The latest archaeological evidence suggests that dogs were domesticated as early as 26,000 years ago. It's amazing to consider that commercial dog food dates back fewer than 200 years. So how did packaged dog food emerge and evolve?
James Spratt's Mid-1800s Breakthrough
Before a better understanding of dogs' nutritional needs developed, people mostly fed dogs dribs and drabs from human food stores. This held true for shipyard dogs, which used to gobble down hardtack biscuits. These biscuits, which are still sold today, were just crunchy, wheat-based crackers that stored well.
According to Stephen Zawistowski, science advisor for The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, one day in the mid-1800s lightning rod salesman James Spratt had a light bulb moment while he was standing on a dock. Spratt, from Ohio, "watched how dogs would eat up hardtack biscuits on fishing docks, and thought, ‘I could make something similar,'" says Zawistowski.
Spratt compressed beet root, various other vegetables, meat and wheat into cakes and baked them, and the first manufactured pet food was born. He called it a "Meat Fibrine Dog Cake" and cleverly printed ads on the opposite side of dog show flyers, which he created and controlled with business partner Charles Cruft, founder of Crufts dog shows.
At around this same time, says Zawistowski, small-business owners -- often working through farm animal feed operations or veterinary offices -- started selling their own pet food products to locals. Horsemeat was a popular ingredient in early dog foods, since horses were plentiful then. (Using horsemeat for pet food was outlawed in the U.S. in the 1970s.)
Early Advertising Fuels Interest
Advertising targeted dog owners, with celebrities of the time serving as spokespeople. For example, Zawistowski says that posters of Admiral Richard Byrd, a famous explorer who went to the Arctic and Antarctic, featured photographs of Byrd in the tundra with his dogs. At least one pet food company even paid Byrd to travel around the world and promote dog food.
Regulated Products and the Birth of AAFCO
With the growing popularity of commercial pet products came a need for regulation. In 1909, the Association of American Feed Control Officials was founded to oversee pet food quality. To this day, quality pet foods feature an AAFCO nutritional adequacy statement that indicates that the food is complete and balanced for a particular life stage. Kurt Gallagher, communications director of the Pet Food Institute, indicated that AAFCO paved the way for canned dog foods, "with regulations established in 1917 for canned pet food products."
1950s Machinery Breakthrough
The two World Wars put a dent in businesses, but during the high-growth 1950s, snack food manufacturing resulted in yet another ingenious moment. Clever observers, watching cheese puff extruders turn out tasty bites, had the idea that such machinery could produce dry pet foods with yummy nutritious coatings, says Zawistowski. This resulted in the first pellet-sized dry foods, similar to those still sold today.
During the early- to mid-20th century, new influential entrepreneurs associated with companies like Purina, Hill's Pet Nutrition and Iams forged new commercial ground. Paul Iams, for example, "worked as a dog food salesman during the Depression," according to Jennifer Bayot of The New York Times. "Not even severe economic hardship, he learned, could deter pet owners from paying the price to feed their companions." Iams created some of the first meat-based, high-protein foods for pets, putting the emphasis on quality and good health. Gallagher says that, at the same time, interest in pets began to skyrocket. "Dog food sales in 1958 were $298 million," he says. "In 2010, they were about $12 billion."
Continued Emphasis on Quality and Growth
To this day, most dog owners wish to feed their pets foods that contain high-quality ingredients with health benefits. The "eat healthy" trend really kicked in during the late 1960s, with momentum building with each subsequent year. We all want to live longer, healthier lives, and that extends to our dogs as well. "The pet food industry continues to grow and expand," says Zawistowski. "Even during the toughest economic times, owners want the best for their pets."