The pandemic induced lockdown drove a spurt of pet adoption across the world, including India. Indeed, one of Marcellus’ portfolio companies Nestle has launched its pet foods brand Purina to cater to this growing demand. But pets have been around for longer and have been fed home food or table scraps. It is only in recent times, at least in India, that pet owners are more conscious about what they are feeding their pets and are driving demand for pet food. This piece in The Guardian talks about the research that goes into making pet foods, which is now a $150bn industry globally.

The largest pet food company today is Mars, a privately held business more known for its chocolates but today derives majority of its revenues from petfoods, well north of $20bn.

The article talks about Mars’ R&D centre in the British Midlands and the kind of research that goes into petfood:

“The Waltham Petcare Science Institute in Melton Mowbray is the science arm of Mars Petcare…

The research that takes place there determines the future products of dozens of pet food brands: Iams, Cesar, Whiskas, Sheba, James Wellbeloved, Pedigree, Eukanuba and more.

About a third of the staff at Waltham work in its research labs. The other two-thirds are dedicated to feeding, training, exercising and maintaining the living spaces of the real stars of the show: the 200 dogs and 200 cats that live at Waltham and test the products developed there….Each day, they eat two meals, and from there, teams of behaviourists, statisticians and nutritionists study how they respond to the food. Each bowl is protected with a cat flap activated by a specific animal’s microchip, so each dog or cat can freely access its own food, but can not eat food meant for another animal. The bowls are equipped with electronic balances so researchers can track things like how fast the animals ate their food, or if they paused during eating. Like professional athletes, these dogs and cats wear monitors that track their vitals. All of them have had their DNA sequenced, and their quarters are under video surveillance, with staff closely monitoring them for any variations in behaviour or appetite.”

So what kind of research goes into developing petfood?

“Waltham opened at a time when veterinarians in the UK were seeing a lot of dogs and cats with vitamin D deficiencies and rickets. The centre has always focused on nutrition, and it was at Waltham that scientists made a number of discoveries that have shaped the composition of pet food throughout the world. It’s possible you’ve spotted chicory root or chicory extract on the ingredient list of some pet food or another. That came about after Waltham researchers demonstrated, in 1997, the prebiotic digestion benefits of the nutrient-dense fibre. All cat food now includes taurine, an amino acid critical for heart function, vision and digestion that cats cannot produce naturally – and it was at Waltham, in the 1980s, that researchers determined the levels required in dry and wet food.

This research extends beyond mere nutrition. In the 1990s, Mars scientists developed the first nutritional supplement to make dog farts less odorous. And today, a major part of the research at Waltham is about how to make healthy food actually taste good to pets. “If they won’t eat it, they won’t get the nutrients they need,” Darren Logan, vice-president of research at the Mars Advanced Research Institute and Global Food Safety Centre, told me. He equated the process to adding soy sauce to plain noodles – the soy sauce doesn’t add much nutritional value, but it entices you to finish your meal.

In 2005, Waltham scientists, in conjunction with the Monell Chemical Senses Centre in Philadelphia, discovered that cats do not have taste receptors for sugar. They tend to go for umami and kokumi – a taste of fullness and richness that flavour scientists purport to be the sixth taste after sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami. “Cats, as it turns out, have a very similar palate to what Asian cuisine is based around,” said Logan. (While Mars can’t go into detail about how that information translates into the products you see on supermarket shelves, the flavour profiles that the team at Waltham came up with have recently found their way into the worldwide Whiskas brand.)

The enthusiasm of the Waltham cats and dogs as they eat a given product provides crucial data, but taste research goes far beyond this. Taste receptors are encoded in DNA, which means that scientists can use a particular animal’s DNA sequence to see which flavours it will respond to. As with humans, dogs and cats’ palates vary. Building individual taste profiles offer answers when some pets don’t respond well to certain foods: if only one or two cats out of a panel of 40 seem to dislike what they’re tasting, researchers can look at their taste profiles and determine which specific flavour in the product is causing the cat’s aversion. The goal isn’t to develop a food that will please every cat, but one that will appeal to most.”

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