A History of Commercial Dog Food

07 Jun

dog food bowl

A couple of ago, I took my dog for a visit to the vet, and as part of our annual exam, the veterinary technician asked me what I fed him. I mentioned the main source of food and said that we supplement with about 20% table scraps.

She winced.

Later in the visit, she said that she would send me home with some information that would help us feed our dog “a healthier diet.”

It got me thinking about the history of domesticated dogs and what their owners feed them. Since the beginning, dogs have been fed table scraps, supplemented by what they hunted or scavenged on their own. So how did we move away from that to what most of us do today?


An early James Spratt factory

Let’s start at the beginning.

In 1860, the first processed dog food was introduced by James Spratt, of Cincinnati, Ohio who developed a biscuit made of wheat, beet root, vegetables and beef blood. His inspiration for this product came from watching stray dogs eat hardtack thrown away by sailors coming off ships in port at Liverpool. The name of this new product was Spratt’s Patent Meat Fibrine Dog Cakes. It began to sell well, and soon, other companies began to make baked dog products, too.

The depression in the 1930’s also prompted dog owners to look to grains and cereal product, rather than meat, as a less expensive method of feed their pets. Canned meat products were introduced in the 1940’s and in 1943, dehydrated dog food was introduced, with the instructions: “just add water.” The new dehydrated foods were more shelf-stable (they could be stored in warehouses, store shelves and homes for months). They were also lightweight, and therefore easier to ship and to carry home.

Sales of dry processed dog foods picked up considerably after World War II. Mill operators, grain dealers and meat packing plants were finding that the pet food industry would pay for waste products that would otherwise be discarded. Meat products and grain products were cooked together for many hours or days to kill bacteria and disease. The final mix was then formed into pellets — just like those fed to horses, goats, rabbits and other animals. These dog pellets were easily bagged for convenience.

Dry dog food was sold in either baked biscuit form or pellet form. Around this time, the Purina company developed a new t

echnique called “extrusion”. The extrusion process consisted of combining and cooking the ingredients together in a liquid form, and then mechanically pushing them through the extruder, which expands the piece of dog food and then it is baked again. These dog food pieces were much larger and lighter than  pellets, and they became popular with consumers who wanted to get more for their money.

1960 Cans pet food for sale

A grocery store canned dog food display in the 1960s.

By the late 1960s, most dog owners enjoyed the convenience of feeding canned or dry dog foods. And the veterinary industry began promoting the idea that protein diets were incomplete, and needed to be supplemented with additional vitamins, minerals, and carbohydrates. Dog food companies began positioning their foods as “complete.” Other innovations followed, such as kibble that makes its own “gravy,” making the kibble into various shapes, and using dyes to vary the kibble’s color for a more natural appearance.

The next advance in commercial dog food was specialty diets, formulated for specific diseases or disorders in pets. Dr Mark Morris DVM, founder of Hill’s Pet Products (Science Diet) was the first in the field to develop this idea. The Purina Company quickly followed, along with several other companies. Only veterinarians offered these prescription products at first. Today, there are dozens of specialty diets available, including diets for specific breeds. For example, one of the most popular brands available, Purina’s Pro Plan Dog Food, includes varieties for sensitive stomach or sensitive skin, weight management, and formulas for puppies or senior dogs. 

Today’s dog foods follow trends in human dietary fashion. More and more people are feeding their dogs a raw diet designed to mimic the dog’s natural diet without human intervention (the original Paleo diet). New dog food companies have arisen to offer frozen raw patties that are convenient to feed (but still include fruits, vegetables and nutrients said to “fortify” plain meat in the dog’s diet). Others advertise ingredients that are Certified Organic, locally sourced, “human grade,”or hypoallergenic.

carrotsindogsmouthThere are hundreds of dog food companies and brands to choose from. The pet food industry has become a consumer products industry, as evidenced by the top five pet food brands globally: Mars, Inc., Nestle, Colgate-Palmolive, Procter & Gamble and Del Monte. At the other end of the spectrum are small, local companies like Muenster Milling. This third-generation family business — which even grows its own wheat and corn — only sells its food in Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana.

Cooking at home and even customized diets are on the rise. With customized diets, individual portions of food tailored to your dog’s preferences, age, breed, health needs and lifestyle are delivered to your door. For obese dogs, food that’s low-carb, low-fat, and pre-portioned are available. The bottom line is this: you are qualified to determine a healthy diet for your dog. Find out what he or she needs, and feed that. You do not need a veterinarian to help you decide what’s best for your dog to eat. Options are out there. No one cares for your dog as much as you do, and you are the only one whose opinion is motivated only by your dog’s best interests.

Special thanks to B-Naturals, The Bark Magazine,, and


Posted by on June 7, 2013 in Miscellany


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2 responses to “A History of Commercial Dog Food

  1. Stevie Swendsen

    September 5, 2013 at 6:01 pm

    Thanks for the education here. We have a senior dog we are trying to do all we can for his health and this article helped guide us in a better direction.

    All the best,

    Stevie and our pal Jack.


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