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At the recent Joint Annual Meeting of the American Society of Animal Science and American Dairy Science Association and Canadian Society of Animal Science there were 27 topical reviews and original research presentations focused specifically on companion animals out of the hundreds of abstracts in the program. The conference was held at the Kansas City Convention Center on July 20â€“24, 2014, and was well attended by an array of “pet-centric” students, faculty and industry researchers from around the globe. Two symposia pertaining to companion animals merit special note.
The first was a session focused specifically on sustainability and companion animals with a view toward today's impact on the future. Each of the presentations worked from a similar platform or definition of sustainability introduced by the first speaker, Dr. Becky Carter. To paraphrase, sustainability in the food system is “the ability to provide sufficient calories and essential nutrients for today's requirements without compromising the supply for future generations.” Carter and her co-authors from the Nutro Company and the University of Illinois equated sustainability in the petfood system with that of responsible pet ownership. They stated that “it requires a careful balance with consumer expectations.”
From a raw material perspective, Dr. David Meeker with the Fats & Protein Research Foundation followed with an overview of how the rendering industry fits into this equation. He explained that it contributes to sustainability by capturing materials from the meat industry that would otherwise go to waste without their intervention. From this presentation emerged the question of whether the petfood industry might actually yield "credits" to the human food system and benefit sustainability through the value-return afforded by the rendering industry, a true interdependency often overlooked.
Dr. Gordon Ballam of Purina Animal Nutrition (Land O’Lakes) provided an interesting perspective on “companion animals” that we often consider as livestock, animals such as chickens, alpaca and sheep, among others. By his premise, "back-yard flocks" take on a companion animal status and represent a decentralized or non-concentrated form of “personal” animal rearing. With proper education and management this approach may place a lower pressure on the environment and thereby improve overall sustainability of food production—an interesting twist to the idea of a pet.
At the other end of the spectrum, Dr. Susana (Beth) Kitts-Morgan presented fascinating work from her program at Berry College in Mount Berry, Georgia, that tracks the impact on indigenous species from predation by feral and domestic free-ranging cats. Her work corroborates other recent papers that suggest the “cat on the prowl” can have a devastating impact on native bird populations. Additionally, they found that supplemental food availability didn’t necessarily curb the cat’s desire to hunt and kill. Methods to lessen the impact from free-ranging cats were discussed, but the situation is something that defies an easy solution without significantly more exploration.
To bring the session to a close, Dr. Kelly Swanson from the University of Illinois provided an overview of future research needs, potential approaches to evaluate sustainability and how to capture the concept in measurable terms. He suggested that “considerations of carbon or water ‘footprint’ due to petfoods, rather than extrapolation from a human foods perspective, is needed to fully grasp how companion animals impact food sustainability for future generations.” Much more needs to be done in this area. Without some form of institutional support it will be necessary to add this type of information gathering on top of other fundamental research questions so that a wider analysis might be performed in the future and consequently leverage ongoing projects.
The second symposium regarding companion animals pertained to training the next generation of companion animal biologists. This was part of the first "George C. Fahey Companion Animal Nutrition Symposium." Dr. John McNamara from Washington State University opened with an overview of how he personally evolved from a focus on dairy nutrition to teaching companion animal biology in lock-step with the evolution of traditional animal science departments. While he emphasized instruction in the fundamentals of animal biology, he acknowledged the need to adapt to the changing demographic of students and apply lessons to the species they find most interesting.
Dr. Lisa Karr-Lilienthal provided an overview of her program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the activities she has found successful for reaching this generation of Millennials. In short, she provided compelling examples of how social media and technology can be effectively deployed in and out of the classroom to gain their attention. Case in point, she shared that today's students don’t respond to email. This next generation of consumers is bright and has a passion for learning, but shifting communication technology is second nature. To reach them requires nimble adaptation to the latest technologies, a lesson for marketing â€¦ regardless of whether it’s knowledge at a university or products on the store shelf.
Dr. Kate Shoveller from P&G Pet Care (now Mars) provided an overview of how to adapt through the changes that are common in any industry, but also emphasized that many of the key skills necessary to successfully navigate through a new job—academic or corporate— requires a great deal of skills we don't necessarily teach in college. Aside from all of the hard skills obtained during a formal education, it’s the soft skills like interpersonal relationships, problem-solving, collaboration and interaction amongst disciplines and business processes that measure one’s success.
To bring this symposium to a close, Dr. Marianne Swaney-Stueve and Dr. Greg Aldrich presented an overview (on behalf of Dr. Kadri Koppel who was unable to attend) regarding an approach being utilized at the Sensory Analysis Center at Kansas State University for integrating trained human taste panels and consumer research with petfood analysis and where this communication interface connects research, teaching and consumers. They shared where this approach provides additional dimensions to taste, flavor, aroma and product evaluation when integrated with chemical analysis, consumer purchasing decisions and animal responses.
The implication is that use of humans to evaluate petfoods may help to better construct new products and monitor quality and consistency. Students with an interest in a broader array of sciences that transcends animal and human behavior, sensory science and analytical chemistry will be needed. Certainly a whole new generation of tech-savvy students and workers are going to be in demand and they need a special mix of fundamental knowledge, coupled with nimble social skills, and an ability to work across a wider array of disciplines as we continue to redefine how pets are further integrated into homes and communities.
In all there were another 18 original research papers presented in oral and poster formats that covered some very interesting topics, including animal gait analysis, use of GPS to track predation ranges, bioenergetics, processing impact on vitamins, nutrient availability of different processed ingredients such as corn, beans and gelatin, and nutrigenomics relative to young and old dogs. Each of these papers, we hope, will appear in full publication in various peer-reviewed scientific journals in the very near future. In the meantime, the reader is encouraged to access the meeting information online if they’d like more details than the space here allows (www.asas.org/meetings/jam2014/home).
The quantity and quality of the work presented at this conference and others this summer has been encouraging. What was presented at this meeting of Animal Scientists is a solid demonstration that while scant funding is provided by federal and state agencies to this segment of our animal population, solid industry-academic partnerships are contributing in ways that are meaningful and timely.