History of How to Feed Your Dog

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If you want to know the history of how to feed your dog, then you need look back about 20,000 years, before wolves became domesticated dogs. At that time, early hunter-gatherers would give wolves spare scraps of meat.

The nutritional needs of dogs began diverging from those of their wolf ancestors due to genetic changes that many believe allow modern dogs to digest starches much more efficiently. The shift paralleled advances in agriculture and dog domestication. Still, up to this point, dogs’ diets primarily consisted of leftover scraps from their companion’s meals, with no regard for specialized needs.

The history of dog food and nutrition

Hungry labrador retriever is feeding at home.
Photo credit: Adobe Photos.

Ollie, the meal plan company for dogs, looked at news articles, research journals and historical sources to outline the major milestones in the history of dog food and nutrition. This industry is no small potatoes: it is now a projected $82 billion dog food market. That’s based on Hypercube Insights forecasts for the year 2026.

It is difficult to pinpoint precisely when the practice of feeding dogs specialized diets first emerged, as it likely evolved over time. However, one very old manual advises dog owners to feed them scraps of meat and bone and barley bread soaked in milk. Another details specific foods to give sick dogs, including buttered eggs and goat’s milk. However, providing dogs with specialty meals did not happen until the 19th century.

The first commercial dog food

That was when American James Spratt was in London and spotted dogs rummaging around the riverbanks for food. There, he discovered the pups were eating hardtack, the dry biscuit sailors ate during long voyages. Thus was his lightbulb moment for shelf-stable food for dogs.

After many iterations, Spratt formulated the first commercial dog food: Spratt’s Patent Meat Fibrine Dog Cakes—a blend of grains, vegetables, beetroot, and “dried unsalted gelatinous parts of Prairie Beef,” an ad explained, per The New York Times.

From there, he expanded his product line to cater to specific life stages and more:

  • puppy biscuits with cod liver oil for development
  • different-sized “grade” biscuits for smaller and larger dogs

Eventually, Blue Buffalo, a dog food manufacturer now owned by General Mills, eventually bought Spratt’s in the 1950s.

Other iterations of early dog food include:

  • Ken-L Ration, which discreetly described its meat contents in a 1950 Toledo Blade ad as “lean, red meat” and it was popular because of a catchy jingle. The company had to change its formulation during World War II, when the U.S. government began rationing tin and meat.
  • In 1950, Ralston Purina Co. discovered how to make Purina Dog Chow, the first commercial dog kibble.

Establishing standards in pet nutrition

Until that point, dog food was quite unstandardized, according to Dr. Magda Szyrmer, a holistic and integrative vet. There was no governing body to determine standards for nutrition and many claims went unchecked.

By the 1970s and ’80s, the National Research Council of the National Academies tackled nutritional requirements for dogs and published “Nutrient Requirements of Dogs and Cats,” establishing recommended standards for domestic dog nutrition. Interestingly, Szyrmer notes that the council’s research wasn’t based on dogs or cats but rather “extrapolated from other species.”

Modern trends: Increased diversification and sustainability

Upset Pembroke Welsh Corgi lying on bowl full of dog food
Photo credit: Adobe Photos.

Diversification is expected to continue within the pet food industry: According to market research company GfK, the number of pet food and treat brands increased 71% between 2011 and 2018.

In addition to more variety, the pet food industry is targeting consumers’ belief systems. Some notable trends include:

  • minimally processed dog food or “raw” diets marketed as purportedly resembling the domestic dog’s natural diet
  • air-dried and freeze-dried dog feeds appeal to consumers concerned about maximizing the nutritional value of their dog’s food
  • gently cooked or baked foods also offer more minimally processed options

In some instances, dog foods include alternative protein sources like the black soldier fly as well as algae-based products.

Mars Petcare predicts pet food trends by following trends in human food. In a 2018 presentation at the Global Pet Expo, Eric Huston, then the company’s marketing director (now general manager at Mars Food Canada), shared that human food trends appear in the pet food arena at a faster rate than before. Previously, it would take five to six years for this to happen. Now, it can be as quickly as one and a half to two years. That’s probably why, with the rise of human meal kit companies, you now see dog food meal kits from places like Ollie and the Farmer’s Dog.

Some upcoming trends could include dog probiotics or specialized appliances for making dog treats at home. For us, though, all we need to make the dog food we give our dogs is our Instant Pot pressure cooker. That’s how we cook the chicken, peas, carrots, corn and rice that we feed them.

Story editing by Carren Jao. Copy editing by Paris Close. Photo selection by Ania Antecka. Colleen Kilday contributed.

This story originally appeared on Ollie and was produced and distributed in partnership with Stacker Studio.

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