The pet food industry has grown into a multibillion-dollar behemoth. Pet parents are overwhelmed with choices and also hear about recall after recall. Most recently, 140 dates and lots from Midwestern Pet Foods have been cited, including the Earthborn and Sportmix lines.
There is also the ongoing concern about grain-free pet foods and if there is a causation for dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM), a heart condition — another very tough subject as both camps, pro and con, have valid arguments and data. Simply put, some dogs and cats really cannot tolerate grain in the diet, yet others flourish when the switch is made to grain-based diets.
One then starts to wonder what we fed these animals prior to the last 161 years when dry pet food was invented.
Dogs and cats have now been with us for thousands of years. What were they being fed? Stories abound of table scraps. As far back as 600 BC during the Greco-Roman era, there are artist renditions of dogs that would lounge under the master’s banquet table and eat the scraps.
With agriculture-dependent farming, slaughtering animals was a routine task. So many parts of the animal would go to waste if they were not fed. With fowl, the necks, beaks, feet and backs are not consumed by humans but they are by dogs. All of these parts are now sold by pet food manufacturers as dog food or treats.
Technically, raw and home-cooked are the oldest forms of pet food.
According to the Pet Food Institute (PFI), “By 2000 BCE, humans were giving consideration into what to feed their dogs. Roman poet and philosopher Marcus Terentius Varro wrote a manual on farming, ‘Farm Topics,’ that advised providing dogs with meat and bones, and barley soaked in milk.”
PFI continues, “Near the end of the 14th century, Gaston III, the 11th count of Foix Count in Southwestern France and an avid hunter, wrote a book in which he described how his beloved greyhounds were to be cared for. This included reference to what they were to be fed: bran bread, some of the meat from the hunt, and if the dog was sick, goat’s milk, bean broth, chopped meat or buttered eggs.
“In common households during the middle ages and through the mid-19th centuries, however, little consideration was given to feeding dogs, as a dog’s diet was much like that of its owners, consisting of whatever owners could spare, such as knuckles of bone, cabbage, potatoes, onions and crusts of bread,” states PFI. “In the mid-1800s, a dog or cat’s diet may have been slightly more varied in cities where it was common for people to purchase horse meat for their pets, as working horses would die in the city streets.”
Dry pet food was relatively late on the scene. It was created back in 1860 when James Spratt, an electrician and U.S. citizen, witnessed sailors in England throwing their hardtack biscuits to dogs that gobbled them up. It gave him the idea to create a dry biscuit for sale that had shelf life. It was quite expensive and really only marketed to the more well to do at first. The first dog biscuit was a mix of wheat meals, vegetables, beetroot and beef blood. But of course, this later expanded.
Then came the onset of canned food. After World War I, there was a surplus of discarded metal equipment and horses. This led to the perfect combination and inspiration for the famous canned food brand Ken-L Ration, launched in 1922. It was labeled as “lean, red meat” with fine print that it was from horses. By 1941, they had 90 percent of the market share — so much so that the company was using 50,000 slaughtered horses per year to meet demand.
During and after World War II, there was a rationing and shortage of tin and meat, which created the shift to dry pet food from canned. General Mills bought Spratt’s company in 1950, and the Ralston Purina company began experimenting with the equipment that produced their Chex brand cereals.
By 1956, they had created the first dry pet food manufactured through extrusion. Extrusion is the process by which a dough is created from wet and dry food then forced through a machine at high heat. Because so many nutrients are lost with this process, the manufacturers have to spray the nutrients back onto the dried bits. This is still the process used today for a majority of pet food.
Jane Laulis is an avid pet lover. She hosts a pet talk radio show and is involved with pets from research to retail, nutrition to pet food manufacturing. She lives on the coast with her scientist husband, ocean faring dogs, indoor cats, exotic snakes, and a charm of hummingbirds. She may be reached at [email protected]