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The History of Dog Food

In 1860, James Spratt, an electrician and lightning rod salesman from Ohio, was the first to manufacture a dried dog biscuit food. While living in England, Spratt observed street dogs eating ship hardtack, the non-perishable food made from processed cereals. The idea for commercial dog food was born.

Spratt called his biscuit the “Patented Meat Fibrine Dog Cake.” His company began operations in America in the 1870s. Spratt appears to have been the first commercial producer of cat food, too.

Prior to the advent of Spratt’s Dog Cake, household pets were generally fed table scraps. Spratt was a relentless advertiser, convincing Americans to purchase his product by targeting participants and spectators at dog shows. In the 1950s, General Mills acquired Spratt’s US business.

In 1907, F.H. Bennett Biscuits Co. introduced bone-shaped “Milk-Bone” dog biscuits. His biscuits were “whole nutrition” made with meats, cereals, milk, liver oil, and vitamins. They were packaged in boxes, rather than in bulk, to meet the needs of different breed sizes.

The 1930’s saw the introduction of a dry dog meat meal produced by Gaines Food Company. Clarence Gaines marketed his “100% complete and balanced nutrition” by exhibiting his own pointer at a well-known dog show. General Foods purchased Gaines in 1943.

After World War I and the invention of cars, horsemeat became very cheap. An Illinois horse dealer, P.M. Chappel, started canning horsemeat under the brand name of Ken-L Ration. Chappel and his brothers were said to have gone up and down Chicago streets with cans of horsemeat trying to persuade owners of pet shops to display and use it. Until 1968, Ken-L Ration was the sponsor of the pet kennel at Disneyland, known as Ken-L Land. Ken-L Ration was purchased by Quaker Oats, then the brand was sold to the H.J. Heinz Co. in 1995.

During World War II, metal used for canned dog food was set aside for the war effort. This nearly ruined the canned pet food industry. Dog food manufacturers also experienced difficulties in maintaining high-quality products under the conditions of wartime shortages.

Commercial dog foods in the early 1940s could not maintain an Army dog in good working condition. So in November 1942, the Quartermaster Corps authorized the procurement of both commercial dog food and additional meat to supplement the diet. In March 1944, the Army Veterinary Service developed a canned dog food by combining ground horsemeat and herring.

After WWII, the pet food industry capitalized on the meat by-products industry as an economical and convenient way to feed dogs. By then, annual commercial pet food sales had reached $200 million. The number one benefit of commercial pet food was convenience, and with the economy booming, people could now afford the luxury of pet food.

At first canned pet food was the primary type of food sold, but in 1956 the first dry kibble pet foods were being produced via a process called extrusion, which forms foods into dry kibble.

Success continued throughout the 1960s and 1970s as companies began to diversify flavors and refine the extrusion technology. The 1980s saw the introduction of ailment-specific diets such as those offered by Hill’s Pet Nutrition for kidney or liver failure. In the 1990s, pet food was diversified further to include diets based on the activity level and breed of dog.

As of 2011, the pet food industry in the United States had grown to $18-20 billion in annual sales (figures vary by source). Several large, global manufacturers dominate the U.S. pet food market. Over 70% of the pet food products sold in the United States currently come from five mega-corporations, including Nestle SA, Colgate-Palmolive Co., and Proctor & Gamble Co.

Still, the U.S. pet food market remains highly competitive, with “boutique” pet food manufacturers and private label store brands gaining in market share. The current consumer trend in pet foods is toward a more natural or holistic diet, including both raw and homemade human-quality foods. Nutritional research continues to influence diet recommendations for pets, and consumers are now rating pet health and wellness more important to their food choices than convenience and price.

Trends indicate that the future of the pet food industry will continue to be excellent no matter what’s happening in the overall economy.

Veterinarian and Certified Veterinary Acupuncturist Dr. Rachel Addleman, DVM, DABVP, CVA, has been practicing for over 14 years. She has advanced training and Board Certification in feline medicine. Dr. Addleman practices at Houston Animal Acupuncture & Herbs and Memorial Cat Hospital in Houston, Texas. This article is re-printed with permission.

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Main article photo by: Dr. E.W. Smith,