"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."
Here’s how the dog food manufacturing process often goes, from start to finish:
Find the Right Dog Food Recipe
It can take years for a new dog 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 dog owners to explore what would best meet the needs of particular dogs, 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."
Adds Dr. Amy Dicke, a Dayton, Ohio-based veterinarian who has worked with teams of nutritionists and researchers: "Innovative nutrition starts with research."
Here’s how the different stages of developing a new dog food usually progress:
Dog food formulas have their beginnings with research teams that include nutritionists, behaviorists and veterinarians, says Dicke. During this stage, raw ingredients are evaluated for functional qualities, nutrient availability and digestibility.
Product and Process Development
Many factors can affect formulas for dog food, such as cooking temperature, cooking duration and even the order in which ingredients are added, says Dicke. Dog 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 dog food formula for proper levels of nutrients.
"Even the most nutritious pet food is worthless if the dog or cat won’t eat it," says Dicke. During this stage, dog food formulas are tested by dog taste-testers. Instead of primarily relying on pets in a research setting, some pet food makers now recruit dogs for palatability testing in their own home environment.
Researchers don’t stop after determining which dog food is more palatable to dogs. They also test to understand how much of the nutrients in the food are 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 dog 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 in-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.