History of Dog Food

Before the industrial evolution, canine working nutrition for working class dogs was much like the diet of their working class owners - basic, simple and sometimes not very good.

In general, the greater the wealth and status of the master, the more varied the diet of the dog. Canine dinners at the French court in the 1700s were lavish, for instance, including succulent bits of roast duck, consommé, cakes and candied nuts or fruit. The Chinese empress Tzu-tsi was said to have ordered her beloved Pekingese amply fed with "shark's fins, curlew's livers and the breasts of quails. Prince Albert, consort to Queen Victoria, was insistent on supplying his beloved greyhound "Eos" with a steady diet of pate de foie gras and fresh unsalted butter. 

Dogs belonging to urban working-class owners in the mid-1800s fared somewhat better than their peasant predecessors. According to art historian Campbell Lennie, it was common in cities like New York and London to purchase rations of horse meat for dogs and cats, since horses were dropping dead in the street every day. These inexpensive cuts of meat, combined with varied leftovers from their master's table, meant that many Victorian urban dogs enjoyed richly varied diets.

In the latter half of the nineteenth century, as pets came to be regarded as luxury items, the question of how to best maintain ones "investment" sparked new interest in canine nutrition. Fanciers were inspired to look beyond breeding and grooming for additional ways to "civilize" and elevate the canine race.

Since the eating of meat (particularly raw meat) was natural to canines, dog experts often pointed to that as a corruptive influence that led civilized pets to lives of savage depravity. The more well bred the urban dog, the more important it was to control its behavior through diet. It might be acceptable to feed large, mongrel, country dogs a carnivore diet, but according to Victorian British dog expert Francais Clater, meat caused mange or cankers and could "overexcite" pedigreed lap dogs adapted to life in city townhouses and apartments. Fresh meat brought out the worst in unspayed females, too. When the animals were in heat their primal passions could be inflamed by a "primitive"-and therefore- 'wrong" - diet, leading to disgraceful bouts of nymphomania. To head off such a crisis, ice baths and meals of crustless bread, ground hemp seed, and milk were prescribed to calm the animal's nerves. Writing in the 1800s, French author Jean Robert pointed out that highly processed meals for dogs were "contrary to their carnivorous nature." Other dog authorities of the time, such as Charles Burkett, agreed and argued for a more rational approach to canine nutrition, adding that "it is not bad to vary the food with rye bread, brown bread, and vegetables." In a conciliatory nod to modernist thinking about dogs, however, even these experts advised the meat be cooked. American veterinarian A.C.Daniels prescribed a recipe for homemade "canine cakes" of boiled minced beef or mutton, mixed with rice and vegetables, then baked, at the same time reluctantly admitting that canine nutrition was still "a subject of opinion".

Victorian kennel masters took pride in their own dog food recipes, some handed down from generation to generation. Most prepared huge pots of fresh vegetables and slaughterhouse leavings such as calves' heads, feet, and entrails, with a few "secret ingredients" that might be anything from a splash of sherry to a pinch of gunpowder. The kennel master to Queen Victoria took offense when Lootie the Pekingese came with special feeding instructions: "(the dog) is very dainty about its food and won't generally take bread and milk, but it will take boiled rice and a little chopped chicken and gravy mixed up in it, wrote Captain Dunne, Lootie's savior. Not only unimpressed but unsympathetic, the man retorted that this "Imperial" Pekingese would get the same "nice cooked meat with breadcrumbs and powdered biscuit" as the other dogs, and "after a little fasting and coaxing, will probably come to like the food that is good for it." Despite recommendations for wholesome canine suppers of vegetables, whole grains, and fresh meats, consumer interest in controlling the "inner nature" of dogs persisted. The notion of a mass-produced, machine processed pet food - inexpensive, easy to serve and touted as superior to home cooking - was increasingly appealing to busy urban consumers and commercial pet food became part of the new status associated with being "modern." In the mid 1800s, a young entrepreneur named James Spratt journeyed from Cincinnati, Ohio, to London to sell lightning conductors. On his arrival, he was surprised to see vast hordes of homeless dogs lurking quayside gobbling moldy, discarded hardtack (biscuits) thrown onto the piers by the sailors. Shortly afterward, he turned his attention to creating the first commercially produced biscuit expressly for dogs, unveiled in 1860 as Spratt's Patent Meat Fibrine Dog Cakes. A baked mixture of wheat, beet root, and vegetables bound together with beef blood, Spratt's cakes were touted as a superior way to feed pets.

Within a few years, other prepackaged foods appeared often employing marketing techniques first used for patent medicines. Their biscuits, breads and cakes not only gave a sheen to the dog's coat but could prevent everything from tapeworms to distemper - claims bolstered by the paid endorsements of veterinarians such as Dr. A.C. Daniels, who willingly affixed his good name to a "Medicated Dog Bread" which unlike the competition was "free from cheapening ingredients such as talc powder and mill sweepings." Pioneering pet-food makers tried to discourage consumers from supplementing their products with other foodstuffs. Fresh beef, Spratt claimed, could "overheat the dog's blood," and even the most wholesome 'table scraps will break down his digestive powers [making] him prematurely old and fat." Meat was a necessary part of the dog's daily meal, the company agreed but should be in a form best suited to the requirements of his present existence", namely Spratt's biscuits. Playing on doting pet owners' worries that commercially made biscuits contained inferior ingredients, Medicated Dog Bread spokesman Daniels claimed that other biscuits might result in 'constipation, indigestion and skin ills," but his product was made with only "the best winter wheat, rice meal and fresh meat. "Still, there was continued concern that an overly processed diet might not be good for a dog's mental or physical health." To live on dog biscuits alone would be a very dull diet," said British author E.M Aitkens. "A finely grated carrot or a little chopped raw cabbage and other greens will be hungrily eaten if mixed well with meat and broth in which plenty of vegetables have been cooked." And veterinarian Dr. Raymond Garbutt, one of the first to use X-ray technology to diagnose canine maladies, reported that he was seeing a growing number of dogs suffering from the piles, which he attributed to the feeding of "too many constipating foods," particularly dry kibble.

Between 1890 and 1945, the manufacture and sale of pet foods continued to increase despite such criticisms, as consumers became more possessive of their leisure time, opting to spend it on anything but "slaving over a hot stove" for their dogs. Seen by many as an ideal entrepreneurial business opportunity - utilizing raw materials nobody else wanted (mostly inedible meats and grains) to produce a product eagerly sought by a growing population of dog owners with increasing disposable incomes - several new dog food companies were founded, many of them still in existence today. Others began as outgrowths of financially strapped companies looking for ways to turn a profit from the large quantities of waste materials produced by their granaries and slaughterhouses. After World War II, the burgeoning success of commercial dog food was part of a sweeping societal trend toward modern conveniences that would improve the overall standard of living and maximize the consumer's leisure time. Women embraced anything that would free them from the kitchen or ease their household chores. Like drive-through restaurants and frozen entrees, prepackaged dog food was just one more culinary advantage.

Beginning in the 1950s, companies switched their promotional strategies to emphasize the convenience of canned and bagged foods. 'Feeding a dog is simple today," declared a Kasco dog food company advertisement. "It is unnecessary to cook special foods, measure this and that - why bother when it takes less than a minute to prepare a Kasco meal for your dog?" Calo dog food played on a similar theme, promising to do 'away with all the fuss and bother in preparing food for your dog." Ken-L Ration bragged about the lightning speed with which their dog food could be served and cleaned up since it did not "stick to the feeding bowl [and is] easier than ever to mix. Ken-L Meal absorbs water almost instantly." By 1961, Gaines was advertising "dog food that makes its own gravy," in just sixty seconds. As the pet food market became increasingly lucrative through the 1960s, it caught the eye of American industrial giants looking to diversify. Quaker Oats, Ralston-Purina and other breakfast food conglomerates began producing grain-based kibbles and biscuits and meat-packers such as Armour and Swift marketed the first canned dog foods with a meat base. (During this time too, questions about the safety of cigarettes first prompted tobacco companies to diversify their holdings and pet food was one of the more popular investments). Competition among these industrial "big boys" brought new, stylishly packaged products and eye-popping promotional campaigns created by Madison Ave hotshots, which torpedoed smaller, independent companies like Spratt's as well as most regional "mom and pop" pet foods.

But too many dog owners persisted in supplementing commercial dog food with table scraps, so companies retooled their marketing strategies. Advertisements ceased to even acknowledge the idea of home cooking for dogs and put an increasingly derogatory twist on "scraps", while commercial foods were powerhouses of proteins, minerals, and vitamins. At a 1964 meeting of the Pet Food Instititute (PFI) a Washington-based lobbying association representing American companies, George Pugh, an executive of Swift and Company (makers of Pard dog food) described ongoing efforts to discourage the feeding of anything but commercial dog food. Thanks to PFI press releases, he reported to industry colleagues "we got stuff in one thousand daily and weekly papers." PFI staff also "assisted" Good Housekeeping, Redbook and fourteen other popular magazines in the preparation of feature articles about dog care, which incidentally advocated commercial pet food to the exclusion of everything else. And a script prepared and distributed by PFI, warning of the dangers of table scraps, got airtime on ninety-one radio stations throughout the country.

For the next decade, the industry's primary goal was to convince consumers that dogs were carnivores, pure and simple, and so required a diet of meat such as only they could provide. In 1967, television advertising for the industry totaled fifty million dollars, most of it spent on "beef wars" in which each company claimed that their product contained the most. "Feed more than just HALF A DOG!" one company urged, implying that the more beef a dog gets, the happier and peppier it is. Alpo hired television's Bonanza star Lorne Greene to hold up a perfectly marbled sirloin steak before the camera and exhort the virtues of pure beef dinners for dogs. To spur sales of new products, companies supplemented television campaigns with special promotions costing hundreds of thousands of dollars. To introduce a semi-moist food packaged in the shape of hamburger patties, kept perpetually soft with a generous dose of ordinary corn syrup, one company gave away almost half a million dollars worth of free samples- approximately one million pounds of the product. Another special promotion backfired on Ralston-Purina, which in the mid-sixties tested consumer interest in a new Bonanza Dog Meal in Wichita and Kansas City. Ads claimed the product was "preferred in taste tests to six-to-one over the largest selling dog meal"; only after the promotion was underway did company executives learn that the biggest selling dog meal in the test area was Purina Dog Chow, their own product.

Sales continued to rocket and by 1975 there were more than 1,500 makers of dog food, as compared to only 200 forty years earlier. Consumers embraced pre-packaged dog food, spending seven hundred million dollars on canned and dry products. As America's pet population climbed through the seventies, signaling a growing emotional attachment to dogs, industry analysts correctly predicted a trend in "humanized" pet foods, molded and packaged like those for humans. Company budgets for color television commercials quadrupled, while promotions shifted from sermons on sound nutrition to visual appeal. Novelty was the industry buzzword and the race was on to concoct ever more entertaining types of pet food. Sitting in their living rooms, consumers were treated to an enticing, colorful banquet of "hamburger" patties with grill marks and a mock cheese garnish, or stews, meatballs and gravy-covered filets tender enough to cut with a fork - but for pets.

Stampeding Lilliputian chuck wagons careened across floors of TV kitchens, leading frantic, wild-eyed dogs to steaming bowls of moist, meaty chunks swimming in rich brown broth. Even dry dog food took on a festive air, with kibble in every color of the rainbow, just like kid's cereal. Free brochures on housebreaking or training the family dog to perform simple tricks were used to hawk new lines of pet treats in the shape of little fish, eggs, and milk bottles in "six gay colors," with a slogan that flew in the face of earlier industry advice against in-between-meal snacks: "Whatever else your dog eats during the day, he needs treats too!" The industry also dabbled in some far-out advertising ploys during this time, such as the high-frequency whistle known as the Bowser Rouser. On hearing the whistle, the family dog would supposedly run to the television set, barking and jumping, to convince his owner that he wanted that particular brand of food.

By 1980, growing consumer worries about artificial additives in their own diet convinced many companies to tone down outlandish marketing ploys and return to advertisements that stressed the nutritional value of their products. To counter accusations that pet foods contained harmful additives, the industry cast itself as a "scientist" rather than a recycler, dedicated to the never-ending search for the perfectly formulated dog food. The PFI acknowledged that "pet health officials increasingly voiced a need for more information and verification...concerning nutritional claims for pet foods," so the organization announced a "self-enforcement program" to provide pet health professionals and pet owners with added assurance of quality nutrition in their pet foods. By 1991, sales of pet food had topped out at over eight billion dollars. Canned and kibbled fare occupied more supermarket shelf space than breakfast cereal or baby food. A whole generation of consumers now could not recall a time when pets ate anything but commercial dog food, and the campaign to discourage alternative food sources had been so successful that some consumers were fearful of feeding their dogs even a piece of soda cracker.

Lorne Greene notwithstanding, veterinarians and pet food spokesman proclaimed, thanks to industry-sponsored research, that they had discovered dogs actually were omnivores, thereby requiring a diet with whole grains (and vegetables) instead of pure meat. One company recently ran a magazine advertisement featuring a raw, well-marbled T-bone steak under the caption, "It's about as natural as feeding cheese puffs," before launching into a diatribe on the all-natural ingredients in their product. Cornucopias of fresh fish, lamb, chicken, turkey, and brown rice, golden ears of corn, carrots, brown eggs, garlic and freshly picked parsley still covered with dew are featured in other ads - again tempting to appeal to the changed palates of pet owners, who now clamor for organic produce and free-range poultry.

In fact, the industry walks a fine line when it makes such announcements about dog nutrition. Fearing that all the talk of farm fresh ingredients might spur consumers to take their skillets in hand and resume cooking for their pets, dog food companies make a point of emphasizing that canine nutrition is a science best left to qualified experts - namely them (or research projects sponsored by them). Ads for "super premium" and "prescription" dog foods incorporate actors or models wearing goggles and white lab coats, shown holding clipboards as they measure out healthy-looking ingredients amid a clinical forest of test tubes, computers, and diagnostic equipment. Echoing Victorian bowel obsessions, companies eagerly point to the superiority of their products as indicated by the small, dark, firm feces they yield. Hypnotized by the prospect of dog foods so scientifically advanced they could sustain astronauts on prolonged space missions, consumers are torn between intimidation and awe. Terms such as "chelated minerals," "metabolizable energy," and "amino acid profile" combine to both intrigue and confuse even the savviest consumers, who are left to puzzle over ingredient lists and nutritional charts on dog food packages.

But when pets are treated like children or spouses, convenience ceases to be the driving force for buying commercial dog food. In fact, many consumers now would be offended at the suggestion that they buy prepackaged pet food simply because it is quick and easy. And because they pride themselves in buying only the best for their dogs, they sometimes are attracted to products that actually are inconvenient to purchase. Cable TV "infomercials" touting new brands of pet food sell like wildfire, even though the product is available only by phone, and great quantities must be ordered each time. Other products are available only from select distributors. Hill's originally made its Science Diet available exclusively through veterinarians, an ingenious marketing strategy that grabbed the attention of millions of yuppie consumers seeking reassurance that they were providing their pets the best nutrition money could buy and moving Hill's to the forefront of super premium foods in the early nineties. Such foods may cost triple the amount of grocery store brands, but higher sticker price is just another incentive to buy when a dog owner reasons that the more it costs, the better a food must be.

Until recently, people who opted to cook for their dogs instead of purchasing commercial foods were looked on as "counterculture" pet owners, well-intentioned but ill-informed. But now that natural foods have become a part of the baby-boomer culture, that attitude is changing. Many consumers now believe that responsibility for one's health begins at home, with the foods one chooses to eat. These people try to purchase groceries in chemically unadulterated and minimally processed forms whenever possible and they're starting to believe the same dietary principles should be applied to their pets.

Though largely ignored by social historians, what we humans feed our dogs from cabbage to kibble, constitutes a kind of diary of the increasingly important role canines have played in our lives, not to mention the dog's ability to adapt and thrive in changing environments. Historically, the things we feed our companion animals have reflected the psychological needs of humans, particularly the desire to conquer the "inner nature" of both man and beast. Then processed foods for humans and pets caught on as a result of Western society's post-World War II drive for convenience and more leisure time, both of which quickly became identified with being "modern" and more importantly, affluent. Now nostalgia for a simpler time, when humans and dogs shared the same beds and breakfasts, has prompted a return to natural fresh foods. And the hallmark of a prosperous, leisurely life is how much time one can afford to spend tending to the needs of pets - not how little. Today, food continues to serve as both a literal and symbolic "tie that binds" our companion animals, making them dependent on us for survival. But it also is the foundation of a more complex and loving relationship between people and their pets."

Excerpts from - The Lost History of the Canine Race Mary Elizabeth Thurston (1996)


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