Dog Food: the First 100 Years

With all the rapid changes in pet food trends, you might be surprised to hear that commercial pet food was invented over 150 years ago. The idea of a pet diet that is the same from day to day was originated by a man named James Spratt. Spratt’s idea for dry, shelf-stable dog food came from hardtack, a food product that was developed for sea travel and could be stored for several months at a time without refrigeration. Spratt created his first “dog biscuits” out of wheat, salt, water, beet root, and the byproducts of something called “prairie beef”. Spratt’s advertising featured images of Native Americans hunting bison; however, Spratt was fiercely protective of this mystery meat’s identity and took the secret to his grave. The meaning of the words “prairie beef” is still unknown. Spratt was a salesman at heart who visualized, and then created, a market for pet food among people who’d always fed their dogs for free, with scraps for their own dinner tables. This was hard work, but it paid off for him in the end. He had no nutritional expertise (apart from owning several dogs) yet somehow managed to convince consumers that his diet could help their dogs become show champions. The product was named “Spratt’s Meat Fibrine Dog and Puppy Cakes” and was aggressively marketed by means of testimonials from famous friends as well as advertising on the front cover of the AKC Journal’s very first edition. When customers of his won show titles, Spratt attributed their successes to his diet. Milk-Bones were invented after the same fashion some 50 years later, when a slaughterhouse operator sought to transform waste milk materials into a marketable product.

Puppy Cakes and Milk-Bones, both marketed as complete dog diets, did very well until the end of World War I, when horses started to go downhill. You see, horses were gradually being displaced from everyday life by manmade machines. Many of them had no place to go but the slaughterhouse. The Chappel brothers, from Rockford, Illinois, spotted an opportunity and grabbed onto it with both hands. Their canned dog food, Ken-L Ration, was wildly popular with dogs and their owners. It immediately overshadowed both dry diets. It was boldly advertised as “lean, red meat” for dogs, while its lesser-known identity as horsemeat was printed in small font at the bottom of the label. Canned Ken-L Ration was soon so popular that the Chappel brothers had to start raising horses exclusively for slaughter, and canned food made up 90% of the market until World War II. When meat and metal products were both rationed due to the war effort, the canned food business tanked.

Dry dog food had to make a comeback, or the very concept of “pet food” was going to die. James Spratt’s company was purchased by General Mills, which is still in the market today as the owner of Blue Buffalo. Ralston Purina, their chief competitor, unveiled a new process they’d developed while making Chex cereal: extrusion. That’s when kibble was born, and dog food was changed forever.

Dr. M.S. Regan