Dr Nicky Sluczanowski, BSc (Marine Biology) BVMS
Why consider Insects as a feed source?
The growth of the global human population is predicted to reach 10 billion people by 205050; pet ownership is also increasing with a current estimate of more than one billion household pets worldwide15. Consequently there is a rapidly increasing global demand for protein as a nutrient source for both humans and animals; the demand for livestock products is expected to more than double between 2000 and 2050 from 229 million tonnes to 465 million tonnes12. Due to trends in the humanisation of pet foods, there are also concerns about direct competition between pet and human food production51. The feed consumption of the global population of pet dogs and cats accounts for close to one quarter of the environmental impact from traditional protein production36. Alexander et al (2020) conducted an environmental impact assessment of pet food on a global scale; the authors concluded that greenhouse gas emissions from pet food globally equate to the 60th highest emitting country worldwide1. It is imperative to prioritise both global food security as well as environmental impacts related to the production and consumption of food. A key solution will be to find sustainable alternative protein sources of high nutritional quality for both human foods and animal feeds6,12,51.
Insects as a source of nutrition offer many sustainability benefits due to the nature of their primary production. Insects have a very high feed-conversion efficiency and can be reared on organic side-streams such as plant by-products from human food productions systems; thereby upcycling low-value food waste into high value protein and fat12. Insects require significantly less water inputs and have much lower carbon dioxide and ammonia emissions when compared to traditional protein sources17,38. Insects have a far smaller requirement for physical space compared to livestock species; commercial insect rearing facilities which employ vertical integrated farming techniques can produce 1 tonne of insect larvae in two weeks on 20 square metres of land43. In contrast it is estimated that 80% of global agricultural land is currently in use for meat and milk production42.
Which Insects Species can be fed to Companion Animals?
There are over 2000 species of edible insects recognised globally; the three species studied most extensively for animal feed inclusion are the Yellow Mealworm Tenebrio molitor (larvae); the common Cricket Acheta domesticus (adult), and the Black Soldier Fly Hermetia illucens (larvae). The Black Soldier fly, Hermetia illucens, has gained the most attention commercially, with the larvae of this species (Black Soldier Fly Larvae or BSFL) able to provide a rich source of protein, fat, vitamins and minerals51. The protein concentrations of BSFL meals vary between 362 g/kg and 655g/kg29 and can be compared to other protein sources commonly used in extruded pet foods such as meat or fish meal5,22,29,46. McCusker et al (2014) analysed the amino acid profiles of various insect species including BSFL; the authors concluded that the BSFL extracts exceeded the National Research Council’s minimal requirements of crude protein and essential amino acids for canines31. Bosch et al (2016) examined the in vitro digestibility and fermentability of BSFL and found the protein quality to be high, with larvae containing large amounts of bioavailable protein and essential amino acids6.
In 2016, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) authorised insects to be included as a feed material in the European Commission Animal By-Product legislation; thereby allowing insect-derived proteins to be used in companion animal feed11. Insect-based pet foods have been on the EU market since 2016 (United Petfood technical nutritionist, pers. comm. 12.1.23); including labels from Mars Petcare, Nestle and Virbac28,44,52. The American Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) and their subgroup Ingredient Definition Committee have given BSFL protein meal an Official Definition as a pet food inclusion for adult dogs2.
Can Companion Animals digest BSFL protein?
Bosch et al (2016) examined the digestibility and fermentability of BSFL in-vitro, and demonstrated the amino acid digestibility values of BSFL protein to be between 90.5% – 92.4%. The authors concluded that this high bioavailability of amino acids should be ensured when the insects are processed into a protein meal and incorporated into pet foods6. In a study by Freel et al (2021), dogs were fed diets containing varying levels of BSFL, replacing certain percentages of poultry meal, and a pure poultry-based diet as a control. The dogs’ condition was evaluated via physical exams plus blood and stool evaluation. The study concluded that for the groups fed BSFL the digestibility of the protein and fat in the diets was high (89-97%); and parameters measured including blood results were within normal reference ranges. There were no statistical differences in measured parameters between treatment groups and the control group; and the authors concluded that “BSFL meal and oil are well tolerated by dogs and their consumption results in no impact to physiology that would be concerning. Based on these data, BSFL meal and oil did not affect general health and could be safely included in dog diets”14.
Kroger et al (2020) conducted a 5-week dietary trial that compared the responses of dogs to two dietary treatments; a BSFL-based diet vs. a control (lamb-based) diet. The authors measured various blood and stool parameters; they determined that the BSFL protein was tolerated without any adverse signs and without affecting immunological measurements, indicating that BSFL can be considered as a dietary protein source for dog nutrition22.
El-Wahab et al (2021) conducted a study into digestibility and faecal characteristics of two diets fed to canines: a BSFL-based diet and a poultry-based diet. The dogs fed the BSFL diet showed higher apparent digestibility of both protein and fat, compared to those fed the poultry diet10. The authors concluded that including BSFL meal in dog diets can be an appropriate source of protein without any negative effects on nutrient digestibility and faecal quality10.
Penazzi et al (2021) compared the in-vitro and in-vivo digestibility of a BSFL-test and a venison-control diet. Both diets had their individual nutritional elements examined by calculating the Apparent Total Tract Digestibility Coefficients (ATTDC) of these elements. The authors found that the ATTDC of the dry matter, organic matter and crude fat was similar between the BSFL and the control groups; and that the ATTDC of the crude protein was higher in the BSFL group compared with the control group41.
An AAFCO feeding trial conducted by North River Enterprises, Veterinary Consultants (US) examined the ability of a BSFL test diet to meet the AAFCO-defined nutritional maintenance requirements of adult dogs. The study group were fed a BSFL diet solely for 26 weeks. Overall health was assessed daily by qualified personnel; veterinarian physical exams occurred at the initiation and completion of the study; and CBC plus biochemistry panels were measured at baseline, 13 weeks, and at conclusion of the trial. All test dogs successfully completed the trial and no adverse health events were observed; all dogs exhibited good health and ideal body condition at the final physical exam. Based on a statistical review of all blood results there were no areas of concern for dog safety or health; and the test BSFL diet was found to meet AAFCO maintenance requirements35.
What are the potential Functional Benefits of Insect-based Nutrition for Pets?
Novel Protein Source:
For most companion animals, BSFL is a completely novel protein, unlikely to have been encountered by the immune system of the pet previously. Novel dietary proteins are less likely to cause inappropriate immune reactions that can lead to a food-responsive enteropathy (FRE)8,37. Canine patients with both FRE and cutaneous adverse food reactions (CAFR) often show clinical improvement within 14 days when introduced to a novel protein or hydrolysed diet; and even though for many patients there may be multiple factors involved, diet may be a major component37,47. Lee et al (2021) conducted a 12-week feeding trial to assess the responses of dogs concurrently diagnosed with canine atopic dermatitis (CAD) as well as CAFR on 3 dietary treatments; an insect-based diet utilising T. molitor protein (Yellow Mealworm); a salmon-based diet; and commercial/homemade diets of varying traditional protein source. The responses of test subjects were assessed using the pruritis visual analog scale (PVAS), the canine atopic dermatitis extent and severity index (CADESI-4), and trans-epidermal-water-loss (TEWL). The TEWL of the control group showed an increasing trend 8 weeks onward with a significantly high measurement at 12 weeks compared to the insect-based diet group. The CADESI-4 scores of the insect-based diet group decreased significantly at 0 vs. 8 weeks; however, this was not found in the control group. The authors suspected that the insect-based diet improved the clinical signs of CAFR as a hypoallergenic diet and suggested that their results indicated administration of an insect-based diet had supplementary effects on improving skin lesions and skin barrier function in dogs with CAD and CAFR25.
Improved Cognitive Function of Ageing Canines
BSFL contains high levels of the medium-chain triglyceride (MCT) Trilaurin or Lauric Acid20; and may therefore have significant applications as a nutritional supplement for ageing canine brain health (39). The cognitive function of the mammalian brain declines with age with a key mechanism being the reduction of the brain’s ability to metabolise glucose27,49. Ketone metabolism provides an alternative metabolic pathway for the brain and does not appear to decrease with age; increased ketone sources can be provided nutritionally by medium chain triglycerides (MCTs) which are then converted to ketone bodies by hepatic metabolism27,32. The application of dietary supplementation with MCT’s in the treatment of neurological disease has been extensively studied in humans30 and also in canines24,48. Pan et al (2010) conducted an 8-month study into the cognitive effects of MCT dietary supplementation in aged canines. The authors found that the MCT dietary supplement group had significantly better performance in the cognitive tests and higher levels of blood ketones compared with the control group; indicating that dietary MCT inclusion had a positive impact on the cerebral function of aged canines39.
A current area of global concern for both human and animal health is the continued rise in antimicrobial resistance and multi-drug resistant pathogens, necessitating the continued search for new antimicrobial products45,53. The Trilaurin or Lauric Acid present in BSFL has been found to demonstrate anti-microbial properties that have strong potential for use in animal feed inclusion4,13,18,26. BSFL lipid extracts have been shown to exert significant suppression against C. perfringens, Bacillus subtilis, E coli, S. typhimurium, Staphylococcus aureus, Aeromonas spp. and P. aureginosa3,4,7,9,16,45.
The antioxidant activity of BSFL lipids is well established in livestock nutrition, including poultry, finfish aquaculture and swine production19,23). Mouithys-Mickalad et al (2020) examined BSFL extracts in comparison to fish meal and chicken meal for radical scavenging activity, myeloperoxidase activity modulation and neutrophil response modulation. The authors demonstrated that, in vitro, BFSL derivatives could be protective against the cellular damage resulting from host neutrophil and myeloperoxidase responses33.
Insects, and in particular, extracts from the larvae of the Black Soldier Fly, can provide rich sources of highly digestible amino acids, fats, and minerals for pet feed nutrition. The sustainability benefits of commercial insect farming compared to traditional livestock rearing are well demonstrated, and an exciting area of development globally for both animal feed and human food application. There are several functional benefits of BSFL as a feed inclusion that have the potential for future application in the companion animal nutrition arena.
Dr Nicky Sluczanowski, BSc (Marine Biology) BVMS
Dr Nicky Sluczanowski is an Australian veterinarian who graduated from Murdoch University in 2007. She has practiced in a variety of small animal practices including both GP and emergency settings. Nicky has a special interest in small animal nutrition, and is the Lead Veterinarian with www.petgood.com. Her roles within the company include product development, technical support for customers and partner groups, and driving R & D with both academic and commercial partner groups. Petgood are excited to be launching in Australia with a locally-manufactured product in 2023; if you are interested to find out more about this or insect-based pet food in general, please reach out to [email protected].
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