Greetings all curious cats… Skye Blake here with the inside scoop on how cat food is made.
Ever wondered what your cat’s food goes through to get to you and your cat?
Let’s follow that trail…
The information here is for general knowledge… always see your vet with questions about your cat’s individual needs.
- Who Is Skye Blake?
- How is Commercial Cat Food Made?
- Formulating Recipes
- Ingredient Suppliers
- Methods of Shipment to Pet Food Facilities
- Testing Ingredients Upon Arrival
- The Manufacturing Process for Canned Food
- The Manufacturing Process for Dry Pet Food
- Monitoring During the Manufacturing Process
- Assuring Proper Product Packaging
- To Sum It Up
- List of Sources
Who Is Skye Blake?
Skye Blake, Cat Info Detective, is a curious cat researcher (not a veterinarian) who sniffs out expert, reliable sources about cats, studies their information, then passes it on to you!
Sometimes there’s not enough evidence for easy answers, so Skye gives you all sides, explains the situation as thoroughly and clearly as possible, and links you to experts on each page.
All sources are at the bottom of each page so you can do more snooping.
How is Commercial Cat Food Made?
People make claims about how cat food is made (usually that it’s bad), but do they actually know what they’re talking about?
Let’s take a look at the process…
It all starts with formulating complete and balanced recipes that give your cat all the nutrition he needs in each serving.
This is a great deal more complex than it sounds.
Reputable manufacturers, such as Purina®, work with veterinary nutritionists either as consultants or on staff to properly formulate both their kibble and wet canned products.
This is important because recipes can lack essential nutrients if created by someone less knowledgeable in feline nutrition, which can have disastrous effects on your cat.
Cat food products are only as good as the ingredients the suppliers sell to the manufacturers.
Pet food companies have inspectors who evaluate the ingredients each supplier offers.
This is especially important with perishables like meat, fish and fats.
Inspections can include a review of quality control procedures and how well they follow good processing and safety practices.
Inspectors also examine the ingredients upon arrival at the manufacturing plant to be sure they meet company specifications.
Since ingredients arrive in different ways, inspections happen according to specific requirements.
Methods of Shipment to Pet Food Facilities
Suppliers get their ingredients to the manufacturing facilities in various ways…
- Grains are stored in silos, put in railcars, and shipped by rail
- Food-grade oils are shipped in tanker trucks or drums
- Meat, poultry and fish are usually shipped in refrigerator or freezer trucks
- Vegetables are frozen (just like you find in the grocery freezer section) and shipped in freezer trucks
Testing Ingredients Upon Arrival
Reputable manufacturers follow strict safety standards and testing protocols to be sure their products are free of harmful pathogens such as salmonella, aflotoxin, and E. coli.
Manufacturers have their own inspectors who check and test ingredients after they arrive.
- They “[r]eview for safe handling during transportation by inspecting the integrity of container seals and cleanliness of the hopper;
- Verify that the tanker truck was washed prior to loading and proper temperature control was maintained, and inspect for the unintended presence of metals;
- Ensure compliance with specific nutrient and grading specifications such as protein, fat, moisture and fat content, check for antioxidant levels or for the presence of bacteria, spoilage, infestation or toxins.”1 “How Pet Food Is Made” – Pet Food Institute.org
The Manufacturing Process for Canned Food
Manufacturers use the following basic process to make canned or pouched wet food…
(from “How Pet Food Is Made” – Pet Food Institute)
Rendering the meat
“1. Generally, rendering is performed by meat processors.
Rendering entails rupturing fat cells, either by heat or enzymatic- and solvent-extraction, and then drying the residue.”2 “How Pet Food Is Made” – Pet Food Institute.org
Grinding and pre-cooking the meat
“2. The meat products are coarsely ground to the desired texture.
3. To facilitate further processing, the ground meat is cooked in a continuous cooker with live steam at the appropriate temperature.
4. The flesh products are reground after initial cooking to produce a more uniform consistency.
For semi-moist or chunky foods, the batches are deliberately cooked unevenly to create the desired chunky texture.”3 “How Pet Food Is Made” – Pet Food Institute.org
Blending and shaping
“5. The meat mixture is blended with other ingredients such as cereal grains, vitamins, and minerals.
6. Dry and semi-moist foods are usually heated so the mixture will partially dextrinize, or thicken, the starch.”4 “How Pet Food Is Made” – Pet Food Institute.org
“To achieve the marbled-look of real meat, the meat mixture may be cooked unevenly and half of the batch colored red and the other white.
Semimoist foods must be stabilized to retain the proper amount of moisture in the dry and semi-moist parts of the food.”5 “How Pet Food Is Made” – Pet Food Institute.org
“7. Dry and semi-moist foods may be extruded under high pressure through a device with orificed plates to obtain the shape and size of the specific product, for instance, the form of biscuits, kibbles, meat-balls, patties, pellets, or slices.
An alternative to extrusion is to gelatinize and expand the mixture.
For marbled meat, the mixture of red and white meat is extruded together and broken into chunks.”6 “How Pet Food Is Made” – Pet Food Institute.org
Packaging and labeling
“8. Measured amounts of the product are packaged into appropriate containers.
Dry foods are poured into pre-printed containers.
Moist canned foods are vacuum sealed to reduce the oxygen content and prevent spoilage of fats in the food.”7 “How Pet Food Is Made” – Pet Food Institute.org
“9. Cans of pet food are sterilized by passing them through a retort, or heating chamber.
The retort may be either a batch or continuous hydrostatic type.
The cans are heated to about 250°F (121°C) for 80 minutes, though the cooking temperatures and times depend on the contents, steam pressure, and can size.”8 “How Pet Food Is Made” – Pet Food Institute.org
“10. The cans are quickly cooled to about 100°FO (38°C).
Next, the cans are dried and labeled.
11. The containers are packaged into corrugated cardboard boxes or shrink-wrapped with plastic in corrugated cardboard trays.
The pet food is ready fo[r] shipping to distributors.”9 “How Pet Food Is Made” – Pet Food Institute.org
Vacuum packed canned pet foods have a shelf life of three to five years and are very stable with little or no loss of nutritional value.
The Manufacturing Process for Dry Pet Food
Pet food companies in Europe and the United States use similar processes to make dry products.
Reputable companies invest in improving their technology and consistently innovate and test their methods and products.
The process consists of blending and grinding certain ingredients (meat meals, vitamin mixes, and grains) until they’re a specific size that allows for proper cooking with steam and heat.
The next step is mixing in meat and liquids like water and fat during the cooking process, getting the mixture hot enough to kill bacteria and pathogens (the “kill step”).
Besides sterilizing the ingredients, the heating process breaks down the food to make it more digestible and removes moisture.
After all that, the fun begins… shaping into pellets in an extruder.
Extrusion is simply a process where a machine pushes the food through a die plate with holes shaped for the specific product (just like making those crazy shapes of pasta).
As the food goes through the extruder, it cuts each piece to size then transfers everything to a dryer to remove any remaining moisture.
After the food dries, another machine sprays a coating of natural flavors (usually meat or fish) onto it.
Once it cools, the food is ready for packaging!
Monitoring During the Manufacturing Process
Monitoring the whole manufacturing process is very important for safety and efficiency.
It also helps reputable companies continue to improve their technology and products.
Here are some methods manufacturers use to be sure the food is safe through the process…
- “Verification that proper temperature, pressure and pH are maintained
- Environmental testing in the facility for the presence of bacteria
- Inspection for metals
- Verification of correct equipment set-up and function
- Verification that the correct product size, shape, color, protein, fat and moisture level are being produced
- Sanitization of the equipment before the manufacturing of a different product begins”10 “How Pet Food Is Made” – Pet Food Institute.org
Assuring Proper Product Packaging
Here are some of the methods companies use for testing and inspection during packaging…
- “Verification that the proper mix of product is dispensed into the proper package, at the correct weight
- Verification of the correct barcodes and date codes for product traceability
- Review of integrity of containers, equipment and packaging
- Verification of the package/container seal integrity
- Environmental bacteria testing
- Testing the product to confirm the Guaranteed Analysis
- pH testing
- Checking for the presence of unwanted moisture or condensation
- Reviewing quality factors, such as product consistency
- Confirmation that the proper shipping conditions will be maintained”11 “How Pet Food Is Made” – Pet Food Institute.org
Here are some videos that show the processing for both wet and dry cat food…
To Sum It Up
Quite eye-opening, isn’t it? It certainly helps to understand the processes involved!
Reputable manufacturers will answer questions about the ingredients and how they operate if it’s not proprietary.
If you’re curious about other aspects of feline nutrition and food, take a look at “Cat Food!“
Sources used on this website are either primary or secondary.
Primary sources are always preferable and have the most reliable information because they’re original and directly referenced.
Scientific abstracts and data are good examples of primary sources.
Secondary sources are weaker because they usually consist of opinions or articles that give no sources of their own.
Sometimes they refer to primary sources.
When I use secondary sources, most are those with some authority, such as veterinarian or cat behaviorist books and articles.
List of Sources
“18 Different Types of Cat Food: What’s Best for Your Cat?”, Excited Cats
“AAFCO-Approved Pet Food: Everything You Need to Know”, PetMD
“About AMS | Agricultural Marketing Service” (usda.gov)
“The Association of American Feed Control Officials” (aafco.org)
“The Biggest Mistake in Giving Treats” – Catwatch Newsletter, Published May 9, 2013, Updated May 13, 2020
“Canned or Dry Food: Which is Better for Cats?”, Skeptvet (skeptvet.com)
“Do Cats Need Wet Food? – How to Choose a Wet Cat Food” by Emily Drew, PetMag.com, February 12, 2021
Facebook Nutrition Groups: “Feed Cats Like Cats – Feline Nutrition“, “Feline Nutrition & Cat Food Discussion”
“FDA’s Regulation of Pet Food”, FDA.gov
“6 Things Your Vet Wants You to Know About Cat Food “, by Amanda MacMillan, Reviewed by Amy Flowers, DVM, April 01, 2018, webmd.com
“Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Definition” (investopedia.com)
“How-Pet-Food-is-Made.pdf”, Pet Food Institute (petfoodinstitute.org)
“How pet food is made – making, used, processing, parts, components, product, industry, machine”, How Products Are Made (madehow.com)
“How to Calculate How Much Wet Food to Feed a Cat”, by Jennifer Coates, DVM, PetMD, November 2, 2018
“Is wet food bad for cats? A vet’s view”, PetsRadar
“Pet Food”, FDA
“Questions & Answers: Contaminants in Pet Food”, FDA, July 29, 2021
“Wet vs. Dry Cat Food, or Both?”, by Cathy Meeks, MS, DVM, DACVIM, PetMD.com, January 19, 2021
“What Happened To Tender Vittles Cat Food”, Find Out Here, All Animals Faq, February 5, 2022
Updated November 15, 2023