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Grain based pet foods & artificial palatability may mask your dogs real food needs

supermarket grain dog food

supermarket grain dog food Palatability is the subjective pleasure than your dog or cat experiences in association with eating a food. And so it is the animal’s perception of the food based on its senses and memory and not based on the quality of the food (or if it is good for it).

Just like digesting large quantities of chocolate might make humans feel better in the short term, and it is highly palatable to most people, it is not necessarily the healthiest option. This article looks at the specifics of palatability and how many dogs and cats can be fooled into eating more than their fair share of food.

The goal of any food you feed your pet should be to provide optimal nutrition (for its species, age, breed, energy levels) and promote long term health benefits.

With so many glossy labels with bold claims and pretty pictures on them, it is hard to know how to evaluate your commercial dog or cat food, but the following may give you some idea.

The American Association Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) set the standards for dog and cat food in America and Australia (pretty much). They allow the phrase “complete and balanced” to be added to a pack when it meets their guidelines.

This “balance” means that in theory the food will contain all of the essential nutrients and energy levels required by the target animal. To gain such a  “complete and balanced” claim on a label, the manufacturer can meet one of two requirements. Either pass a series of AAFCO feeding trials or show that the food meets the minimum and maximum levels of nutrients defined by AAFCO.

You will meet many articles doubting the value of both the trials and the nutrient levels. Firstly the food trials often are on a small sample, over a short period, can exclude dogs that don’t do well on the food etc. The nutrient tables are also mostly trial and error, and often just try to mimic what a real dogs diet (meat, bone and offal) would provide. Of course a vet cannot easily sell raw meat on their racks, so the AAFCO and vet industries have a particular interest in ensuring  that products are easily sanctioned and sold.

One major concern the Dog nutrition bible’s authors have about commercial dog food is the claims that foods are made for either puppy, aged dogs or working dogs etc. Yes these manufactured foods are tweaked to allow for product diversification (like Coke making small and large bottles with slightly different flavours). And the leading brands do make commercial dog food with the dogs health as a priority. HOWEVER if all these different products are really required, you may wonder how have dogs and cats survived in the wild for all these centuries without these options?

I have written articles that looked both at the nutrients inherent in readily available meats, as well as how to feed a puppy on a raw meat diet. A natural meat diet far exceeds or minimum requirements. But at the end of the day, supermarket discount specials on bulk purchases and the convenience of a one stop shopping experience have for the last fifty years irrevocably changed a dogs diet, or at least what people feed them, not always for the better.

Dog food Palatability.

A natural meat and bones diet has it easy when it comes to palatability. Since this is the normal food a dog eats, meat doesn’t have to be tweaked to get a dog to eat it. And most dog breeds (except maybe labs) have a cut- off mechanism based on meats natural palatability level.

The difficulty with palatability comes in when dog food manufacturers try and create an adequate artificial diet based on grains or vegetables.

You see food must be acceptable to a pet for it to be eaten and deliver optimum nutrition. For a pet to gain the right daily intake of essential nutrients the quantity of the food eaten AND the concentration of available nutrients must be just right.

An unpalatable food will be rejected by your pet, and a palatable food may not have the right amount of essential nutrients. An overly palatable food, will encourage a dog or cat to eat more than it should and beg for more becoming obese. That is a pet may always seem hungry whether or not it has exercised, and eat all of the food put in front of it, and over eat, but is doing so not because of nutrient or energy requirements but because the artificial boost in palatability has it unnaturally crave more of the food – a food manufacturer’s dream.

Contrary to popular belief, dogs and cats are not capable of detecting specific nutrient deficiencies or imbalances in their diets and will continue to consume an imbalanced diet until physiological effects of the deficiency or excess cause illness or a reduction in food intake.” Ref 1

Why your dog loves grains and veggies.

Besides the fact that when you pick up a puppy and take it home you are their new parent and alpha dog, there are other reasons that dogs and cats will eat these sub-optimal foods. And this is besides all the other flavour enhancers and sugars being used to heighten a boring grains palatability.

Dog Food manufacturers will always aim to have grains or vegetables as the highest ingredient in their pet food, as it is incredibly cheaper per kilo than meat for them to buy. So besides you feeding your puppy or kitten pellets how could they make grains or vegetables more palatable?

A “two pan tests” assumes that greater consumption of one food over another is an indication of higher palatability, and so a more desirable commercial dog food (if you aim is to sell more dog food). Dog food manufacturers now realize that measuring an animals response to a food in regard to smell, taste, and texture are all important in getting them to eat more of their product. So they can keep tweaking their artificial foods, over decades, to get a dog to eat what it would not eat in the wild. How many wild dogs eat grains, carrots or peas? None.

“When presented with more than one food choice, cats first smell the foods and will preferentially consume the food with the most attractive odour, usually without tasting the less attractive food.”

Food selection has been shown to be majorly inflected by primacy and novelty affects.

The primacy effect is  “when an animal is fed a specific type or flavour of food for a long period of time (most commonly beginning at weaning) and the individual shows an enhanced preference for that food to the exclusion of novel foods.”  A novel food, just means a new different smelling/ tasting food. Perhaps this is why vets recommend very strongly that you start your pet on their favourite brand of pellets, as soon as you can?

This also may be the reason why dogs fed on a grain diet (pellets or cans) are more likely to eat white bread in the park than a dog fed mostly on meat. They recognise the white heavily processed bread as a normal part of their diet. It also means that when owners try to switch to a raw diet (and do it too quickly) that they mistakenly think that their pets are rejecting the meat or having bad reactions to it (such as gas). They assume that meat is bad for it. Whereas in fact this is just the dogs body getting used to its natural food, with a natural level of palatability.

Not convinced? “When the same experimenters fed foods of varying flavours and textures early in life, the dogs and cats showed increased acceptance of novel foods as adults.” Not something you want to have happen if you sell manufactured dog food. The novelty affect can also occur for dogs and cats fed on the same food for a long time, though this affect seems to be occur less and be transient.

How to make grains more palatable

If grains were a natural food source for dogs and cats, this would not be an issue. However pet food manufacturers, in order to pass off grains as dog food, have learned that palatability can be significantly increased by the way grains and veggies are cooked, processed and stored. “for example, the extrusion of grain starches imparts a desirable texture and to dry pet food kibbles.”

“Food palatability for dogs and cats is positively correlated with protein level. Animal source proteins are generally considered to be more palatable than plant source proteins. Although the extrusion process significantly increases palatability of plant based protein sources such as soybean.”

“Low quality pet foods may have a decreased palatability as a result of the inclusion of poor quality ingredients or harsh processing methods.” Ideally if you are going to feed your dog a commercial dog food based on grain (which they almost all are) you will need to buy the most expensive one you can that is based on the best science for estimating the nutrients the dog needs. Ironically while this will make a dog look in very good condition (especially if it includes oils to make their coat shiny), you will often end up paying more money than if you used a raw meat based diet!?

If your dog or cat food is too attractive (artificially boosted palatability) the main thing you need to ensure is that they are getting the right amount of nutrients in that food, and that the boosted palatability is not leading to obesity.

Then of course you will need to consider how easily your pet can extract the nutrients in their food. That information is included in the next article.


Article by Bruce Dwyer. If you wish to use any of this information please refer to the article as a reference and provide a link to

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