Do You Know The History of Dog Food? 2023

by Suzie Cyrenne September 21, 2023 12 min read

6 Comments

Stone age man with his dog.

Have you ever wondered how commercial dog food started? Surely there was no name-brand "prepared" pet food a few hundred years ago and yet today, the business of manufacturing dog food is a multi-billion dollar industry and still growing.

There are just too many questions regarding how the commercially prepared pet food industry really began and we’re hoping to be able to answer some of them for you as well as give you some new information. Here’s what we are going to cover as we go along:

  1. What started dog food "modernization" and how did it change throughout history?

  2. Why are we no longer feeding our dogs people food?

  3. Is raw feeding for dogs a new thing?

  4. What dog food trend are we looking forward to in the future?

  5. What can you do to be a positive part of that trend?

Have you asked yourself any of the questions above? If so, you’re in luck! Like you, we at Zumalka are somewhat skeptical pet parents. We don’t subscribe to convention and we are always looking for ways to help our puppy Westin (he’s an adorable golden-doodle) attain the best health he can have.

While we here at Zumalka promote proper animal nutrition for dogs and cats (not to mention all other types of pets), this article is primarily focused on foods for canines. These will cover examples like canned food, wheat meals, dog kibble, veterinary diets as well as other commercial pet food targeted at pooches.

That’s why we started gathering information on raw dog food (and an overview of pet nutrition while we're at it) and thought of writing this series to share what we’ve found out with you. Make sure you follow along because we've got lots to talk about. Let’s start shall we?

 

 

For The Love of Man’s Best Friend

Chow Chow resting after play.

Hello, fellow dog lover! We’ve written this article to share with you how the dog food market began. We hope to pull the whole thing off in a non-boring way. Ready for a blast from the past? Then keep on reading!

As part of our mission to help everyone focus on their dog’s health and well-being, we thought that a backgrounder on raw pet food and manufactured dog food would be useful for everyone contemplating starting their pet on a raw food diet.

We are not trying to convince anyone to do something they don’t want to do but rather giving you, our readers the information you need to make smart decisions for your fur baby. We believe that when it comes to pet parenting, we are all on the same page, right?

We do adore our pooches and we love nothing else than pampering them, but how sure are you that you are giving your fur baby the best food you can provide?

 

Pre-Kibble Timeline of How the Commercial Pet Food Industry Began

Border Collie in a field.

2000 Years Ago

Things were very different back in this time, as domesticated dogs were treated more as working animals rather than pets (because they were indeed working animals before they became family members). The term "feeding dogs" was very much rustic way back then before disposable income began.

The first farming manual written by the Roman philosopher and poet Marcus Terentius Varro contained passages wherein he advised giving domesticated dogs working on the farm the bones of dead sheep as well as barley bread soaked in milk. Hey, that’s not very appetizing!

 

Middle Ages

What is known about the dogs from the Middle Ages is mostly from passages from the records kept by scribes for the European royalty. During that time, it was quite common for the grand houses and royals to keep hounds. The hounds were usually given their own kennels. They were typically considered as expensive gifts and not as companion animals.

The dogs kept in these kennels were fed stews made with meat by-products such as the lungs, livers, and hearts of various animals plus various grains and vegetables. The "stew" for the day is usually made by the kennel cook. If you come to think of it, a royal dog's diet is much better than the common folks of the day.

On the other hand, there are also dogs that live with the common folks as companion animals. In typical households during the Middle Ages, these dogs were given whatever table scraps their owners could spare. Sure this may not seem that palatable, but they were sure getting natural food with both wet and dry ingredients.

This means that the typical domestic dog back then ate cabbage, potatoes, chopped meat scraps, bean broth bare bones, crusts from bread, and whatever else the dogs could get on their own. This is entirely different from the "dog foods" you find in pet food aisles.

 

18th Century

Farm dogs are becoming the norm and are often loved and valued animals. Owners of farm dogs often give them a mixture of lard and grain to keep them healthy so that they can do their job. Yes, the doggies are still somewhat classified as working animals at this time!

Dog food took a new turn with the advent of people making a living by searching for dead horses on city streets so that they could cut up the carcasses and sell the meat to wealthy dog owners. Yes, cheap horse meat was on the menu for dogs.

But should this be considered as the first "specialized" dog food? Not really. Even beef blood was considered dinner for canine companions during this time before the arrival of commercial pet food.

 

What About Luxury Dog Food (Canned Dog Food Not Included)?

Welsh Corgi on a bed.

You see, throughout written history, the very wealthy and aristocrats have always fed their pets very special food. There are records of dogs being fed better than what most humans ate in their time. One such example is the Pekingese dogs of Empress Tzu Hsi of China who was known to have been feeding her dogs antelope or goat's milk, quail breasts, and shark fins.

Not to be left out are the dogs of European nobility which were fed candies, buttered eggs, liquor, roast duck, and even cakes. How's this for dog treats? This was during the time when animal nutrition still wasn't that progressive and the practice applied to both dogs and cats owned by royalty.

While it may be inferred that these dogs and cats may been exposed to health issues like kidney and liver failure, they were no doubt living the high life. Sure their pet's nutritional requirements were not totally satisfied, but their meals were definitely grand!

The early beginnings of pet foods truly took a drastic turn in the mid-1800s when the Industrial Revolution created a growing middle class. These "new rich" loved luxury and had more leisure time, often treating dogs as "luxury items" and "status symbols." As a result of this, a trend towards more scrutiny of pet food began.

 

Say Hello to Veterinary Medicine

Veterinarian checking a dog.

With more and more people lavishing affection on their pets, it means more money is spent on the pet industry. Thus, the profession of veterinary medicine was born. This is closely related to how the pet food industry boomed, too. Say what?

Yes, it might be a bit shocking to us these days but the profession of veterinary medicine was born out of our love for our dogs and cats! In fact, a formal platform of animal science was officially founded in 1895 in the United States. This was also the time when raw diets became scrutinized for being "uncivilized."

Around the same time as the founding of veterinary medicine, there were more and more self-proclaimed experts who were giving advice on how to really feed dogs. The "experts" are also commenting on the dogs’ behavior and the common thinking of the day is that the dogs need to be more civilized.

This is when the strong preference for cooked meat as dog food started ( a precursor for canned pet food). People were truly thinking that only wild and "uncivilized" dogs would eat raw meat or raw pet food per se. This same thinking strongly influenced the pet food industry for almost a century.

 

What Changed It All: Commercial Pet Food Like Kibbles and Dog Biscuits!

Commercial pet food put in a bowl.

Would you believe that there is a story regarding how dry kibble became the "standard" dog food all over the world? It all started in the 1850s when James Spratt, a young electrician from Cincinnati went to London for his lighting rod business.

He witnessed the crew members from the ship he boarded "threw" some leftover ship biscuits to the waiting dogs at the dock. This gave Spratt the idea to create the first dry dog food, which became the usual stuff people feed their pooches these days.

Spratt knew that the hard tack (the other name for the ship biscuits) was what sailors usually eat. He also knew that the biscuits could be kept for months and it is relatively easy and cheap to make. After all, the biscuits were made with only some salt, water, and flour which was mixed together, baked, and allowed to harden and dry.

Spratt knew that this dog biscuit had an extremely long shelf life (because there was no refrigeration back in those days) and he saw an opportunity in that. He thought that he could easily make and sell the cheap and convenient biscuits to urban dog owners and he was right! The public loved his dog food!

 

The Birth of the Pet Food Industry: Spratt’s Patent Fibrine Dog Cakes

Rottweiler playing outside.

The first dog biscuits were made with vegetables, beetroot, and wheat, which were mixed together with beef blood and then baked. The dogs loved it and so did the pet parents back then, making Spratt’s Dog Cakes a big hit in England once it was introduced to the market in 1860.

Spratt established one of the earliest companies in the history of commercial pet food. He was doing so well that he soon took his new product to New York in 1870—thus, giving rise to the American Pet Food Industry.

 

But, What About Raw Food?

Raw meat for dogs and cats.

You have to understand that all of these happened during the industrial revolution. The concept of convenience is something everyone was exploiting and science is not as advanced as what we have now. Remember, there were still no federal regulatory officials or the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) to help oversee the whole thing.

Pet nutrition was still a bit simple even during this time. Pet owners fed their dogs human food and sometimes even raw meat. Alternatively, there was no standard for what cat food really is during this time as well.

However, as cities grew and people thought that going for the "convenient" route was what progress is, they veered away from feeding their canine companions raw meat and went more and more into feeding their dog foods like dry kibble.

 

Here’s a Historical Timeline of Others Who Followed in Spratt’s Footsteps:

Commercial dog treats in a container.

1880s

A.C. Daniel’s Medicated Dog Bread was introduced by a veterinarian from Boston, Massachusetts. It was one of the earliest forms of veterinary diets that offered a healthier type of pet food other than meat scraps.

 

1908

The F.H. Bennet Biscuit Company began making bone-shaped biscuits while also manufacturing the first puppy dry food. The concept of making dog food in different-sized kibbles for various dog breeds and ages caught on to satisfy a pet's nutritional requirements.

 

1922

Ken-L-Ration, which was introduced by the Chappel Brothers from Rockford Illinois, became the first canned dog food in the market. It was made with horse meat and the dogs did love them, especially once the Chappel Brothers began sponsoring events to market their products. It was also one of the first pet food companies that advertised on popular radio shows such as The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin.

This first canned dog food became so popular that the company had to begin breeding horses just so they could meet the consumers’ growing appetite for it, resulting in the slaughter of about 50,000 horses a year by the 1930s—and yes, that’s just for their brand of canned dog food. The term "breeding horses" surely had a different implication during this time.

 

1931

Nabisco (The National Biscuit Company) bought the Bennet company and renamed the dog biscuits as "Milkbones." They also started a campaign to really start making Milkbones as the "standard" dog food of the day. In fact, they even hired 3,000 salesmen whose job is centered on getting Milkbones into the national consciousness by making sure that every food store has it.

The campaign worked so well that dog biscuits became a regular part of grocery shopping for everyone who has a dog. You see, the concept of having dry kibbles, biscuits, or whatever you call them is less than 100 years old. Whereas eating real food and raw feeding has been around for millennia after millennia.

As for canned dog food, it outshined the kibble form in popularity at this time. Why? Pet owners saw that their dogs preferred the commercial wet dog food as compared to the dry dog biscuits and kibbles and bought it more. That was how things were for a few years until something big caused a huge change.

 

Kibbles Take Center Stage

Commercial dog food in a bowl.

1941

90% of the dog food market was all about canned dog food and pooches loved it! Things did change because World War II happened. Dry dog food became popular again because manufacturing canned dog food took a downturn (because of the scarcity of metals since they were used for the war) and the government had to start rationing food items such as meat.

 

1950

The Ralston Purina Company began making their Chex cereal with a cooking extruder. Using the extruder, a mixture of cereals and other ingredients was pushed through a tube wherein they were cooked under high pressure and then puffed up with air. This resulted in the Chex we’ve come to know which stays crispy after milk has been added. But what does this have to do with dog food?

You see, around this time, a lot of pet parents have been complaining about the digestibility, texture, and appearance of their dog’s dry food. This prompted Purina’s pet division to try experimenting with using an extruder from their cereal division to make better dog food and they’ve done it well.

After 3 years, they came up with their Purina Dog Chow, a brand and formulation that is still popular to this day. They've even come up with varieties for aging dogs or senior dogs as time goes by. Pet food options for puppies as well as juvenile dogs and cats were also developed along the way.

 

Wait, No More People Food for the Dogs?

We all know the answer to that, but we’ll talk about how that happened below...

 

1950s

Ken-L-Ration began advertising their canned dog food via television, hooking viewers with phrases such as: “This dog food uses only USDA government-inspected horse meat!” Their commercials were aired during popular shows of the time such as The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, prompting viewers to "love" their product.

 

1964 to Present Time In Terms of Pet Foods

The Pet Food Institute began a campaign to get pet parents to only feed their dogs packaged dog food. We’re talking about them funding reports and getting those reports published in magazines and local papers.

Some sponsored reports even talked about the dangers of table scraps and feeding the dogs raw meat. If you look at it, the Pet Food Institute had a hand in shedding a negative light on raw diets. Can you believe that?

That’s what aggressive marketing and advertising are guys! We’re sure plenty of you are familiar with that, especially with the current world we live in where we are bombarded with ads everywhere (like in Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and various other social media networks).

Do you know that as far back as 5 decades ago, the dog food industry was spending an incredible $50 million a year on advertising alone? That’s more than 50 years ago so you can just imagine how much they are spending now. And that's even with the Food Safety Modernization Act in 2011, too!

Where do they get the money and more so, how can they afford it? One theory is that they make huge profits by skimping on ingredients. Ouch! But we better not talk about that here since we’ve already touched up on that topic in our blog on the 10 Real Truths About Manufactured Food for Cats and Dogs.

The thing is, most of the competing pet food companies are claiming that their dog food is made with pure beef, all in the name of advertising. Claims like that have been proven as nothing but claims and are far from the truth.

Did you know that the Purina company even acquired the American Crab Meat Company as its division for cat food manufacturing? It claimed to make cat food fortified with crab meat. However, when their brand was tested, not even the smallest trace of crab was found.

Ask yourself, won’t you rather give your pet REAL beef? Just think….

Today, manufactured dog food is a huge part of the $11 billion pet food industry. That industry is still growing but to what trend? Are we going to continue feeding our dogs GMO corn, wheat, and soy or are we going to change the course of history by going back to the basics?

The answer to all that is up to you, and so is the future history of dog food. So what are you going to do?

We hope that you’ve enjoyed this article on the history of dog food and that you’ll tune in for more parts of this series.

Have any thoughts? Then feel free to leave a comment down below or talk to us on Facebook. You can even do both!

Until next time fellow pet lovers!

Suzie Cyrenne
Suzie Cyrenne

HOMEOPATH & CO-FOUNDER OF ZUMALKA

Suzie Cyrenne has dedicated more than 20 years of her life in making and improving natural animal health solutions in the global setting.

Being the co-founder of Zumalka, Suzie is a forerunner in enhancing the lives of pets through natural and homeopathic options using the knowledge she has gained from the Classical Homeopathy School in Quebec.

Through the guidance of her mother-in-law and fellow natural health expert, Denyse Lessard, Suzie constantly devotes herself to create premium pet products that are aimed at dealing with the root causes of wellness problems and not just their symptoms.

Besides immersing herself in books, personal development and visiting new places, Suzie also enjoys keeping herself in tiptop shape by snowboarding and taking daily hikes with her husband and Zumalka co-founder, Matt Lessard, and their Golden-Doodle, Westin.

Find out more about Suzie when you click HERE.

6 Responses

gamesellru
gamesellru

May 17, 2021

I congratulate, what necessary words…, a brilliant idea

Rosemary
Rosemary

March 08, 2021

I ran out of dog food 2 weeks ago and just cooked up some rice seeing how I was too lazy to go to the store. I mix in our scraps from dinner and whatever food my infant didn’t finish throughout the day, rotisserie chicken, meat trimmings from whatever I’m cooking. Like tonight they had rice, rotisserie chicken, broccoli, potato skins and hard boiled eggs. I no longer fight with them to eat there food, now I’m fighting them off begging for more. Its only been 2 weeks, but I’m noticing more energy and better stools. I no longer trust these manufacturing companies telling me I’m a bad parent feeding my human and furbabies homemade food. They are both only getting that from now on.

HOMEOANIMAL
HOMEOANIMAL

January 23, 2020

Hi Estefania, Thank you for your excellent question. According to the pet food institute: Businessman James Spratt introduced the first commercially-prepared pet food in England in approximately 1860. After seeing dogs being fed leftover biscuits from a ship, Spratt formulated the first dog biscuit: a mix of wheat meals, vegetables, beetroot and beef blood.

Estefania
Estefania

January 23, 2020

What was the first ever made dog food???

Simone Barker
Simone Barker

March 29, 2019

I was ready on dogs and obesity and owners denial of their animals condition. I have had dogs all my life and my dogs never has problems with weight. Now in the year 2019 my lab is overweight with fatty lypomias which add to his problem. I think it’s what they are putting in their commercial food source more so than lack of exercise. Any thoughts? What is the best food to feed him? He is a senior dog. I would not mind raw if it is best. Thanks for such a well written article .

Patricia Masius
Patricia Masius

April 04, 2019

Hello, I just subscribed to your newsletter. I really enjoyed reading your article!! 😃😃 Very interesting history as well as a very important message to fellow dog lovers not to believe everything they say in their advertisements.

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