March 23, 2017

By Eric Stenson

The Paleo Diet has become increasingly popular among people, going back to basics with an emphasis on lean proteins similar to what our ancient ancestors might have eaten. For pets, ancestral and raw diets have come into the spotlight increasingly as more and more manufacturers introduce products to address this burgeoning market.

As cats and dogs lie on their cozy beds in our living rooms, it can be hard to remember that our pets are direct descendents of lions, tigers and wolves who prowled the wild for their dinner, rather than having a beneficent human guardian put it in a bowl for them at the first whimper of hunger.

Processing conventional pet food involves high temperatures, while freeze-drying never exceeds 115 degrees, preserving natural enzymes present in meats, according to product information on the Sojos website.

The Rise of Freeze-Dried
Raw food, while still a very small percentage of the overall pet food marketplace, is growing quickly, especially in freeze-dried forms, a segment that has grown by 47 percent in the past year, according to GfK data cited by Pete Brace, vice president of communications for Merrick Pet Care of Amarillo, Texas.

“Dogs are meat eaters by nature, and a canine ancestral diet provides similar nutrition as they’d eat in the wild: a diet high in protein and healthy fats with no grains,” Brace said.

In addition to freeze-dried raw, the Merrick Backcountry line also includes exotic protein blends and high protein kibble and canned recipes made from real deboned meat. Brace stresses that all of his company’s foods follow a simple formula—meat, fish or poultry is always the first ingredient, with fresh fruits and vegetables added for additional vitamins, minerals and fiber. All ingredients are USA-sourced, and all products are manufactured in the company’s Texas-based kitchens.

The interest in returning pets to an ancestral diet is growing quickly, but many pet owners are squeamish about handling raw meat or are concerned about possible pathogens that would only be killed by cooking. According to Ward Johnson, co-founder of Sojos, freeze-dried raw foods offer all the benefits while eliminating potential risks.

“For many pet parents, the leap from kibble or canned to raw can be intimidating; there are concerns about time-consuming prep, cost and safety,” he said. “That’s why it’s important for pet specialty retailers to be ready to introduce freeze-dried alternatives that combine the shelf-stable convenience of their customers’ current kibble or canned food—with the superior nutrition of raw.”

Sojos features dog food in 8-pound bags that rehydrate into 40 pounds of raw, fresh goat, lamb, beef or turkey; fish-based dog food; turkey cat food; and a variety of dog and cat treats.

The Honest Kitchen in San Diego makes “100 percent human-grade food for pets using whole foods,” according to founder and CEO Lucy Postins.

Postins recalls starting her company in 2002 in her own kitchen to feed her own dog. Her freeze-dried food comes in 10-pound boxes that make 40 pounds of food when warm water is added. Dog foods include turkey, beef, chicken and fish, while cats get turkey and chicken. The company also produces treats and supplements.

“Our foods are convenient because they don’t require freezing or refrigeration, so they work like an instant homemade meal and can just be kept in a kitchen cupboard or pantry,” Postins said. “Since our meats and eggs are gently steamed before dehydration, they also offer peace of mind to customers who may be concerned about handling a truly raw diet.”

Raw Food for Cats
Radagast Pet Food in Portland, Oregon, concentrates on cats. As opposed to freeze-dried products, its Rad Cat Raw Diet line is frozen and available in 8-ounce, 16-ounce and 24-ounce tubs. Rad Cat offers five varieties—Free-Range Chicken, Free-Range Turkey, Pasture-Raised Lamb, Grass-Fed Beef and Pasture-Raised Venison.

“There are many people that feed their dogs raw, but haven’t thought to explore raw options for their cats,” said Tracey Hatch-Rizzi, vice president and co-founder of Radagast Pet Food. “People are hearing about raw diets through their local retailers, the media and holistic veterinarians and are looking to manufacturers to educate them on the benefits of raw diets and how they should be fed.”

Hatch-Rizzi started her company to address a need close to home: her cat, Juno, was diagnosed at six months old with inflammatory bowel disease. Her holistic veterinarian suggested a raw diet with no grains and very few vegetables. After switching to raw, Juno quickly recovered and Hatch-Rizzi’s other cats also showed health improvements—her overweight cat dropped excess pounds, her allergy-ridden cat’s nose stopped running, and all their coats were soft and lush. She started making food for friends and family and soon realized she had a marketable product. After 13 years, the company and Juno are still going strong.

Making It on Your Own
Hatch-Rizzi supports cat owners who make their own raw food for their cats; indeed, many of her customers supplement their own efforts with her products. She also understands the risks of handling and feeding raw meat.

“When making food at home, meat purchased from the store is certain to have higher bacterial loads than a commercially-made product,” she said. “We take precautions in our processing that are not possible to replicate in a home kitchen, such as temperature control and the use of intervention steps to eliminate pathogens and other bacteria.”

Primal Pet Foods straddles the marketplace—producing frozen and freeze-dried formulas for cats and dogs, including its Pronto line, which comes in small, frozen nuggets that don’t require any thawing before serving.

“Freeze-dried foods can help remove a perceived barrier to feeding raw: the freezer,” said Kyle Frautnick, Primal’s marketing director. “Because of the versatility and ease of use, freeze-dried products help customers looking for better foods for their pets to look at raw feeding solutions. Additionally, it can also get customers into the freezer with other complementing products such as raw frozen formulas, raw goat milk and raw bones once they are comfortable with the raw concept.”

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