The buzz on insect-based pet food: a new hypoallergenic protein source?

dvm360dvm360 October 2022
Volume 53
Issue 10
Pages: 60

A dermatologist breaks down the state of research on insect-based diets

dog with food bowl

Chalabala /

Content submitted by Thrive Pet Healthcare, a dvm360® Strategic Alliance Partner

Although the consumption of edible insects is widespread in Africa, Asia, and South America, it is far less common in countries like the United States. Our perception of insects as harmful, dirty, and distasteful means that it may be a while before the practice of eating them becomes mainstream here. Nevertheless, insects offer numerous advantages. Breeding them requires less land, feed, and water—and emits fewer greenhouse gases—than breeding livestock.1 And they are high in protein, vitamins, minerals, and lipids.

Given such benefits, the feeding of insects to animals has been more widely accepted. And research has shown the efficacy and safety of black soldier fly larvae (BSFL) in the feed of poultry, swine, and aquaculture species.2-6 The addition of small amounts of insect meal to chicken diets has also been found to stimulate colonization by probiotic and commensal bacteria, which may help prevent bacterial infections.7

European countries have embraced the use of insects in pet food, and several brands of dog food containing insect protein have been sold in Europe for a number of years. Recently, Mars PetCare and Nestlé Purina launched insect-based product lines.

Regulatory approval

In January 2021, the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) approved BSFL for use in adult dog food and treats, and thus veterinarians should expect more clients to explore diets containing BSFL, especially as a source of protein for dogs with adverse reactions to other food. Although AAFCO approved only BSFL for use in canine adult maintenance (approval in cat food is expected later this year), other promising, well-studied insects include the yellow mealworm beetle, house cricket, and silkworm.

Nutrition and digestibility

On average, the protein content of edible insects ranges from 35% to 60% (dry weight) and 10% to 25% (fresh weight), which is higher than the protein content of plants, including cereal grains, soybeans, and lentils.8-10 At the upper range, insects provide even more protein than meat and chicken eggs.11 Studies have shown that dogs can consume diets containing BSFL,12-16 tropical house cricket,17 housefly larvae, lesser mealworm, and yellow mealworm12,13 without adverse effects to their digestion or general health, even if the products are near-total replacements for common sources of protein.8 Higher fecal output was seen in dogs fed tropical house cricket, owing to the insect’s higher indigestible chitin content compared with chicken meal. However, no differences in fecal score or stool quality were observed.18

Allergenicity and cross-reactivity

Although allergic reactions may occur because of the insect protein itself (primary sensitization), they are more likely to occur because of cross-reactivity. Cross-reactivity takes place when IgE recognizes and binds to allergenic molecules present in different species. Tropomyosin and arginine kinase have been found to be responsible for cross-reactivity between insects and other arthropods. A recent study demonstrated that IgE from canine sera sensitized to storage mites bound to the protein in yellow mealworm.19 IgE binding, however, does not mean that an allergic reaction will occur, only that it may. Many reports in human medicine also suggest the possibility of cross-reactions between insects and other arthropods. Patients with shellfish allergies were found to exhibit allergic reactions after eating cicadas20 and vegetable worms.21 In a double-blind placebo-controlled food challenge, 87% of patients allergic to shrimp—most of whom were also allergic to dust mites—displayed allergy symptoms after eating yellow mealworm.22

Given that insects will probably become more widely used as a protein source in pet food, more research on the cross-reactivity between insects and arthropods is needed. It has been reported that atopic dermatitis may affect 3% to 15% of dogs,23 and dust mites are the allergens most commonly recognized by the circulating IgE of dogs with atopic dermatitis. Therefore, the use of insects as a protein source in dog food must be undertaken with caution.

A factor that may affect the allergenicity of insect proteins is postharvest processing. We know that thermal and high pressure processing—and/or hydrolysis—of allergy-causing proteins affect the allergenicity of feed.19 Incorporating such methods in the processing of harvested insects may reduce their allergenicity and cross-reactivity.


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