GUELPH, ONTARIO — Dr. Anna Kate Shoveller, professor at the University of Guelph’s Department of Animal Biosciences, holds a deep understanding of companion animal nutrition that is rooted in science, passed down and built upon by her team of nearly 20 graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. As a recipient of the inaugural Friend of Pet Food Award, bestowed by the American Feed Industry Association (AFIA) in 2020, Shoveller’s commitment to pet food is illustrated by her dedication and respect for animals, research, and the formidable team of students, colleagues and industry professionals with which she has surrounded herself.
“We need to know when to pull colleagues and other experts in the field to help and support us as we seek to bring something new to the pet food industry,” she said.
In the following Q&A, Shoveller highlights the importance of putting your best foot forward and building your network, shares her honest advice for up-and-coming pet industry professionals, and details the challenges and opportunities facing pet food today.
PFP: Tell us about your business or career in the pet industry.
Shoveller: I am a professor, and now the Champion Petfoods Research Chair in Canine and Feline Nutrition, Metabolism and Physiology. I run a diverse comparative nutrition group at the University of Guelph. In addition to dogs and cats, I also work with horses. I blame that on the fact that I have ridden horses most of my life — you almost have to have ridden horses to do horse research. I also use pigs as models in some cases. Sometimes I go back and work with my colleagues in swine and poultry as well, but my lab largely focuses on innovations in the pet food industry.
We have a lot of work around alternative or new-to-the-world ingredients, their safety, their levels of inclusion, and also what types of benefits they might provide the animal. Our discovery work is largely focused on protein and amino acid and energy metabolism.
There are not many companion animal researchers in North American academia and we need to often be very broad in our research capabilities. For example, I recently looked at a yeast product, but I did that in collaboration with people who were gut permeability experts because that's not my area of expertise. I have a really diverse program with a large number of graduate students, but I also have an extensive network of collaborators, because we can't do everything. We need to know when to pull colleagues and other experts in the field to help and support us as we seek to bring something new to the pet food industry.
PFP: How did you get your start in the pet industry, and how did that experience lead you to where you are now?
Shoveller: A lot of it has to do with chance and networks. I am pretty extroverted, so it has always been very easy for me to talk to people. Late in my undergraduate career, I decided I wanted to go to graduate school. I started looking at what you would do with an undergraduate degree, and I did not think any of the options were interesting or diverse enough for me. I have always bored easily, so I needed a career that allowed me to almost constantly think. I interviewed with several professors at the University of Guelph, and that is how I met my Ph.D. advisor, Dr. Ron Ball, who is now professor emeriti at the University of Alberta.
“Whenever you do things that really scare you and challenge you, you become more resilient,” Shoveller said.
When I met Dr. Ball, he was so excited about the work that he did, which was complex amino acid metabolism in baby piglets, ultimately using the baby piglet as a model for the human infant. I visited his lab and they were amazing and encouraging, and somehow I convinced him to take me on at the time. As soon as he accepted me, he said, “By the way, I’m moving to Alberta.” Right on the spot, I replied, “Okay. Am I coming to Alberta?” And that was probably the very first step in the rest of my academic life. Leaving is hard, but whenever you do things that really scare you and challenge you, you become more resilient, and you meet new people — maybe some of your best friends. Graduate school in Alberta was excellent, and it is what ultimately led me to the pet food industry. It’s all a series of connections, really.
A former graduate student from the University of Alberta, Stefan Massimino, was working at The IAMS Company at the time and we both were at the same conference together and we went out for dinner. We were just talking science and I had worked on a little project for a course on amino acids in dog nutrition. I told Stefan, “You know, you have close to no data in this area.” He politely listened to me through the whole spiel, and then he said, “Kate, can I tell my colleague who focuses on protein and amino acids about you?” The next week I got a call from Gary Davenport, who asked me to write him a grant for my post-doctorate on developing isotopic techniques to measure amino acid requirements in dogs, and that he would see where it hit with senior leadership. You can look at my career history to see how that panned out and set the foundation for my journey.
The lesson here: It’s all a journey. You always have to talk to people — often, you get jobs because people know who you are or have seen what you have done. It is really important to put your best foot forward as much as you can.
PFP: What has been your biggest challenge — personal or professional — related to your work in the pet industry?
Shoveller: I think strengths and weaknesses are usually the same, so I always tell people my biggest strength is my biggest weakness. I am extroverted and I am opinionated, and sometimes I probably should not speak when I do. Speaking honestly and transparently is absolutely critical when we are talking about the science, but this level of honesty is not always welcomed when it comes to the personal side of the work we do. I often speak about fairness, efficiencies, competency, and how people work, and it is often not welcomed. I have softened on that a little bit throughout my career, and I think people have come to understand it better as well, so that has helped. As such, my biggest obstacles is knowing when to render an opinion and when not to, especially on the softer aspects of what we do on a daily basis.
PFP: Tell me about a professional accomplishment in the pet industry that you are proud of.
Shoveller: It would be easy to talk about awards, but what I am most proud of is the close colleagues that I have — relationships that make it really pleasant to be a scientist, to be an innovator, to be a technologist — and most especially my Ph.D. students. I have some juggernauts out there in the industry and I have some really amazing ones coming up, and it is my honor to be able to train them and give the pet food industry capable, highly qualified personnel that are ready to work hard and accept the challenges in front of them.
PFP: What is top of mind for you in the industry right now?
Shoveller: I am fairly certain we are going to continue to have an ingredient supply issue. We saw it happen in the pandemic to some extent, and it is going to continue for a myriad of different reasons. Probably our biggest challenge in front of us is increasing our ingredient supply diversity and sustainability. We need to move quickly to increase the number of ingredients that are available to every segment of the pet food industry, whether they be for extruded, canned, freeze dried, raw, fresh, homemade or lightly cooked diets. Food availability is a critical concern of mine for the entire world population.
Additionally, it is critical that we overlay sustainability with this effort. The industry should have two goals. First, to support the health and wellbeing of dogs and cats, and secondly, to do it by supplying what they need sustainably — not too much of what they need, not the most expensive ingredient because it's trendy or it's what a pet owner has in their diet. We need to really focus on ingredients and environmental sustainability.
PFP: If you could pick three trends influencing the industry today, which are the most important and why?
Shoveller: Humanization makes it difficult for us in a lot of ways because the pet food industry has traditionally formulated diets similarly to how we formulate diets for agricultural animals. We now need to use an approach that accounts for the humanization of pets. But humanization exists because of our evolving relationship with our pets. As that trend has continues to grow, we have to recognize and understand how we are going to work within that paradigm.
The second would be sustainability. There is no way that this is not going to impact our industry. For example, we see this with increased products and the research to support more sustainable diets, such as plant based. While there has been a lot of work on applying plant-based diets for dogs, we really need to approach this carefully for cats because they are obligate carnivores and we must simultaneously think about sustainability and the physiological needs of cats. It is difficult work that needs a robust, multi-expert approach to product development.
Shall I be provocative? I think there is a negative tension between different stakeholders in the pet nutrition sector. A great example is grain-free and the different camps that emerged in the DCM [dilated cardiomyopathy] drama. I think we should all stop being arrogant and siloed and agree that we should work together and try to understand these issues and have hard discussions where we are going to disagree. But, disagreement and discussion is the basis of problem solving, and we have a lot of problems to discuss. I would just like all of us to work together to make sure we produce enough food for the global society, whether you have $10 per week or $10,000 per week to spend on your animal. In addition to socio-economic categories, we should also be able satisfy consumer needs, such as the demand for plant-based diets.
PFP: What advice would you give to young people starting their careers in this industry?
Shoveller: Work hard. Be curious. Never lie. Seek mentors throughout your entire life, and be open to knowing that you could be wrong. This last part is extremely important — to be open to being wrong means that sometimes you have to listen more than you speak.
PFP: Just for fun, do you consider yourself a dog person or a cat person? Or, if you have pets of your own, tell us a little bit about them.
Shoveller: We have a 16-year-old miniature dachshund (who is staying with my veterinarian while I’m on sabbatical in The Netherlands), and we have Zola, a 17-year-old black cat (who is at home with one of my former Ph.D. students). And now we’ve adopted Tommy, the Dutch cat! (Editor’s note: Tommy was walking all over Dr. Shoveller’s laptop during this interview.)
I grew up in the country and, thinking back to that time, I was definitely a dog person. I think dogs are such intriguing athletes, and in that way they match my intense respect for horses, who are also unparalleled athletes. Think of the Iditarod! In terms of love and respect, I think dogs truly are man’s best friend.
What makes me most curious, however, is cats. If we were to anthropomorphize about them, they have such funny personalities and, as a scientist, they have the wackiest metabolism. They are so difficult to work with, and whenever something is really hard, I migrate toward them for some bizarre reason. So scientifically, I’m a cat person, but overall, probably more of a dog person.
PFP: Any final advice for other women in the pet industry?
Shoveller: As I’m currently on sabbatical, I have started to give a little bit of pause to the idea of seeking more balance, and I think that can be particularly difficult for women in the workplace, especially as we take on other roles as we go through life. We are all children, so we all are responsible at some point for helping brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers at some point, and women have historically bore the burden of that care. When you think about those other responsibilities on top of pursuing a career, women have to consider this balance very carefully. We all need balance, and it is important to remember how you can quietly obtain that throughout your career. That is probably the most challenging part of being a woman in the pet food industry.
Anna Kate Shoveller, Ph.D., worked in the pet food industry from 2007 to 2015 before going back to her roots in scientific pet nutrition research. Her expert advice on protein and energy metabolism, effects of nutrition on behavior, and effects of nutrition on performance enhanced various products consumed by companion animals across North America. She has been published in more than 100 peer-reviewed papers.
She is currently a tenured professor in the University of Guelph’s Department of Animal Biosciences, and serves as the inaugural Champion Petfoods Chair in Canine and Feline Nutrition, Physiology and Metabolism. She previously served as chair of the American Society of Animal Sciences’ Companion Animal Committee and has been awarded several times for her contributions to the dog and cat nutrition space, including receiving the American Feed Industry Association’s (AFIA) inaugural Friend of Pet Food Award in 2020.
Shoveller earned her bachelor’s degree in animal biology with honors from the University of Guelph, followed by a doctorate degree in nutrition and metabolism from the University of Alberta. In her post-doctoral fellowship with the University of Guelph, she studied protein and energy metabolism in adult, mixed-breed dogs, as well as in swine and cattle.
Continue reading about other female leaders featured in our Women in the Pet Industry series.