Think “animal research” and images of prison-like cages filled with beagles smoking 20 a day or rabbits blinking away shampoo come to mind.
But go to Waltham, Pedigree Petfoods’ centre for research into animal nutrition, and imagine instead a rather cheerful primary school with light and airy corridors and play areas littered with toys. Imagine it as the sort of school you would want your children to attend – clean and well-regimented, but with a relaxed atmosphere – where everyone is on first name terms and where the occasional child who can’t fit in can easily be moved elsewhere.
It is tempting to slip into Johnny Morris-style anthropomorphism at Waltham, home to more than 1,000 assorted dogs, cats and birds who take part in long-term nutrition and behaviour trials in the heart of Leicestershire’s farmland. The centre sits next to Pedigree’s headquarters and has the look of a cross between a primary school and the low-rise, clinically clean, buildings in the Sixties TV series The Prisoner.
It may first and foremost be a commercial organisation, dedicated to understanding pets and their diets so Mars can sell more tins of Whiskas and Pedigree Chum, but it is truly science for the soft-hearted. As one nutritionist admits, he got “a bit uncomfortable” with the way research animals are kept at universities, and feels happier working in an environment which provides such “astonishing” welfare.
The point is echoed by senior nutritionist Dr Richard Butterwick, who outlines why the role of Waltham is so important. “A cat needs 47 nutrients in its diet, a dog needs 42,” he says.
“Petfood is one of only four types of manufactured meals which have to provide all the nutrients for a “complete” diet, alongside babyfood, certain types of weight reduction foods and astronaut food. We have to make sure we deliver that sort of quality and consistency every time,” says Butterwick.
The Waltham scientists are acutely aware that a stressed animal will not give an accurate picture of pet behaviour. If the odd animal is obviously unhappy, such as one infamous black labrador who, rather bizarrely, could not stand the sight of any other black dog, the animal can be rehoused with a family.
There is an appreciation that the animals are individuals with certain characteristics, (such as Kerry, the grumpy and rather shy Irish wolfhound, or Mavis the placid labrador who lives with her to keep her calm), yet there is obviously a clinical matter-of-factness at Wal-tham. The dogs and cats may have names, but they also have numbers, and in the event of a fire, the staff are under strict instructions to evacuate the building and leave them behind.
The Waltham inmates are used in a variety of feeding trials. For example dogs might be individually videoed to see how they behave around a bowl of food, cats are assessed on how they eat en masse and on their own, and the amount of food eaten at particular mealtimes is weighed to measure palatability.
Tests on skin and coat condition are carried out, and the digestibility of certain foods is examined – involving of course exhaustive chemical analysis of cat and dog faeces. It’s when the Mars public relations man explains how dogs undergoing digestibility trials are exercised in a concrete run and not in Waltham’s grassy paddocks – because it’s easier to scoop up dog muck from concrete than grass – that it becomes clear that this is not a run-of-the-mill laboratory.
Waltham’s other-worldly nature is reinforced by its sense of isolation. Like a cat and dog equivalent of a luxury health farm, it sprawls across extensive grounds and the ani mals are not allowed to mix with the outside world (because of the risk of disease which could devastate the rest of the Waltham population).
Cats are bred in-house while the dogs – which are all pedigree – are brought in. The dogs live in pens with small outside areas and are walked every day, while the cats live in “colonies” of up to 20.
Inevitably they become institutionalised, and if they are to be re-housed with a family it must be done gradually. This prepares the animals for such traumatic realities such as people wearing coloured clothes after years of encountering only staff dressed in clinical white.
The animal carers tend to be young people recruited straight from local schools; each one looks after four dogs. Some of them stay on and rise to more senior positions as technicians, working amid a regular chorus of barking.
Waltham’s nutrition scientists are encouraged to publish their work in journals or give papers at conferences around the world. Richard Butterwick is so confident of what goes into the company petfood he says he would eat it himself – other suppliers report that they have been forced to eat it as a final test of loyalty. But Butterwick admits that he “would prefer a McDonald’s”.
He says humans’ increasing concern about their own diet is reflected in what they buy for their pets.
“The market is becoming more complex and more fragmented, with the launch of new products for different animal life stages for example.”
The main areas of study are pets’ growth and development and the digestibility of the petfood, which involves measuring the animals’ food intake, and analysing what comes out the other end. So what does he tell people he does for a living at parties? “Oh, it’s easier to say I’m an international arms dealer,” he jokes.
As a self-confessed animal lover, Butterwick is very conscious that he is dealing with individuals, not objects.
“In one trial we looked at how dogs behave around feeding times, and made 30-minute video recordings of 36 different dogs. The only common factors we could measure were the number of times they came to the bowl and the amount of time they spent at the bowl. Everything else – such as whether they circled the bowl before eating, sat and looked at it for a few seconds, or approached it straightaway – was different.”
Mars takes great pride in Waltham as a centre of excellence, and uses its very existence as a marketing tool, a stamp of authority on petfood labels and in advertising to reassure millions of cat and dog owners.
Since the Sixties its research findings have been used to support Mars’ petcare units around the world. If the atmosphere at Waltham could be described as something akin to a rather friendly primary school, it is a school Ofsted would pass with flying colours.