In the past few years the dog food industry has been exposed in its lack of regulation. With that has come a rise in boutique dog foods, as well as an increase in DIY diets. But have you ever stopped to think about what dogs were eating before dog food, and how dog food came about? With the industry only being 100 years old, it’s surprising how far we have come. We have had dogs by our side for more than 30,000 years. Archaeologists and scientists from all over the world debate on the domestication of wolves, but over the last few years they have come to a consensus that wolves were domesticated in two different portions of the world at completely different times. There were fossils found in East Asia, and Western Eurasia, that are older than the ones in Europe. This suggests that dogs were domesticated twice, but according to DNA comparison, the European branch did not survive long enough to contribute to our dogs genetics today. When talking about the evolution of dog food, we really need to understand how long dogs have been around and what the benefit was of domestication for them. A great example of this is that some scientists hypothesize that dogs “adopted” us as a way of having a stable food source.
Humans started to be concerned with dog nutrition around 2000 BCE. During that time, Marcus Varro, a scholar of ancient Rome, wrote a book on farming which advised feeding your dogs meat and bones, barley soaked with milk. This would have been the first recorded diet for dogs.
Moving onto the 14th century, Gaston III, a French count known for his knowledge on hunting, wrote a bookabout how he cared for his greyhounds. He stated that he would include bran bread and some meat from whatever hunt they went on recently. If the dog was sick, they also got goats milk, bean broth, chopped meat, and buttered eggs.
Industrial Revolution 1760 - 1840:
During the 19th century, there was very minimal consideration for dogs’ dietary needs, and they would basically eat whatever their owners had excess of (which wasn’t a lot). This diet consisted mostly of cabbage, bones, potatoes, and onions. Later in the 19th century they began to feed dogs horse meat, as it wasn’t uncommon that work horses would pass away in the street and utilizing the meat was a cheap way to keep their pets fed.
The first actual commercial dog food was made in 1860. James Spratt observed dogs eating leftover biscuits that were being tossed from a ship. This inspired him to create a dog food recipe made with wheat meals, vegetables, beetroot, and beef blood. Spratt’s company moved to the United States somewhere around 1890. This spurred more companies to manufacture their own kibble/biscuits. They had limited knowledge of the dietary needs of dogs during these times, but they did take the information they had into consideration while making these products.
In 1922, a canned dog food called “Ken-L Ration” was introduced. Its ingredients included: grits, horse meat, mule meat, cracked barley, cracked milo, meat by-products, along with some other things.
Post-Industrial Revolution 1900’s:
The horse meat trend continued, and by 1941 we were raising horses specifically for dog food. This came to a halt when tin and meat were being rationed in the second world war. The pet food manufacturers needed to invent a new product that had a longer shelf life, and used less tin and meat. This gave the industry a massive opportunity for new companies to come out of the woodwork. General Mills bought out Spratt’s company, and The Ralston Purina Company began trying to make their Chex cereal palatable to dogs. Ironically enough, cereal boxes were the packaging for these products.
By 1956 they succeeded in creating the first kibble using an extrusion process. This is a common process that most dry foods today are made with. Extrusion uses high heat and high pressure to create what is essentially an air popped kibble. This process actually changes the molecular structure of the animal protein and destroys the nutritional value of the food. Additionally, it makes the food less bioavailable to the dog’s body. If you’re interested in learning more about how kibble is made, check this article out. Although this process began in 1956, it didn’t gain popularity until the 60’s and 70’s. By that time there were many different flavors and varieties of kibble, made by a wide variety of companies.
In 1964, the American public was convinced by The Pet Food Institute that kibble was the only option for dog food. They did this by using a series of ad campaigns, inspired by Spratt’s campaign when he first started his company.
By the 80’s and 90’s Hill’s Pet Nutrition was introduced as a prescription diet for organ failure in older dogs, as well as weight management.
Twenty First Century and Modern Pet Food
The big boom began in the 2000s, and while we have made many changes to the pet food industry, we still have not been able to break free of marketing tactics that have continued to lead consumers to kibble as opposed to fresh food. In the past 20 years, researchers have uncovered tons of information in regards to canines and their nutritional needs. In 2007, many companies had to recall their food, due to melamine being on the wheat gluten they used as a binding ingredient. This caused dogs all over the world to become sick from poisoning and even killing some dogs. Almost instantly, people were taking a closer look at the companies manufacturing their food. Another major breakthrough was people realizing not only how processed human food is, but our pet food as well. When the health food craze hit, somewhere in the early 2000s, the shelves were stocked with grain-free foods, steamed foods in a refrigerator, and even organic kibble. People immediately began questioning the ingredients in the food they were feeding and a good rule of thumb was “if you can’t pronounce it, or you don’t know what it is, you don’t want your dog eating it”. While this did become a rule for a lot of people, it was not necessarily accurate. Some foods have synthetic vitamin mixes that are confusing and hard to pronounce. While the synthetic vitamins are less bioavailable to the dog than whole foods, having a vitamin pack to try and fill nutrient deficient gaps is necessary.
Let’s fast forward to 2016, Kohl Harrington released a documentary through Netflix called “Pet Fooled”. It focused on exposing the pet food industry’s lack of regulation, and their lack of transparency. He was enlisted help from two prominent veterinarians, Dr. Karen Becker and Dr. Barbara Royal, in order to get his point across. They explained canine nutrition, while also breaking down ingredients on very popular foods. They also went into detail to explain how the companies were able to mislead consumers, in order to sell their product. Additionally, they exposed where the meat products came from in order to make said food. Obviously, this shocked many owners. It caused a major uproar in the community. Throughout the documentary, both veterinarians spoke about how raw food is the best option for our companions.
Owners started trying to make their own raw diets at home, without causing their dogs to become nutrient deficient based on NRC and AAFCO regulations. While this was a major breakthrough to the pet industry, it caused many pet owners to feel overwhelmed, which essentially sent them back to processed kibble.
Slowly, high end companies started emerging, making raw (or fresh cooked food) for your dog and delivering it to your home. Everything is done, all you have to do is thaw and feed. You can now buy processed raw, gently cooked food, and even have subscription services deliver food to your house as you need it. Many companies are working to make fresh food more accessible by offering it in many different forms. Freeze dried, air dried, and dehydrated food has become a large part of the industry. Most of these companies have dramatically different ingredients and recipes. So there really is something for every dog and situation out there.
Now, if you walk down a pet food aisle in just about any store, you’ll see shelves stacked high with “ancient grains,” “grain-free,”“grain-inclusive,” “organic,” and of course, your good ol’ dog chow. It’s crazy to think how far we have come. Dogs evolved with us, and still are. As we learn more about our nutrition, and take better care of our bodies, we are doing the same for them.