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How Cat Food Is Made and Tested

By Elizabeth Wasserman

How Cat Food Is Made and Tested

Before your favorite quality cat food gets to your pet’s bowl, it goes through a complex development process, during which pet food researchers, nutritionists and scientists figure out the best recipes.

“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.

3. Analysis
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.

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.

Elizabeth Wassermana Washington, D.C., area-based freelancer, has been writing about pets, among other topics, for more than 15 years. Her love of dogs, in particular, was handed down through the generations from her great-grandfather, Eric Knight, who wrote the book Lassie Come Home in the 1930s.

Tags: cat food

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Posted on April 30, 2012

Mark says: Feed your cat dry cat food. Eating the crunchy food will help rub off any plquae that has accumulated on the teeth and will exercise the gums. Also, you can buy your cat toys that are made of a louffa-like material. It's a very rough texture, but cats love biting down on it. Unlike dogs, most cats won't tolerate having their teeth brushed, but you might see if your cat will play with you with an old toothbrush. If the cat is having fun, he won't notice that something is happening that he wasn't asked about! My cat tries to bite down on her brush that I use on her coat. It's a pretty stiff brush too, so you would think she wouldn't like it, but she does.

Posted on March 28, 2012

AJ says: I don’t trust a lot of brands after all the recalls and information that has come out about melamine, etc. Sure a company can test before they sell it but how do we know it’s really safe? Natural Balance has a program on their website where you can enter the bag you bought and double-check that the batch is free of contaminants. That’s why I will only buy this brand.

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