The History of Dog Food

Nutrition, last updated 09th, Mar 2008, Shalesh

The first commercial dog food was introduced in England about 1860. James Spratt, an electrician from Ohio, was in London selling lightning rods when he saw miserable street dogs ganged up along the piers waiting to being tossed mouldy hardtack biscuits and scraps of rotten food.

This was a very old type of feeding called "trencher feeding" that had existed in the U.K. since before there were dinner plates. A "trencher" was a flat piece of bread once commonly used as a plate or underneath a rough wooden plate. Food was served on this bread and the bread and the table scraps (along with spoiled food and boiled knuckle bones) were then "tossed to the dogs."

Spratt decided he could do better than bread and hard-tack biscuits, and he came up with a biscuit, shaped like a bone, made of wheat, vegetables, beetroot and beef blood. Spratt's dog food company thrived, and around 1890 he took it to the U.S. where it became "Spratt's Patent Limited" which eventually diversified into other feed stocks (such as fish food) as well as veterinary medicines.

In the 1950s Spratt's became part of General Mills, and in 1960 it was bought by "Spillers" dog food company (a UK subsidiary of Purina which is owned by General Mills). Today Spillers makes "Bonio" bone-shaped biscuits which are very similar to those once manufactured by James Spratt.

Other dog food companies sprang up, many with paid endorsements from veterinarians who shilled for them just as veterinarians shill for Hill's "Science Diet" today. Right from the beginning pet food manufacturers discouraged their clients from supplementing with anything but food out of the box. A culture of dependence was being forged.

In 1907, F.H. Bennett introduced Milkbone dog biscuits as a complete dog food and a direct competitor to Spratt. Milkbone and Spratt's Dogs Food and Cake dominated pet food manufacturing until the 1920's when canned dog food was first introduced by Ken-L-Ration.

Canned horsemeat was cheap after World War I as huge numbers of horses and mules were being replaced by cars and tractors. The growth in canned dog food really shot up in the 1930s, and by 1941, canned dog food represented 91% of the dog food market in the U.S.

Canned dog food fell out of favor (and supply) during World War II when a shortage of tin made canning difficult and expensive, and as the horse surplus dried up. By 1946, dry dog food was king once again, and it has remained so to this day.

The production of enormous bags of "kibbled" dog foods began in earnest in 1957 when the Purina company began marketing extruded dry dog "chow" through grocery store chains. Purina followed on with cat chow in 1962. Today most grocery stores in the U.S. devote more shelf space to canned and kibbled dog food than they do to breakfast cereal or baby food.

Ralston Purina created the soft-moist pet food category in 1971, and this category now includes such foods as Purina ONE and Pro Plan.

The rise in kibbled dog food in the U.S. seems to coincide with a rise in canine skin problems arising from canine allergies to corn, wheat and perhaps other additives to dry dog food such as preservatives, coloring, and stabilizers.

Pervception is not necessarily reality, of course. In fact, not all canine allergies are due to food. At the same that pet owners were switching to bagged dog food, they were also washing their dogs more (causing dry skin) and bringing them indoors where they came in contact with carpet cleaners, laundry soaps, room fresheners, and a host of other chemicals.

In addition, the aggressive line-breeding of dogs to create new types (almost all of which were created between 1850 and 1930), served to concentrate genetic defects in certain lines of dogs -- including genetic predispositions to skin allergies.

If you think your dog may have a food allergy, the only true test is to switch foods. This is a process, however, not an event. It may take several weeks on a new diet for a dog's skin condition to improve, so it's best to start an "elimination diet" right at the beginning. This can be as simple as feeding your dog table scraps for a few weeks (no salt, no bread) which will increase variety in the diet. Once your dog's skins problems have abated, introduce a new type of food and watch for any recurrence of skin problems.

Price, quality of food and skin allergies are not closely related. Dogs can be allergic to very high-quality ingredients. In fact, the most common food allergy in dogs is an allergy to beef! Whatever food you use, I recommend that all bagged foods be bought from supermarkets or other venues with high-volume sales so that they remain fresh as long as possible.

Above all, be wary of food fads, which are always more about the human than the dog. Your goal should be a balanced diet, a dog that has healthy stools, no allergies, sound teeth, and is on the thin side.

A great deal of what you read on bulletin boards and list-servs about dog food is nonsense. Today's pet food companies and executives are not going to risk their brands, reputations and personal credibility by knowingly putting horrific ingredients in dog food.

Remember, we are talking about companies that are producing 12 million pounds of food an hour (a real number). This food has to look and taste the same every time that it is produced, which requires a great deal of regimentation, paperwork, inspection and quality control. Dog food companies are not using road kill for ingredients (as some hysterics have claimed), but entire train loads of cheap and readily available corn, wheat, rice, potatoes, soy and beef parts, as well as breathtaking amounts of lamb, chicken and "meal" made from ground up beef, chicken, lamb and turkey (including bones). To this mixture are added vitamins and various additives for color (to please you) and preservatives (because people prefer to buy dog food in big bags that will last several weeks).

For most dogs, bagged kibble supplemented with vegetables and a few special scraps from the kitchen (a few scrambled eggs, a bit of sausage, a few carrots) works fine. Most dogs do not have skin problems of any kind, and most canine skin problems are not food related. I prefer kibbled dog food over semi-soft because I think it is better for the dog's teeth, and because the high heat of the extruding process sterlizes the ingredients, while the dryness of the product discourages spoilage.

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