Possums on the menu for pets

Animal welfare groups are placing increased pressure on the government to follow the state of New South Wales’ lead in attempting to ban greyhound racing. Because of the prevalence and competitive nature of racing, there’s often an excess of former racing dogs in need of a loving home. Here are some reasons why these dogs make magnificent pets:

Possums are becoming more than road kill, with pet food companies helping to make a dent in the pest's population while also doing companion animals a favour.

Low in fat and high in omega fatty acids, possum meat has not been on many pets' menus - which is exactly why it is suitable for use in pet foods as a "novel protein" less likely to cause allergic reactions.

Pets fed a single type of food over a long period of time can develop intolerances, either to additives in the food or just the type of protein. Symptoms can include rashes, itchiness and fur loss, or gastro-intestinal disturbances such as vomiting and diarrhoea.

Possum processor Bruce Dawson of Dawson Furs, who has been in the pest-culling business for more than 30 years, says feeding pets possum meat is a healthy and environmentally friendly alternative to more common foods.

"Possum meat is chemical-free and disease-free and is taken from areas that don't have fertiliser applied to them - so it is getting pretty close to being organic," Dawson says.

"On top of that, it has the highest concentrations of omega fatty acids of any other protein source other than fish."

High levels of omega are good for animals' skin and coats and Dawson jokes: "There must be something in it because some of the guys who've been living on it for years come out of the bush pretty hairy."

Dawson Furs, based in Whakatane, processes around 4 tonnes of possum meat a week, which accounts for around 2500 of the furry pests. A larger number - some 14,000 possums a week - are processed for fur only. That's more than 800,000 possums a year just through one processor.

"It's a really good source of revenue for everyone involved," Dawson says.

Possums are trapped throughout the North Island from TB-free areas and where no poison has been dropped. Hunters and trappers contracted to Dawson also "wild harvest" other meats such as deer, goat, hare, rabbit and wallaby (there is a huntable population around Tarawera, near Rotorua), and Dawson hopes to bring turkey on-line soon too.
Landcare Research estimates the current possum population to be around 30 million animals, down from 48 million in 2009 and more than 60 million in the 1980s.

"There are not many areas now where possums are actually killing vegetation, unlike 30 or 40 years ago. The bush has changed a lot too from the animals' browsing - there are a lot more unpalatable species [of plant] now," Dawson says. "The number of possums has definitely reduced, through some pretty serious killing programmes over the last 20 or 30 years."

However, with the announcement of the government's Predator Free 2050 goal, which aims to eliminate rats, stoats and possums from New Zealand in the next 34 years, the writing is potentially on the wall for the fur and meat industry - especially with a potential increase in poisoning campaigns rather than hunting and trapping.

Dawson Furs supplies the majority of the possum meat used by Bombay Petfoods in its Purely Pets range of frozen foods, as well as supplying rabbit and hare meat. Bombay produces frozen possum patties, high in protein and low in fat compared with beef and lamb products, says general manager Dave Allan.

"Possum is a novel protein, which means it's different from other proteins an animal might have eaten before, so if they have developed allergies to other, more common proteins these are a good option," says Allan. "Possum's low fat content means it is a good choice for overweight animals."

Allan says another advantage of possum meat is the environmental benefit of aiding the elimination of a pest species: "It ties in with what we are doing with Kiwis for Kiwi, supporting our natural environment and wildlife."

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