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How Pet Food Developers Whet Furry Appetites

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Untreated, a piece of dry kibble is largely flavorless. Made of various meals and fats and blended with wheat and soy grains to offer balanced nutrition for an animal’s body, it would fail to stir the interest of most domesticated pets. Dogs might eat it without enthusiasm; cats would let it grow stale on the floor. Indifferent to grains, they need some extra incentive to empty their bowls.

That’s where Nancy Rawson, Ph.D. comes in. The Associate Director of the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, Rawson is an expert in tastes and flavors relating to research palatants—additives that give bland foods their taste appeal—for both humans and animals alike.

“[Food companies] want to bring the pet to the bowl,” Rawson tells mental_floss. “Dog food companies are good at formulation, but look elsewhere for their flavor systems.”

A large part of the work of places pet food companies consult with--one, AFB International, was where Rawson worked from 2010 to 2016--is focused on developing coatings that will make pets enthusiastic. For cats, the results of a hit recipe might mean whining and weaving in between their owner's feet until dinner is served. For dogs, it might entail getting so excited that they eat too quickly and bring the food right back up.

“I wouldn’t say puke is a good sign,” Rawson says. “But it can mean dogs really like the food.”

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After subsisting on table scraps or the carcasses of dead livestock for thousands of years, domesticated dogs and cats started enjoying commercially produced canned food beginning in the 1920s. (Dog biscuits were invented in England in the mid-19th century, but only found favor in wealthier families.) The first canned food was Ken-L-Ration; those who opened a tin were likely to find wet food consisting largely of horse meat.

The demand for ready-to-serve dog food—cats were a minority interest for the companies at that time—grew so much that the Chappel brothers, owners of Ken-L-Ration, started breeding and slaughtering up to 50,000 horses a year for the purpose of putting their remains in cans. Horse meat became a less common ingredient by the 1940s, replaced with other kinds of meat, but with the outbreak of World War II, the rationing of both meat and tin meant that wet food in general grew scarce. Pet owners turned instead to the enormous stacks of dry kibble, which had first gone on sale in 1928 in 100-pound bags.

It was breakfast cereal that ushered in the modern age of marketable chow. In 1950, Ralston-Purina, which made both pet food and human-grade foods, developed an extrusion process in which they could shape their grains into air-puffed shapes that would hold up to submersion in milk. Purina’s dog food division took notice, spent three years tinkering with the extrusion machine, and then released Purina Dog Chow in 1957 to great acclaim. Easier to digest, with a fatty coating and texture made possible by extrusion, it marked the first time food companies treated a dog’s palate as worthy of consideration.

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With $22 billion in sales in 2014, pet food companies are using some exacting science and research to make sure their kibble is worth binging on. For that, they outsource to companies like AFB and Kemin, home to flavor experts who develop the palatants designed to appeal to a pet's appetite.

Because canines and felines are non-verbal, Rawson is an expert on using bowl tests to assess the appeal of various dry food palatants—made from chemical blends, soy, corn, and animal organs blended into powder or liquid form [PDF]—using bowl tests. (Wet food, while it can contain palatants, is often flavorful enough on its own.) Animals at AFB are presented with two different meals and measured on criteria such as how quickly they come to the bowl, which bowl they indulge in first, how long they take to empty it, whether they stop and come back, and in some cases, how much time they spend with their nose buried in food relative to how long the food was available. This metric, for dogs, is called the Nose in Bowl, or NIB, test [PDF].

“You kind of have to treat them like babies,” Rawson says. “They can’t respond in words, so you pay attention to their behaviors.”

Cats, Rawson says, are reliable addicts for polyphosphates, an additive that she likens to the salt humans pour over their food. Cats also prefer the easy breakage of X-shaped kibble over other shapes, meaning that fun extrusions aren’t just for human amusement. “Cats don’t have molars, so different shapes break into different sizes more easily.” X-shaped pellets are easier for them to chew.

Dogs, on the other hand, aren't nearly as choosy. “We did a study and found that dogs will eat the largest size of kibble, regardless of breed,” Rawson says. A more important goal in designing dog food, both in terms of palatants and food density, is cleaning the dog's teeth, as well as slowing them down so they don't eat too much at once.

“Dogs are pleasers,” she says. “They’ll eat a bowl of rocks if their owner puts it down in front of them. The palatants act as more of a preservative for the food.”

And while dogs focus on smell, the aroma coming from an open bag isn't strictly for them. When owners open a chicken or fish-flavored meal, Rawson says, a lot of that smell and presentation is meant as much for the human as their pet. If AFB indulged only in what drove dogs crazy, like compounds given off by decomposing protein, their owner would never buy a second bag.

“When you open a bag of chicken kibble, you want it to smell like chicken. The job of the palatants companies is, in a way, to serve two masters.”

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For pet food experts like Rawson, how food exits an animal is almost as important as how well it’s enjoyed on the way in. Dyed food, while festive for owners, turned out not to be such a good idea when your cat barfs up a rainbow on the carpet.

Palatants can also incorporate stool-hardening agents to make clean-up easier. Ever wonder what makes certain chow puppy-appropriate? Aside from calories, it’s partially an ability to reduce loose stools in younger dogs. Companies are "always trying to optimize stool volume,” she says. Reducing odor is also key, and certain formulations can do a better job of that than others.

Recently, the pet food conglomerates have been eyeing the growing demand for food that resembles human-grade servings. Purina now offers premium meals containing rotisserie chicken and filet mignon and employs a full-time pet food chef.

For Rawson, the movement into food that could conceivably co-exist on both a dog’s and owner’s plate isn't one worth embracing. “One of the fundamental problems is one of sustainability,” she says. “We’re diverting millions of tons of chicken meat into pet food that could be going to humans. Pets evolved eating guts. That’s what we should be using.”

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Smart Shopping
25 Dapper Outfit Choices for Fashionable Pets
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Lavishing your furry friends with adorable attire is a benefit of pet ownership that they don't mention on the adoption forms. Whether you prefer practical clothing like sweaters and jackets or statement pieces like bow ties and tutus, these dapper duds are perfect for a howl-iday or "gotcha day" gift, or simply for saying, "Who's the cutest little pupper in pajamas? You are!"

1. CASHMERE DOG SWEATER; FROM $165

dog in sweater
Canine Styles

This classic cable-knit cashmere sweater is a sophisticated look for Fido or Finn. Get it from Canine Styles, a luxury dog emporium in New York City that has plenty of posh and preppy outfits.

Find It: Canine Styles

2. TOGGLE DOG COAT; $85

dog in coat
Canine Styles

This toggle coat (available in orange, navy, and tan) is as fashionable as it is warm. Made of Melton wool, it has Velcro closures to make getting dressed easy. It's great for long walks in the country.

Find It: Canine Styles

3. DOG TUXEDO; FROM $90

Dog in tuxedo
Etsy

This satin tuxedo is perfect for the canine members of your wedding party, though it will brighten up any other occasion as well. The custom, handmade outfit comes complete with a snappy bow tie.

Find It: Etsy

4. DOG BELLE DRESS; FROM $45

Dog Belle Dress
Etsy

The queen of your castle can feel like a Disney princess in her very own version of Belle's iconic yellow dress from Beauty and the Beast. This ball gown is made from yellow crepe satin with chiffon overlay on the bodice and features hand-painted gold detailing on the skirt. Enchanted rose not included.

Find It: Etsy

5. POODLE SKIRT OUTFIT FOR DOGS; $26

Rubies Pink Fifties Girl Pet Costume
Amazon

What if you could buy a 1950s poodle skirt for your poodle? This retro dress is comprised of a pink poodle skirt, striped bodice, and sequined belt, and comes with a bow headband.

Find It: Amazon

6. RIBBED CROCHET BUNNY SWEATER; $25

bunny in a sweater
Etsy

Your snuggle-bunny will look like a little fancy-pants in this ribbed crochet sweater. Choose from seven colors, including this dashing deep red.

Find It: Etsy

7. BESPOKE MONOGRAM DOG SWEATER; FROM $155

Dog in sweater
Ruby Rufus

Bespoke clothing isn't just for humans: British luxury dog clothing brand Ruby Rufus will make your pooch a custom monogram sweater made with 100 percent Italian cashmere. You can even order it in your dog's favorite color.

Find It: Ruby Rufus

8. HOT PINK DOG TUTU; $17

Dog in hot pink tutu
Etsy

Tutus look absolutely adorable on tiny humans and animals alike. If your pooch wants to get in touch with its inner ballerina, then grab this hot pink number from Etsy. Rave reviews are a sure thing.

Find It: Etsy

9. PINK DOG POLO SHIRT; $35

Dog Pink Polo Shirt
Canine Styles

This pink polo shirt is perfect for your preppy fur baby. It features not one but a veritable multitude of crocodiles. They'll be the most dapper dog at the country club.

Find It: Canine Styles

10. DOG BARN COAT WITH BROWN CORDUROY COLLAR; $85

Dog in barn coat
Canine Styles

When it's time for a walk, your dog will look effortlessly chic in this fancy barn coat. It comes in navy, cranberry, orange, hot pink, and loden and features convenient pockets for anyone with opposable thumbs.

Find It: Canine Styles

11. WHITE PET NECK RUFF; $26

Pet Neck Ruff
Etsy

Your canine or kitty will look like their painting belongs in London's National Portrait Gallery with this Elizabethan neck ruff.

Find It: Etsy

12. CHICKEN SWEATER; $25

chicken wearing sweater
Etsy

Chickens can get cold when they're strutting around outside. A sweater (well, more like sweater vest) for your bird can also help prevent feather picking during molting season. Or, it can simply keep them warm while they stare pensively across a snowy landscape.

Find It: Etsy

13. PET CIRCLE SCARF; $15

dog in scarf
Etsy

An infinity scarf is a perfect burst of color on a dreary early morning walk. The proprietor of Mitten Made on Etsy originally designed this wool snood for her miniature Dachshund to help keep her warm during the long, cold winters in Michigan.

Find It: Etsy

14. FAB DOG TRAVEL RAINCOAT; FROM $18

Fab Dog Travel Raincoat
Chewy

This timeless yellow rain slicker will look great on any puppy when it's raining cats and dogs. It's made of 100 percent waterproof nylon shell that keeps fur dry. Bonus: It's perfect for an It Halloween costume.

Find It: Chewy

15. LACE CAT OR DOG COLLAR; FROM $10

cat in lace collar
Etsy

This handmade, white lace collar is a must-have for fancy felines. It's also embellished with a large rhinestone.

Find It: Etsy

16. FITWARM PENGUIN PAJAMAS FOR DOGS; FROM $10

Fitwarm Cute Penguin Xmas Dog Pajamas
Amazon

Keep your pupper warm on cold winter nights with these penguin PJs. They're great for doggie sleepovers or lazy weekends on the couch watching Netflix.

Find It: Amazon

17. PLAID CASHMERE DOG COAT; FROM $225

dog in plaid coat
Canine Styles

Your dog will look like a proper gentleman in this smart plaid peacoat. This fine garment is made of cashmere with a faux fur lining and leather buttons, and is a perfect shield against chill and fog.

Find It: Canine Styles

18. SATIN PET BOW TIE; FROM $8

Satin Bow Tie for Dog
Etsy

This satin doggie bow tie is perfect for any occasion. It comes in several colors and features a Velcro fastener that makes it easy to attach to a collar. Plus, 10 percent of every sale goes to charity: specifically to SPCA (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) and Feeding Pets of the Homeless.

Find It: Etsy

19. RED DOG DRESS; FROM $34

dog in dress
Etsy

Your good boy or girl will look red carpet-ready in this elegant gown. The voluminous tulle skirt is to die for, and each bow is embellished with beads. Custom orders are also available.

Find It: Etsy

20. DOG TIE; FROM $13

Dog tie
Etsy

Your pooch will be ready to stun at any black tie event. This tie is designed like a collar, making it easy to dress your four-legged friend. This Etsy store gives back: 10 perfect of all sales are donated to an animal protection association.

Find It: Etsy

21. NAUTICAL DOG DRESS WITH MATCHING LEASH; $20

Dog sailor dress
BaxterBoo

Perfect for a day on the town or setting sail in a schooner, this is the sailor outfit you never knew your best furry friend needed. This vintage throwback also comes with a matching leash.

Find It: BaxterBoo

22. TARTAN FLANNEL PET BOW TIE; $5.50

tartan pet bow tie
Etsy

Your dog or cat will turn heads in this flannel tartan bow tie. It has a convenient elastic loop that slides over your pup's collar.

Find It: Etsy

23. PUCCI DOG SHIRT; $23

dog in Pucci dog shirt
Etsy

Only the fanciest dogs wear, err, Pucci. Grab this punny "designer" t-shirt for your pup. This high-quality cotton statement piece is perfect for small breeds.

Find It: Etsy

24. PINK POLKA DOT AND LACE DOG HARNESS DRESS; $20

Pink Polka Dot and Lace Designer Dog Harness Dress
BaxterBoo

This feminine pink polka dot dress is simply adorable. It features a convenient built-in harness and comes with a matching leash.

Find It: BaxterBoo

25. PET SWEATER VEST; $6

pet sweater vest
Amazon

Your dog or cat will look like an erudite Oxford professor in this sweater vest. Note that the button on the pocket is shaped like a bone.

Find It: Amazon

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Animals
Switzerland Just Made It Illegal to Boil Live Lobsters
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No, lobsters don’t scream when you toss them into a pot of boiling water, but as far as the Swiss government is concerned, they can still feel pain. The path most lobsters take to the dinner plate is supposedly so inhumane that Switzerland has banned boiling lobsters alive unless they are stunned first, The Guardian reports.

The new law is based on assertions from animal rights advocates and some scientists that crustaceans like lobsters have complex nervous systems, making death by boiling incredibly painful. If chefs want to include lobster on their menus, they’re now required to knock them out before preparing them. Acceptable stunning methods under Swiss law include electric shock and the “mechanical destruction” of the lobster’s brain (i.e. stabbing it in the head).

The government has also outlawed the transportation of live lobsters on ice or in icy water. The animals should instead be kept in containers that are as close to their natural environment as possible until they’re ready for the pot.

Proponents of animal rights are happy with the decision, but others, including some scientists, are skeptical. The data still isn’t clear as to whether or not lobsters feel pain, at least in the way people think of it. Bob Bayer, head of the University of Maine’s Lobster Institute, told Mental Floss in 2014 that lobsters “sense their environment, but don’t have the intellectual hardware to process pain.”

If you live in a place where boiling lobsters is legal, but still have ethical concerns over eating them, try tossing your lobster in the freezer before giving it a hot water bath. Chilling it puts it to sleep and is less messy than butchering it while it’s still alive.

[h/t The Guardian]

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