At AFB International, we’re in the business of improving food sensory experiences for cats and dogs. That often requires being able to identify not only what they do and don’t like to eat, but also why.
To determine flavor preference, we typically use a two-bowl test in which animals choose between two bowls of food for a pre-determined amount of time as food consumption measurements are recorded. Such quantitative palatability tests do a great job of helping researchers understand what pets like—but understanding why is much more challenging.
To dissect the sometimes-complex reasons why animals prefer one food over another, we need to understand how they perceive and process different smells, tastes and textures (Figure 1)—and how those perceptions translate to behaviors.
When studying human flavor preferences, it’s easy to ask individuals to rate detection, similarity, liking or intensity of a flavor. With nonverbal subjects like companion animals, we need to devise tests to try to discern such preferences by isolating one taste or variable, while ensuring the comfort of the animals. To do that, we build on what we know about canine and feline senses, creating protocols to observe animals’ natural behaviors to better understand them.
For instance, in a study to test the perception that “cats like sour taste,” we manipulated pH and titratable acidity—both linked to sour taste—in paired comparisons designed to isolate this taste. The results challenge the assumption that cats like sour taste and provide understanding that can help create more effective palatants for cat foods and supplements.
That’s just one example. Many other methods have been devised to help researchers determine whether observed preference is true preference. Among them are operant testing adapted to avoid adverse treatments, facial reactivity (really!) and behavioral analysis techniques. For more details on the fascinating science of pet food palatability, check out our free downloads, including Understanding the Drivers for Palatability: From Basic Science to Complex Product Systems.