For as long as we can remember, pet food has come in a bag on a shelf. Easy to scoop out and leave for our pets to eat at their leisure. But has it ALWAYS been this way? And is it the best way to feed our beloved pets? The history of dog food is an interesting story in economics and marketing, but it seems very little was thought about the impact on the health of our companions who depend on us for their very existence.
Prior to the mid-1800’s, dogs were primarily working animals and were kept outside, subsisting on a diet of table scraps and whatever they could scavenge. But in the mid 1860’s, a European electrician named James Spratt noticed that English sailors would throw their old, leftover “hardtack” (a biscuit made from flour, water, and salt meant to keep for long periods on ships) to stray dogs at the docks. He discovered that he could create a similar product and market it to wealthy Englishmen as an alternative to feeding scraps to their pets. He had found an untapped market (with a willing and silent consumer who couldn’t complain), and by the 1870’s he had launched his American company with Spratt’s Meat Fibrine Dog Cakes and began an aggressive marketing strategy to convince pet owners that his cakes should be the primary source of nutrition.
He utilized testimonials from old friends (wealthy Englishmen) and targeted the show dog industry with his advertisements, and his company took off. He had cornered the market until the early 1900’s, when canned dog food entered the game.
By the 1900’s, people had become accustomed to the ease and convenience of Spratt’s Dog Cakes, and other companies started to take notice. With the Industrial Revolution in full swing and the retirement of much of the agrarian society and the horse and buggy, horses were no longer necessary for day to day life. In 1922, the first canned dog food came on the market when Ken-L-Ration began making and marketing a horse-meat based canned product (carefully labeled as a “lean, red meat” with only small lettering on the label disclosing it as horse meat). The Chappel brothers, owners of Ken-L-Ration, were also aggressive in their marketing and were so successful that they soon had 90% of the dog food market, and expanded into breeding and raising horses to support the roughly 50,000 horses they slaughtered every year.
Then, in 1941, WWII began. Between the government rationing food and allocating any available metal to the war effort, canned dog food companies had to get creative and others noticed an opportunity to introduce a new product to the strained dog food market. In the 1950’s General Mills acquired Spratt’s Dog Cakes company and at the same time, the Ralston Purina company began to experiment with the manufacturing processes they used to create their Chex cereals.
This new process, called extrusion, took a dough of mixed wet and dry ingredients, pushed it through a machine and subjected it to extreme heat and pressure, then fed it through a die-cutting machine to get shaped pieces. (The extreme heat and drying in this process kills the delicate enzymes, vitamins and minerals that are necessary for pets to thrive). This was the advent of the first kibble. These companies also realized that with a shortage of metal, cardboard boxes could be the solution to storing the cheap, convenient foods that pet owners wanted, and a whole new market was born. More companies began joining the industry because of the high profit margins, and as competition emerged, companies began to cut corners and source even cheaper ingredients to try to continue to accrue the vast amounts of profits available.
In the 1960’s and 70’s, a massive decrease in pet health, along with an increase in many major preventable illnesses (such as kidney and liver failure, arthritis, and many cancers) led to the advent of Veterinary Diets, marketed as a solution to these issues. Spearheaded by French Veterinary Surgeon Jean Carthary, companies such as Royal Canin and Hills Science Diet were able to expand their income with specialized diets.
Then, because of the continued rise in pet disease and mortality, the 1980’s and 90’s saw a massive increase in veterinary schools. In the 1940’s, there were only 10 schools that offered veterinary sciences in the US. Now, there are over 40 colleges and universities, sponsored by large kibble companies, that specialize in Veterinary Medicine, careers built on disease and disorder diagnosis and treatment in household pets.
Fast forward to the turn of the century. Pet health continues to decline. Most dog food is still processed using extrusion because it is inexpensive and creates a known product that is shelf stable and convenient. Even though there have been numerous recalls and outbreaks of pet deaths linked to mysterious additives, big dog food companies have deep pockets to employ lawyers to hold cases up in court for years. And they still have very lucrative and successful advertising campaigns--just take a walk down your local grocery store aisle. But, despite the pretty images on the shelf, we can see that these trends over the years haven’t been made with our pets’ best health in mind. We can choose a better diet, one that gets back to how dogs were meant to eat--with whole meat ingredients that are not heat treated or preserved in any way. Our pets deserve a diet they can thrive on, and they rely on us to give it to them.