How Is Cat Food Made? - Cat Info Detective

How Is Cat Food Made?

Skye Blake-updated, white background

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…

paw prints coming in from a distance

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…

Formulating Recipes

cat sitting between bags of cat food

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.

Ingredient Suppliers

cat eating from food bowl



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.

cat eating kibble treats



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

semi trucks - commercial freight haulers



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

freight train



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.

tanker truck on curve



  • 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

The Manufacturing Process for Canned Food

orange, ginger tabby kitten eating, drinking from dish

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

beef carcasses ready for processing

“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

Grinding and pre-cooking the meat

raw ground, minced meat, beef, pork

“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

Blending and shaping

2 cats eating wet food from pan

“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

eating from dish outdoors

“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

cat eating from bowl

“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

Packaging and labeling

various sizes of cans

“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

Sterilizing

sardine-style can

“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

looking down at lid of can

“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

man in grocery store aisle, food

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

cat eating kibble from food bowl

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.

Blending/Grinding

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.

dry cat food in red bowl

Mixing/Cooking

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.

Extrusion

squeezing toothpaste onto brush

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).

Scientist holding test tube - vet medicine

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

Lab tech looking through microscope - vet medicine

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…

industry, factory, manufacturing, pet food
  • “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
graphic of factory, manufacturing, pet food, industry
  • Verification that the correct product size, shape, color, protein, fat and moisture level are being produced

Assuring Proper Product Packaging

girl standing by grocery shelves

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
graphics of food packaging
  • Verification of the package/container seal integrity
  • Environmental bacteria testing
  • Testing the product to confirm the Guaranteed Analysis
  • pH testing
Scientist holding test tube - vet medicine
  • Checking for the presence of unwanted moisture or condensation
  • Reviewing quality factors, such as product consistency

Videos

Here are some videos that show the processing for both wet and dry cat food…

“Amazing Food Processing Technology Pet Food Production”, June 16, 2018
“Lenda: Wet Pet Food Process”, April 22, 2019 – Not in English but has subtitles that make it easy to follow.
Virtual tour of Akvatera, a pet food company in Europe

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.

You might want to see more info about nutrition and cat food, so take a look at these related pages…


Cat Food!Big Cat Food Paying Off Vets & Other Myths
Cat Food Companies – Which Are Best?Cat Food Recalls – What Do They Mean?
Meat By Products In Cat FoodPet Food Regulations & Oversight
Reading Cat Food LabelsHow to Feed a Cat
Cat Food & Water BowlsCat Food Puzzles
What Nutrients Do Cats Need?Are Carbs Bad for Cat?
Can Cats Drink Milk?Food for Kittens – Giving Them Good Nutrition
What Vitamins Do Cats Need?What’s the Best Cat Food?
Dry Cat Food (Kibble)Homemade Cat Food
Raw Cat Food – Good or Bad?Raw Meat Diet for Cats – Benefits vs. Risks
The Best Cat Food BrandsThe Best Kitten Food
Wet Cat FoodCat Food Allergies & Sensitivities
Dental Care for CatsFat Cats – Unhealthy or Cute?
What’s a Veterinary Nutritionist?

Sources

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

2019_AAFCO_The_People_behind_Animal_Feed_and_Pet_Food_082919.pdf

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

“WSAVA”, (wsava.org)

Updated January 9, 2023

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