The History of The Pet Food Industry

The Birth of the commercial dog food business must be attributed to the inventor of the first “dog cake,” a carefully compounded preparation of blended wheat meals, vegetables, beetroot and meat by James Spratt. The brilliant hunch that there was a market for proprietary dog food came to him while he was in London, in 1860, trying to sell lightning rods.

Spratt was offered some inedible, discarded ship biscuits for his dog and thereupon decided his pet was worthy of more consideration. Being of inventive mind, he devised a “dog cake” which was nutritious and inexpensive.

It was the first commercial dog food and was baked on the premises of Walker, Harrison and Garthwaite, a firm which lay claim to have baked the first dog biscuits. Nevertheless, the Spratt distinction places him not only as the initiator of pet foods but as the first pet food entrepreneur to farm out his production.

Early Customers were English country gentlemen who bought for their sporting dogs. Yankee advertising ingenuity was not neglected since the first color display billboard was mounted on London retail store depicting an American hunting scene with Indians slaughtering bison to provide the British market with buffalo meat for “Meat Fibrine” dog food. Spratt’s Patent, Limited, an English public company, was registered in 1885 to continue the business founded by James Spratt.

Spratt’s Patent (America) Ltd., began a United States Operations at 239-245 E. 56th St., New York City, but early success soon forced a move, in 1895, to a large three-story building on Congress St., Newark, NJ. Later, the firm acquired the whole of the site bordered by Market, Congress and Jefferson Sts. and the Spratt plant became a familiar landmark to all those who traveled the Skyway to New York City.
While it was an American who created the first dog food, it was British enterprise which monopolized the market for almost 50 years, until 1907, when the F. H. Bennett Biscuits Co. was organized. Bennett’s start at Avenue D and 10th St., New York City, heralded the introduction of Milk-Bone dog biscuits as the first domestic canine food.

The entry was made with such old and inefficient baking equipment that, in his first year, Bennett had no end of troubles. The arches of his ovens caved in, a fire broke out, and operations were delayed until the spring of 1908. Then an epidemic wiped out all his delivery horses.

In spite of this, Bennett managed to produce a line of some 100 crackers and cake varieties, but the dog biscuit business was discouraging and the company was in the red. As a health addict with a sincere interest in nutrition, Bennett began experimenting with specialties.

One of his ideas was a bone-shaped biscuit for dogs. His aim was to produce a biscuit with nourishing ingredients to include meat, cereals, milk and food minerals fortified in liver oil, wheat germ and irradiated yeast to provide essential vitamins for dogs.

Bennett reasoned that the firm of the biscuits would keep dogs in good health by extra gnawing and chewing involved. Milk-Bone was born as “Bennett’s Milk-Bone Dog and Puppy Foods,” packaged in individual boxes rather than in bulk to preserve its freshness, and biscuits to meet the needs of different size breeds.
Until 1922 commercial dog food meant one of two things, either Spratt’s or Milk-Bone. Shelf stocks did not move rapidly and a buyer often found the contents green with mold. Containers lacked today’s standards of excellence and the fat content often turned rancid. The industry needed something to progress.

It appeared when P. M. Chappel an old time horse dealer and horse breeder with connections in the packing industry, canned dog food at Rockford, IL, under the Ken-L-Ration brand. The label carried the now-famous picture of dogs playing poker.
There were three Chappel brothers and, at the beginning, they could be found going along Madison Street in Chicago, with cans of horsemeat in a basket, begging owners of pet shops to display and use it. Previously, “P. M.” had developed a profitable sale of canned horsemeat in Europe where the middle classes bought all he could produce.
In Chicago, public reception was contrary with an outcry against the use of horsemeat for dog food. The Chappels had trouble getting Congress to authorize transportation of this “dog food” from state to state due to the intense sentiment against use of horses.

Like all good ideas, however, the Chappels proved that dogs ate horsemeat greedily and, as the turmoil declined, the brothers tried to increase their equine meat source by raising as many as 20,000 mares, using cattle ranges of the Far West. This venture did not prove successful and eventually was one of the factors which caused financial tragedy in the middle 1930’s.

The brothers were wise and switched horses, as they did a complete turnabout and began to produce dry dog food. Further, they recommended the mixture of dry dog with canned dog food as an ideal combination—a pioneer stroke of good merchandising still used today.

The emergence of dog biscuits, kibble and canned horsemeat as basic categories of commercial pet food paved the way for a major new dry formula called dog meal. The pioneer was Gaines Food Co., Sherburne, NY, under Clarence Gaines, who joined the concern in 1925.

Dog meal was originally sold in 100-pound bags but, by 1928, Gaines was also selling his customers empty 5 and 10-pound bags so they could divide the bulk into more manageable and less costly purchases. Gaines sensed the need for sales promotion and utilized a now familiar dog show advertising theme by exhibiting his own pointer breed at field trials across the country where the superior quality of his entries nurtured interested and good will for Gaines Dog Meal.

In a decade, Gaines had attained national distribution through regular and wagon jobbers, and a second plant in Chicago Heights followed. The Gaines advertising agency was C. Wendell Muench, Chicago, IL.

Advertising has always occupied a dominant position as a primary sales stimulus beginning in dog food commercial performed by the Moylan Sisters for Thrivo, Philadelphia, PA. Prime time TV advertising is what has curried sponsors to the top in the fight for supermarket shelf space.

The veterinarian profession turned its attention to pet food in late 1920s when Dr. Leon Whitney, D.V.M., Orange, CT, created a Bal-O-Ration brand dog food as the result of intensive research based on the conviction that dogs, like humans, need a scientifically balanced ration to reach and hold a peak of health. The brand was later sold to Tioga Mills, Waverly, NY, was succeeded by a Pampa brand which eventually was bought by Quaker Oats Co.

When Milk-Bone was acquired by National Biscuits Co. in 1931, the idea of using commercially prepared dog foods was still very much ahead of its time. Most dog foods were basically made from waste products and people were reluctant to spend money on food for their dogs. The knowledge that dogs, as well as people, had nutritional needs which must be satisfied was by no means wide spread.
Since Nabisco was in a unique position, however, as the fist national food organization with one foot in the pet food business, it behooved the company to over- come the apathy about prepared dog foods and educates dog owners on the nutritional needs of dogs. The missionary job was given to Nabisco’s army of 3,000 salesmen who called upon the nation’s food stores.

The idea of shocking packages of dog biscuits in grocery stores was understandably an appalling one to grocers at first. Nabisco’s contribution to the pet food industry may be summarized as laying the groundwork for distributing of pet foods through retail food outlets by means of continued research, improved methods of production and sheer persistence in selling.

The Depression of the ‘30’s may have meant hard times for industry, but the merchandising of dog food germinated and spread countrywide. One report accounted for 221 brands of canned dog food with about 200 of this total produced at a half dozen canning plants. The plants did the canning; the merchandisers supplied labels. The situation was similar with dry pet foods. All that was needed was a brand name and empty bags.

Working capital was minimal and the market wide open. Metropolitan New York saw Cadet brand canned ration (Re-Dan Packing Co.) and Snappy canned dog food (Foster Canning Co.) as the two leading sellers.

In 1935, a label salesman, Gilbert S. Gruber, formed the first commercial pet food association made up of producers and distributors in the Northeast. It was called the Society of Pet Food Industry and was formed to develop better liaison with federal and state regulatory agencies.

This association nurtured the first cooperation with the Association of American Feed Control Officials and its executive secretary, Les Bopst, of Maryland. An offshoot of these contacts resulted in the first newsletter concerning pet foods, circulated as U. S. Petfood Reports, under Gruber’s by-line.

AAFCO, Formed in 1909, had proved to be the determining authority at the state level for the legality of copy on pet food packages. Early labels of the Great Depression Era differed little in mandatory copy from those of today. Ingredients of the ‘30’s were meat, meat by-products, soybean meal, barley, rice, bran, green bone, vegetables, cod liver oil and charcoal.

The protein analysis for canned rations was a bit on the low side as it began at 6.5% and moved to a top figure of 8%, with fat standardized at 1.5% and fiber a high of 1%.

 A laudable desire to preserve the market was found in a slogan used on labels which originated with this first association: “Help us stop the maiming and killing of dogs by hit-and-run drivers.” This humane effort resulted in the passage of new laws in some states.

By 1941, pet food sales amounted to $50 million. The advent of the World War II found pet foods classified as non-essentials with metal containers unavailable and the wet segment of the industry virtually wiped out, except for such waste tin and glass as might be scavenged. Government specified the protein and quality of what commercial pet food survived.

For the year 1941, canned dog foods had represented 91% of the poundage sales and dry the remaining 9%. After the War, in 1946, canned dog food, after almost complete decimation, had crept up to 15%, while dry maintained domination by 85%. By 1960 canned dog food held 60% of the pet food volume while dry claimed approximately 40%.

The year 1942 saw the entry of a powerful competitor when The Quakers Oats CO., purchased Chappel and laid the groundwork for the nationally recognized Ken-L-Ration and Puss’N Boots brands. A year later General Foods bought the Gaines enterprise and added another influential voice to pet food circles.

Feline foods were a minor factor in the early picture being produced largely along the coast where fish were readily available. Many labels were dubbed with the multiple title “dog and cat food” but little was known of the cat’s nutritional requirements.

Throughout history, pet foods were deemed “feeds” and subject to the laws pertaining to cattle and other animals destined for human consumption. Consequently, pet food manufacturers needed an umbrella association and for many years used the services of the American Feed Mfgrs. Ass’n.

By 1950 pet food dollar volume was close to $200 million. The Korean War repeated the tin shortage and canners combined to provide a united front in negotiations with government allotment agencies. Horse slaughterers and merchandisers of meat pet foods formed a provisional organization to carry them through a brief period of stress.

This set the stage for the incorporation of the Ass’n of Eastern Pet Food Canners, with Gil Gruber as president, as the first permanent trade group devoted exclusively to interests of the interest of the pet food industry. Membership represented the majority of all- meat dog food producers.
This was followed by the first separate convention of pet food firms, those still under AFMA, September 14, 1955, at the Edgewater Beach Hotel, Chicago. The following year the group changed its name to the American Pet Food Manufacturers, still a division of AFMA. By 1957 it was evident independence from AFMA was essential and, on March 11,1959, the Pet Food Institute was formed under the chairmanship of Joseph Getlin, Rival Foods and the management of Bryne Marcellus Co., later to become SmithBucklin and Associates.
Spratt’s Patent, Ltd., chose this time to sell its American rights to General Mills, Inc., and the century-old brand faded from domestic view.

Another dimension was added to pet foods in 1957 when Ralston Purina challenged the predominant position of meal type products by introducing expanded dog food. Just pop corn tastes better than dried corn, the expanded variety offered a greater palatability by a fat coating on each particle and a chewy, crunchy texture dogs relished.
The exploded bulkiness of the new product resulted in which much larger bags for the same weight as meal—a feature not overlooked at the supermarket level. Expanded dog food boomed sales and spurred competition to create other diverse lines.
West Coast tuna canners saw a market for tuna food in the universally recognized 6 ½ - ounces tin. The monopoly of the #300 soared and the door was open to a multitude of gourmet formulations.

Commercial cat food was a late bloomer because its pioneers depended solely on a large pound can of single standard fish ration. The tuna fish, small-sized tin revealed the massive hidden market awaiting the 6 ½ -ounce unit (enough for one feline dinner) especially when this awakening was accompanied by hundreds of variety taste mixtures.
Calo advertising stressed the thought that the feline is a meat eater rather than a fish monopolist. The torch was passed from headline to checkout line and producers vied for supremacy inventing ingredient combinations to woo the “finicky” cat appetite so well established in TV advertising. Competitive imagination sired lines of 20 or more formulas.
Chains stocked them since the package size fit the pocketbook and the housewife loved them multitude of choice. It next developed that cats, like dogs, would eat dry foods and soft moist preparations. Puss joined Rover in volume partnership equal to 25% of total pet food volume.

In January 1959, the industry came of age with a voice for some 3,000 marketers of 15,000 brands. The Petfood Industry trade magazine was founded by Garden State Publishing Co., with Gil Gruber as editor, to 2% of grocery volume and nearly double in size to breakfast foods or canned baby foods. Thereafter the history of pet foods was permanently recorded for the benefit of future generations.
The search for untapped markets brought to light two more avenues for exploitation; namely special prescription diets and supplements known as treats or snacks. Hill’s brand led the move for therapeutic distribution while Hartz sparked others to ventures into treats. Both approaches brought lasting, lucrative results.
With dry and wet dog food seemingly covering the total range of potential moisture flexibility, the 1960’s ushered in a patented new product which chose a center ground called “soft-moist.” General Foods’ Gaines-Burgers produced a new name, new shape, new package and, above all, a new process, all built around the accepted hamburger form and destined to earn a permanent niche as a true advancement of the art. Competitors were licensed and the market spread.

During this decade total sales passed the billion dollar mark as more giants of the food industry massed their financial, political and economic power behind a push for national distribution. Ligget & Myers made ALPO brand the leader in its field. United Sates Tobacco Co., boomed Cadillac’s brand. Throughout the country other top corporations concentrated efforts to “buy in” and share the profits as table scraps disappeared as the industry’s greatest competitor.
Regional producers continued to exist as long as they remained “regional,” but the picture had changed so that those with the most advertising dollars were capturing a lion’s share of the market.
Diversification, too, became the keystone of success. Hundreds of new products tested the creative ingenuity of advertising agencies, research divisions, and sales executives. Just as the biggest food chains realized the battle was no longer with Mom and Pop outlets—but rather among themselves—so did the predominant dozen pet food manufacturers learn that growth, for them, was to come from penetrating markets of their biggest competitors.

Reprinted With Permission From Petfood Industry Magazine

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