Palatability determines what someone will prefer over a different option, such as a choice between two meals. Think of palatability as how “good” something tastes to the person or pet eating the object.
A more palatable item will be enjoyed, while a less palatable one may be spat out or ignored. Palatability is determined by a number of factors, including taste, texture in the mouth, smell and visual appearance.
For humans, palatability relies mostly on taste and visual appeal, however this isn’t the case for dogs who tend to rely more on smell than flavor.
Palatability can be a very subjective topic, as people and pets will all have different preferences for what tastes good. In the case of the pet food industry, palatability has both a subjective and objective determination.
Many pet food companies will set up large-scale taste testing trials to determine how much a particular breed or group of mixed-breed dogs will like a particular product.
Palatability is important as it encourages your dog to eat foods that may not be tasty, but are healthy for them. As canine nutrition knowledge increases, the macro and micronutrients needed to keep a dog in peak shape also changes.
These foods may not be as tasty as a slice of meat or piece of a treat, so palatability helps entice your dog to eat. Things that increase palatability are called palatants, and can be items such as fat, salt, proteins, yeasts or other added flavors that make a food tastier.
Palatants can also be smell based, an important factor in feeding dogs that rely more on smell rather than taste when determining if a food is tasty. Smell and taste are linked in most species, so enticing a dog to eat with smell is just as important as with taste.
Dogs have fewer taste buds than humans, and far more olfactory sensors. This means that foods that are smellier, rather than tastier tend to have a broader appeal to dogs.
While smell is very important, foods that are not as odiferous (such as dry kibble) can also increase their palatability. Dog’s taste buds are hard wired to detect fats as well as salt content (but not necessarily salt flavor). Kibble often has fat added to increase the flavor and palatability without being smelly.
While taste and smell are some of the key ways a dog determines if something is tasty, palatability can be determined by a larger number of things including canine preference, and even owner preference for foods and feeding times!
Learn more about how a dog's sense of smell and taste work in this article.
Taste test trials are often the most used way a company determines if their food is palatable.
Companies will measure several factors, such as how much in total a dog eats (intake amount), how much is eaten compared to other food choices offered, and which food is chosen first to be eaten when multiple choices are given at once.
In most tests, two bowls are given at a time to make these choices. This information is then rated and ranked to determine if a food is palatable or not.
Tests can be done both in the home of owners in small trials, or at the facility producing the food.
A variety of tests will happen including determining if there is breed preference, size preference and owner preference in addition to individual dog preference in checking for a highly palatable product. Manufacturers can then change the recipe as needed to hopefully make a product that is best tasting overall.
Foods can have increased palatability in a number of ways. The first is through protein choice, which can alter the flavor of a food somewhat to meet a dog’s preferences.
Protein choice matters most in raw or wet foods, where the food is minimally processed and the food retains a lot of its natural state.
Commonly used flavors include chicken, beef and lamb. However, there has been an increase in the use of non-traditional meat sources both for allergies and for palatability reasons.
Wet and raw foods can also have a smell advantage over dry kibble, by retaining more of the natural “scent” of the food when it is offered.
In dry foods, palatability is added through the use of fats and salts and other ingredients to give food a “meatier” taste. Many dogs (and other species) prefer fats as a palatable flavor and will seek it out.
Even though meat flavoring is commonly thought of as most preferred for dogs, plant-based sources are also used in adding palatability. Dry foods tend to have a more limited ability to increase palatability through smell, and so rely more on flavor.
Food additives are another way to increase palatability, and can include things such as real meats added to the food by owners (such as boiled chicken or turkey), or by adding flavored commercial gravies.
Some owners may also opt to mix food types such as adding some wet food to a mostly dry diet to increase the overall flavor and preference for the more nutritious dry food.
Supplements are another product that benefit greatly from increases in palatability. They can even be used as a palatability enhancer themselves. As many supplements are designed to give an increase in nutrient value, they may have items that are naturally not tasty to dogs.
Changing how the supplement is given (IE through soft treats, or liquid forms) can help increase palatability as well as through the addition of adding palatants. Some supplements are palatable without the use of additional additives, and can be used to increase the flavor of foods while still adding nutrition.
Supplements that are naturally good tasting are another great way to add flavor and palatability to a food, while adding some additional nutrient content that the food may not have had.
While supplements come in a variety of shapes and forms, the most palatable types are often in the form of a meaty “treat” or in a gravy or liquid form which can help increase compliance when the supplement is needed for medical reasons.
Adding a supplement to a prescription diet that is not as tasty may also help encourage a dog to eat more of the food and reap the benefits. Pill supplements are often considered less palatable mainly due to their odd texture and sometimes bitter flavor.
Liquid supplements are another great way to add in an extra vitamin boost, and often contain nutrients in their highest quality forms. These products are often more perishable, but are able to provide maximum nutrition in an easy to eat form that many dogs prefer.
Food broths are becoming popular over canine multivitamins, while many joint and skin supplements now come in liquid form.
No matter your dog’s preference or nutritional needs, there is sure to be a product out there that tastes great to them. Supplementation is a great way to increase palatability, especially for pets on a specific diet due to medical or nutritional needs, without the need for changing food.
For owners with more choice, changing food type or adding in a liquid supplement can be a great benefit for a picky eater. As the market for pet products continues to grow, there will always be something new and tasty to try!
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Hand, Michael, ed. Small Animal Clinical Nutrition. 5th ed. Topeka: Mark Morris Institute, 2010. 1314. Print.
Phillips-Donaldson, Debbie. “Update: Measuring Pet Food Palatability.” Pet Food Industry.com 12 Aug. 2010. Web. 1 Oct. 2015. http://www.petfoodindustry.com/articles/1775-update-measuring-petfood-palatability
“Principles of Pet Food Palatability.” AFB International. Web. 1 Oct. 2015. http://afbinternational.com/pdf/principles_of_pet_food_palatability.pdf