Updated: Mar 9, 2022
In the years prior to World War II, family companions either scavenged food from the streets or were fed table scraps and other products from the family farm such as butchered meats and eggs as well as mice and birds caught via hunting (1). Even prior to that, our feline and canine companions hunted in the woods and on the savannah, running at top speeds to catch their unlucky prey. Today a majority of companions eat a cereal based diet from a bag on your pet store shelf that you, their human companions, obtained for them. So how did we get from a raw meat diet to the standard dry bagged food?
It all began with a stigma: that raw meat was indicative of a savage being. Therefore if dogs and cats were to become household pets, they would need to eat a more ‘civilized’ diet. As a result of this ‘civilized’ diet, purchasing pet food became known as a status symbol, as it meant that you shared your life with a domesticated dog or cat. If you could afford to have these companions and pay for their food, you were viewed as wealthy. This is exactly where dry pet food came into play as the major food source for companion animals.
Around 1860, James Spratt developed the first dog biscuits inspired by the ship biscuits he found left behind by the crews that he would travel with. They were made of a baked mixture of wheat, beet root, and vegetables bound together with beef blood. Not only were they easy and inexpensive to make but they had a long shelf life requiring no refrigeration. This was essential at this time as refrigerators were not common in the household until 1913 (2, 3, 4).
Others followed suit, including a Boston, Massachusetts Veterinarian A.C. Daniels who created a medicated bread for dogs in the 1880s. This bread boasted not only helping your dog obtain a shiny coat, but a cure for every ailment including worms and other unwanted disease (5).
Further developments included the F.H. Bennett biscuit company in 1908 who developed the first puppy food and varying kibble sizes for a variety of dog breeds (6).
In 1922 the Chappel Brothers developed the first canned dog food made of horse meat. They came up with the idea of sponsoring a radio show which skyrocketed the sale of their canned food so much that they soon began breeding horses in order to satisfy the demand (7).
Finally, in 1931 the popular company Nabisco bought out a company responsible for what is now called Milkbones becoming the first biscuit that could be found in grocery stores (8).
Once World War I began, canned food only continued to grow in popularity becoming a convenient way to feed companion pets. However, when World War II hit and metal tin cans along with food were being rationed, wet canned food began to be phased out as dry pet foods became more convenient and popular. With the advent of dry food taking over the pet owners home, customers were fed the idea that they no longer needed to feed precious and scarce human food to their cat or dog. Consumers were also told grains were now essential for their companions as well because it provided a quality energy source from the carbohydrates (9). Little did consumers know, grains were a cheap (and often poor quality) ingredient to add to pet foods. However, it was appealing to those needing a convenient and inexpensive diet for their companion (10). Consumers were also told that fresh beef could "overheat the dog's blood," and that “table scraps will break down his digestive powers [making] him prematurely old and fat." (11).
As the economy quickly grew, people began filling much needed job spaces and taking the time to get education. This developed a need for fast, inexpensive, and convenient goods; a mindset that made its way into every industry. With this increase, industrial waste products at mills and meat factories also increased. As dry pet food gained more traction, these locations finally had a place to send their by-products such as deceased livestock and grains that didn’t meet inspection criteria. It appeared to be a win-win for the producer and the consumer (12, 13, 14, 15).
After the advent and discovery of the convenience that the dry pet food industry brought, the 1950s ushered in a new way of preparing pet food (16). Inspired by human food, cereal companies, through the process of extrusion, mixed ingredients together, cooked them at high temperatures, and pushed the dough through a shaper before baking it (17). The final product was sprayed with various sweeteners to make it more palatable to people. This process was later adapted for the pet food industry allowing for a large variety of kibble flavors, shapes, sizes, and colors, further advancing the industry.
As the years went by more and more pet food companies popped up, each claiming to be better than the previous. They boasted new ingredients, healthier foods, and diets for every illness and disease. We even began seeing companies selling to all income levels and larger companies buying up tons of other pet food companies.
In 2007, a pet food recall for melamine contamination that resulted in hundreds of cases of sick animals (sometimes fatally sick) inspired a growth of pet owners looking for alternatives to the low quality processed dog and cat food that they’ve always known (18). This subsequently inspired a whole new market of more natural pet foods including the advent verbiage such as "natural", "holistic", and “ultra premium", none of which are regulated terms (19). Companies started jumping on the raw food bandwagon, producing freeze dried raw, pre-made raw diets, and kibbles sprayed with raw food.
The pet food industry has only continued to grow from there. Nowadays, hundreds of brands, flavors, and food types are more readily available to animal lovers and companions alike. With a fast growing industry from the very start, it’s only anticipated that it will continue to grow as more information sheds light on these amazing and beloved companions and their nutritional needs.
Updated December 21, 2021 by JKF
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Myer, Ferdinand V2. “Dr. A.C. Daniels' Veterinary Medicines.” Peachridge Glass, 25 Apr. 2013, https://www.peachridgeglass.com/2013/04/dr-a-c-daniels-veterinary-medicines/.
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National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences, “Nutrient Requirements of Dogs and Cats”, 2006 Edition, National Academies Press, Washington, DC
Phillips-Donaldson, Debbie. “Lessons for Pet Food from Study on Discarded Human Food?” PetfoodIndustrycom RSS, PetfoodIndustry.com, 4 Jan. 2018, https://www.petfoodindustry.com/blogs/7-adventures-in-pet-food/post/6868-lessons-for-pet-food-from-study-on-discarded-human-food.
Thurston, Mary Elizabeth. The Lost History of the Canine Race: Our 15,000-Year Love Affair with Dogs. Avon Books, 1997.
“What's in the Ingredients List?” The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) > Home, 2012, https://talkspetfood.aafco.org/whatisinpetfood.
“Ingredient Standards?” The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) > Home, 2012, https://talkspetfood.aafco.org/whatisinpetfood.
“By Products?” The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) > Home, 2012, https://talkspetfood.aafco.org/whatisinpetfood.
Thixton, BySusan. “It's Not Pet Food, It's a Waste Disposal System.” Truth about Pet Food, 3 June 2018, https://truthaboutpetfood.com/its-not-pet-food-its-a-waste-disposal-system/.
Karwe, Mukund V. (2008). "Food extrusion". Food Engineering. 3. Oxford Eolss Publishers Co Ltd. ISBN 978-1-84826-946-0
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Nestle, Marion. “The Latest on Pet Food Politics.” Pet Food Politics: The Chihuahua in the Coal Mine, University of California Press, 15 Sept. 2008, https://www.foodpolitics.com/2021/07/the-latest-on-pet-food-politics/.
Medicine, Center for Veterinary. “Pet Food Labels.” U.S. Food and Drug Administration, FDA, 7 Feb. 2020, https://www.fda.gov/animal-veterinary/animal-health-literacy/pet-food-labels-general.