Beginning in the mid-1990's and continuing to the present day, pet owners and care providers are experiencing a rapid revolution in the way we think about the food we provide to our canine companions . A newfound emphasis on raw meat diets for our pets, often supplemented withmoderate amounts of vegetables, has taken commercial dog food markets by storm. In considering the diets of my own two dogs, I began to wonder how raw food diets came to be so popular.
To understand this revolution, I found it helped to have some background on the colorful history of dog food. It was in 1890 that consumers saw the very first commercially prepared food made specifically for dogs. The man who came up with the idea? His name was James Spratt, and what he developed was a treat for dogs composed primarily of wheat meals, vegetables, and meat.
Fast forward to 1918, the end of the First World War. Canned horse meat is introduced and heavily advertised in the U.S. as a way of dealing with the number of horses that had died serving in the conflict. "Ken L. Ration", a brand owned by Quaker Oats, advertised their dog food as "U.S. government inspected lean, red meat".
As time went on, the 1930's saw canned cat food and dry meat-meal dog food brought to U.S. markets by the Gaines Food Company. By the end of the Second World War, the pet food industry was worth a whopping 200 million annually. By 1941, canned foods for pets held 90% of the market share, but there was a problem. The USA, entering the Second World War, had begun to ration both tin and meat products. This resulted in a wide-spread return to dry food (kibble).
In the 1950's, Spratt's is bought by General Mills, and other corporate players such as Nabisco, Quaker Oats, and General Foods, start using food production by-products in their pet food lines.
The Pet Food Institute, a lobby group for the enormous pet food industry, decided to run an advertising campaign in 1964 designed to convince even more pet owners to stop feeding their dogs anything but pre-packaged, commercially made dog foods. Three years later America entered the "Beef Wars", with each pet food giant claiming that their kibble has the most beef when compared with any other. By 1975, 1500 different makers of dog food had entered North American markets. The advertising was, very simply, a free-for-all, with companies claiming a multitude of unfounded, untested "benefits" to using their food.
It wasn't until the 1980's that these mega-companies returned to a focus on the nutritional value of the foods they were offering their consumers. By this time, the vast majority of pet owners were feeding commercial foods to their dogs.
In 1997, Veterinary Nutritionist Kymythy Schultze publishes "Natural Nutrition for Dogs And Cats: The Ultimate Diet", suggesting in no uncertain terms that the high volume of grains found in many dog foods leads to a whole host of health problems: from ear infections, skin problems, and joint issues, to malabsorption of food and digestive disorders.
Adding further insult to the commercial pet food industry, in 2007 industrial food giant and Canadian manufacturer Menu Foods initiated the largest pet food recall in global history. Over 200 brands were put on recall. In the first month, 845 pet deaths had been reported in direct relation to pet foods made by Menu Foods. By the end of the recall, more than 4,000 pets had died. The cause? Wheat gluten, imported from China and used in their manufacturing process, had been contaminated with high amounts of melamine and cyanuric acid. These chemicals caused acute renal failure in the vast majority of pets that consumed their product.
Increasing distrust of commercial food processing resulted in even more North Americans looking for fresh alternative diets not only for themselves, but for their dogs, too. The 2000's saw dozens of pet food recalls, resulting from problems like fungal toxins, salmonella, and listeria.
In this way, the alternative dog food revolution was born. It split into three categories: home-prepared meals for dogs, fresh/raw diets, and high-end commercial food.
Home-prepared meals for dogs emphasize a nutritionally balanced provision of fats, proteins, and calcium. Feeding a household dog in this way requires a very solid understanding of dietary requirements related to the dog's breed, age, weight, activity, and overall physiology. A responsibility that is not to be taken lightly, home-prepared meals are the ultimate labor of love for our canine companions.
High-grade commercial diets stress their use of "human-grade" ingredients, and dietary components sourced from North American markets. Their advertising includes emphasis on "natural and organic ingredients", insisting that their products are "naturally grown", use "natural preservatives", and are more often than not grain-free. They are also notoriously more expensive than their grocery store counterparts, and can be found primarily in specialty pet food stores.
Last but certainly not least, the raw food diet. Starting rather modestly in the early 1990's, the raw food diet for dogs was originally recommended by Australian veterinarian Ian Bilinghurst, who introduced pet lovers worldwide to the BARF diet. Consisting of raw meat, bones, and occasional vegetation, advocates of the raw food diet consider it "species appropriate", and insist that it mirrors the diet of the dog's closest ancestor: the grey wolf. Now commercially available, the raw food diet for dogs is a huge hit with dog lovers worldwide, who claim it is responsible for less stinky breath, a shinier coat, and generally fewer health problems in their dogs. All that said, the raw food revolution is not without its naysayers, who claim that raw food can be dangerous to our pets, and even ourselves. With concerns like bacterial contamination and food safety, alongside questions of relative freshness (particularly when compared with home-prepared diets) these arguments, while adamantly shut down by proponents of these diets, are not without some merit.
Whether you choose high-grade commercial, home-prepared, or raw diets for your pets, it's no doubt that our dogs have come a long way from the table scraps they subsisted on for centuries. Much to their benefit and ours, as the diets we provide for their dogs become more sophisticated, we as consumers clearly want to understand where our dog's food is coming from. We demand basic core elements like freshness, wholesomeness, and completeness from the foods available commercially to our canine friends. We are beginning to comprehend that, like us, dogs are well deserving of a diet that meets their physical and mental needs, from the time they are a puppy, into adulthood, and throughout their senior years.
Camille Salter is the founder of All Dogs Toronto and a certified, knowledge-assessed dog trainer (CPDT-KA). She is the author of two books on dog behavior: Pandemic Puppy, Decoding the Dog Park, and the Big Book of Dog Training.