The Forgotten History of Pet Food

By Ken Tudor, DVM on Sep. 12, 2013

Open a bag or can of food and easily feed Fido or Garfield. Not as easy is picking those bags or cans from the hundreds of brands displayed on the countless aisles at the pet store, superstore, or feed store. Even the supermarkets have generous brand offerings.

More amazing than the number of brands and marketing channels is the short time in which all of this change has occurred. Gen-X and Gen-Y readers may be unaware that prior to World War II, feeding commercial pet food was not the norm for American pet owners.

The First Dog Biscuits

In 1860 an Ohio salesman named James Pratt ventured to England to extend sales of lightning rods. While in London he noticed British sailors throwing “hard tack” to stray dogs along the docks. Hard tack is a biscuit made of flour, water, and salt. It was a staple food for long sea voyages and military campaigns. As if struck by lightning himself, Spratt sought the help of a baking firm and his “dog cake” became the first dog biscuit.

With the success of his product among English country gentlemen, Spratt introduced his product to wealthy American dog owners in 1895. In 1907 an American competitor produced a biscuit in the shape of a bone. Until 1922 these two biscuits defined commercial dog food.

The Roaring '20s and the Great Depression

Although pets were still primarily fed raw meat and table scraps supplemented with what they could forage or hunt, commercial pet food changed from just biscuits. A variety of dehydrated meals, pellets, and canned foods made from meat and grain mill scraps became available for those Americans wealthy enough to purchase pet food. Initially, these products, especially the canned, featured horsemeat. Public and congressional sentiment soon ended that and other meat scrap sources were found.

The Great Depression significantly impacted the commercial pet food industry. But the lack of regulation during this period allowed virtually anyone looking for an income source to brand a canned or bagged pet food. Canned foods especially expanded, capturing 91% of the still small commercial pet food market.

World War II

The war years were not kind to Benji and Sylvester. With the start of the war, metal and glass became precious for weapons production so their use was rationed. Because pet food was classified non-essential by the government, the canned pet food industry was wiped out. Table scraps were limited due to food rationing and women heads-of-households producing weapons rather than meals. Families that could afford pet food relied on the dry foods or biscuits that were available. This preference for dry extended after the war.

The war would also provide another change in the American diet that would impact commercial pet food after the war. Spam and other processed Hormel products were invented in the '30s. Their shelf life and portability made them perfect for feeding the troops and those rationed at home. Sixty-five percent of Hormel sales during the war were to the U.S. military. The introduction of processed food to Americans and the processed food revolution that would follow would have a significant impact on commercial pet food after the war.

The Post-War Boom

Post WWII saw the greatest economic expansion in U.S. history. The success of firms that fueled the war effort and the host of war related innovations provided massive employment opportunities. The GI bill allowed unprecedented numbers of Americans to buy homes and seek advanced education, furthering the economic boom. The move to the suburbs replaced the corner grocery store with supermarkets teaming with processed foods and meat counters with greater selections. Today’s superstores have magnified demand.  The fast food industry that developed with this new wealth and lifestyle fueled even greater demand. This massive increase in consumer demand resulted in vast quantities of agricultural scraps from slaughterhouses, grain mills, and processing plants. Rather than waste these scraps on fertilizer, commercial pet food companies saw unlimited opportunity.

In the late '50s, a major pet food company discovered a method for taking the hot liquid soup of meat, fat, and grain scraps and injecting them through another heat process that “popped” the fluid into light, kibbled dry food of any shape. The dry food preference started during the war now had a mass market capability. The convenience and economy of dry food made it the most popular pet food choice for pet owners.

Now hundreds of dry foods crowd pet food aisles and confuse owners as to the best possible choice. Canned and semi-moist offer even more confusion.

It is amazing that the dramatic changes in our lifestyle and diet, and the impact it has had on our pets’ diets, started just a little over 60 years ago and has accelerated only over the last 30 years.

Dr. Ken Tudor


The author would like to thank the Pet Food Industry archives for research sources for much of the information in the above article.  

Image: anaroza / Flickr


Ken Tudor, DVM


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