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Nutrition Nuggets is the newest offshoot of petMD's Dog Nutrition Center. Each week Dr. Coates will use her expertise and wisdom to blog about the intricacies of dog nutrition.

An Unusual Source of Protein

June 14, 2013 / (12) comments

I recently ran across an article in Forbes magazine detailing a new dog food that uses hydrolyzed feather meal as a protein source. (Hydrolization is a process through which proteins are broken down into such tiny fragments that the immune system no longer recognizes and reacts to them.) The food in question is designed to help dogs with adverse reactions to traditional protein sources, a description that fits my dog Apollo. He has severe inflammatory bowel disease.

I don’t know much about feather meal, so I did a little research. Here’s what two industry publications (the only sources of detailed information I could find) have to say:

Hydrolyzed feather meal is a good source of natural protein for most animal diets. It can be used to replace a significant portion of other protein sources in livestock and aquaculture diets.

Many studies by university and private research scientists have confirmed the utilization of feather meal and the economic advantage as an ingredient.

American Proteins, Inc.

As costs for animal proteins increases and availability decreases, processed by-products have become an important primary protein source for the industry. Petfood manufacturers are forced to increase the usage of alternative, more economical feed ingredients.

Hydrolyzed, poultry-based proteins — eg hydrolyzed Feather Meal — are economically interesting protein sources used in specific areas of the feed business — like aquaculture. Usage of hydrolyzed Feather Meal in salmon feed is a case in point. These proteins are economically interesting and free of anti-nutritional factors. However, the use of (processed) Feather Meal in Petfood has been limited for reasons such as poor digestibility and issues related to marketing (ingredients declaration).

Unprocessed feathers are high in crude protein (90 percent), but highly indigestible due to the keratin structure, which contains high amounts of cross linked — disulphite bondings — cystine.

In order to open the S-S bonds and to make the crude feather available for digestive systems, feathers have to be processed.

Adding Value to Feathers

The Forbes article emphasizes the inclusion of hydrolyzed feather meal as a source of “hypoallergenic” protein, but it is my (albeit limited) understanding that any protein loses its allergenic properties after undergoing extensive hydrolysis. Based on the repeated references to the “economic” advantages of including feather meal in pet food mentioned above, I can’t help but feel that cost was a primary factor in the decision to use it in the food mentioned in the Forbes article, despite claims to the contrary.

I wonder whether the ingredient’s inclusion in a food designed for dogs with severe dietary intolerances is a type of test case. If Apollo would become unable to eat his current food, out of desperation I’d be willing to try one based on hydrolyzed feather meal, despite my general uneasiness about its use in dog food. After a number of client-owned dogs have eaten the food without deleterious effect, the company can then point to them as success stories, perhaps supporting the use of hydrolyzed feather meal in other products.

What do you think?

Dr. Jennifer Coates

Image: Arman Zhenikeyev / via Shutterstock

Comments  12

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  • 06/14/2013 12:50pm

    Dr. Coates, hydrolyzed feather proteins are used as the protein source in hypoallergenic baby formulas for infants with milk allergies (a precarious situation!). If the technology is good enough for human babies, I would consider it a clever consideration for pets with severe allergies.

    From speaking to several pet food companies, it seems that although the feathers are cheap to buy, it is the hydrolyzation process and vigorous, strict quality control procedures (to ensure that all proteins are below 1 kilodalton in size, for example) that contribute to the higher price of this hypo. diet.

  • 06/14/2013 03:41pm

    When it comes to dog food allergies, this and many other articles overlook a critical source and common cause - grains. Dogs were never intended to, and should never, eat any grains. And yet the vast majority of dogfoods contain grains.
    If your dog itches a lot - desperately scratching her belly with her back paws, nibbling at the paws, biting at parts of her body - the most likely causes are fleas and/or a food allergy. For starters, your dog should be on a flea med (unless you happen to live in a rare climate where fleas don't exist). Secondly, wean your dog off of its dogfood and onto a grain-free food. Also, make sure the grain-free food doesn't contain any soy (another common cause of dog allergies). Chicken and beef can also sometimes cause allergic reactions in some dogs, so in those cases other protein sources must be considered.
    A dog can also develop allergies to the food she has been eating for years, so just because you may not have changed her food does not mean she isn't allergic to an ingredient in it.
    My Caligirl developed an allergy to grains. The only way I discovered this was to eliminate foods from her diet after her itching had become incessant. And through that elimination process it became obvious that grains (and perhaps chicken, beef and soy) were causing her miserably uncomfortable skin condition.
    I researched grain-free foods and decided to try Taste of the Wild, which was also the least expensive grain-free food I could find that did not contain any of the aforementioned ingredients (the proteins in their formulas are salmon, duck, bison...). After switching Cali to this food her itching and skin condition cleared up almost immediately.
    So, there's some [grain-free] food for thought on dog allergies.

  • 06/14/2013 02:57pm

    Some questions.

    How did it come about that dog owners became convinced that dogs are now routinely intolerant of meat sources?

    By what genetic process have we bred dogs that can no longer tolerate meat? Has anyone answered this question?

    What industry would benefit the most from convincing people that many dogs can no longer tolerate certain meats in their diet?

    What industry would benefit the most from making a previously indigestible protein source from a waste product, feathers, digestible, and then convincing pet owners that it is superior to meat sources of protein?

    I told a dog owner who's dog had an allergic reaction to the kibble she was feeding it, to switch to straight boiled chicken and rice for a week to see if it's the kibble. She said she was told that her dog probably was allergic to chicken, and was going to change to the brand's lamb kibble instead. So instead of taking her dog off of a diet of highly processed factory-produced food, her vet had convinced her that the most natural part of a dog's diet, the meat, was the problem, not the 20 other ingredients in the kibble such as the alcohol industry waste product brewer's rice. and animal digest which is the unusable parts of rendered animals which is broken down chemically to make it digestible. The owner was being made to fear fresh food, in this case meat.

    Now we are hearing what a wonderful food product processed feathers are, and so it continues.

  • Feather Meal
    06/14/2013 08:23pm

    Feather meal actually has a much higher percentage of protein than any meat sources. Whole muscle meat is about 22% protein, and rendered meat "meals" are about 60% protein. Feather meals are about 85% to 95% protein, depending upon where it was manufactured: http://www.uspoultry.org/ppfc/docs/ProjectR54.pdf

    If you have an animal that is *intolerant* of some meat sources of protein, I can see at least trying out the feather meal as an option. However, if the situation involves the gut, I would be more inclined to look at better sources of fermentable fibers, (prebiotics), to sustain the gut bacteria needed for good absorption of the protein.

    Any of the negativity around the use of such ingredients as feather meal come from our western society tastes, created in people's minds, but may not be reality in science. We see a lot of that with the fad diets people are insisting are "best" for their pets these days.

    If someone actually uses a product with "feather meal" in the ingredient list, I would be very interested in hearing about the experience the person had, as we do all seem to be developing more allergies and intolerances to food ingredients these days, without good scientific explanations.

  • 06/14/2013 11:14pm

    Well, technically, I guess, amino acid is an amino acid, is an amino acid. So if fully hydrolyzed it would not matter at all where it comes from originally.

    That said, I am not so much in favor of isolated or modified nutrients. I do believe that the whole is more than a sum of its parts. I'd rather consider alternative protein sources, even such as spirulina or whey.

    What is the stability of isolated amino acids during storage?

    I'd likely be more willing to try something like this on myself first before trying it on my dogs.

    Theoretically, though, seems sound.

  • 06/14/2013 11:22pm

    As someone with nutritional training, I agree with you 100% regarding whole foods. However, if you have a choice of having an animal in discomfort, or one that is healthy, I think you would choose the hydrolysis, hands down.

  • 06/14/2013 11:33pm

    I did have a dog with IBD and managed it well with whole foods. That said, I did mention that I find the theory sound. My main question in that regards is the stability of the isolated amino acids.

    Note: in Canada, a board certified nutritionist is now marketing a digestive enzyme blend deemed to really do the same job - ensuring that all protein gets broken down properly before being able to cause trouble.

    That'd also be something I'd consider. (we did use digestive enzymes all along, btw)

  • 06/14/2013 11:48pm

    Amino acids are very stable, which is why you can find them almost anywhere. They are also normally purchased from Asian companies, (mostly China), just as your enzymes "from Canada" are. http://www.bulknutrients.com.au/choice/amino-acids/amino-acids-faqs/2

    I am not sure about dogs, but do know that cats need different enzymes to humans and with a couple of the sugar desolving ones you might cause more problems than solutions in a cat.

    Personally, I would never waste money on enzymes unless I knew exactly what the ingredient was that needed breaking down. As an example, I have a casein intolerance that needs the enzyme Rennet to allow me to use dairy products. I keep having people insisting I "Try Lactaid", which is for milk sugar, not milk protein, (the casein). I find these standard blends of "enzymes" to be a bit of a scam and would be surprised to learn of any meaningful results with their use.

  • 06/15/2013 12:00am

    These were dog-specific enzymes. In our case, used for overall support, because with her issues her system appreciated any help with digestion and assimilation.

  • 06/15/2013 12:08am

    The product is
    Aurion Digest-7 Digestive Enzymes for Dogs

  • 06/17/2013 04:27am

    Ms. Watson is neither a veterinarian nor board certified. She has a Bachelor's degree and perhaps some practical experience in the pet food industry.

    I'm not aware of any evidence to support that digestive enzymes can replicate the hydrolysis that these proteins are subjected to - they are different enzymes.

  • HHHmmmmm
    06/17/2013 10:20pm

    I'm not sure what to say about this. If nothing else works, I guess I'd be willing to give it a try, though.