Dog Marketplace: Feed The Growing Need
Active dogs and puppies can benefit from high-protein diets—it’s all about finding the right fit for each pet.
By Lizett Bond
The old adage “You are what you eat” rings true not only in our own diets, but also in the food selections made for our pets. Yet protein requirements are an often misunderstood and controversial aspect of canine nutrition. Most agree, however, that the ancestors of our domestic dogs consumed meat and fish seasoned with small amounts of fruit and grasses.
“In ancient times, dogs hunted and scavenged prey that provided higher protein and energy to help them survive,” said Jennifer Leen Berglund, director of marketing for Solid Gold Pet in Greenville, S.C. “Today’s high-protein foods aim to meet those ancestral needs.”
Many consumers are turning to these foods in an effort to help their dogs enjoy a longer, more healthful lifestyle.
“High-protein dog foods deliver essential nutrients for building muscle, coat and skin, and also support energy levels in active dogs,” said Heather Govea, general manager of Natural Balance Pet Foods Inc. in Burbank, Calif. “Protein promotes muscle strength and offers calories that can sustain the needs of active pets over longer periods.”
High-protein dog foods typically are lower in carbohydrates, which might provide benefits for some dogs, said Jennifer Adolphe, PhD, RD senior nutritionist with Petcurean Pet Nutrition in Chilliwack, British Columbia, Canada.
“Basically, you have a 100-piece orchestra to work with,” said Dr. Tim Hunt, owner of Dr. Tim’s Pet Food Co. in Marquette, Mich. “Your combined percentages of carbohydrates, protein and fat have to reach 100, so by raising the protein level, in turn, we lower the carbohydrate amount. ”
Educated consumers are seeking foods that will closely match the lifestyle and characteristics of their individual dog, which might include a puppy or an active dog, said Holly Sher, president of Evanger’s Dog & Cat Food Co. in Wheeling, Ill.
“Typically puppies, working dogs or very active dogs will require a higher-protein food and need a higher fat content,” Sher said. “Our overweight furry friends require a lower protein, fat or carbohydrate content.”
Type of activity can further determine nutritional needs, Adolphe said.
“The requirements for sled dogs differ from those of sprinting greyhounds,” she said. “It is important for competitive canine athletes to be evaluated by their veterinarians and/or nutritionist in order to determine individual requirements.”
High-Protein Dog Food
High-protein diets can benefit active dogs and puppies. Shutterstock
Because one size does not fit all, education is an important component when it comes to marketing high-protein dog foods, manufacturers and retailers agreed. Factors such as age, breed, ideal weight and activity levels must be taken into account.
“Dogs need a balance of all three energy-providing macronutrients—protein, fat and carbohydrate,” Adolphe said.
Based on Biology
To meet the fundamental nutritional needs of dogs based on their ancestral heritage, Natural Balance recently launched its Wild Pursuit formulas for dogs, available in dry and canned food. The grain-free formulas closely resemble the diets that would have been consumed in the wild, Govea said.
“Wild Pursuit contains elevated levels of protein from multiple animal sources and freeze-dried-raw pieces, combined with a unique blend of fruits and vegetables, like cranberries, blueberries and apples, to mimic the diverse and balanced nutrition a dog would instinctively pursue,” Govea said.
The Active Dog
“There is a smaller percentage of dogs that are very active or have higher nutritional needs, including reproduction and lactation,” Solid Gold Pet’s Berglund said. “Higher-energy foods help support these increased requirements.”
Pet owner consciousness is on the rise regarding the needs of athletic pets, and the pet food industry is seeing steady increase in demand for these foods, Govea said.
“Many active, athletic people have high-energy dogs, so it follows that these pet parents would be the first to understand the benefits of a high-protein pet food diet,” she said. “Consumers want to give their high-performance dogs the best support for muscle maintenance and energy sustainability.”
The Full-figured Dog
It is estimated that 40 percent of dogs are overweight or obese, Petcurean’s Adolphe said, and because excess body fat is detrimental to both the quality of life and longevity of a dog, preventing overfeeding and maintaining a healthy body weight are vital to canine health.
“Many consumers are seeking foods that help reduce calories yet support the overall health and well-being of their pet,” Berglund said.
Recognizing this need, Dr. Tim’s Pet Food Co. is launching a weight-loss formula this spring.
“It will be a high-protein-, moderate-fat-, higher-fiber-based food,” Hunt said.
Intended to accentuate the metabolism of the dog, Hunt added, the food will offer a more reasonable level of fat than most weight-loss formulations, allowing the dog to feel satisfied and more energetic.
“A dog’s metabolism is meant to run on fat, if you are trying to fuel the metabolism based solely on carbohydrates to too much of an extent, they get sluggish,” he said.
Finding the Right Fit
Retailers agreed that customers in certain segments of the market are searching for more calorie-dense, high-quality foods in general.
“More nutrient dense is a trend that is developing,” said Katie Pottenger, owner of Parker’s, a Natural Dog & Cat Market in Chicago. “When it comes to performance dogs, that generally equates to more protein and meat products in the food, and a higher calorie content.”
Breeders and dog sport exhibitors also see the benefits of feeding high-protein level foods, Sher of Evanger’s said.
Lorin Grow, owner of Furry Face in Redlands, Calif., offers some high-protein kibble selections.
“Mostly because people have been Internet schooled that dogs and cats should be fed high-protein foods,” she said. “While that is essentially true, the form of the protein matters, and in a highly processed form, it can have undesirable results.”
Heidi Vanorse Neal, co-owner of Loyal Biscuit, which has several stores in Maine, said that while she does not get a lot of demand for high-protein foods, during nutritional consultations, variables such as breed, age, medical conditions and the current feeding program always are explored in order to ascertain the best food to fit a pet’s needs.
A designated high-protein section will allow retailers to direct customers to these products, Natural Balance’s Govea said. Retailer and employee education relating to the benefits of protein-based diets also is central to properly sharing knowledge and information with consumers, she said.
“The best way to market high-protein foods—or any special need like weight control, grain free, etc.—is through clear and consistent messaging grounded in facts,” Berglund said.
Protein-level requirements should be established based on unique individual needs, and it shouldn’t be assumed that a high-protein diet is the right one for all dogs, she added.
“It’s about having a conversation with the pet parent and dialing in the correct diet based upon species, age, breed, health and wellness issues, budget, time and the commitment level of the pet parent, etc.,” Grow said.
Feeding for the Long Haul
Working and active dogs expend plenty of energy, and while the majority of our pets might not be up for the 1,000-plus mile Iditarod in Alaska, even jogging companions can benefit from a nutrient-dense diet to enhance stamina, endurance and performance.
Dog food manufacturers recognize the need to produce a range of feeding solutions for differing activity levels in order to deliver suitable protein, fat and carbohydrate combinations.
Dr. Tim Hunt is the owner of Dr. Tim’s Pet Food Co. in Marquette, Mich., and a practicing veterinarian. He’s also a sled-dog musher, and in March, Dr. Hunt will be heading to Alaska as an Iditarod competitor.
“Our first Dr. Tim’s diet, Momentum, was based on the kibble needs of an Iditarod dog,” he said.
The formulation is a 35 percent-protein-based food, and Hunt said that generally there is little need to offer protein beyond that percentage in a canine diet.
“That should meet all their needs anabolically, it’s really the fat portion that is important to these guys,” he said.
The nutritional requirements for sled dogs are intense—they might burn through 12,000 to 14,000 calories per day, deriving 80 percent of those total calories from fat, Hunt said.
In an endurance dog, the metabolism shifts after a short time, Hunt said, and nutrients are processed differently.
“Typically, after several days of this type of endurance running, they completely switch off their glycogen utilization, meaning carbohydrates aren’t used, and they maintain their glycogen balance in a positive way all the time,” he said.
Hunt noted that the training program of a canine endurance athlete should mimic the racing situation, including how the dog is fed.
Maintaining an optimal weight is an important component to the endurance and stamina required for canine competitors to run their best race, said Mitch Seavey, 2004 and 2013 Iditarod winner and owner of Seavey’s Iditarod Racing Team in Seward, Alaska.
“These dogs need a food that is very energy dense and digestible, with different attributes to it, to promote proper performance,” Hunt said. “It must also be highly palatable, since getting a tired dog to eat can sometimes be a trick, so we need to offer a very tasty food.”
However, one problem with energy-dense foods outside of the endurance world is the inclination to overfeed.
“A smaller amount is fed, and sometimes people feel it is not enough,” Hunt added. “And overweight dogs don’t always perform that well.”—LB