"They’ve got as many Ph.D.s and doctorates on staff as any of the pharmaceutical companies," says Dr. Katy J. Nelson, an emergency veterinarian who works on pet nutrition. "They’re trying to make a product that is going to be the sole thing that these animals are going to survive on, so they have to make sure they have everything in there that could possibly be needed to sustain life and enhance the well-being of these animals."
Finding the Right Recipe
It can take years for a new cat food to progress from a concept to a food you can buy at your local pet store. In addition to keeping up with the latest nutrition and scientific research, pet food makers also work with cat owners to explore what would best meet the needs of particular cats, beyond the basics. "Getting the idea is the easy part," says Nelson. "Developing the food and making it into a great product is the hard part."
Dr. Amy Dicke, a Dayton, Ohio-based veterinarian who has worked with teams of nutritionists and researchers agrees: "Innovative nutrition starts with research."
Here is a rundown on the different stages of developing a new cat food:
1. Formula Development
Cat food formulas have their beginnings with research teams of nutritionists, behaviorists and veterinarians, says Dicke. During this stage, raw ingredients are evaluated for functional qualities, nutrient availability and digestibility.
2. Product and Process Development
Many factors can affect formulas for cat food, such as cooking temperature, cooking duration and even the order in which ingredients are added, says Dicke. Cat food makers will produce small sample quantities of test formulas in their laboratories and make adjustments to find the best combination of production efficiency, production capability and nutritional enhancement for every formula.
An expert team of chemists, biologists, microbiologists and lab technicians evaluates the test cat food formula for proper levels of nutrients.
4. Palatability Testing
"Even the most nutritious pet food is worthless if the dog or cat won’t eat it," says Dicke. During this stage, cat food formulas are by cat "taste-testers." Instead of primarily relying on pets in research setting, some pet food makers now recruit cats for palatability testing in their own home environment.
5. Digestibility Testing
Researchers don’t stop after determining which cat food is more palatable to cats. They also test to understand how much of the nutrients is absorbed by the body. "This tells us how well the formula’s nutrients are retained and how well they contribute toward the health and well-being of the pet," says Dicke.
Before new cat foods are sold, they must be complete and balanced and meet the nutritional adequacy expectations of the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), which regulates pet food labeling in the United States.
Pet food makers are always looking for volunteers to help test foods. "A lot of companies feel like home usage gives you more realistic information about how pets are going to do on this diet, because it incorporates the stresses of everyday life – both good and bad," says Nelson.