Pampered pets provide profitable market for pulses

Multibillion-dollar trade is growing as pet owners demand high-quality food formulations. | Getty Images

As Fido and friends have moved from the doghouse to the people house, pet nutrition has been elevated to big business and big opportunity for pulse producers.

“There has been an emergence of high-quality pet food products,” said Colin Young of Mid-West Grain near Moose Jaw, Sask.

“The pet has moved from being an animal that kicks around, maybe even doesn’t live inside, to being an autonomous family member. That’s been a fairly new development in a big way. So naturally, the owner is looking for more quality ingredients.”

It’s a phenomenon called “pet humanization,” a trend that accelerated with the COVID-19 pandemic. With this new level of affection comes owners’ willingness to shell out more money for their “fur babies.”

How much more? According to the American Pet Products Association, sales of pet food and treats in the U.S. increased nearly 10 per cent in 2020 to more than $53 billion.

Young said pet food represents a growing market tier for pulses such as peas, chickpeas and lentils. Product that didn’t meet the grade for human consumption used to end up steeply discounted and sold as livestock feed. Pet food provides a higher-paying alternative.

In the case of chickpeas, he said this has large calibre product going into the premium export market. Medium calibre goes to canneries. Byproduct such as sorter colour rejects, splits, chipped and smaller calibre can go to the pet food market.

“The net result for the grower is that I’m able to plug every portion of his delivery into markets that draw the best value, meaning we should be competitive on price,” Young said.

Canadian chickpeas have an edge in the pet food market because they barely fit the growing season. Young said ideally, they need 120 frost-free days, and the Prairies typically offer from 112 to 121. This means a reliable supply of off-grade chickpeas for pet food manufacturers.

Over the past decade or so, pulses have become a preferred ingredient in pet food formulations for the same reasons they’ve become popular in human diets. They offer a good source of dietary fibre, some protein, and they have a low glycemic index, which means they release energy slowly during digestion. That keeps insulin at an even level and helps prevent blood sugar spikes that can lead to diabetes. Pulses also keep pets and people feeling full longer, preventing over-eating.

Ken McDougall has been selling pulses into the pet food industry for about 10 years. It began with peas, chickpeas and lentils, and has expanded into navy beans and pinto beans.

Graduate student Chloe Quilliam pauses for a selfie with Henry, one of the beagles used in feeding studies of pet food formulations. | Weber Lab photo

“We were the first supplier of pulses into pet food back 10 years ago, when we were approached by a company out of Edmonton,” he said. “It started out very small and now 10 years later, most pet food companies in the world use some form of pulses in their diets.”

McDougall Acres near Moose Jaw is both a producer of pedigreed seed and buyer of pulses. Its expansion into dry beans was largely driven by demand in the pet food market. McDougall said this arose as manufacturers moved away from cereals in their formulations.

“Most pet food companies expect us to be cereal-free. We have to clean them to make sure there is no wheat, barley or oats in their pulses.”

Cereals have fallen out of favour because they have a high glycemic index.

“The problem with the cereals is they do tend to be rapidly digested and so you get these big spikes in blood glucose, which is a little bit unhealthy,” said Lynn Weber.

A researcher at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine in Saskatoon, Weber has studied the use of cereals and pulses in pet nutrition for more than a decade. She said the switch to pulses in dog food formulations solved the blood glucose problem, but another issue has cropped up.

In 2018 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration released case studies that showed pulse-based diets were associated with higher numbers of dogs developing enlarged hearts, something called dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM). This led to a drop in sales for pulse crops into the pet food market.

After these eight beagles are finished their work in testing various pet food formulations, they are put up for adoption to local families. | Weber Lab photo

Pet owners and vets were confused further in November 2020 when the FDA acknowledged that the incidence of DCM is likely not due to a single cause. Weber said some dog breeds are more prone to DCM than others. Pulses may also lack certain nutritional components, particularly an amino acid called taurine that is linked to heart health.

“The problem with this whole thing is that it’s complicated,” Weber said. “There are multiple factors. It’s not like you can say, ‘oh, pulses are bad.’ They’re not. Pulses are great. It’s just that we don’t understand enough of the nutritional requirements in dogs.”

Weber and her colleagues are working to build this understanding, most recently with a week-long feeding study of eight adult beagles fed different pulse-based diets. It confirmed the benefit of keeping blood glucose levels stable.

As well, the taurine levels in the dogs’ blood were unaffected. The results were published in May in the journal Frontiers in Veterinary Science.

McDougall remains bullish on the pet food market for pulses, so much so that McDougall Acres has acquired the rights to a new navy bean bred for the Canadian prairies.

“It’s another option for farmers,” he said. “Pet food’s created a huge opportunity … to sell No. 2 or better product into. I buy a lot of No. 2 product, but what pet food’s done is created a huge market that wasn’t really there before.”

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