Shellfish have long been a part of the human diet, but can they benefit our pets as well? A closer look at the increasing popularity of shellfish in the pet food industry.
As pet owners become more selective about the ingredients in their companion’s diet, shellfish use in pet food has seen a rise in popularity in recent years. This is due to increasing awareness of the environmental impact of traditional protein sources and the need for more nutrient-dense options. As a result, shellfish such as mussels are becoming a popular alternative for pet food.
What are shellfish?
‘Shellfish’ is an informal, everyday term used for marine species of mollusks, crustaceans and echinoderms (e.g. starfish, sea urchins, et cetera). Although they are known as common food allergens, these species have long been a part of the human diet. However, only recently have they been recognized by the pet food industry.
Benefits of shellfish
Eating shellfish has numerous known benefits. It is an excellent source of lean protein, vitamin B12, omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) and abundant minerals like zinc and iron, to name a few.
Vitamin B12 (cobalamin) is essential in red blood cell formation, cell metabolism, nerve function and DNA production. Omega-3 PUFAs have anti-inflammatory effects and therefore can help improve heart health and decrease the risks of heart disease, neurodegenerative diseases, cancer, diabetes and depression.
Additionally, PUFAs are very important for neurological development and child and maternal health. Zinc is a trace mineral with an important role in activating immune cells, while iron is essential for multiple metabolic functions and oxygen transport in the blood.
Since most shellfish are low on the seafood chain and mainly feed on plankton species, there is little concern regarding high mercury levels.
Studies on health effects
Over the last few decades, more than 100 studies on the health effects of the New Zealand green-lipped or GreenshellTM mussel (Perna canaliculus) have been published.
This mussel is a rich source of bioactive compounds, particularly lipids, mainly derived from marine microalgae, which the mussels filter feed on. These include essential fatty acids such as eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which are thought to have anti-inflammatory effects.
Furthermore, this mussel contains furan fatty acids, sphingolipids, phytosterols, diacylglycerols, diterpenes, sesquiterpenes, saponins and antioxidants such as carotenoids, xanthophylls and anthocyanins, which all potentially benefit human and animal health.
Mussel extract in pets’ diets
Glucosamine and chondroitin, 2 natural compounds found in high concentrations in green-lipped mussels, are the main reasons this mussel extract was studied for its potential benefits on animal joint health.
To assess its efficacy, alone or combined with other supplements, 10 trials were conducted in dogs, cats and horses. These studies have demonstrated that incorporating mussel extract into the diets of cats and dogs has reduced symptoms associated with osteoarthritis.
For example, a randomized, double-blinded, placebo-controlled 6-week trial on 31 dogs with naturally occurring degenerative joint disease found that adding 0.3% green-lipped mussel extract to a test diet could help alleviate arthritis symptoms.
In addition, research on horses has shown that using green-lipped mussel extract can decrease the severity of lameness and joint pain and improve joint flexion in limbs affected by osteoarthritis.
Sustainability of shellfish farming
Another advantage of shellfish is their farming, which is relatively sustainable. Mussels, mollusks and many crustaceans are filter feeders, meaning they filter water to obtain food, thus reducing the need for additional feed inputs.
Mussel farming is a relatively low-impact form of aquaculture; it does not require antibiotics, pesticides or growth hormones, the greenhouse gas emissions during their production are negligible and the main by-product, empty mussel shells, can help fight climate change by trapping carbon. Conversely, crustacean farming may involve administering high levels of antibiotics and emitting more greenhouse gases, thus having a greater impact on the environment.
So, the sustainability of shellfish farming can vary depending on the species, location and methods used. Even some mussel farms use methods that can damage the ecosystem, such as dredging or the use of chemicals. Some may source animals from wild populations, leading to overfishing and depletion of natural resources.
However, some certifications ensure that shellfish are farmed using environmentally friendly methods. As pet owners become more conscious of the environmental impact of their pets’ diets, they can make informed choices that support both their companion’s health and the health of the planet.
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