Academy, a protein is made up of one or more linear chains of amino acids. Amino acids are monomers – molecules that can be bonded to other identical molecules, made of nitrogen, carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen.
Dogs need several different amino acids to grow and function properly, and some are classified as essential. These cannot be made by the body and must be obtained externally through food sources rich in protein.
Traditional sources of protein for dogs include animal proteins, such as that from pigs, chickens, cows, and fish. There are also several popular plant sources, including beans, peas, and ancient grains. Eggs also offer a complete protein option.
Recently, especially with the rise of known allergies in dogs, some dog food manufacturers have started to get creative with protein sources. They’re abandoning the traditional forms and turning to rabbit, ostrich, and bison, or quinoa and flaxseed.
Regardless of where the protein comes from, it’s important that a dog receives the right amount. How much is enough? That varies by dog, especially according to their age, but can range anywhere from 18 to 29% of their daily caloric intake. Puppies who are growing and developing will need much higher amounts, while a senior dog may not. It’s always best to consult with your holistic veterinarian if you’re unsure.Protein deficiency is something to keep an eye on and can manifest in a variety of ways. Common symptoms include:
- Skin, hair, or nail issues
- Loss of muscle mass
- An increased appetite due to not feeling full
The issues that can come about due to protein deficiency include:
- Higher risk of bone fractures
- Higher caloric intake due to hunger, leading to obesity
- Increased risk of infections
- Depleted immune system
- Fatty liver
Again, if you suspect your dog may have a protein deficiency, speak to your holistic vet about how you can solve the problem. Sometimes there are underlying issues that prevent the proper absorption of protein into a dog’s system, but occasionally a simple change in diet can solve the issue.
What Are the Benefits of Insect Protein?
When it comes to the topic of eating insects, many pet owners in the US will probably cringe. That’s because we tend to associate insects as something undesirable, gross, or creepy. But the truth is that insects have been consumed by not just animals but also people around the world for centuries! Called entomophagy, it's quite common, and currently over 2 billion people globally consume insects as part of their regular diet.
Even though it might seem new to us, with nearly a million different kinds of known insects existing on planet Earth, we’d be foolish to ignore their potential and promise as a protein source, especially for our pets.
You might be surprised to learn just how great insects as a protein source are.
One commonly farmed insect protein source are the larvae of Hermetia illucens, commonly known as black soldier fly larvae or soldier worms. According to one scientific report, the dry weight of black soldier fly larvae contains up to 50% crude protein, up to 35% lipids, and have an amino acid profile that is like that of fishmeal.
Additionally, black soldier fly larvae are easily raised and can be tapped as a source for protein that is estimated to be thousand-folds more prolific than traditional terrestrially farmed animals like chickens, pigs, and cows. And with a fraction of the environmental impact! The benefits for our planet in farming not just black soldier fly larvae, but any insects, include reduced greenhouse gas emissions and far less water used.
Their colonies can easily be stacked which is impossible or simply unethical with farm animals. And they can be reared on just about any organic food source, including that which might otherwise be discarded from organic farms and distilling operations. The fast-growing larvae can be farmed dozens of times per year, as they reproduce so quickly.
Once ready for harvest, both a high-protein insect meal and an oil are produced by black soldier fly larvae. That oil is remarkably similar in properties to fish oil or soy oil and can also be used to meet the nutritional needs of dogs.
The production and farming of black soldier fly larvae also takes pressure off our oceans. There has been a huge rise in fish protein sources in recent decades in commercial dog food and supplements. But that could all change if more of us switch our furry friends over to alternatives like those containing insect proteins.
Other insects being investigated as potential sources of protein for dog foods include crickets, grasshoppers, and locusts. Crickets could prove to be the most popular because they contain around 65% protein, are low in fat, and are also easily farmed with similar benefits for our environment as black soldier fly larvae. So, keep your eyes open for more options as they become available.
How to Choose a High-Quality Insect-Based Dog Food
Choosing a high-quality food that contains insect proteins isn’t all that different than selecting one containing the protein sources you might be more accustomed to. And don’t worry about any “eww factor” of seeing whole bugs in your dog’s food. Once processed into a meal – or powder – the whole insect disappears, and the kibble ends up looking the same as any other on the market.
The ingredients of any dog food that uses insect protein should be a list of sustainably sourced, biologically appropriate, natural items, with no additives or artificial coloring.
As we’ve noted, black soldier fly larvae are an excellent source of insect protein and you’ll find them featured in Only Natural Pet’s MindfulMeals Black Soldier Fly Larvae Feast. This holistic vet formulated recipe also has pumpkin, pinto beans, and ancient grains making it a complete and balanced dry dog food.
You might still be a bit skeptical about trying out a food that features insects as an ingredient, and that’s totally understandable. But as we move to more sustainable options for food sources that have a lowered environmental impact, we’re discovering that sources such as the black soldier fly larvae are not just as good, but perhaps better than what we’ve been using so far.
One great way to integrat insect protein into your dog's diet is to feed Meatless Mondays or a flexitarian diet with an insect protein recipe fed occassionally. Plus, you can always add a healthy topper if you want a more traditional protein source included.