Perception of food and palatability

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Step 1: Sound of the bowl

UMES

The first sense to come into action at mealtimes is the dog’s hearing. The dog hears the sound of its bowl and the can of food or bag of kibbles being opened. The dog starts to salivate (in some breeds this can be quite spectacular), in what is known as the cephalic phase of digestion. Pavlov first described this reflex (“psychic secretions”) at the beginning of the 20th century (he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1904). These auditory stimuli prepare the digestive tract for the arrival of the food. The dog also starts producing saliva in the mouth, gastric secretions in the stomach and pancreatic secretions in the small intestine.

Step 2: Food aroma and temperature

© Diffomédia/Royal Canin

While the colour of the food and the presence of “chunks” of meat or vegetables makes more of an impression on the owner than the dog, which could not care less about these things, smell is a very different proposition. At feeding time, aroma is paramount for the dog, which will smell its food to evaluate its aroma and temperature. If the dog’s nasal cavities are blocked for any reason – including a simple cold – it will eat less. Its sense of smell is far better than a human’s, and it is even keener when the dog is hungry. That is why dogs that work with their nose should never be fed just before working.

Some breeds have a much better developed sense of smell than others. German Shepherds, Labradors and Belgian Shepherd Dogs are among the breeds with the best nose. Brachycephalic breeds have a short skull, which hampers air circulation and reduces the surface area of the mucous membrane in the nose, which has an adverse impact on the sense of smell. This sense is often the first to diminish in ageing animals, although it is not discernible. Dry air, air fresheners and heat (panting) all have an impact on the dog’s sense of smell. The same goes for some medication.

Increasing the aroma of a food by warming it up will improve the chances of it being consumed by a sick dog with a poor appetite. Ideally, the food should be warmed to body temperature (38-39°C). Above this temperature, the dog may burn itself, which could lead to it developing an aversion to the food. When microwaving food it is important to mix it well before serving to ensure it is all the same temperature. Lukewarm water is a cheap, efficient and simple taste enhancer.

The puppies’ favourite aromas are influenced by the mother’s food. Some of the ingredients will be contained in the mother’s milk, which influences the puppies’ taste preferences later in life. The aromas emanating from the food bowl also help imprint the litter’s sense of smell from the fourth day after whelping. As a consequence, the puppies will prefer food that gives off similar aromas, which means they can be accustomed to the food they will be weaned on at a very early age.

Given that aroma is such a vital aspect of the dog’s food, canned foods should be consumed within a short space of time and kibbles should be stored in a cool, dry place in a sealed container.

Step 3: Prehension

Prehension is the action of grasping food. Dogs use their incisors, their tongue and their lips to grasp their food. Prehension can be different from one breed to another, due to the diversity in facial morphology. While the shape and size of a mouthful or a kibble has less of an influence in dogs than in cats, these aspects do have an impact on how fast a food is consumed and how long it is chewed. By adapting the shape of a kibble, these parameters can be adjusted to improve the dog’s eating experience.

For example, the size of a kibble must be suited to the size of the dog’s mouth. More and more complete dry foods are being adapted to the size of the animal (small, medium, large or giant) or better still to its breed.

These aspects are even more important in ageing dogs, which typically have less than perfect teeth and often swallow their food without chewing. If ingestion occurs too quickly or too much food is ingested at the same time, the dog is likely to vomit.

Step 4: Taste and texture

© Diffomédia/Royal Canin

The consistency of the food and how it alters once it is in the mouth are also important factors affecting how the dog eats. When it chews – which is not very much – and swallows, it blocks its breathing, which means that it is unable to smell the food any more; it has to rely on taste, texture and temperature. Dogs distinguish five flavours: sour, bitter, salty, sweet and umami.

Umami, which can also be translated as savouriness, is a flavour discovered in 1908 by Professor Kikunae Ikeda. This is the flavour of an amino acid known as glutamic acid, which is a natural ingredient of many foods.

To summarise, when it comes to eating, dogs sniff, smell then swallow. Indeed, dogs are able to remember several thousand different aromas.

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Perception of food and palatability
    Perception of food and palatability

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