The history of pet food and the rise of raw diets

Digby Bodenham
12 March 2021 - 5 min read

How we feed our pets has changed a lot in the past 200 years.

With more people thinking about their pets diets and considering newer options such as pre-packaged raw and insect-based food, we thought it would be worth looking back to find out how pet food has evolved.

From scraps to Crufts and why raw is on the rise, we spoke to professors and vets to plot a brief history of pet food.

Scraps and the class divide

Until the 19th century, keeping pets was frowned upon and it was only during the 1800s that pet-keeping became more culturally acceptable.

When it came to diet, dogs would eat whatever table scraps were available. Most domestic pets were not kept at home all day but were let out to roam and as good scavengers, they would have found things to eat and drink. It's thought many dogs had a set route, with known sources of food they would visit.

Professor Michael Worboys from the University of Manchester said that the type of food dogs were typically fed would depend on the social class and economic status of their owners.

He explains: “With the middle classes there were many reports of ladies' lapdogs being indulged with specially prepared food and luxury items. These dogs would have better quality scraps and less opportunity for scavenging.

"The same would have applied to members of the upper classes but higher quality food would have been fed to sporting and hunting dogs.”

The feeding of sporting and hunting dogs sparked a shift in food available for pets. Many of the business that supplied cereals for livestock and poultry, also sold cereal for packs of hounds and other large kennels. The main selling point was the ease of use and cost.

The first dog food and how Crufts helped

The 1860s saw the emergence of the first commercially produced dog food. The dog food manufacturer Spratt’s was launched by American businessman James Spratt who is considered the founder of modern dog food.

He created the first dog biscuit made from wheat meal, vegetables and animal blood in England in 1860. The biscuits were initially sold to English country gentlemen for their sporting dogs.

Spratt promoted the idea that domesticated dogs were civilised and not wild, carnivores. They were omnivores that needed meat, vegetables and cereals.

Professor Michael Worboys adds: “From 1880s, Spratt's moved to domestic sales, with a big advertising push. The first terrier show organised by Charles Cruft in 1886 was designed to pitch Spratt's biscuits to the British domestic market. Spratt's also fed dogs at these shows.”

Charles Cruft became involved with dogs when he started working for Spratt’s in the 1870s and rose to the position of general manager. Cruft saw a connection between improved feeding and purebred dogs. And the Crufts dog show is now known as the most famous show for pedigree dogs.

Spratt’s dog biscuits became the forerunner to modern dry dog food and under the work of James Spratt and Charles Cruft, the company quickly grew to become a British leader in dog food products.

Jane Hamlett, professor of modern British history at Royal Holloway, University of London., says: “Some people continued to feed dogs on scraps and 'catsmeat' (horseflesh bought from itinerant traders). But there was a growing trend towards buying mass-produced food and pet medicines and was more common among the middle classes.”

The war and tinned meats

The next big change in dog food diets was the introduction of tinned meat after the First World War. The main ingredient was horse meat, sourced from spare horses from the trenches in France.

Tinned meat production grew in the United States during the 1920s, spearheaded bu the likes of Ken L Ration and the Chappel Brothers. A reluctance to feed horse meat and supply problems led to the brothers changing their strategy and they began to produce dry dog food.

In the 1930s, they started the first commercial production in the UK when they began canning a meat and ‘dry’ cereal food for dogs. The brothers recommended the mixture of dry dog with canned dog food as an ideal combination.

Convenience and a focus on health

Since the mid-20 century, convenience has been a big selling point for prepared and packaged dog foods. Other trends include the promotion of premium dog foods that are advertised as more nutritious.

Today, with more products available, pet owners have started reading the labels and questioning the ingredients in pet foods. As we've become more aware of the impact of diet on our health we've started to think more about what our pets eat.

And over the past decades pets have become an even bigger part of family life in the UK so it's no surprise owners spend more time and money making sure their living a good life.

Raw food is part of this trend. Raw is the fastest-growing sector of the dog food market and many owners believe it has health benefits for their pet.

Raw diets normally contain a combination of raw meat and other uncooked ingredients such as certain fruits and vegetables.

Check out our guide to everything owners need to know about raw food.

Social media has played a role in raising awareness of new diets. Facebook groups and online forums are full of dog owners' tips and advice on switching their pets to raw diets. Although owners may have good experience it's important people check information with a vet to make sure they're getting expert advice.

Platforms like Instagram and TikTok have also raised interest in alternative diets as people see attractive photos of pets being fed certain food.

And along with an increased interest in health owners are also considering ethical factors like the impact of pet food on the environment.

Insect-based diets are emerging as the next potential trend in pet food. It's possible for insect-based pet food to provide the right mix of protein and cause less damage to the plant.

Whatever comes next in pet food many see it as positive that owners are thinking more about their pets' health and how they can make the best decisions for their cats and dogs.

And if you have a ManyPets pet insurance policy and have any concerns about your pet you can use FirstVet to video call a vet for free, 24/7.