A Brief History of Dog Diets that will Shock You

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Dog food in a bowl on a wood floor with dog paws showing from the side of the image

A Brief History of Dog Diets that will Shock You

A Brief History of the Types of Food Given to Dogs

Over 2,000 years ago early Romans were feeding their farm dogs barley bread soaked in milk as well as meat scraps. They fed their war dogs more raw meat and garlic doses to strengthen them.

During the Middle Ages, European royalty often treated their hunting hounds better than their wives. They established kennels with kennel cooks making large vats of dog stews containing grains, vegetables, and some meat, usually offal. Commoner’s dogs would be fed meager diets of bread crusts, bare-bones, potatoes, cabbage, or whatever the dog could scrounge on its own.

By the 18th century, farm and hunting dogs were being fed mixed grains and lard. These useful dogs had to be healthy to do their jobs. In the cities, people searched the streets for dead horses, butchering them and selling the meat to wealthy dog owners.

Obviously, the very wealthy throughout history fed their dogs much better than most humans ate. In the 1800’s Empress Tzu His of China was reputed to feed her Pekingese shark fins, quail breasts, and antelope milk. Not to be outdone, European nobility fed their dogs roast duck, cakes, candies, and even liquor.

With the advent of the Industrial Revolution in the mid-1800s, a growing middle class began to regard their pets as luxury items and began scrutinizing pet foods more closely. Veterinary medicine was officially founded in the United States in 1895. This was the time when some self-styled experts said that dogs needed to be “civilized.” Since wild dogs ate raw meat, they decided that domesticated dogs shouldn’t. A calamitous dietary mistake that some people still believe today. When meat scraps were fed to dogs, they were normally boiled. Vegetables fed would have been cabbage, turnip tops, nettle tops, carrots and potatoes.

From the 1800s to Today

In the late 1850s, a man named James Spratt sailed from the USA to London; his business was selling lightning rods. When his ship arrived at the London dock, the crew tossed the leftover ship’s biscuits, also called hard tack, to the dogs waiting at the quayside. Hard tack was made of flour, water and salt baked together and left to harden and dry. These biscuits were easily stored with a long shelf life (important in the days before refrigeration) and quite inexpensive to make. Spratt had the idea that he could make similar biscuits and sell them to the growing number of urban dog owners. His recipe consisted of wheat flour, beet root and vegetables bound together with beef blood. He named his biscuits Spratt’s Patent Meal Fibrine Dog Cakes when he sent them to market in London in 1860. He took the business to New York in 1870 and so began the American pet food industry.

Others followed in Spratt’s footsteps, most notably in 1931 the National Biscuit Company (Nabisco) bought out a rival and renamed the biscuits Milkbones. The first canned dog food was developed in 1922 when Ken-L-Ration was born. This company was such a success that by the mid-1930s they were breeding horses just for dog food and slaughtering 50,000 of them a year. By 1941 canned dog food had a 90% share of the dog food market. But during WWII the government started rationing tin and meat and the trend in pet foods swung back to dry food.

The Modern Day Pet Diet Begins

By the 1950s Purina began using a cooking extruder to produce a better looking, more evenly textured and more easily digestible dry dog food. Purina Dog Chow became the #1 dog food brand and still retains that title today.

In 1964 the Pet Food Institute, a lobbying group for the now huge pet food industry, began a campaign to get people to stop feeding their dogs anything but packaged dog food. They funded “reports” that appeared in magazines detailing the benefits of processed dog food and even produced radio ads about “the dangers of table scraps.”

In the 1960s and 1970s, factors such as the increased number of dog breeds and rising crime rates made dog ownership soar. Other changes in the 60’s were the introduction of puppy food as opposed to adult dog diets and the advent of veterinary diets to treat specific conditions. By 1975 there were more than 1,500 dog foods on the market. Today no one will even estimate how many brands of dog food are available.

Pet Owners Shift back to Raw Diets

In the past three decades the most important dietary innovations have been the development of complete and balanced raw diets for pets, shortly followed by freeze-dried diets. These last two diet trends coincided with a rising demand by pet owners for healthier diets for their dogs and cats who are increasingly considered family members.

In 2021 pet food and treats were a 50-billion-dollar industry. The hope is that consumers will continue to educate themselves about their pet’s nutritional requirements and purchase diets that will be wholesome for their companion animals. We owe our pets a healthy, long life, and by providing them with correct diets we will be giving them exactly that.

By Carol Kendig