Dog food is such a normal part of our daily lives that we often take it for granted. Most of us don’t know who created it, where it came from or how people even know what dogs are supposed to eat.
We likely assume, as I did, that dog nutritional experts got together and used scientifically based data on dog and cat nutrition to create this convenient food source for our pets.
As it turns out, that is not exactly what happened….
Early days of dog food
From the time dogs were first domesticated (scientists believe this to be around 20,000 years ago) through the 1950’s, most dogs ate the same thing people did.
One of the theories on how dogs became domesticated is that wolves, the ancestors of today’s dogs, would follow nomadic human tribes and eat leftover food at their campsites. Eventually some of the wolves lost their fear of people and started to depend on them for food.
This means that dogs have eaten the same thing we eat, or what we today call: “people food” for most of their existence.
So why the special diet?
James Spratt is often credited as being the creator of pet food.* He was an electrician and lightening rod salesman in the 1860s.
The story told behind his brainchild is that one day while walking in the shipyards of London, Spratt saw stray dogs eating rotting hardtack (hard flour biscuits made for sailors) by the docks.
Seeing how much the stray dogs enjoyed the hardtack inspired him to create a “dog specific” hardtack, or biscuit, for dogs. Even back then, people would spend a lot of money on their sporting, hunting and lap dogs.
And so, Spratt used the “hardtack” technology to combine meat, oatmeal, fat and vegetables into what he called: “the patented meat fibrin dog cake”.*
Even though we don’t know if rotting hardtack was the true inspiration behind Spratt’s invention, we do know that he was the marketing genius behind this new idea.
In the beginning, it wasn’t so easy convincing people to buy the “dog cakes.”
They were marketed to English gentlemen for their sporting breed dogs and were later brought to America and sold at dog shows and exhibitions. Spratt was a relentless advertiser, “recognizing that [he] had to create a demand for a product no dog owners felt they needed.”*
Early marketing of pet food employed many similar tactics used today, including: “free samples, premiums, commercial sponsorships of dog and cat shows, and mass media advertising.”*
Veterinarians at the time were wary of the new food, and were quoted saying: “Dog biscuit given day in and day out destroys appetite and thrift [ability to thrive]”.*
Pet owners were also initially skeptical of the new food product. But over time, aggressive marketing strategies paid off as manufactured pet food became a normal part of daily life.
In the 1930s, companies such as Chapel claimed that their Ken-L-Biskit was “scientifically prepared… entirely different from any other dog biscuit ever made.” It was said to contain “all of the food elements vital to the dog in just the right proportion.”*
As you can imagine, not much data was available at this time, but marketing claims continued regardless.
How our waste became dog food
As dog food became more common, the burgeoning food manufacturing industry saw it as an ingenious way to repackage food waste that was “not fit for human consumption.” It brought down costs and in this case, selling it even created a profit.
It is no coincidence that early canned food dog companies were built next door to meat-packing and feed milling operations.*
Converting slaughterhouse and industrial waste products into dog food is a practice that, for better or for worse, continues on a large-scale even today.
In some ways, it makes sense. For most of their history, dogs have been our (very cute) garbage disposals. Even though we may tell our veterinarian otherwise, many of us feed our dogs food scraps and leftovers from dinner.
The idea of taking food industry waste, grinding it up, cooking it and feeding it to dogs, is kind of a brilliant idea. Getting rid of all of the leftovers would otherwise be expensive and wasteful.
However, there are considerable downsides to this too, the most obvious being the nutritional value and quality of the food.
Knowing that dog food was a recycled waste product for most of its existence puts the historical trajectory of dog food into a perspective that starts to make a lot of sense.
Most early dog food was made with horsemeat.
In the early 1900s, as cars began to replace horse drawn wagons, many horses were euthanized.
These horses became dog food.
Not exactly something that sits well with us today, but this was the reality of the time. Horsemeat in dog food was especially common after World War I, when horses who died in combat were shipped to the USA and packaged into cans and sold under the popular brand name: Ken-L-Ration (take a close look at the ingredients).
In later years, lamb, mutton, pork and wild game became popular ingredients. Chicken, a common dog food ingredient today, did not gain popularity until the 1950s with the birth of the large-scale, poultry farming industry.
The TV dinner era
Dog food became widely accepted in the 1950-1960’s due to the rise in popularity of convenience foods such as TV dinners, microwaved and prepackaged meals for people. With more women entering the workforce, savvy marketers promoted dog food as a time saver that freed housewives from their duties of making homemade “dog stews”. Ads in the Ladies’ Home Journal for Ken-L-Ration explained that the food was “packed in sterile cans; ready to feed without muss or bother.”*
Food in the 1950s and 60s in the United States was not exactly known its nutritional value, but rather for its convenience.
At this time, people cared mostly about how long a food could be stored and how quickly and conveniently it could be prepared. It is not surprising that the popularity of dog food exploded during this time, with almost 15,000 brands of dog food available by 1959.
The creation of the “complete and balanced” dog food
Up until the 1960s, dog food marketing was a bit of a free-for-all.
There was little to no nutritional data available about what dogs and cats should eat. With lack of any oversight or structure, companies were allowed to say whatever they wanted about their pet food products.
Due to rising concerns over misleading claims and a lack of nutritional standards in pet food, AAFCO (the Association for American Feed Control Officials), an association that up until that point had dealt primarily with livestock feed, decided to step in.
At their first pet food meeting in the 1960s, AAFCO came up with definitions for ingredients (like what is chicken vs chicken by-product). But they were also concerned about the lack of nutritional standards.
In 1969, AAFCO created the “Complete and Balanced” standards for dog and cat food.
These were basically a set of guidelines for pet food companies to follow when making pet food that are still largely in place today. In order for a pet food to be considered “complete and balanced,” the food had to either meet the nutrient profile amounts (ie. provide enough vitamin E, selenium, etc) created by AAFCO or undergo a six month feeding trial using live animals.
If these rules were followed, pet food companies were now able to write on their label that they met the nutrient guidelines set forth by AAFCO and were therefore a complete and balanced diet for dogs or cats.
Here is an example of what this label looks like today on a bag of dog food:
While the move to standardize dog food had good intentions, it also led to some dubious claims.
Much of the research into dog nutritional requirements took place in the 1970s and 80s, and has been compiled throughout the years into a report published by the National Research Council. This report is considered the bible of dog and cat nutrient information, and is aptly called: Nutrient Requirements of Dogs and Cats. (Because it was compiled by the National Research Council, it is often referred to as the NRC.)
The first NRC report was published in 1974, or to put that in perspective, 5 years after AAFCO created the “complete and balanced” designation for pet food.
To make things even more interesting, the first NRC report (the one from 1974) wasn’t even based on dogs and cats, but rather in one author’s words, was: “extrapolated from other species.”
This is just something to keep in mind when we think about the “complete and balanced” label on dog and cat food. Because while, yes, we now have updated nutritional research and information on pets, we don’t even have scientific consensus on what people should eat! Scientists and nutritionists are constantly changing what foods are recommended for people – from the food pyramid of the 1980s-90s, to the diets higher in whole foods, vegetables and fruits recommended today.
And you can imagine that the research in pet nutrition is but a fraction of what we know about human nutrition.
And so, while AAFCO had good intentions in creating these guidelines, the creation of this label has created the false sense that we know a lot more about dog nutrient requirements and nutrition than we actually do. There are still many gaps in our knowledge about nutrient requirements for dogs.
Dog food has been around for over 100 years. The first 80 or so years of its history were centered more around commercial interests and profit, with less focus on nutrition and health.
However, pet food received a bit of a facelift in the 1990s and early 2000s, when certain companies (Hills, Iams, Royal Canin, Purina) created a closer relationship with the veterinary community. This allowed for more scientific studies and advancements in the field of animal nutrition.
And while I applaud the veterinary recommended brands for doing solid research on how to use diet medicinally, I worry that they are using poor quality ingredients in order to achieve these results. One look at their ingredients reveals cheap waste products from the processed food industry for people (corn, soy, sugar beet pulp, etc).
This is largely due to the legacy left over from previous times when using waste products for dog and cat food was standard and an acceptable practice.
Only recently, in the past decade, with the rise in popularity of high-protein, grain free, and raw diets are we beginning to challenge conventional wisdom and ask more questions about animal nutrition. What ingredients should we actually be feeding our pets?
Grain free and raw diets are not perfect. Many of them can also sometimes have questionable ingredients. But I do believe that they are a step in the right direction.
When looking at the history of dog food more closely, one can see that there are some parts of it that are a bit problematic: It was created by an entrepreneurial electrician, for most of its history there were no nutritional standards, most dog food is recycled waste from human food, and AAFCO standards were created before we even had the research to back them up.
On top of it, there has never been a study looking at whether dogs fare better on actual (human) food vs processed dog food.
This is a topic for a longer discussion (which I will continue on this blog), but all things to keep in mind when feeding your pet.
For these and other reasons, I would never rely on dog food alone as the sole source of nutrition for your pet. I recommend always adding other sources of nutrients to the diet, especially nutrient dense foods. For a list of recommended super foods to add to the diet, see my post here.
Thanks for reading! Feel free to comment below if you have questions or comments.
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*A lot of my historical information comes from a book written by historian Katherine Grier titled: Pets in America, where she writes about the history of our relationship with pets in the USA. If you want to read more details about the history of dog food and see some cool pictures, I recommend taking a look at it!