LONDON - Wellington’s job is to drool. And the three-year-old Miniature Schnauzer is quite good at it. The grey and white pooch is standing on a table wagging his tail, happily chewing a piece of cotton fabric – and slobbering all over it.
A woman researcher is also holding the cloth. After three or four chews she makes a clicking sound with her pen, and Wellington stops chewing immediately. He is given a dog biscuit. And then the routine begins all over again.
After five minutes, the researcher has gathered enough saliva, so Wellington’s job is done and he can go outside to join his dog friends trotting around.
The Schnauzer is one of 150 dogs and 300 cats working at the Waltham Centre for Pet Nutrition. Located in what was formerly a stud farm about 200 kilometers northeast of London, the facility is the world’s largest basic research center for pet nutrition.
The institute is run by the American firm Mars, which not only produces candy bars (Snickers, Twix, Balisto) and chewing gum (Wrigley, Orbit) but brands like Pedigree, Whiskas, Frolic, Sheba and Cesar, making it the world leader for dog and cat food.
The center was opened in 1965 in a small village in Leicestershire, and presently employs 200 veterinarians, nutrition experts and animal keepers. The private facility conducts scientific research on the nutritional and behavioral needs of pets.
The results of the research conducted at Waltham end up influencing how pet food is made the world over – regardless of whether it’s made by Mars or a competitor. No matter what brand you pick up in a supermarket in Boston, Berlin or Brisbane chances are that the mix of nutrients is based on Waltham research.
"We share all our results with the scientific community worldwide," says Jo Gale, a 34-year-old veterinarian who started working at Waltham earlier this year.
During the past 47 years, scientists working here have helped produce more than 1,700 scientific publications and made some major discoveries about the right way to feed pets. In 1982, for example, they were able to ascertain for the first time exactly how much taurine (2-aminoethanesulfonic acid) was healthy in a cat’s diet. Taurine plays an important metabolic role in mammals, but unlike dogs and people, cats can’t produce it themselves and must take it in from their food.
"That taurine study has become the basis for all industrially-made cat food worldwide," Gale says. But there are hundreds more examples. Waltham scientists also worked out the right amount of calcium and optimum dose of Vitamin A, and showed the importance of antioxidants for young animals.
The longhaired, blonde vet, clad in jeans and flower-patterned shoes, says she loves her new job. "Animal experiments are important but they often have negative connotations," says Gale, adding that she could not work in an animal experimentation lab. "I have dogs of my own – two Labradors – and I couldn’t work anywhere where they torture animals."
The American food company was founded in 1911 by confectioner Frank Mars and is now in its third generation of family ownership. With a joint fortune of $51 billion, grandson Forrest Junior, Jacqueline and John Mars occupy the 16th place on the Forbes list of the richest Americans. They live a low profile existence on a farm in Wyoming, and are said to be great animal lovers.
Mars of course also invests millions of dollars in pet food research for image reasons. But the latest Waltham project also shows genuine concern for the wellbeing of the world’s pet dogs and cats. "Forty percent of all dogs and cats in industrial nations are overweight," Gale says.
Like their owners, pets get too little exercise, lying around the house and even being driven to nearby places instead of walking because their owners don’t have the time. "A lot of people have a bad conscience and make up for it by giving their pets treats a little too often," says Gale.
So for the past two years Waltham researchers have been working on a different feeding approach, which has resulted in changes to the recommended amounts of food listed on their packaging. On average, dogs should be fed 15% less than before, cats 5%. Calorie charts are also now being printed on packaging. "That means that Mars will probably do less turnover with its animal brands," Gale says.
Thanks to the animal-loving Mars billionaires, the extensive premises at Waltham look like a luxury resort for animals. The British Shorthair cats, the Labradors and the Miniature Schnauzers live in two-dozen bungalows surrounded by forest and meadowland -- 30 to 40 animals per house, each of which has its own garden. The rooms are set up to look as much like the homes where pets would normally live.
Gale says that she is sure that Waltham’s dogs and cats aren’t any worse off than most pets. Every keeper at Waltham looks after no more than five animals, with which he or she spends scheduled individual playtime of at least an hour a day. Dogs also get to run once or twice a day in the surrounding fields. "City dogs can only dream of something like that."
Of course, the animals have their jobs too – eating, peeing, drooling, getting weighed and having an occasional X-ray. Getting urine samples from cats was a particularly tricky quest. "It’s not in a cat’s nature to want to pee into an empty receptacle; they want something like kitty litter."
In other research centers, urine is removed from the cat’s bladder using a syringe. But that sort of thing is against the rules at Waltham. So researchers built a special pan that after a few months the cats adapt to. At first, some litter is put into it, then progressively less, and by the time there is no longer any litter the cats are used to using the pan.