The Beginnings of Dog Food (Pre 1800’s)
Dogs have been human companions for thousands of years, going back way before the concept of dry or canned dog food.
The first domesticated dogs would have eaten anything they could find, including scraps from their masters such as bones and other foods that weren’t fit for human consumption.
This is not too dissimilar to what some current stray dogs eat, especially in some developing countries with large stray dog populations.
There are several medieval accounts on how dogs were fed, and many of these referenced feeding dogs waste organs from animals or foods mixed with milk or whey.
However, not all dogs would have eaten like this, and some dogs, such as those owned by hunters, royalty, or the wealthy, may have enjoyed an improved diet.
Often dogs were given a portion of the hunt to incentivize them, and this helped several of the modern hunting dog breeds evolve into what they are today.
For thousands of years, domesticated dogs’ diets remained like this, varying from factors like culture, location, and time of year.
However, with the coming of the industrial revolution, everything was about to change.
The Industrial Revolution (1800-1899)
In the 1800’s it was extremely common for dogs to eat horse meat. This was as there was a much larger population of working horses at this time, and these horses often died of diseases or other health problems.
Rather than go to waste, this horse meat was repurposed as a cheap option to feed dogs and other animals like cats.
The First Commercial Dog Food
The first form of commercial dog food was developed by an English businessman called James Spratt. While Spratt was primarily an electrician, he managed to formulate a simple dog biscuit from a mix of wheat meals, vegetables, beetroot, and beef blood.
This idea came to him when he was journeying from Ohio back to the United Kingdom to sell lightning rods and noticed various dogs along the riverbanks in London eating leftover hardtack, which is a dry biscuit that sailors would have eaten at this time during long sea-going voyages.
He wisely realized that there was likely demand for this type of food for dogs as well, and he formulated a new style of biscuit with some minor additions.
While this mix of ingredients would now be looked down upon, it was considered a step up from much of the scraps and waste that many dogs ate on a daily basis.
However, this was still a far cry from modern dog food and mainly because of its price. A 50lb bag of this new dog food could cost an entire day’s wage from a skilled craftsman in 1800’s England.
Despite this, Spratt’s business venture was a success, and he was soon selling these dog biscuits to various wealthy English gentry, who had deep pockets, to feed their hunting and sporting dogs.
Eventually, Spratt’s business would be expanded into the Americas, and Spratt employed aggressive marketing techniques, not too dissimilar to those done by modern brands, to promote his new dog food.
Over the course of a few years, this new form of dog food took off like a rocket, and what Spratt started could not be undone, and dry dog food has dominated the industry ever since.
The Evolution of Dog Food (1900-1999)
The invention of Canned Dog Food
While dry dog food dominated the industry in the late 1800s and early 1900s, a new form of dog food was about to emerge.
The first version of canned dog food came about in the early 1920s when “Ken-L Ration” was made available for American dog owners.
This early form of canned dog food contained several ingredients and was often labeled as containing “lean, red meat”. However, this “lean, red meat” was, in fact, horse meat was, continues the trend that we mentioned earlier from the 1800s.
This new form of canned dog food became so successful that it quickly overtook dry dog food and earned roughly 90% of the US market for dog food.
While details are scarce, our research suggests that sales for pet food had eclipsed $100 million per year by the onset of World War II, which is a huge sum for the time period.
We’ve also heard suggestions that at one point in time, this form of canned dog food with horse meat was so popular that horses were bred for the sole purpose of producing dog food.
Dry Dog Food Evolves
However, with the onset of World War II, things changed, and dog food was considered a non-essential product, especially in areas of the world ravaged by war, such as Europe.
While Spratt may have developed a form of dry dog food almost a century previous, this is the point in time that modern-day kibble truly evolved.
Forced to think outside of the box, dog food producers moved away from cans and horse meat, which were in short supply, and pivoted to dry food made with grains that could be safely stored within a cardboard box for long periods.
This also saw several big-name brands enter the industry, including General Mills when they purchased Spratt’s company as well as The Ralston Purina Company, which would one day become the Purina brand we know today.
While the war may have passed, dry dog food continued to innovate, and in 1956 the extrusion process was introduced to dry dog food.
For those unfamiliar with extrusion, it’s a heavily industrialized process to produce food products and involves mixing various ingredients into a dough-like mixture.
This dough is then cooked in a high-pressure environment with steam and high temperatures before being extruded through a cutting machine to form unique and consistent shapes.
This extrusion process is how modern dog food brands produce kibble in a consistent shape and texture.
Towards the end of the century, these larger dog food brands expanded their product offering to include recipes for specific ailments or health conditions.
The Introduction of Specialized Dog Food
Just before the turn of the century, these brands went further to produce food for dogs of varying activity levels, such as working dogs or food that can help limit weight gain in inactive dogs.
The concept of different food for puppies vs. adult dogs came surprisingly late, and based on our research; the first specially formulated puppy food recipe was introduced in the 1960s.
Until this time, most dog owners would have simply fed their puppies higher quantities of adult food rather than make or purchase them any type of tailor-made food.
Freeze-Dried Dog Food
While this century was dominated by the rise of kibble and canned dog food, some other varieties did emerge towards the end of the century, including Freeze-Dried Dog Food.
This premium version of dog food is best compared to Beef Jerky and involves dehydrating a vast sum of meat ingredients to produce an incredibly dense source of nutrition, rich in animal-based protein and fat.
While Freeze-Dried dog food may have started out on a much smaller than kibble or wet food, it progressed in variety and popularity in the following century.
The last topic worth discussing from the 1900s is the AAFCO which stands for the Association of American Feed Control Officials.
This organization has a huge impact on the world of dog food and is responsible for producing regulations and guidelines around pet and animal feed labeling and ingredients.
In essence, AAFCO is the organization responsible for setting standards, guidelines, and regulations around animal feed, but they themselves do not enforce these regulations and instead partner with the relevant state organizations.
AAFCO was first established way back in 1909, but back then, their focus was on animal feed for farm animals rather than pets.
However, in 1917, AAFCO began to stick its toes into the pet food world. While progress over the first few decades was little, AAFCO did begin to audit pet food brands’ nutritional analysis to ensure they were true to their word.
However, they sprung into action in the 1950s and 1960s, making several changes to dog food, including developing a glossary of pet food terms, standardizing the Guaranteed Analysis of dog food recipes, and finally defining what a ‘complete’ and ‘balanced’ food is for dogs including minimum levels of certain nutrients.
While most dog owners would not have noticed most of these changes, at least at the time of implementation, they have been critical to ensuring that dog owners can easily and clearly understand the food they are purchasing and aren’t victims of deceiving or misleading advertising and labeling.
Modern Dog Food (2000 – Present)
Introduction of the FDA
While AAFCO may have been in charge over the previous century, in 2011, the FDA got involved in pet food when the Food Safety Modernization Act was signed into law.
This evolution of pet food regulation was a major change and required the FDA and pet food producers to take additional steps and put more focus on preventing foodborne illnesses.
While it wasn’t explicitly stated, this increased regulation and involvement from the FDA was likely triggered by a large number of recalls and issues during the first decade of the century.
Dog Food Recalls
One of the biggest examples of this was a huge recall of dog food that took place during the late 2000s and is what many believe led to a permanent shift away from food produced abroad, especially in China.
In March 2007, the FDA became aware that certain pet foods were sickening and killing cats and dogs. When they investigated further, they found contaminants in vegetable proteins that were imported into the United States from China.
The fallout from this was massive and included voluntary recalls from over 150 pet food brands and included dry food, wet food, and treats.
Grain-Free Dog Food
Away from safety and regulation, the early 2000s was a pivotal moment for dog food and saw the relentless rise of Grain Free Dog Food.
Several new dog food brands appeared in the market with a strong focus on grain-free dog food, including Blue Buffalo and Taste of the Wild.
What these brands shared and succeeded with was relentless marketing and advertising highlighting the benefits and advantages of grain-free dog food over the existing standard grain-inclusive food that used grain ingredients like Corn, Wheat, or Rice.
While the larger, and more established brands, like Purina Pro Plan, Royal Canin, and Hill’s Science Diet, could resist the urge and pressure to create grain-free dog food, many other brands could not and were forced to follow suit and produce their own grain-free ranges.
Dog Food & Canine Dilated Cardiomyopathy
Closer to the present, one of the biggest dog food stories of the last few years was the revelations around the high usage of legumes and starches in grain-free dog food and a supposed increase in the rate of a form of Canine Heart Disease, known as Canine Dilated Cardiomyopathy.
For over a decade, dog owners had been sold the idea that grain-free dog food was superior in every way to the old grain-inclusive dog food, but this bubble was at risk of bursting.
As the FDA investigated, several brands were named as having the strongest links to this increased rate of heart disease, including Acana, Zignature, and Taste of the Wild.
While interest in this topic has died down somewhat since the news first broke, many dog owners have moved away from grain-free food for good, and as a consequence, many brands decided to evolve their product range to re-introduce grain-inclusive food.
Taste of the Wild did so with their Ancient Grain range, Zignature has developed a range called Select Cuts, and Earthborn Holistic introduced a range called Unrefined, which is extremely similar.
However, we will note that despite the media frenzy and interest in this subject, there is still no conclusive evidence that grain-free foods that use legumes, like Peas & Lentils, pose a serious risk to dogs.
If you’d like to learn more on this specific topic, we recommend you take a read of our article Best Dog Foods Without Peas which covers it in far more detail.
Dog Food Supplements
Just as the market for human supplements has exploded over the previous two decades, the dog supplement market did not remain untouched and has seen similar growth.
Ultimate Pet Nutrition, Ruff Greens, and Zesty Paws are just some of the Dog Supplement brands to take advantage of this huge surge in growth.
Much of the focus of dog supplements have been on specific health issues like allergies, joint problems, digestive aids, as well as some focused on behavioral issues and the immune system.
However, while many of these brands will put forward strong claims for their benefits, there is very little research and evidence that these dog supplements are effective, which strongly mirrors most human supplements.
Fresh Dog Food
One of the most recent innovations and trends in dog food is for Fresh Dog Food, especially Fresh Home Delivered Dog Food.
Several new dog food brands have emerged to produce this new style of dog food, including The Farmer’s Dog, Ollie, Nom Nom, and Spot & Tango.
Between the group, they have raised hundreds of millions of dollars in funding to fuel their growth and ambitions.
This investment has allowed many of these brands to offer extremely enticing promotions and offers, including free trials, 50% discounts, and money-back guarantees.
These custom services are extremely similar to those offered by other companies for human meals such as Blue Apron, Hello Fresh, and Chef’s Plate.
However, these services do not come cheap, with most of them costing between $30-$50 per week, which is exponentially more expensive than most traditional kibble.
Several years on, these brands now provide food to hundreds of thousands of dogs across the United States, and similar brands like Kabo and Butternut Box are popping up in other countries like Canada and the United Kingdom.
Future of Dog Food?
Predicting the future is never an easy task, especially when it comes to such a huge topic as Dog Food.
What is clear is that many dog owners are taking more and more of an interest in their dog’s food, including the quality of its ingredients, the nutrition it can provide, and the safety and track record of the manufacturer.
Due to this, fresh dog food brands, like those we discussed earlier, will continue to remain popular along with other premium dog food brands.
However, the giants of the industry, such as brands like Purina, Royal Canin, and Hill’s, will remain dominant and will rely on their thousands of hours of research and development to sway consumers.
We also believe that Dog Supplements will continue to see significant growth throughout the industry, and hopefully, this growth leads to more in-depth research into the benefits of some supplements.
If this research takes place, then many more dog owners would trust these supplements, and more established brands could produce their own versions or include them within their food offerings.
One interesting problem that the dog food industry will have to deal with in the coming decades is climate change. While most would forget this, meat production is one of the worst offenders when it comes to greenhouse gases.
However, this is a very difficult problem to solve, given that dogs excel best on a diet high in animal-based content rather than plant matter.
If humans are successful in producing artificial or lab-grown meat in the coming decades, we could reasonably expect that this will be quickly adopted by the dog food industry as an environmental option or simply because it is more cost-effective.