Kemosabe: not a product of commercial dog food

How We Dogs Started Eating Kibble: The Strange History of Commercial Dog Food

When dog owners think of feeding dogs in the “old days”, they imagine that we canines filled our bellies with meat.  In actuality, we ate what the humans ate up until the advent of commercial dog food. Meat was a luxury for many people; in Europe until the middle of the 19th century, we were commonly fed bread or biscuit soaked with milk or water.  Of course the dogs that lived on farms had the opportunity to hunt game or steal some meat offal from a hunter’s kill, or lick up leftover grains from the horses’ feed buckets.  The dogs that lived with royalty or lords got bones and meat table scraps.  I suspect that in a previous life I must have lived with royalty.

While I think about that some more, I’m going to let my human, Tigger, tell you about how commercial dog food came about and evolved, because History of Food is kind of her specialty.

The Beginnings of Commercial Dog Food:

It wasn’t until 1860 that commercial dog food began.  The first of these companies was Spratt’s, founded by an American in London, and specializing in dog biscuits made from grains, beetroot and vegetables — transitioning later to the addition of meat fibrine, which was the dried unsalted gelatinous parts of Prairie Beef (known today as bison).   Spratt’s supplied the biscuits for the dogs serving the US Army in WW1. Products such as “Medicated Dog Bread” advertised themselves as “free from cheapening ingredients such as talc powder and mill sweepings”. Companies like Spratt’s created convenience dog food, which ultimately became kibble.

In the latter half of the nineteenth century, dogs as pets were regarded as luxury items, and how to feed pet dogs focused on ways to “civilize” the canine race.  It was acceptable for country dogs to have a carnivore diet, but it was thought that meat could overexcite pedigreed lapdogs; it was believed that feeding meat would inflame a dog’s “primitive, primal passions.”  Thus, the feeding of prepackaged dog biscuits like Spratt’s became associated with being Modern.

In the fourth edition of Stonehenge of the Dog, published in 1887, the advice on feeding dogs might surprise many owners of today.  Grains like “Indian meal, oats, red wheat” were boiled for 30 to 45 minutes and added as part of a broth “made from sheep’s head and thickened milk”.  Animal food “should be carefully selected to avoid infectious diseases, and the flesh of those creatures which have been loaded with drugs should also be avoided.  Horseflesh, if death has been caused by accident is as good as anything, but any animals that have been drugged for lingering diseases and those which are much emaciated are likely to do more harm than good.”

Meats that were part of the canine diet in the 1800’s were boiled.  Only large bones were fed raw.

Vegetables were recommended for dogs “to prevent their becoming overheated and getting skin eruptions.”  Suggested vegetables were: green cabbage, turnip tops, nettle tops, carrots, and potatoes that were boiled and mixed with the broth.

In The New Book of the Dog, written by Robert Leighton and published in 1906, the author recommends: “Wholesome flesh, either cooked or raw, should be the dog’s stable food.  It is necessary to be certain where the flesh comes from before it is distributed in the kennels and it ought always to be promptly and well boiled….wholesome butcher meat is without question the proper food.  Oatmeal, porridge, rice, barley, linseed meal ought only to be regarded as occasional additions to the meat diet.  Well boiled vegetables, such as cabbage, turnip tops, and nettle tops are good mixed with the meat; potatoes are questionable.”

Between 1890 and 1945, commercial pet foods grew as humans became more possessive of their leisure time, opting to not “slave over a hot stove” for their dogs.  Oftentimes these pet food companies utilized raw materials no one else wanted: mostly inedible meats and grains.

In the 1960s, as the dog food market grew and became more and more lucrative, American industrial giants like Quaker Oats, Ralston-Purina, Armour, Swift, and several tobacco companies diversified into pet food.  In order to boost sales of their commercial kibble, these companies began marketing their dog food by putting a derogatory twist on feeding dogs table scraps, and warning of the supposed dangers this practice presented.

By 1975 there were more than 1,500 makers of dog food, compared to 200 companies forty years earlier.  In the 1980s, pet food companies declared that their research showed how dogs actually needed whole grains, not just meat.  By the ’90s, dog food companies began campaigning on the notion that “canine nutrition is a science, and best left to qualified experts” — meaning, of course, the dog food companies themselves.

Kemosabe’s Closing Thoughts:

From my perspective as a canine, today’s kibble is dumb-downed quasi-food.  It’s like if you humans ate Lean Cuisine twice a day week in, and week out without any fresh vegetables or fruits. We dogs are opportunistic carnivores and really do like variety, and seek it out as our curious nature compels us to do.  Add some real food to the kibble and we will be healthier and happier for it.

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