Pet nutrition is advancing in incredible ways, as pet owners seek optimal care for their animal companions, and companies respond to the demand. It’s the latest frontier in functional foods.

For decades, people with a love of animals and an aptitude for science have thought that their only natural career path was in veterinary medicine. But today, pet care is serious business, creating whole new avenues for jobs in food science and functional ingredients, with our furry friends in mind. Pet nutrition is breaking new ground for jobs in food engineering. 

The Unique Challenges of Pet Nutrition

Let’s face it, the science on what is truly healthy for the human diet evolves and changes all the time, with often contradictory statements. If we still don’t have a good grasp on the finer aspects of human nutrition, it’s even more true that our understanding of pet nutrition has a long way to go. For humans and domestic cats, it’s easy to make basic assumptions about body size, mass, and activity levels that inform our nutritional choices. But there is a spectacular variety in the size, mass, and activity levels of domestic dogs, that can completely alter their basic nutritional needs at every stage of their lives. 

Crucially, one of the key features that separate dogs from wolves is their ability to produce amylase. Amylase is the enzyme that allows dogs to digest carbohydrates, and makes them omnivorous, unlike wolves. Scientists believe that dogs evolved the ability to digest starches and glucose through thousands of years of living with humans and eating our food scraps and leftovers. 

As a result, while dogs can typically survive on human foods, it doesn’t provide them optimal health and nutrition. Healthy dog food must be formulated to balance nutrition, digestibility, and energy density, with enormous variation between breeds. And, of course, the food also has to be appealing to the pet, and give them the nutrition they need with a flavor they will enjoy. 

Pet Food Manufacturing Process

Traditionally, dry pet kibble has been made by an extrusion process, in which ingredients are ground to a paste and blended, then the softened ingredients are forced through a tube that produces the desired shape, and then it is cut to the desired size. Extrusion is an incredibly efficient way to mass-produce food that is consistent in size, shape, texture, and quality. In theory, the extrusion process should not alter the nutritional properties of the ingredients, but it does. The heat and friction generated by the extrusion process alters the chemical properties of the food, denaturing proteins and destroying certain amino acids, gelatinizing starches, and destroying many vitamins. Extrusion forms reactive molecules “not found in nature.” Extrusion also has some beneficial effects, killing certain toxins and microorganisms. 

Since extrusion is used so often in all kinds of foods, including pasta, snack foods, cereals, and the like, many nutrition scientists and food technologists are working on ways of improving the extrusion process itself, experimenting with heat, moisture, and pressure levels to ensure that extruded foods maintain the health benefits of the original ingredients. In the case of dog and cat food, since extrusion destroys many essential nutrients (notably leading to taurine deficiency), they are often re-added to the food after extrusion.  

After manufacturing, pet food still needs to be delivered to the end consumer, which can also mean the addition of stabilizers and preservatives that allow the pet food to be stable on store shelves and in your pantry at home. 

Functional Ingredients in Pet Food

Functional ingredients are added to food to provide additional health benefits beyond those present in the basic ingredients. Functional foods are common in modern human foods, like milk enriched with Vitamin D, breakfast cereals enriched with vitamins and minerals, yoghurt with live cultures, and so on. In recent years, nutrition scientists have been exploring functional ingredients in pet foods as well, adding nutrients that improve a pet’s health. Studies show that functional ingredients in dog food improve their metabolism, oxidative balance, and have even been able to improve cognitive function and reduce behavioural disturbances. However, these studies are preliminary, and more research is needed.   

But What About the Love?

Pets add so much love and joy to our lives. Just look at Linda (blog photo), a wonderful dog we recently adopted from the ‘protectora‘ in Málaga.

People care so much about pet nutrition because they love their pets and consider them part of the family. That also means that pets, like children, can pick up our own unhealthy eating habits, and there is simply no cure for it. Consumers need to choose the best, highest quality, most nutritious pet food they can, to compensate for snacks, treats, and indulgences. And people with jobs in nutrition science, food technologies, and functional ingredients are helping us every day.