Is Your Companion Animal Really A Picky Eater?
Feeding our companion animals is an enormous business. There were an estimated 470 million dogs and 370 million cats across the world in 2018. Food manufacturers formulate companion animal diets from animal parts, fish, and other ingredients. Packaged in cans, pouches, cartons, or as kibble, they arrive ready to eat, with sales totaling $161 billion in 2014. Such a market draws investment and innovation. Indeed, from January 2013 to October 2014, manufacturers introduced over 6,000 new companion animal foods and 4,000 new snacks globally.
Even so, consumers are suspicious of conventional companion animal food. Perhaps as a result, the alternative food market is growing as guardians seek out healthier ways to feed their charges. They are exploring raw meat diets, in-vitro (lab-grown) foods, and diets based on plants, insects, yeast, and fungi. While the latter may sound good to animal advocates, will they appeal equally to the dogs and cats in their care?
To explore this question, researchers surveyed 4,060 dog and cat guardians between May and December 2020 to understand the importance of food palatability as a criterion for diet choice. They also asked about behaviors — 10 for dogs and 15 for cats — that their dogs or cats displayed at mealtime that suggested the animals liked their food. Questions about exercise type and amount, feeding frequency, age, sex, and neuter status were also included. Participants were gathered through dog and cat interest groups on social media. The survey instructed respondents to answer the questions for one dog or cat that had been in their household for at least one year and had not been on a special diet. The final reports included 2,308 dogs and 1,135 cats.
A total of 3,976 pet guardians took part in decisions about their companion animal’s diet. These respondents reported that palatability was the third most important factor out of a list of 12 options. The first two were health and nutrition, and diet quality. A large majority (3,408 guardians) fed their animals a conventional or raw meat diet. Encouragingly, almost half, 46.5%, said they would choose an alternative diet as long as it met their standards.
Dogs and cats can’t actually tell us if they like their food. Thus, we have to rely on external cues. In prior research, dogs have displayed a liking for their food by eating quickly, vocalizing for food, stealing food, staying near the food bowl, or being aggressive about food. Lip licking, tail wagging, and licking the food bowl also suggest the dog is happy with their meal. In this study, dog behaviors reliably showed that they liked a raw meat diet. Perhaps this is no surprise. However, there was no statistically significant behavioral difference between dogs fed a conventional, raw meat, or a vegan diet. Interestingly, the type of diet fed to cats failed to elicit any differences in food-oriented behaviors across the set of 15 palatability indicators.
The authors concluded that vegan diets were at least as palatable to both dogs and cats as conventional or raw meat diets. For animal advocates, this is good news. Whether animals like their food is clearly important to those who care for them. Advocates can point to this study as evidence that companion animals will eat a plant-based diet just as readily as one containing meat. They can encourage animal guardians to give such diets a try and be reasonably confident that the animals will like their new food — though as always, the nutrition and health of companion animals should remain a top priority.