A potted history of pet food

Updated: May 17, 2018

Anyone who owns a dog will know that they can be, given half the chance, a bit of a dustbin when it comes to food! They eat what you give them, then the ‘hoover’ the kitchen floor for wayward scraps, sit poised beneath dinner tables, gaze at biscuit crumbs falling from their owner’s hand and generally rarely say no to anything. If you have ever dropped a crisp, chip or biscuit then you will know that dogs could give an Olympic athlete a run for their money off the starting blocks.

However, it is this instinct for survival – and survival is linked with food - which has meant that dogs have been around for as long as they have. In the days before tin openers, dog bowls with poodles on and bags of doggy delights, dogs obviously managed.  But how?

The first commercial dog food started its life in the mid-1880s, in London at the hand of an American.  Electrician James Spratt, working and living on London, noticed that dogs around the shipyards were eating scraps of discarded biscuits (for sailors, presumably, as biscuits were a sensible food to take on sea voyages).

Obviously an electrician with a light bulb moment, James created a dog food product made up of wheat, vegetables and meat. By 1890, production had begun in the United States.  Spratt’s Patent Dog Biscuit was soon being credited for doggy success in competitions. Still in America, canned meat for dogs was introduced after World War I as a practical, if rather sad, means to dispose of deceased horses. In the period after World War II, pet food sales (including cat food) had reached $200m. Clearly, a convenient dog food was a hugely palatable choice for dog owners looking to save time.

But what about before James Spratt’s ingenuity saw an opportunity? Unsurprisingly, the equally ingenuous Romans had a view on feeding their dogs. The ‘swift hounds and the fierce Mastiff’ should not be cared for last, they said, but they should be fed whey. Later in history, ‘milk and fat’ was suggested. In the 1700s, a French dictionary suggests a paste made of a mixture of bread crumbs and small pieces of meat was a popular dog food (but it doesn’t say whether the meat was raw or cooked). During the same period, country folk would remove the liver, heart, and blood of hunted deer and mix it which milk, cheese, and bread to create dog food. Again no mention of whether the innards were given raw or cooked, but it does imply they were fed raw.

Back in England, we were giving our own thought to what to feed our pooches, though documented advice unsurprisingly refers to dogs kept for countryside pursuits presumably as their performance and ability to keep by their master’s side was valuable. In 1785, the Sportsman's Dictionary carried an article entitled simply ‘Dog’ and it gave this advice: “A dog is of a very hot nature: he should therefore never be without clean water by him, that he may drink when he is thirsty. In regard to their food, carrion is by no means proper for them.

It must hurt their sense of smelling, on which the excellence of these dogs greatly depends.” (Carrion is the decaying flesh of dead animals.)  They went on to mention barley meal, wheat flour, sheep’s feet baked or boiled and greaves (a sediment from the process of rendering animal fat). It also says that when you ‘indulge’ the dog with ‘flesh’, it should be boiled. When out and about hunting, milk and bread was considered a suitable refreshment.

In 1833, The Complete Farrier gave similar advice on feeding dogs and recognise the correlation between food and lifestyle: “The dog is neither wholly carnivorous nor wholly herbivorous, but of a mixed kind, and can receive nourishment from either flesh or vegetables. A mixture of both is therefore his proper food, but of the former he requires a greater portion, and this portion should be always determined by his bodily exertions.”

Around about the same time, the Victorians started keeping rabbits in hutches.

Admittedly, this was more because they were keeping them for their meat. Of course, we now know that rabbits need far more than a small hutch to be happy as by nature they are foragers. Little is known about what the Victorians fed their rabbits on, but it is likely they gathered for them the sort of leaf the rabbits would have foraged for themselves. Today, we keep our domestic rabbits as pets and give them a hutch, some company and a run but modern rabbit food bought in bags mimics the tasty morsels a foraging rabbit would find for himself. 

What this research tells us is that when we are thinking about dog food in particular, and how we feed our canine companions, is something we have pondered throughout our history. Many older readers will remember themselves that before tins and sacks, dogs were fed on scraps, leftovers and, in the case of farming families, butchery bits and bobs we didn’t want to eat ourselves. Cats ate birds and mice (modern cat food contains taurine because of this). Rabbits ate leaves and grass gathered by us. We seem to now be in a point in time when we have a lot of interesting and useful information to make decisions ourselves.

For example, we do not need to simply throw some tins, bags and pouches into our trollies but we can decide for ourselves (often with our vet’s advice or the advice of an animal nutritionist) from the wealth of options. Also, as more and more of us are reverting to a simpler way of running a kitchen, cooking and eating with less reliance on ready meals and convenience food (and some ’food’ which isn’t really food such as confectionery and junk food), we may decide to re-think our pet’s food as well.  Whilst we can’t go off and butcher our own freshly-shot stag (or want to!) we can rely on the pet food manufacturers who are presenting us with more considered options. Like James Spratt in the 1880s, they are recognising a need and giving us the solution. 




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