Development of Pet Foods

Each pet food manufacturer has its own procedure for developing a new product or modifying a current brand. This section describes basic procedures that any manufacturer may utilize in developing a product.

The Idea

This can come from a number of sources. It may be a new manufacturing technique found in the laboratory, a market research department concept or a nutritional improvement. Before ideas are implemented, they are often tested with consumers in a couple of ways. The first step is qualitative market research. An example of this kind of testing is called focus groups. This test exposes a small number of consumers to product ideas or concepts to gauge their interest and get input on how to refine the idea. The second stage of idea testing is quantitative research in which concepts scoring well in the first test are further developed and exposed to a much larger sample of consumers. Participants are questioned about their interest in purchasing the product and what they like and don't like about the idea. This data can be compared to data on other ideas which have been tested in a similar way to gauge whether it is an above or below average concept.

Product Prototype

From these sessions the most promising ideas are selected for further development. Product prototypes are then produced either by machine or by hand if equipment does not exist for the new type of product. Initially, these can vary in regard to ingredients, nutritional content, color, texture, shape and other physical characteristics.

Feeding Tests

After the prototype selection, a series of studies begins. The number and type of studies conducted depends upon the nature of the product being developed and the claims it will carry. For example, claims of "complete and balanced nutrition for maintenance of the adult cat" does not require the reproduction and growth tests needed for claims of "complete and balanced nutrition for all life stages." Rather it requires a 6-month study in adult animals.


Palatability studies utilize an appropriate testing procedure to determine which food is most acceptable to the dog or cat. This is critical because an animal must eat the product in order to obtain the necessary nutrition. Palatability of the food is influenced by the formula, ingredient quality and the mouth feel of the particle.

The formula, or the kind and amount of the ingredients used, determines to a great extent the taste of the finished product. Cats, on the other hand, may find high-fat foods less palatable than foods with more moderate fat levels.

The nose and taste buds of cats are quite sensitive and can detect differences in the quality of ingredients used in pet foods. Generally speaking, a formula using low quality, overcooked or scorched, spoiled or severely rancid ingredients does not give the most desirable taste and may cause reduced intake or complete rejection of the food. Reputable manufacturers adhere to specifications which ensure high-quality ingredients are purchased and used in the production of their products.

Although many pet owners may not be aware of this fact, mouth feel is important in determining the relative palatability of the food. Mouth feel is influenced by the texture, density, size, shape and other physical properties of the particles. For example, a dry pet food that turns very mushy and soft when water is added is not as palatable for the average cat as a dry food that retains a crunchy texture when moisture is added. Mouth feel is one of the reasons dry pet foods come in a variety of shapes.

Although testing foods for palatability can be done in a number of different ways, these tests are generally similar in a number of ways. Adult cats, sometimes of different breeds, are used to determine food preferences. Each animal is fed individually and offered a choice of two diets in the same-size bowls. Each bowl contains more food than the animal will eat; otherwise, it will consume all the preferred diet and still be hungry enough to eat a portion of the less-preferred food. The amount of each food consumed is recorded daily. This type of test design allows the determination of the overall relative palatability of each food, whether the animals' preference shifted over the course of the four-day test and the number of animals which preferred each ration. The size and length of this experiment should be designed to yield statistically significant results. The bowls of food are switched each day to make certain that the animal is not a "position eater." (Some cats eat from only the right or left-hand bowl without regard to the kinds of food offered.)

A new product or a product that has been significantly modified with regard to new or differing amounts of ingredients is not only initially tested several times but may also be subject to a storage test for up to one year. This test determines if the palatability of the product changes over time under typical storage conditions.

Digestion Studies

Digestibility is a measure of a food's nutritional value. Unlike testing done to determine nutritional adequacy of foods, the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) has not established a protocol specifically for digestion testing. As a result, pet food companies use different procedures which vary in length and methodology. This makes it difficult to directly compare digestibility values from different manufacturers.

Regardless of the exact test methodology, digestion testing addresses two important factors in the nutritional value of a food: the amount of nutrients in the product, and the availability of those nutrients for the animal's use.

The nutrient level together with the digestibility percentage determine the actual amount of the nutrient the dog or cat puts to use. As an example, a dog food that contains 21 percent protein with 85 percent digestibility would provide nearly the same amount of protein to the animal as a diet containing 23 percent protein with a 77.6 percent digestibility.

EXAMPLE: 21g protein/100g diet x 0.85 = 17.5g protein
23g protein/100g diet x 0.776 = 17.8g protein

Digestion studies involve an adjustment period during which the diet is fed and animals become accustomed to it. This is followed by a collection period during which time, the following information is obtained:

  • total amount of food consumed
  • assay of the food for specific nutrients
  • total amount of fecal material
  • assay of the fecal material for the same nutrients as measured in the food

The digestibility of a nutrient is calculated by subtracting the amount of the nutrient found in the stool from the total amount of the nutrient the animal consumed. To illustrate, if a dog ate 100 grams of protein and 15 grams of protein were found in the fecal material, the protein digestibility of the food would be 85 percent.

Nutritional Studies

In the section "Understanding Pet Food Labels," the methods are outlined that a pet food manufacturer can use to declare a food nutritionally complete and balanced for dogs or cats. The following sections discuss the protocol for the animal test procedures developed by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO).

Reproduction Studies

The purpose of reproduction or breeding studies is to determine if the food has the correct amount and balance of nutrients cats need during the nutritionally demanding periods of gestation and lactation.

In reproduction studies, two similar groups of brood females are used. A minimum of eight cats are assigned to each group. Each group, those fed the control diet and those fed the test diet, are the same breeds, are similar in age and have given birth to a similar number of litters. The control diet is a product already proven to be 100% complete and balanced for reproduction and has given normal reproductive performance in past feeding trials.

All breeding stock are housed under the same conditions, eat from the same-size bowl, are fed at the same time and receive the same care and medication. Pen size, the opportunity to exercise and all management factors are the same except for the food in the bowl. The test starts prior to the time the females are bred. From that time until the kittens are six weeks of age they eat only the test or control diet plus water. No vitamins, minerals, meat or other supplements are added.

During a reproduction study, a number of observations are made and recorded. These include:

  • Daily food intake of each female and kittens
  • Weekly body weight of the brood female
  • Body weight of the young at birth and every week until the end of test
  • Number and sex of young born and weaned
  • Physical examination of the female and young
  • Blood chemistry profiles
  • Any unusual factors such as changes in health

Because all brood queens do not come into heat at the same time, this test requires 12 to 18 months to complete. The test ends when all litters of cats are six weeks of age. For a test diet to be successful, the performance results from the animals on this diet as measured by the data indicated above must be equal to or better than those of the control food. If the performance is not as good, the test diet is reevaluated in an effort to determine what may have occurred.

Growth Tests

Kittens are growing rapidly during their first year of life. This growth requires adequate nutrients and energy to occur normally. The purpose of a growth test, therefore, is to determine whether the food will support the normal growth of kittens after weaning.

For a growth study, litters of kittens from queens in the test diet group of the reproduction study are divided as equally as possible by sex and weight into two lots. Each lot must contain eight kittens each. One lot is fed a control diet of known performance, and the other lot eats the same test diet as fed during the reproduction study. This test starts at six weeks of age and lasts a minimum of ten weeks.

During the test period, the following observations are made:

  • Weekly body weight of kittens
  • Daily food intake of kittens
  • Physical examination
  • Blood chemistry profiles
  • Any unusual factors such as changes in health

As in the reproduction study, kittens on the test diet must perform as well as or better than their litter mates on the control diet. If the results from both the reproduction and growth studies are positive, the food can be labeled "complete and balanced nutrition for all life stages."

Maintenance Tests

A maintenance study determines if the food will maintain normal health and body condition in adult cats. Adult cats with normal activity do not require as high a level, per pound of body weight, of protein, energy, vitamins, minerals and other nutrients as does a growing kitten or pregnant and lactating queen. Consequently, if a diet is designed solely for maintenance, the nutrient levels can be lower.

During a maintenance test, eight adult cats are fed the test diet only, plus water, for a minimum testing period of 26 weeks. No other supplements are used. During the test period, the following observations are made:

  • Daily food intake
  • Body weight
  • Physical examination
  • Blood chemistry profiles
  • Any unusual factors such as changes in health

At the end of the test, individual cats must have maintained their original body condition, had no significant variation in body weight and shown no other abnormal factor that may be due to diet. If this test is successful, the food can be labeled "complete and balanced nutrition for maintenance of the adult cat." This means that the product is not recommended for feeding the growing, pregnant and lactating animal.

Product Development

During the time the animal tests are being conducted, many other activities necessary for product development occurs. New equipment for products and packaging, if needed, are being designed and developed, at least on a pilot scale. Package size, design, and copy, as well as product name, are being developed.

Consumer research also continues during the development of the actual product. To obtain more pet owner reaction, a Blind In-home Test may be conducted. In this test the pet owner is given sufficient food to feed his/her cat for several days. A reaction from both the pet and the owner is obtained. If all factors are favorable, development continues. The final consumer testing which may occur is called a Simulated Market Test, in which consumers are exposed to the product through something similar to a print advertisement. If the consumer shows interest in purchasing the product, they are given a sample to take home and use with their pet. A follow-up questionnaire measures the consumer's acceptance of the product, whether they would purchase the product again and, if so, what product would it replace. Data from this test is used to do a financial analysis and, obtain a projection of sales volume. This information is extremely valuable in the decision to launch a new product.

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