An increasing number of North Americans now view their pets as their children — and that’s not only made the pet food industry a very big business, but is changing what goes into their feed bowls.
“Just like you see an increasing emphasis in the human population relating to food and health, the same is being translated to the pet population,” said Ruurd Zijlstra, professor of swine and carbohydrate nutrition at the University of Alberta.
To help Alberta companies tap into the growing interest in healthier pet food, the university will soon become the first in the country to acquire a single-screw extruder — a.k.a. a kibble maker.
The $1.5-million machine uses heat and pressure to “basically turn the food into its own glue” so plant- and animal-based ingredients are bound together.
While smaller than commercial versions, it’s big enough to be scalable for commercial application, and Alberta pet food makers using it for product development will also be able to tap into the university’s expertise. Five years ago, it started an animal health science program, which includes a “companion animal nutrition” component.
“It’s not that out of the box to move from pig nutrition to dog nutrition,” said Zijlstra. “When you’re talking about the big picture, they’re all monogastric species. Dogs and pigs make different sounds, but the inside of the gastrointestinal tract is relatively similar to a human gastrointestinal tract as well.”
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However, as is the case with their personalities, cats are very different from dogs when it comes to their digestive process, as they are true carnivores and differ metabolically.
But both the dog and cat markets are ripe for the pet version of functional foods.
“You can think of ingredients to include to get a better gut health or something that can be included — particularly when animals are getting older — that might help with prevention of kidney disease, etc.,” said Zijlstra.
“On the research side, you can think of potential opportunities such as how do we include a wider matrix of pet food ingredients and still end up with a kibble that has a shelf life of one year.”
Pet food and feed companies will be able to use the extruder for product development, research, and testing. It’s expected some will partner on projects with U of A researchers, who will also be conducting their own studies, such as development of novel animal feeds. The machine, to be delivered this fall and be operational by the new year, will be housed at Agri-Food Discovery Place on the south campus.
Its purchase was funded by Western Economic Diversification, Alberta Livestock and Meat Agency, Champion Pet Foods from Morinville, and Ontario’s Elmira Pet Products.