Venison, rabbit and buffalo: A throwback to our pets’ primitive past

For the past decade there has been an increasing number of "novel protein ingredient" foods marketed in the petfood industry. Originally these were merchandised in the veterinary trade for elimination diets intended as nutritional support for animals with recalcitrant food hypersensitivities.

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For the past decade, there has been an increasing number of "novel protein ingredient" foods marketed in the petfood industry. Originally, these were merchandised in the veterinary trade for elimination diets intended as nutritional support for animals with recalcitrant food hypersensitivities. Today they are being featured as more mainstream products and promoted for their connection to the "Wild," "Primordial" and "Ancestral" thematic past of our now domesticated furry companions. Many of them feature meats from "near-domestic" herbivorous species like deer (venison), rabbit and buffalo, or fish and fowl species like salmon, trout and duck.

We have discussed salmon previously (October 2011), and we will save trout and duck for another day. Meat from deer, rabbit and buffalo has not been a big part of commercial petfoods until recently, but one can easily imagine them as prey for our pets' wild ancestors. A glamorous phantasmagorical story indeed. But, to fast forward into our current reality we should probably understand these meats a bit better if they are going to be a part of the petfood ingredient landscape for the foreseeable future.

These meats conjure images  of hunting wild game. But, does that make for a sustainable supply? Estimates are hard to come by because most consumption of game is local or regional with only limited information reported to government agencies. Further, systems to support the accumulation of truly wild supplies sufficient to provide for industrial production of petfoods on a national scale don't really exist. Despite this, these meats are getting into the supply chain. So how is this happening?

Quite simply, they are farm raised, not wild per se. Case in point, deer farming is big business in New Zealand with estimates at 15,249 metric tons of venison and 3,984 metric tons of venison co-products exported in 2012, according to the Deer Industry News (Issue 55; Aug./Sept. 2012). Much of the venison going to Europe and the US, and most of the venison co-product, stream to the petfood market. Rabbit meat production in 2012, according to FAOSTAT, was 1,833,843 metric tons, with China the leading producer followed by Venezuela, Italy, Korea and Spain. Most of the US imports are from Canada.

For "buffalo" meat, the FAOSTAT (2012) reports global production at 3,597,340 metric tons, with India leading Pakistan, Egypt, China and Nepal. Of course those aren't the American bison buffalo that many of us might think about. In the US, the number of bison processed into retail last year was 51,500 (head; USDA, 2013) and accounted for around US$280 million at retail in 2010, according to the National Buffalo Association. So, depending upon exports, how the products are marketed and seasonal factors there is a growing modern sustainable supply chain for these meats.

As part of the "image"  associated with these meats there have been hints that they appeal to the animal's sense of taste or that there are some unique nutritional characteristics. Is there any substance to this? Generally speaking, these meats are promoted to the human foods market as leaner, and thereby healthier, than comparable domestic meats from beef or pork. If one reviews the standard nutritional databases, this seems to be confirmed.

However, the nutrient composition of the ingredients available to the petfood industry-mechanically separated meats or "natural fall"-is quite different from what one would find in the USDA nutrient database or a grocery meat case. These ingredients are derived from trimmings, mechanical separation of meat and fat from bones, and/or various organ meats, intestines and glands. The composition of these "game meats" runs 65% to 75% moisture, 10% to 12% protein, 6% to 15% fat and 0.5% to 5% ash. In other words, they are comparable to most domestic "mechanically deboned meats" in our petfood ingredient supply chain; albeit substantially more expensive.

Some suppliers might have much tighter controls over the consistency of this composition than others, but one can see large swings in composition from lot to lot and supplier to supplier. So, a very active quality control process is imperative; formulas should take into account these fluctuations with some complementary ingredients, and it is best to limit dependence on these ingredients to deliver the predominant share of any one vital nutrient. With all these exceptions it seems somewhat impractical that we go to such efforts; but, the market message for the consumer is very appealing.

So if these "wild"  herbivorous pet-grade meats are generally similar in their nutrient composition to domestic meats, handling characteristics prior to manufacturing are similar, and requirements are the same for sanitation, quality control and management, they should fit well with modern petfood manufacturing systems. That leaves the big question … is there anything inherently different, better or worse for the sake of the pet? Are flavors more attractive, nutrients more available or are there any unique nutritional or bioactive substances present? The answer, unfortunately, is we don't know.

There are very few studies published that one can refer to which explore the nutrient composition of various wild and prey species for pets, and none as of this writing that characterize the ingredients that we are using to make petfoods. What we do know comes from the primary suppliers and typically stops with a proximate analysis. A few works, such as those by Leistra et al. (2001) and Raditic et al. (2010), report feeding elimination diets containing venison with favorable results, and Bennett et al. (2010) reported reasonable digestibility of a diet containing rabbit fed to ocelots. But, no published studies were found using buffalo or American bison.

Despite these obvious gaps, petfoods have been produced to fulfill this market demand. These meats were likely a staple of carnivore diets long before man got involved producing commercial petfoods. However, caution should be exercised as more of these meats are imported from around the globe. Diseases indigenous to specific regions can be an issue, and growing conditions and harvesting practices can all influence the safety and utility of the ingredient.

As one example, deer from certain regions of the US are affected by chronic wasting disease, a neurological disorder that can be transmitted through nervous tissue. This would represent a supply stream we would rather not bring into petfood.

The value to using  venison, rabbit and buffalo in the production of petfoods is added choice in the pet aisle for the consumer and their pets. The appeal of a story, a connection to the pet's past and a feeling by the owner that they are doing something special for their animal is sometimes as important (if not more so) to the merchandising of petfoods as the status quo. These ingredients help to portray that feeling and connection; there is nothing wrong with that position.

However, we need to spend a few more resources, collectively, to verify the nutritional value of these ingredients, and if possible find unique qualities that benefit dogs and cats to help justify the added cost they represent as we continue to create the next generation of petfoods.

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