The expectations and limitations of feeding trials

Learn about the expectations and limitations of feeding trials, as well as what companies are doing to ensure they get the best information possible from their research.

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side view of beagle dog eating dog food isolated on white
side view of beagle dog eating dog food isolated on white
Feeding trials can provide pet food companies with a lot of needed information in terms of acceptance and nutrition, and there are plenty of ways to go about conducting them. | LightFieldStudios I iStock.com

The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) currently provides guidelines for animal feeding studies meant to determine the nutritional adequacy of pet food diets, with the following requirements:

  • The study must last six months.
  • Eight healthy adult dogs must start the study.
  • A veterinary exam is performed at the beginning and end of the study.
  • Dogs are weighed weekly, and the following criteria must be met:
    1. No dog may lose more than 15% of its body weight throughout the study.
    2. The average weight loss of the entire group cannot be greater than 10% for the six-month duration.
  • Two of the eight dogs can be removed from the study for non-nutritional reasons.
  • Four blood parameters are collected at the end of the study:
    1. alkaline phosphatase
    2. hemoglobin
    3. hematocrit
    4. albumin

While studies conducted under these guidelines provide some of the information a pet food company is looking for, there are plenty of things not addressed in the points above, such as other health markers, a diversity of animals and the potential long-term effects of feeding a diet.

“These studies are really designed to show that an animal can ‘survive’ on a food and not ‘thrive’ on a food,” said Ryan Yamka, vice president and head of research and development for The Farmer’s Dog. “Other feeding trials that companies will use are digestibility, stool quality and urinary pH in cats. Although not required for foods to enter the marketplace, the companies that perform their due diligence before they launch a product will run these studies to ensure the food is truly biologically appropriate before entering the market.”

Going beyond requirements: The best way to get a complete picture

Pet food companies looking to thoroughly test their formulations often go beyond the AAFCO requirements, and there are any number of ways to do so.

“What a feeding trial can tell you depends upon how you conduct that trial,” said Shawn Buckley, founder of JustFoodForDogs. “We believe that the minimum requirements of the AAFCO feeding trial are elementary — despite being considered the Gold Standard of the industry for proving nutritional adequacy. Most veterinarians and scientists agree that AAFCO feeding trials can miss identifying deficiencies that take longer than six months to develop or are not detectible by the rudimentary bloodwork required in the protocol. Simply put, if you test for a short enough period and you examine only minimal bloodwork, you may not ever see deficiencies that might exist.”

These potential pitfalls have led some companies, including JustFoodForDogs, to enhance the existing requirements to ensure they’re getting a more accurate picture of formulations being tested.

“JustFoodForDogs daily diets have successfully completed AAFCO feeding trials with greatly enhanced requirements, including 12 months versus six months, full CBC analysis versus only the four required by AAFCO, a colony of 25+ dogs finished the trial as opposed to six required by AAFCO, and the research was all conducted by a partnership between a veterinary college and the animal health science department of a major university,” said Buckley. “And because it fits with our core values, we made the extra effort to use pet dogs as opposed to ‘purpose bred’ dogs living in a facility.”

The consensus seems to be that more information is better when it comes to getting a new product to market.

“At Champion Petfoods, we regularly add on additional tests for our Orijen and Acana pet foods, like more in-depth bloodwork, echocardiograms and urine data, to provide us with more information and ensure our complete confidence in the food being tested,” said Janelle Kelly, M.Sc., nutrition research scientist for Orijen and Acana pet food. “Pets are members of our families and we want to support their long-term health with the most optimal recipes possible.”

The challenges and benefits of in-home feeding trials

Traditionally, feeding trials are conducted in a controlled environment, keeping variables at a minimum to gain clear-cut results.

“The most common feeding trials are conducted at a third-party location in a controlled setting under veterinary supervision utilizing Beagles or domestic shorthair cats,” said Yamka. “There are some benefits to performing these types of studies like cost, control of the environment and compliance. In a controlled setting, the dog or cat is always under veterinary supervision and you do not have to worry about a consumer giving the dog or cat treats, or a dog getting into the garbage or eating a dead squirrel in the backyard.”

Still, in-home feeding trials are another option some companies go with in order to get a more “natural” picture of their product’s viability.

“At-home testing introduces a lot of variability such as uncontrolled intakes, environment, difference in exercise routines and owner compliance,” said Kelly. “However, at-home testing can provide new information on alternative populations of dogs and cats.”

The Honest Kitchen just conducted in-home feeding trials, partially as part of the company’s focus on animal welfare.

“We believe it’s logical that dogs living with families in normal home environments would experience less stress, more enrichment and social contact, and an overall higher welfare standard than those who reside in a test-kennel or other laboratory or the types of test-site settings where feeding trials typically take place,” said Lucy Postins, founder and chief integrity officer at The Honest Kitchen. “As a brand, allowing dogs to live in the comfort of their own familiar surroundings allowed us to both prove the health-sustaining benefits of our foods in a scientific manner, in a way that we felt was the most conscientious, humane way possible.”

The “real world” aspect of in-home trials is very appealing for companies wanting to conduct longer studies, or studies with a wider variety of pets.

“Companies like The Farmer’s Dog have conducted ‘real world’ feeding studies by using the traditional four blood markers used in AAFCO trials, and expanding it to a full blood panel for all participating dogs that measured a total of 49 blood values,” said Yamka. “Additionally, they used different breeds of dogs that were mixed ages and sizes that were fed for a minimum of 1+ years. All dogs lived normal lives within their households with routine veterinary exams. Other companies have also started performing more encompassing maintenance studies that exceed the minimums of AAFCO feeding trial protocols within the ‘real world’ environment. We have to keep in mind that a controlled setting for a trial may be the standard; however, it does not always translate into the real world. A great example would be palatability, weight loss or other therapeutic studies.”

Expanding the use — and usefulness — of feeding trials

“It’s probably worth noting that feeding trials are not required and thus, are not at all common in the pet food industry,” said Buckley. “The purpose is pretty straightforward — to scientifically test the food and demonstrate that it is nutritionally adequate for long-term feeding (specific to a pet’s life stage).”

But those who routinely conduct such trials are looking to see it become more of a go-to as part of developing a new pet food formula and getting it to market.

“We’d like to see more pet food brands strive to get a more complete picture of overall health and wellbeing in their trials, and for welfare to be given a higher priority for food testing across the industry,” said Postins.

And whether those trials are conducted in a controlled environment or in pet owner homes, there is valuable data to be collected.

“There are pros and cons to each,” said Buckley. “It seems like the challenge would be finding an independent, reputable research institution and we think this can be done through universities operating in these fields. If a truly qualified team is conducting the trials, then the design of the experiment and analysis of the data will be reliable regardless of where the dogs are living.” 


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