I became a mom for the first time this year—a dog mom, that is. In January, I adopted my first dog, a 1-year-old black lab/dachshund mix named T-Rex. (He has a huge head, a long body, and tiny, stumpy legs; he is perfect, thank you.)
As any new parent, pet or otherwise, can attest, I immediately got plunged into a whole slew of new questions and confusing situations, with lots and lots of corresponding targeted ads on social media telling me to buy one thing or the other. One of the most surprisingly difficult tangles to sort through seems, at first glance, pretty simple: What the heck do I feed this little guy?
Turns out one of the answers might be bugs. Ground-up bugs, to be exact. Not only are they pretty good for Rex—they might be one of the best options for the planet.
Like a lot of people, I came into 2021 with a goal to eat less meat, so it was weird to be making veggie burgers for myself to try and cut down on my personal carbon footprint while simultaneously giving this new critter in my life heaping helpings of beefy kibble. My instincts were right; pet food, it turns out, is a bigger environmental problem than many people realize. There’s an estimated 163 million cats and dogs in the U.S., and their diets really add up. One UCLA study estimated that pet food was responsible for 25% to 30% of all the environmental impacts of meat production in the U.S., including water and land use, and emits up to 64 million tons of greenhouse gases per year.
And all those fancy dog foods I started getting Instagram ads for—which promise “human-grade” food, “prime” cuts of meat, or even fresh meal delivery kits—could actually be making things worse. Dogs are omnivores and can get their protein from a lot of different sources. Some theories speculate that wolves with higher starch tolerance who could live off human scrap piles were the ancestors of our modern friends. Yet sales of “premium” pet food with fancy proteins have dominated the industry over the past decade. The trend is so extreme that the author of the UCLA study speculated that increased emphasis on fancy meats for pets could actually offset the climate and land use benefits of some of the dietary changes humans are making by creating more demand for the prime, human-grade cuts of chicken and beef.
That’s where crickets come in. Bugs like crickets, mealworms, and grubs have long been consumed by cultures around the world. Crickets are chock-full of protein, fats, and other nutrients, and use substantially fewer resources than animal agriculture. The World Health Organization has said that insects have “huge potential” to alleviate global food insecurity in the coming decades. Westerners are still dragging their feet over the idea of eating bugs. I hate to say it, but I kind of get it. Even though I’m an adventurous eater, I’m not totally sure if I’d want to get my main protein sources from crickets. But my dog happily eats the same thing every day and doesn’t know his ass from his elbow—why shouldn’t he eat a gross yet sustainable and healthy protein?
This philosophy is also what motivated Anne Carlson, the founder and CEO of Jiminy’s, which makes cricket-based dog food and treats, to start exploring feeding bugs to dogs.
“If you think about a person, even if you make a food they really love, they’re only going to eat it once in a while because we eat so many different foods,” she said. “But if you think about a dog, they get their food, and if they’re lucky, they get treats.”
Changing one little thing about that constant food source, she explained, can make a big difference. Building on past peer-reviewed research that showed crickets could be a good source of protein for dogs, Carlson began working with the Association of American Feed Control Officials, a membership association that helps the FDA set standards for pet food, to verify that crickets were safe for pooches to eat and produce several studies. Both crickets and black fly soldier larvae protein—which the company calls “grubs”—were approved earlier this year. The end result is Jiminy’s treats and food, which are made with insects as their main protein source. According to the company’s “eco-calculator,” switching a 40-pound (18-kilogram) dog like Rex from his chicken-based food to Jiminy’s could save 383,883 gallons of water a year and the equivalent emissions of driving more than 500 miles (805 kilometers). (Switching from a beef-based food has around ten times the impact.)
It’s good for the environment and good for my dog—but would he like it? I was curious about how Rexie’s life would change (or not) on a bug-based diet, and Jiminy’s was kind enough to send me a box of kibble and treats so we could give it a test.
I’ll come clean here and let you all know that Rex doesn’t exactly have the most discerning palate. I know that there are pets out there who are picky about what they eat, but Rex is the opposite—he’ll happily hoover down anything that his tiny walnut brain decides is “food.” Much like his noble wolf ancestors living next to human campsites in millennia past, Rex’s favorite pastime is eating trash off the sidewalk.
Still, I did my best to see how the cricket kibble—which, other than being a little chalky and on the grayish end of brown, seems like pretty standard dog food—held up to his current Purina chicken and rice dry food. In a very scientific taste test, I put a little bit of the cricket kibble in my right hand and some of his old food in my left. Even though his usual food has big, visible chunks of freeze-dried chicken mixed in, Rexie ate the crickets first—a win for Jiminy’s!—then the Purina. (Then he ate something else off the kitchen floor.)
With the initial taste tests out of the way, I set about following my vet’s instructions for transitioning Rex to a new food by slowly mixing in the Jiminy’s to his existing stuff in increasing increments over a few days. After a couple of days on an all-cricket diet, Rex is still happily gulping down the kibble at breakfast and dinner with no adverse side effects, digestive (you know what I mean) or otherwise.
The real winners from our Jiminy’s box, in our opinion, were the training treats. As new dog owners know, it’s pretty important with dogs in training to always leave the house armed with extremely tasty treats to adequately get your little idiot’s attention when you’re out in the big, distracting world. The stuff that works best tends to be fresh, soft, stinky, and not normal foods they get at mealtime; before Jiminy’s sent over their samples, I’d been using baked chicken shreds or little cubes of cheese.
I was taken aback when I opened a bag of Jiminy’s peas and sweet potato training treats. They’ve got molasses, garlic, and rosemary in them, so they smell... pretty meaty, which is definitely both strange and comforting. Carlson said that that specific smell was more for the human than the dog.
“Because our protein source is unusual, we wanted to make it easy for people to recognize, ‘oh, it looks like a normal treat, the food looks like normal food, it smells good to me, I’m not afraid of this,’” she said. “While the end consumer is the dog, you’ve got to get the human to actually buy it for them.”
Not that that good-for-humans smell is wasted on the dogs: Rex freaked out when I opened the bag. It became pretty clear that he’d do just about anything to get at one of those treats. A week in, he still goes apeshit when he figures out I’ve got the sweet potato or pumpkin bites—a reaction he hasn’t had to other brands of packaged meaty training treats. The treats are priced pretty competitively with similar goodies, so I’m probably going to keep buying them.
That last point is honestly the only reason I’m not a total cricket evangelist yet. When it comes to the kibble—the real environmental game-changer for Rexie’s diet—Jiminy’s is on the more expensive end of things. The 3.5-pound (1.6-kilogram) bag only lasted us a little over a week, and it’s more than $20. His old Purina food was roughly $1 per pound (0.45 kilograms). I might be up for reworking my budget to save the planet, but is that price point too high to sway enough users to make a difference?
Carlson said that the cricket powder is the most expensive component of Jiminy’s products, mostly because we’re still trying to figure out how best to farm crickets at an industrial scale. (“And, of course, it’s not subsidized like meat, which, ugh, drives me nuts,” she said.) Carlson anticipates that the industry will soon get more efficient, especially as more farms open up and techniques get honed. Other bug protein sources, like mealworms, are also starting to come on the market, which could help the industry really ramp up production and drive down costs.
It looks like the big brands are also catching on to the idea of varying up their proteins. Purina already owns one company that uses cricket protein (as well as invasive carp) to make dog food and began rolling out another cat-and-dog food line under the Purina name that uses black fly soldier larvae in Switzerland last November. In April, meanwhile, Mars Petcare launched an insect food for cats in the UK. In Carlson’s estimation, the more pets who switch to bug-based food, the merrier.
“We’re expecting there to be a lot more [competitors] over time, and great, I’m all for it,” Carlson said. “As long as we can make a difference here, I think there’s room for a lot more entrants.”