Marcus Terentius Varro (some Roman poet guy) wrote the first farming manual in existence. Now, Varro was a smart man who also wrote books on grammar, poetry, mathematics, and astronomy, so why not agriculture, too? It’s here that the first traces of mainstream dog food recipes can be found. A delicious blend of “barley bread soaked in milk and the bones from dead sheep.”
For hundreds of years before and after, commoners would usually feed their dogs only what they had to give. Maybe a crust of bread or some potatoes. Rich folks in the Middle Ages had their cooks (their kennels’ cooks) prep soups with veggies, grains, and limited meat, but the meat was typically the offal of farm animals.
The use and dependence on farm dogs’ abilities to herd animals caused owners to favor and treat them with reverence. The typical diet of an 18th and 19th century farm dog involved lots of grains and suet or lard. Dead horses were—you guessed it—a real treat for local dogs if they weren’t sent to the glue factories first.
But the Industrial Revolution sincerely revolutionized everything: there was finally a massive middle class with tons of time to kick up their heels, and pianos, electric lights, and pets were things that they craved. And when the pets started getting treated like family members, the foods they ate became much more important. Even before 1895--when the first American veterinarians graduated--‘experts’ were telling pet owners to avoid giving their dogs raw meat. The rationale? Their household dogs needed to be more civilized.
An American lightning rod salesman changed everything. James Spratt was arriving in London by steamship when he saw the crew tossing stale ‘biscuits’ to dogs who’d become accustomed to receiving these nautical treats. Granted, the ‘biscuits’ that sailors had been eating for centuries were simply flour, water, and salt, and almost unbearably indigestible for anyone or anything. They did have an extremely long shelf life, which gave Spratt an idea.
Ever the shrewd American businessman, Spratt saw possible profit in developing a healthy, cheap, dried dog biscuit for the growing business class. His recipe included a healthy mixture of wheat, beet root, and vegetables bound together with beef blood. Sounds great, right? Well, it doesn’t matter: in 1860, Spratt’s Meat Fibrine Dog Cakes hit the market and were an enormous smash with the English, especially the hunting class.
In 1870, the Spratt company made their pilgrimage back over to America, and the American pet food industry was born. The company was renowned for targeting health-conscious dog owners and, interestingly, created the concept of animal ‘life stages’ with pertinent foods for each of them.
Anyway, the Spratt company inspired hundreds of pop-up copy cats, which created their own biscuits and dry food based on the knowledge of canine nutrition of the day.
Between the World Wars, Nabisco (National Biscuit Company [I didn’t know that either.]) hired a few thousand salespeople just to push their new Milkbone products into grocery stores. The first canned dog food, Ken-L-Ration, was created in 1922. After World War I, aluminum and tin were readily available and canned horsemeat became the new dog food. You have to remember that industrialization, farming advances, and automobiles were making horses obsolete, and…well…
In the 1930s, house cats received their first tinned cat food, too. By 1941, canned dog food accounted for 90% of the market. But nothing gold can stay: with the tin and meat rationing that came with World War II, dry pet foods became the standard.
Manufacturers got a lot of complaints (and pretty quickly) about the texture and digestibility of dry food, and Purina took them seriously. For three years, the cereal division (yeah, the ones that made Chex famous) worked on Purina Dog Chow. Released in 1957, and it’s still the best-selling dog food in America. Because of their scientific pencil-pushing and testing, most American grocery stores dedicate more shelf space to pet food than they do for baby food or even breakfast cereal.
Purina nailed it: people’s pets matter.
Since then, there have been tremendous developments in the pet food industry, not only in production but in an advertisement as well. Plus, the American agriculture industry benefitted by having a place for meat-packing by-products to finally go towards rather than go to waste. The FDA also got involved in creating stronger processing methods and quality controls, which reflected the food science that veterinarians began cautioning their clients about. As a result, it’s estimated that 95% of American pets’ caloric intake comes directly from commercial pet food.
Pet food is an $11 billion industry, and with the advancement of organic and bio-friendly foods, it’s only going to increase in the coming years.
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