Feeding the Rainbow
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Feeding the Rainbow

Oct 20, 2023

The important role fruits and vegetables play in human diets is widely known. And even though many of us don't always incorporate these foods in sufficient amounts (and no, French fries are not a vegetable), their benefits to our well-being are obvious. But less clear to some is the essential contribution fruits and vegetables make to pet health. Although many owners are dialing into the need for these ingredients in their pets’ foods and treats, a fair number are still laboring under the misconception that all dogs and cats really need is protein, says Allison Sparks, head of marketing for Shameless Pets. Headquartered in Chicago, the company provides healthy treats for dogs and cats made from upcycled superfoods, with each treat including at least 20 percent "misfit or surplus ingredients," that would otherwise go to waste.

But just as is the case for humans, these items provide much-needed micronutrients to support pet health, Sparks says.

"All of our treats contain fruits and veggies," she says. "One example is Blueberried Treasure. We use upcycled blueberries and combine them with sunflower meal, mint, flaxseed meal and apple, and bake them into a delicious soft-baked biscuit for dogs.

"The antioxidants from blueberries provide immune support," she continues. "Omega 3s and 6s in the flaxseed meal can provide skin and coat support, and the fiber in pumpkin or other veggies can be beneficial for digestive support. Dogs and cats do have different requirements, and we ensure we always have meat as the number-one ingredient when crafting our cat treats."

Another misunderstanding Eric Abbey, president and founder of Loving Pets, encounters is that feeding fruits and veggies can reduce or even replace the amount of meat that a pet should be fed.

"But this is simply not true," he says. "They should be in addition. [For example] the fresh potatoes, carrots, peas, blueberries and cranberries in many of our protein-centric USA meat-dominant dinners are an excellent source of fiber and low-fat protein, as well as great for dogs and cats prone to allergies and/or in need of weight management."

Headquartered in Cranbury, N.J., the company provides a range of pet accessories and high-quality, all-natural dog and cat treats. One such product is the Puffsters Chips, air-puffed treats available in Cranberry & Chicken, Apple & Chicken, Banana & Chicken and Sweet Potato & Chicken. Another offering is the Totally Grainless Meaty Chew Bones in Beef and Sweet Potato, and in Chicken and Apple versions. Both the treats and the bones are U.S.-made and contain no artificial flavors or colors.

In fact, one of the concerns expressed by Carol Bramson, founder & CEO of Habi, Inc., (dba Side by Side) is the trend she's starting to see around putting dogs and cats on vegan diets or using alternative protein sources like pea protein as a meat replacement, something she says is increasingly happening in dog food.

"There is little-to-no research supporting the bioavailability of this nutrient in our pets’ bodies," she explains. "In the case of cats, in select brands, there has been a prominent inclusion of soy protein when cats are true carnivores and they really need animal meat."

At the same time, Bramson adds, it's important to understand that pets can't derive everything they need from meat alone; why fruits and veggies are essential for delivering important nutrients to a pet's diet—although they should be represented in smaller quantities in cat diets because of their carnivorous nature.

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Abbey says that in order to thoroughly educate customers and drive home the importance of these foods, pet specialty retailers need to understand the specific benefits associated with the different fruits and veggies.

For example, he explains, carrots and sweet potatoes offer high levels of vitamin A and beta-carotene, antioxidants delivering powerful benefits to eyesight. Then there are bananas. High in potassium, vitamins, fiber and copper, this low-calorie fruit makes a great treat.

Carrots also contain vitamin C and iron, says Bramson, and help to clear toxins from the body. Other veggies she lists are green beans (vitamins A, C, B6 and calcium) that along with sweet potatoes help improve digestive health because of their high fiber content.

In addition to being good sources of vitamin A, C and potassium, fruits like apples, bananas and blueberries are also high in fiber, which typically isn't prevalent in animal sources (nor is vitamin C), says Bramson, making them important for enhancing a pet's diet.

Headquartered in Hingham, Mass., Side by Side is a pet nutrition company providing whole food, nutritionally balanced diets, treats and supplements for dogs, with some offerings appropriate for cats. The diets are available in two formats; raw freeze-dried and wet stews. One such offering is the Beef Recipe Mini Meals & Mixer, which Bramson describes as a "neutral formula." The species-appropriate ingredients are blended while frozen and then freeze-dried, with recipes including Beef, Beef Heart, Beef Liver, Beef Kidney and Beef Lung, all incorporating fruits and veggies like carrots, pumpkins, beets, apples and cranberries.

A "cooling formula" is the Pork & Rabbit Stew, the ingredients of which are lightly blended and then cooked over a low heat in a tetra box container. In addition to the meat proteins, broccoli, celery, kale, spinach and blueberries are also incorporated.

As a rule of thumb, Bramson says about 20-to-30 percent of a dog's diet should be comprised of vegetables and fruit (because of their sugar content, only about 5 percent of this should come from fruit).

"Vegetables are calming and dogs typically benefit from having them in their diets (cats can only tolerate a small amount)," Bramson says. "As vegetables are a wonderful source of fiber, particularly when fed in their whole-food format, a sign indicating that a pet may not be getting sufficient amounts of vegetables/fiber would be constipation or a very watery stool."

"A sign a dog might be deficient in vitamin C may include bleeding gums and sore spots on the skin," she continues. "Excessive bleeding, which may be the result of low vitamin C levels, may also indicate scurvy."

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Additional symptoms indicating a deficiency in vitamins, fiber and/or minerals are lack of energy, digestive issues, dental and bone issues, a pet that gets sick frequently and is slow to recover, as well as skin and coat problems, says Kristen Buckles, brand manager for Liq & Krunch. Located in Miami, Liq Brands creates innovative treat formulas such as the gently heated Krunch air-crisps. The 5-calorie treats contain over 90 percent prebiotic-rich veggies and ancient grains, cassava, sweet potato, quinoa and sorghum and come in Sweet Honeycrisp Apple, Honey Butter and Savory White Cheddar flavors.

It's important for pet specialty retailers to understand that a balanced diet—one delivering the necessary macronutrients in the right amounts—may look different for every pet and is influenced by factors such as age, weight, activity level and health conditions or issues, says Buckles.

For example, although fiber is integral for colon health and regular bowel movements, the amount of fiber needed will vary from pet to pet based on their specific age, health parameters, etc., says Dr. Darcia Kostiuk, senior veterinarian at Champion Petfoods. With U.S. headquarters in Boulder, Colo., the company—which offers the ORIJEN and ACANA brands—has three additional offices throughout the globe.

ACANA Wholesome Grains features 60-to-70 percent premium animal ingredients balanced with fruits and veggies, and also incorporates fiber-rich oats, sorghum and millet. Every recipe includes Champion's heart-healthy vitamin pack containing a blend of B and E vitamins, taurine and choline. Varieties include Duck & Pumpkin, Lamb & Pumpkin, Fish & Grains (among others) as well as two new formulas coming this summer—Large Breed Adult and Large Breed Puppy.

Another ACANA product is Premium Chunks Wet Dog Food. Featuring 85 percent premium animal protein (meat, poultry or fish chunks), it is also balanced with 15 percent visible fruits and vegetables, says Kostiuk.

"Pet parents understand that dogs are facultative carnivores and cats are obligate carnivores, so it's natural for them to gravitate towards the protein content in their pet's food," she explains. "Many don't realize that fruits and veggies are an important component of the overall diet and some can even be offered as a healthy treat to dogs and cats."

Speaking of treats, pet owners should understand these are a part of the overall diet, they’re not "freebies," says Buckles.

"This means that beyond calories, treats contribute to the overall balance of the pet's diet and wellbeing," she explains. "In fact, treats can and should be leveraged as a nutritional tool in addition to a reward. Consider using treats that are high in fruits and veggies to get some additional vitamins, minerals and fiber into the pet's diet."

Pet specialty retailers can begin the process of educating their customer about the importance of fruits and veggies by touting their healthy benefits, suggests Sparks, explaining that with the rising costs of pet ownership, this should resonate with those hoping to avoid expensive vet bills.

Then, continue to do what pet specialty retailers do best…listening to customers, says Buckles.

"Take note of their concerns and goals to help decide if a product that is rich in fruits and veggies is right," she suggests. "Although we can classify our pets under terms like carnivores or omnivores, it is important to remember that each animal has specific and varying needs. Fruits and veggies serve a variety of purposes and are a great tool to have in your belt." PB

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