Pet Food: Generation X

Even if you live in a cicada-free zone, you will probably have heard of the rather ominously named “Brood X Cicadas”, a humongous swarm of insects that simultaneously emerged from the earth this summer in the eastern part of the country. Many pet owners in the cicada zone found that their animals expressing an avid interest in the appearance—and flavor—of these large, defenseless, bumbling bugs. Cicadas do not sting, suck blood, or lay eggs on other animals, and they’re also pretty safe to eat. However: like any other “edible” material (definitions will vary depending on which dog you consult), it’s best to curtail your snack time before consuming so much bug that your stomach threatens a revolt. We all know someone who has trouble drawing the line. 

Cicadas, a distant relative of the shrimp, are actually pretty nutritious (although admittedly a poor choice for anyone with a known shellfish allergy). Pets seem to enjoy the flavor, too. Is there any reason meat-eating dogs and cats couldn’t be sustained with insect protein instead of chicken or beef? Somebody is already working on it.

Perhaps the advantage of using insects as food isn’t immediately obvious. It’s substantial, though; if they could provide the same benefits as meat, insects wield a much smaller impact on the environment than raising conventional livestock. Insect farming consumes a fraction of the water and land while leaving a much smaller carbon footprint. Insects can be fed with vegetable waste from other food industries instead of purpose-grown crops, which also consume water and space. Insect-based food would be a boon to climate scientists worldwide and to many animal rights advocates as well. After all, nearly everyone can agree that gently refrigerating a bug to death seems more palatable than what you might observe in a poultry or beef processing plant. Conventional meats undergo frequent recalls due to dangerous bacteria which would be virtually absent from insect farms. Furthermore, veterinarians are curious about the impact these diets could have on the treatment of allergies, since any new source of protein could spell relief for animals that react to their food.

Mealworms, crickets, and certain types of fly larvae are already being used to produce pet food in Europe. Pet food megagiants Mars and Nestle each have a flagship brand. In many ways, this sounds like a perfect move for the industry and the planet...but don’t get too far ahead of the science on bugs. Their nutrient content can vary widely with different farming methods, which isn’t ideal for the precise formulation of animal feed. It’s not known whether their amino acid profile will sustain obligate carnivores like the cat. Their shelf life hasn’t been precisely determined, and it’s possible that each insect might come with its own tiny dossier of potential food-borne illnesses and toxins. Most importantly, we don’t have any idea, even about the brands already marketed overseas,how insect meat will score on long-term feeding trials with real pet animals. When this research is complete, though, we could end up with a whole new generation of pet food.

Dr. M.S. Regan