How We Got Here: The History of Pet Food

Welcome to the Neo Bites Blog, written by me, Wesley Cooper. This post is to provide a brief historical overview on the pet food industry as a whole (facts), while offering my take on some things (opinions). 


Before I dive in, here’s a quick background on the domestication of dogs: Dogs have been around humans for thousands upon thousands of years. It’s estimated that dogs were domesticated around 15,000 years ago, and have likely been keeping us company for more than 30,000 years. One study estimates a single domestication event of modern dogs from a single population of gray wolves happened around 20,000-40,000 years ago. Several other studies claim different offerings beyond a single domestication event, and instead say that wolves were domesticated more than once and in more than one location. Regardless of whether or not we’ll ever know exactly when and where the domestication of dogs began, we can confidently conclude that humans and dogs have an extended history together. 


It All Began With Scraps.

Early domesticated dogs ate whatever their owner could spare (i.e. table scraps) and primarily lived outside. Following the Industrial Revolution, dogs started to become more a part of the family and pet parents began to pay more attention to what they fed their dogs. 


Risk It For The Biscuit.

Spratt's Patent Dog Cakes

In 1860, a man by the name of James Spratt would change the way dogs ate forever. As the story goes, he was on a business trip to London and witnessed dogs eating hardtack, a simple biscuit/cracker that sailors ate on long journeys. Following this spark of discovery, Spratt got to work formulating a biscuit that would act as a primary source of food for dogs. The biscuits, “Spratt’s Patent Meat Fibrine Dog Cakes,” were made using mixed grains, vegetables, beetroot and beef parts. The biscuits were expensive, but Spratt’s venture was ultimately a success as he found a market with English country gentlemen.


Can-It. 

Ken-L Ration

Shortly after WWI, canned dog food made its way into the market. Canned dog food brand “Ken-L Ration” quickly took the commercial pet food market by storm and became the new standard. Ken-L Ration used horse meat marketed as “lean, red meat.” The dawn of canned food propelled competition and horses were bred specifically for use in dog food - an astounding 50,000 horses were slaughtered each year. In 1941, just before the United States entered World War II, canned dog food owned 90% of the pet food market. 


When WWII began, it completely reshaped the pet food industry. Tin and meat were rationed and commercial pet food companies were forced to get creative. Dry pet food came back into popularity, and by the end of WWII, the biscuit that started it all had shifted from dog food to dog dessert. 


New Kid In Town: Extrusion.
Purina Dog Chow 1957

In 1950, Ralston-Purina Co. started using a cooking extruder to make their Chex cereal. What exactly is extrusion? Extrusion is a process that pushes ingredients through a tube, cooks them at a high temperature and high pressure, pushes them through a “die” that shapes them, and puffs them up with air. Not long after the company started using this method for cereal, the Purina pet food division borrowed an extrusion machine to explore a new way to make pet food. By 1957, Purina Dog Chow was born. 


In just two years, Purina Dog Chow became the leading dog food brand in the United States. A few years later The Pet Food Institute, a group of lobbyists for the pet food industry, launched a campaign that was so successful that kibble was made synonymous with dog food. Extrusion was here to stay. 


Today.

The industry has transformed over the years and there are now hundreds if not thousands of options all claiming to be the best. The pet food industry is run by marketing campaigns and health trends much like the human food industry. Keto and Paleo are to humans what Grain-Free and Raw are to dogs. The only constant amidst all of these trends in human and pet food alike, has been a whole-food, balanced diet. 


The innovation in the 20th Century led to the creation of some really amazing things, but also some things that have created a lot of problems for us now in such a short amount of time: plastic, fast food, junk food, mass-use of fossil fuels etc. Looking at dog food, the rapid commercialization and innovation was ground-breaking - but profit was (and still remains) much more of a priority than quality, health and environmental impact. 


We aren’t here to say any one thing is better than the other - but we do want to bring the attention back to what matters most: Pets and Planet Earth.