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Alfalfa: 3 Reasons to Avoid This Plant Protein in Your Pet’s Food

July 26, 2013 | 41,085 views
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By Dr. Becker

Alfalfa is an ingredient in many commercially available dog and cat foods, and according to PetfoodIndustry.com, consumers are beginning to ask whether this forage belongs in their pet’s diet.

Before I discuss the suitability of alfalfa for dogs and cats, let’s take a quick look at the nature of this plant.

Alfalfa 101

Alfalfa, of the species Medicago sativa, is called lucerne in the U.K., Australia, South Africa, New Zealand and other locations around the world. It’s a perennial flowering plant in the pea family that looks similar to clover and has clusters of small purple flowers.

Alfalfa is native to warm, mild climates and is cultivated as an important forage crop in many countries. The above ground parts of the plant are cut, dried in a natural gas furnace and pelleted, or alternatively, it can be cut, sun-dried, and baled for feeding at some point in the future.

Alfalfa grows continuously during the summer months and produces from three to five cuttings a year.

Nutritionally speaking, air-dried alfalfa contains between 14 and 22 percent protein, 10 percent ash, less than 5 percent crude fat, and 15 to 30 percent crude fiber. Most of the fiber is insoluble. Alfalfa is a source of calcium, potassium and other trace minerals, as well as beta-carotene, vitamin K and various B vitamins. The plant also contains chlorophyll, and its leaves contain a number of other bioactive compounds including saponins and phytoestrogens.

Why I Don’t Recommend Alfalfa in Pet Diets

There are several reasons I don’t recommend feeding alfalfa as a meat replacement protein to dogs or cats, including:

  • While alfalfa is high in protein, proteins derived from plants don’t contain all the amino acids your carnivorous dog or cat requires. That’s why pets require meat-based nutrition -- the protein in animal tissue provides a complete amino acid profile.
  • Like soy, alfalfa contains phytoestrogens, which are plant estrogens that are well-documented endocrine disruptors.
  • Alfalfa contains several saponins, which are glycosides with a foaming characteristic. Saponins are anti-nutrients, meaning they interfere with absorption of essential nutrients.

The bottom line here is that you can provide your pet with the protein found in alfalfa by offering optimally nutritious, species-appropriate meats rather than plant-based forage more suitable for livestock.

With that said, I do know there are a few excellent quality raw and dehydrated pet diets (as well as many supplements) on the market that contain very small amounts of alfalfa. These manufacturers are tapping into the whole food nutrients found in this plant, not using it as a protein replacement option. If you are using alfalfa as a phytonutrient supplement in small quantities, there’s no concern.

So my recommendation, if you’re feeding a very high-quality commercial pet food and your dog or cat is thriving, is to not worry about alfalfa as an ingredient, as long as it’s not in the top half of the ingredient panel. These companies are not trying to replace meat protein with veggie protein. If you’d like more information, you might contact the manufacturer and find out how much alfalfa is actually in the food you’re offering your pet, and discuss any concerns you have.

If you’re feeding a lesser quality commercial pet food with alfalfa in the top half of the ingredient panel, my recommendation is to transition your pet to a better quality formula. Chances are the pet food manufacturer is using alfalfa as a cheap replacement for the meat-based protein your pet needs to be healthy. As I mentioned earlier, plant protein is an unsuitable primary source of protein for dogs and cats.

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