This article was published in the January 2024 issue of Pet Food Processing. Read it and other articles from this issue in our January digital edition.

A pet food could have impressive nutritional content, but the animal won’t fully benefit from that nutrition if their body can’t easily digest the food. This consideration combined with the fact that the digestive system plays a major role in boosting a pet’s overall health and immune system has led pet food processors to focus on developing products specifically formulated for digestibility.

“We can’t change the DNA of pets, but we do have the ability to affect the longevity of pets through the digestibility of foods,” said Gili Wizen, founder of Blue Bell, Pa.-based Cooper & Friends.

To this end, digestive health products are being formulated with specific life-stage considerations and need states in mind to benefit every pet.

Understanding the significance of the digestive system in their pet’s overall wellbeing is the first step to pet parents selecting the right digestive health nutrition for their pets,” said Jennifer Adolphe, Ph.D., ADM.

“Understanding the significance of the digestive system in their pet’s overall wellbeing is the first step to pet parents selecting the right digestive health nutrition for their pets,” said Jennifer Adolphe, Ph.D., pet food technical sales manager for ADM, Chicago. “Additionally, recognizing how age and specific dietary needs might influence digestive capabilities is crucial. Pet parents must choose foods and supplements that align with their pet’s digestive requirements, considering factors like age-related changes and any specific dietary intolerances or sensitivities their pet may have.”

The demand for digestible products continues to grow, as research from FMCG Gurus indicates more than half of global pet owners would like to see digestive health claims on products, Adolphe said.


Breaking down the barriers

“We want the ingredients we use to provide nutrients that are readily available to be used by the pet,” said Renee Streeter, DVM, principal nutritionist for BSM Partners, Bentonville, Ark. “We also want those nutrients to specifically help improve gut health, which can in turn help to further nutrient absorption. Also, no one likes to have to deal with sloppy stools, so helping pets have a solid stool is very appealing to most people from a sanitation perspective.”

Wizen said digestibility is based on how much of the food’s nutritional value can be observed in the blood and used in the body’s tissues. As an offering designed for maximum digestibility, Cooper & Friends provides a line of functional dog treats that include human-grade protein and are produced using a gentle process to preserve nutrients from fresh vegetables and supplements. The line includes varieties of insects and salmon jerky, round beef jerky, tilapia fillet jerky, pork loin jerky, and chicken breast jerky.

Cooper & Friends product portfolio

All the ingredients in Cooper & Friends’ treats work synergistically to provide a stronger gastrointestinal environment. 

| Source: Jim Greipp Pau Hana Productions

Cooper & Friends focuses on three layers of health — ingredients, science-backed supplements and a gentle process — to allow their products containing fresh vegetables and supplements to deliver maximum benefits. Wizen said all ingredients in their products, from proteins to carrots, carob, parsley and ginger root, work synergistically to provide a stronger gastrointestinal environment.

Providing pets with immune health benefits is also a top consideration for Cooper & Friends.

“Gut-associated lymphoid tissue trains the immune system to recognize the potential invaders with the lining of the intestinal tract acting as a physical barrier, so the combination between the digestive system and the immune system is crucial,” Wizen said.

The way a pet food is processed matters as well, considering a carbohydrate will be less digestible if it isn’t cooked thoroughly, Streeter said. This means a “gentle cook” or shorter cooking time with less water might not be as easy to digest as those made from a different process or those that incorporate a pre-cooked carbohydrate.

As a digestive-minded product line, Champion Petfoods, Edmonton, Alberta, offers ACANA Butcher’s Favorites products as a way of boosting a dog’s mealtime. Each recipe features a dry kibble with 70% animal ingredients and protein-rich jerky to support digestive health with fiber and a blend of pre- and probiotics, said Ernie Ambrose, the brand’s vice president of marketing.

Processors must also consider the range of ingredients used in pet food products including corn, wheat, ancient grains, barley, oats, rice and tapioca. Adolphe said difficulties in digestion often arise from the total fiber content of foods as well as the presence of antinutritional factors.

Royal Canin functional pet food portfolio

Royal Canin has a full line of Veterinary Diet Gastrointestinal products for dogs and cats that include dry and wet food, liquids and treats. 

| Source: Royal Canin

“Though fiber can help promote digestive health, too much total fiber or high levels of certain types of fiber can result in digestive upset,” Adolphe said. “Fiber, being indigestible, can also potentially trap nutrients. Additionally, some ingredients contain antinutritional factors that need to be addressed in processing. Heat and steam are common methods used to produce pet foods and can deactivate the antinutritional compounds of certain ingredients. Enzymes can also be effective in improving digestibility of fiber and antinutritional properties.”

Dogs and cats differ in their needs for protein, fat and fiber. Todd East, DVM, veterinary affairs director for Mars Petcare’s Royal Canin North America, McLean, Va., said while it is important to choose a highly digestible protein for both cats and dogs, as carnivores cats require a higher level of protein than dogs.

Traditionally, it’s been assumed that cats need protein and amino acids from meat and animal sources with a prevalent belief that plant-based proteins are less digestible, Adolphe said. Yet, ADM did research through a partnership with the University of Illinois to see how well cats could digest plant and yeast-based ingredients, and Adolphe said this research found such ingredients, including soybean hulls, are an effective fiber source for cats as well as dogs.

“This scientific evidence allows manufacturers to expand their pantry of potential ingredients when formulating foods and treats for adult cats and dogs,” Adolphe said.

Both canines and felines benefit from fiber in their diets, but they process it differently considering cats are carnivores and dogs are omnivores. Royal Canin offers fiber-enhanced gastrointestinal diet products, with a canine formulation recommended for fiber-responsive colitis. The company’s gastrointestinal fiber response feline diet is not a high-fiber diet but rather uses psyllium for stool softening.

“No one likes to have to deal with sloppy stools, so helping pets have a solid stool is very appealing to most people from a sanitation perspective,” said Renee Streeter, DVM, BSM Partners.

When it comes to fat, dogs experiencing diarrhea benefit from a low-fat diet like Royal Canin’s Veterinary Diet Gastrointestinal Low-Fat products, East said. However, he noted dietary fat does not have a significant impact on feline diarrhea. A low-fat diet is often used to manage canine pancreatitis, but cats generally don’t require such a diet. Instead, cats with pancreatitis are likely to be experiencing other issues that would benefit from a highly digestible gastrointestinal diet like Royal Canin’s Gastrointestinal Feline diet.


Developing innovative ingredients

BSM Partners works with its clients to create highly digestible diets and supplements with functional ingredints in the right balance. Streeter said these ingredients include prebiotic fibers, probiotics and postbiotics.

In addition to using those ingredients in the right portion, BSM Partners also looks at the whole diet and the digestibility of macronutrients including protein, fat and carbohydrates. Fat, for example, can be challenging for dogs to digest, so keeping the fat moderate or low in the diet can help with overall digestive health, Streeter said. BSM also conducted research that shows grain-inclusive and grain-free dog diets have no negative impact on digestibility.

ADM offers a variety of pre-, pro- and postbiotics, including its DE-CA9 probiotic that improves protein and lipid metabolism.

GREENIES digestive supplement for dogs

GREENIES’ digestive health supplement soft chews contain a blend of pro-, pre- and postbiotics to help improve stool quality and support a healthy digestive system. 

| Source: The GREENIES Brand

Plant components and extracts including pumpkin, ginger root and turmeric can also be beneficial to the intestinal tract, Adolphe said. ADM offers Fibersol as a prebiotic soluble dietary fiber to support healthy digestion that can be used in applications from treats to kibble. Beta-glucans from the cell walls of the company’s Versity dried yeast also provide a source of soluble fiber for cats and dogs.

St. Louis-based GREENIES, also a Mars Petcare brand, offers a digestive health supplement soft chew with a blend of pro-, pre- and postbiotics to support a healthy digestive system and stool quality. The brand also offers a Digestive Probiotic Supplement Powder for dogs that also supports immune health.

Overall, having a robust fiber blend is important for digestive health as different fibers function differently, East said.

“Supporting healthy microbiome results in short chain fatty acid production, which can assist in intestinal health and help regulate immune function,” East said. “Less fermentable fibers, like beet pulp, pea fiber, psyllium and cellulose, can help support healthy stool quality and regularity.”

Overall, feeding studies by food companies are a useful measure of a food’s digestibility and demonstrate what percentage of a food’s nutrients are available to the pet, Streeter said.

“Total digestibility of a pet diet should be at least 80% but many highly digestible diets may be over 90% digestible,” Streeter said.


Continuing to develop the market

Increasing awareness among pet owners of why digestibility is important will be critical going forward, Wizen said. More transparency regarding claims on packaging is also important to help reveal the product’s true digestive benefits. She said this is especially crucial to disclose if the product was produced in a way that truly promotes digestibility.

Cooper & Friends insect-inclusive pet treats

Cooper & Friends’ line of functional dog treats include human-grade protein, such as salmon, and are produced using a gentle process that preserves nutrients from protein, vegetables and supplements.

| Source: Jim Greipp Pau Hana Productions

More scientific research is also needed to drive the market for digestive health products in the future.

“The science of digestive health as it pertains to the microbiome is still in its infancy, though we are learning so much all the time,” Streeter said. “As we begin to understand what a healthy microbiome is, we can begin to manipulate it for the best outcome.”

East agreed with the need for further understanding of the microbiome.

“There is a lot we can learn from genetics and identifying biomarkers that will help us to optimize the nutritional formulation based on the DNA of the cat or dog,” East said. “We are still learning about the complexities of the gastrointestinal microbiome of cats and dogs and how to best maintain a healthy gut with prebiotic fibers and other functional nutrients.”

Read more about product development, ingredients and formulation.