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Nutritious and healthy pet food is something we all want for our pets, but it’s really important that they also enjoy their food. Therefore, a critical part of formulating and developing new recipes is making sure that the new food is tasty. We want dogs and cats to be excited at mealtimes and keen to eat their dinner!
However, taste is only one factor that affects how palatable a food is. Dogs and cats also rely on olfaction (smell), texture, shape and the temperature of food before they decide if they like it or not. For example, studies show that neither dogs nor cats particularly like sticky foods but yet generally both show a preference for wet food over dry. Cats in particular can form strong preferences for the texture of food, which can happen when they are very young. This can create finicky adult cats that have never been exposed to different textures of food as kittens. Some pet foods contain colourings to make the food appeal visually to the owner, so far there are no studies to suggest that colour makes any difference to food preference of dogs or cats.
The water content of food does seem to play a part with both dogs and cats preferring moist food over dry. Adding water to dry food can increase palatability (and water consumption) for some pets but there are others that will refuse to eat it this way.
Higher protein diets- those with a higher percentage of meat or fish are favoured by dogs and cats (cats especially like diets that contain liver) but the freshness of a diet is important especially when it comes to fish. Interestingly, with the increase in raw diets at the moment when given a choice it seems that most pets prefer cooked food over raw, however if it’s overcooked this can put them off.
Some pet food companies add ingredients specifically designed to increase palatability of dry food. These are called ‘digests’ or ‘palatants’ and come in a dry or liquid form. The dry kibble is coated with the palatant (and sometimes oil or fat), which can be vegetable, yeast or meat based. The quality of the palatant varies greatly, with premium palatants costing more to produce. However, diets that use high quality ingredients should be tasty enough without the need to add these flavour enhancers.
With all these factors to consider when developing a new food, it is important to test palatability before launching a new diet and there are several different ways to do this. Some pet food companies will use kennelled dogs or cats. There are benefits to this method, for example it tends to be more accurate as there are no family members to feed extras and no other pets to push in and steal the food! And kennelled animals are used to a wide variety of flavours and textures which means they tend to be less fussy. However, we prefer pets to try our food in their familiar own-home environment and we only use willing volunteers - either staff pets or clients that come into our in-house Vet’s Klinic. This type of taste-testing means that we only use family pets, and we are able to get ‘real-life’ feedback rather than data from kennelled animals that taste new foods day in, day out. We can also get the owners perspective on how excited their cat or dog is to eat the new food.
There are two types of consumption tests: the single bowl acceptance test and the two-bowl (or two-pan) acceptance test. When we tested our Ultra Fresh cat food, we used the two-bowl approach. Two bowls are offered to the cat simultaneously. One bowl contains the cat’s current food, and the other bowl contains the new food - that up until this point they had not seen, smelled or tasted before. Each bowl contains the same amount of food and after a set period of time the remaining food is measured to see which bowl the cat ate more food from, this is called ‘intake ratio’. The other measures recorded during this approach is for the owner to report which bowl the cat approached first (even if they didn’t eat from it) - this is called ‘first approach’ and then which bowl they ate from first, which is ‘first choice ratio’.
At Vet’s Kitchen we only use willing volunteers to taste test our food in their own home. Before we launched our Ultra Fresh Adult cat food, we were pretty sure it was going to be tasty, but to be sure we recruited 40 willing volunteers from our own in-house practice Vet’s Klinic… the empty bowls speak for themselves!
See our tasters in action below.