Feather Meal: Say No to This Expensive Pet Food – It's Weirder Than You Can Imagine

Chicken Feathers

Story at-a-glance

  • Royal Canin has introduced an “anallergenic” line of dog foods made with feather meal. The food is designed for intensely allergic dogs who haven’t been helped by novel protein diets.
  • RC’s Anallergenic Dry dog food formula lists the following two ingredients at the top of the list: corn starch and hydrolyzed poultry by-products aggregate [feather meal].
  • Feather meal is created by breaking down the feathers to amino acids through a process called hydrolyzing. While almost any type of protein can be hydrolyzed and made digestible, alternative protein sources generally have much less bioavailability than animal muscle meat and organs. In fact, the biological value of feathers is zero, meaning the protein from feather meal cannot be used by the cells of your pet’s body.
  • Another problem with feather meal is the potential for contamination. A recent study by researchers from Johns Hopkins University and Arizona State University revealed the majority of feather meal samples tested were contaminated with multiple pharmaceuticals and personal care products.
  • Before considering an “anallergenic” pet food formula for an allergic pet, we recommend you view Dr. Becker’s comprehensive video and article on food allergies and novel protein diets.

By Dr. Becker

Recently I came across an article in Forbes.com titled Dog Food Made From Feathers: A Win-Win for Royal Canin.

The article is an interview with Keith Levy, President of Royal Canin USA. Here's Mr. Levy's response to the Forbes.com interviewer's question about what he means when he says Royal Canin is "putting the dog at the heart of the innovation process."

"We live by the conviction that pets are quite different from human beings and have different nutritional needs. Many consumers extrapolate from themselves to their pet. So for example if they eat organic food, they want to feed their pets organic food as well. Or they want their food to look nice, so they might buy fancy shaped kibble; or meat as the first ingredient. We're not focused on ingredients, but on outcomes for pets. We can deliver great protein with soy, or with other ingredients."

This is interesting spin. First of all, I would hope anyone who is in the business of making food for dogs recognizes their nutritional requirements differ from those of humans. Levy seems to believe Royal Canin lives by this "conviction," but pet parents don't. According to Levy, pet owners apparently think their dogs should eat organic food, or food with meat as the first ingredient.

Silly pet owners! It seems clear Royal Canin believes we should follow their lead and stop focusing on the ingredients in the food we offer our pets. Instead, we should be feeding formulas with "great protein" derived from soy. Or feathers. Yes, feathers. More about that shortly.

He also believes we should focus on health outcomes versus ingredients. Well, Mr. Levy, current health outcomes of feeding non human-grade, biologically inappropriate ingredients include maldigestion, malabsorption, nutrient deficiency in the face of obesity, organ and metabolic dysfunction, and immune dysfunction (both cancer and auto-immmune disease).

The 'Irrelevance' of Ingredients and Other Pet Food Trade Secrets

Mr. Levy goes on to make several other interesting statements, for example, at Royal Canin, terms like organic are "irrelevant." He also maintains that, "A Great Dane has a very different digestive tract from a Yorkie." (Generally speaking, one canine digestive tract is much like the next, except that a big dog's GI tract is proportionately larger than that of a toy breed.)

Mr. Levy also says that while other pet food manufacturers are reducing the number of formulas they produce, Royal Canin is increasing theirs. He cites the example of a formula specifically designed for female dogs during breeding. And he helpfully offers up the motive behind all those different formulas: "With foods like this you create a story that is very difficult for competitors to duplicate."

You see, creating a story and making things difficult for competitors is the name of the game. Producing species-appropriate nutrition for dogs and cats doesn't seem to make the list.

Levy is also clearly proud that "Few brands are more expensive" than Royal Canin brands.

Feathers, Soy and Worm Meal: 'Incredibly Nutritious' Sources of Protein?

According to Mr. Levy, Royal Canin's "anallergenic" line, which uses feather meal as the main source of protein, was 10 years in the making. It's designed for intensely allergic dogs for which even novel protein diets don't seem to work.

Here's the ingredient list for the Anallergenic Dry formula:

"Corn starch, hydrolyzed poultry by-products aggregate [feather meal], coconut oil, soybean oil, natural flavors, potassium phosphate, powdered cellulose, calcium carbonate, sodium silico aluminate, chicory, L-tyrosine, fructooligosaccharides, fish oil, L-lysine, choline chloride, taurine, L-tryptophan, vitamins [DL-alpha tocopherol (source of vitamin E), inositol, niacin, L-ascorbyl-2-polyphosphate (source of vitamin C), D-calcium panthotenate, biotin, pyridoxine hydrochloride (vitamin B6), riboflavine (vitamin B2), thiamine mononitrate (vitamin B1), vitamin A acetate, folic acid, vitamin B12 supplement, vitamin D3 supplement], DL-methionine, marigold extract (Tagetes erecta L.), histidine, trace minerals [zinc proteinate, zinc oxide, ferrous sulfate, manganese proteinate, copper proteinate, copper sulfate, manganous oxide, calcium iodate, sodium selenite], rosemary extract, preserved with natural mixed tocopherols and citric acid."

Corn starch is the primary ingredient in this formula. Corn starch is nothing more than filler, and if you read here regularly you know that corn in any form is an ingredient I always recommend avoiding in pet food. It's notoriously allergenic, and is very often genetically modified.

The next ingredient on the list is "hydrolyzed poultry by-products aggregate," which is a technical name for feather meal. According to Levy, feather meal is "not only nutritious but can also be made very palatable to dogs." The feathers are broken down to an amino acid level, and palatizers are added for taste.

Other sources of protein Royal Canin is investigating include hydrolyzed soy, and worm meal. According to Mr. Levy, kibble made with worm meal is quite tasty. He says that by using alternative sources of protein, Royal Canin is "using something that would otherwise end up in a landfill." I'm all for recycling, except when it comes to ingredients that should be thrown out versus fed to pets.

Digestibility vs. Bioavailability of Feather Meal

Feathers are broken down to amino acids through a process called hydrolyzing. Hydrolyzing means to break down a protein source enzymatically. If enough enzymes are present, any type of protein can be hydrolyzed, allowing its amino acids to be absorbed through the walls of an animal's digestive tract and into the bloodstream. This means the protein is digestible, but not necessarily bioavailable. The bioavailability or biological value (BV) of a nutrient is the measure of its usefulness to the cells of the body.

For example, eggs have a biological value of 100 percent, meaning all the amino acids in an egg are useful to the body. Soy has a BV of around 55 percent, which means 45 percent of the protein in soy winds up as waste product in the blood that the kidneys must filter out.

Feathers have 0 percent bioavailability, so while they can be made digestible through the hydrolyzing process, they cannot be used by your pet's body at the cellular level.

In addition, many amino acids are damaged by heat, and as we know, commercially available pet food – especially kibble – is processed at extremely high temperatures. Since amino acids act synergistically (interdependently) in the body, damage to some amino acids can render other, undamaged amino acids useless.

Contaminated Feather Meal

Another problem with feather meal is described in a recently published study titled "Feather Meal: A Previously Unrecognized Route for Reentry into the Food Supply of Multiple Pharmaceuticals and Personal Care Products (PPCPs)." Researchers found antimicrobials (antibiotics) in every feather meal sample tested (a total of 12), with up to 10 different drugs in some samples. Samples from China had the greatest number of antimicrobials.

In addition to the antibiotics, seven other PPCPs were found in the feather meal samples. Caffeine and acetaminophen (Tylenol) were found in 10 of the 12 samples, and 1,7-dimethylxantine, a metabolite of caffeine, was in 7 of the 12. Other drugs found in the samples included an anti-depressant (Prozac), a fungicide/antiparasitic, an antihistamine (Benadryl), and norgestimate (a synthetic sex hormone).

If you have a pet with a food allergy, before you consider alternative protein sources like feather meal, I strongly encourage you to watch my video on novel protein diets and read the accompanying article titled How to Heal Your Pet's Food Allergy.


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