If you’re a pawrent reading this blog, you probably have an open mind when it comes to feeding alternative proteins. Which means you’ll have heard of insect-based dog food which, like plant-based dog food, is touted as a more sustainable option than beef, chicken or fish. Marketed as less yuk and more yum, edible insects are a hot trend - and pet food companies are jumping onto the bandwagon by launching cricket and mealworm dog foods. It’s predicted that by 2025 most of the demand for insect meal will lie in the pet food sector, with almost half of the insect meal produced going into dog and cat bowls.
But is insect-based dog food actually a good option? Do more legs really equal less problems?
The sustainability myth of insect-based dog food
Much has been made of the fact that insects can produce the same protein as beef with 25 times less feed and substantially less water and energy. But does this make them more environmentally friendly than plants? Supporters of insect protein say it does, because farmed insects can convert useless, environmentally harmful by-products, like manure, into food (er, yum?) But here in Europe, this isn’t true.
Due to lack of evidence for the safety of the resulting insect-based food, European regulations ban the use of waste products for feeding edible insects. This means that the insects in your dog food are only allowed to be fed vegetable waste, or even meat – definitely not manure. Which means that growing all the corn, grain and vegetable feed for these insects is still contributing to land and water use, just on a smaller scale to cultivating grain for larger animals. If, instead of feeding crops to insects, we fed them directly to our dogs, we’d save even more land. In fact, insects still require relatively large amounts of water, approximately 23 litres for each gram of protein. Although this is a lot less than the 112 litres used for a gram of beef protein, it’s not much less than chicken protein at 34 litres per gram. And what would be even better? Pulses, which only need 19 litres of water per gram of protein.
What’s more, farmed insects require grinding and freeze-drying for preservation. When this is done on a large scale, it uses a lot of energy. The insect farms need to be heated and cooled too, probably using fossil fuels.
There’s one more environmental problem with farming insects: the Grub Escape! Invasive species are one of the biggest threats to ecosystems so, by importing insects for farming, we’re taking a massive risk. As one conservation biologist points out, “insects are tiny and they get out”. These ‘alien’ insects spread disease, threaten food supplies, harm other animal and insect species, and massively disrupt ecosystems.
Are insects actually good for our dogs?
Insect pet food producers market their food as ‘species-appropriate’ and they’re right – in the wild, dogs would eat insects. But these aren’t the insects we’re feeding them: bug-based dog food comes from mass-produced, farmed insects. While these tiny livestock don’t exactly come from a dirty ‘slaughterhouse’, there are still contamination risks. The European Food Safety Authority warn that there is “possible presence of biological and chemical contaminants in insect food and feed products." The FAO in the US highlights similar risks, identifying possible food safety hazards for edible insects as both biological (bacteria, viruses, fungi, parasites) and chemical (mycotoxins, pesticides, heavy metals, antimicrobials, and physical hazards).
Furthermore, if your dog is allergic to crustaceans, don’t even think about insect kibble: they’ll be especially vulnerable to reactions to edible insects. Even for less sensitive pups, there are risks that dogs could develop sensitisation to yet unidentified allergens.
The bugs aren’t all right
Last but not least, is feeding insects okay ethically? Many pawrents are looking for a way to feed their dog that doesn’t harm other animals, and we need to consider how insects fit into this. Like most of the chickens, pigs and cows that go into pet food, edible insects need to be mass-produced in intensive farms. What if these trillions of bugs experience pain and suffering just like larger animals? We might simply be moving from one poor-welfare system to another, where conscious beings are farmed in greater numbers than anything we’ve seen before.
Maybe that sounds dramatic, but recent research has found that honeybees scream when they’re afraid. Another study found that fruit flies become depressed when stressed. A few years ago, a BBC documentary on eating insects interviewed Dutch insect farmer Bert Nostimos, who’s farmed crickets for pet food for 40 years. Nostimos told reporters that he believes that “the stress is very high inside the boxes” and he reduces the numbers of crickets in each box to help them cope. Sometimes he even sleeps in the nursery to prevent his insects getting depressed!
He’s not wrong: science shows that outside threats can cause hormonal changes in insects, which impact their brain function, metabolism, and life energy. Science also shows us that many insects have specific kinds of pain receptors and produce opioids to regulate pain, as well as physically moving away from painful things. All these responses suggest insects experience something like conscious pain. In larger animals, our midbrain allows us to feel subjective experiences like joy and grief. The insect brain has a similar structure, suggesting insects may also have this basic consciousness.
All this means that if we start feeding insects to our dogs en masse, there are potentially devastating consequences for welfare. Nostimos was concerned enough for the welfare of his crickets to increase their legroom but how many other farmers will worry about the wellbeing of their insect stock during their short lives? It’s likely that severely stressed creatures will be crammed into tiny containers, without the antibiotics given to larger animals to help them cope.
Animal ethicist Bernard Rollin argued that animals with more basic brain power, like insects, might cope less well with pain, because they are “locked into what is happening in the here and now”. Because they don’t know that the pain will end, “their whole universe is pain; there is no horizon, they are their pain”. It doesn’t really bear thinking about.
If future research proves that these trillions of insects do suffer, the moral consequences of feeding them to our pets are horrifying. Here at THE PACK, we feel that the numbers involved and the evidence of insect suffering that we already have is enough to stay away from insect dog diets. After all, why feed bugs when you can feed butternut squash? Dogs can get all the proteins and nutrients they need from nutritionally complete vegan dog food. By giving your pup kale instead of crickets, you’re choosing a diet that’s guaranteed to be both cruelty-free and more sustainable.
Some deeper reading:
- Donald Broom’s 2014 book Sentience and Animal Welfare has an excellent section on insect sentience.
- This article has some fascinating findings about fruit fly brains.
- This study has interesting insights into the way insects might perceive the world more intensely than we do…
- This article explores insects’ capacity for subjective experience.
- A recent paper on the problems posed by invasive insect species.
- Here’s that study on cockroach memory!
- And on neurohormones in insect stress.
- Bernard Rollin’s book The Unheeded Cry: Animal Consciousness, Animal Pain and Science is a must-read.