As an AFB International researcher, my goal is to learn as much as I can about what our pets like to eat and why. So each spring, my colleagues and I look forward to the Association for Chemoreception Sciences (AChemS) annual meeting where academics, researchers and industry types like us gather to learn what’s new in the world of chemoreception—gustation (taste), olfaction (smell) and trigeminal (face and mouth) sensation—for domestic and wild animals, as well as humans.
As a longstanding AChemS member, I had the opportunity to co-organize and facilitate a symposium at the association’s 2014 meeting in Bonita Springs, Fla., USA, which drew more than 200 attendees. The topic: Behavioral insights into food selection and flavor preference in domestic and wild animals.
Wild Thinking Encouraged
My AFB colleague Susan Jojola and I assembled a panel of four distinguished scientists who shared research on the behavioral cues of wild animals we thought might expand our knowledge of other mammals, including cats and dogs.
Here’s a sampling of what we heard and learned:
It’s that simple: Matthias Laska from Linkӧping University in Sweden compared how carnivores, such as Siberian tigers and wild dogs, on three continents responded to mammalian blood odor and a single blood odor component. He found in all cases the single component was as efficient as real blood in eliciting behavioral responses in these predator mammals.
In animal research, we tend to think of the factors affecting palatability as incredibly complex. However, as Dr. Laska showed, sometimes it comes down to one key element.
Sweet insights: Peihua Jiang from the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia showed that the giant panda, which eats primarily bamboo—a plant very low in simple sugars—has a marked preference for compounds that taste sweet to humans.
This finding begs the question: If the panda, which doesn’t usually eat sweet foods, has not evolved to lose its “sweet tooth,” why did obligate carnivores like cats, who also don’t eat sweet foods, lose theirs?
Environment matters: Fred Provenza, retired from Utah State University, examined how dietary diversity maximizes nutritional health and flavor perception in wild and domestic animals. He showed that foraging herbivores like sheep make complex decisions on where to forage, what combinations of foods to eat and in what order to eat them based on an integration of wide-ranging influences that span generations, and change daily based on nutritional needs, available food and more.
Dr. Provenza’s work underscores the linkage between animals and their environment—for example, how the availability of diverse foods can reduce the amount eaten while improving health. This made us wonder: For companion animals, in addition to food diversity, how might environment influence palatability?
Understanding consequences: Bruce Kimball from the USDA National Wildlife Research Center in Fort Collins, Colo., and affiliated with the Monell Chemical Senses Center, showed that human-wildlife conflicts over resources can be better managed if we understand how positive and negative consequences impact the palatability of wildlife’s chosen food sources.
An important element of this research is paying attention to how animals interact with flavor stimuli. For example, understanding how skunks pick up bait and move it in their mouths helped the USDA create a bait casing for a vaccine packet skunks would chew on, but not eat. It’s the same concept behind cat or dog treat toys that provide just enough reinforcement to keep the animal entertained without them destroying the toy or losing interest quickly.
As Susan and I and our AFB research teams design research studies to learn more about companion animals, we’ll keep in mind key takeaways from this symposium, including the importance of:
• Tailoring study methods to various species
• Comparing cross-species behaviors to understand evolutionary and ecological drivers of flavor preference
• Considering the health and nutritional history of animals and the environments in which they feed
If you have comments, insights or questions of your own, we welcome them! Share them here or contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.