Dog Food History – The Early Beginnings

Two and one-half generations of Americans have only seen dogs fed some form of commercial dog food. What these folks may not realize is that widespread use of prepared dog food is relatively new. Until the end of World War II in 1945, dogs were primarily fed table scraps and whatever they could hunt or forage outside.  Prepared dog food was a luxury, a luxury that was actually invented about 150 years ago.

 Early beginnings of dog food

The Dog Cake

James Spratt was an Ohio lighting rod salesman. He found his way to England to expand his market for lighting rods. While walking the docks of Liverpool he was inspired by the dogs devouring “hardtack” provided by the British sailors. Hard tack is a thin cracker or biscuit made of flour, water and salt. Hardtack is inexpensive to make, light weight and resistant to spoilage. It was used sustain sailors and soldiers during long voyages and military campaigns.

As if stuck by lighting, the dock-side dogs moved Spratt to create “The Patented Meat Fibrine Dog Cake” in 1860. Spratt’s dog cake was made of wheat, vegetables, beets, beef blood and meat. It was sold mainly to the English country gentlemen for their hunting dogs.

In the 1870’s Spratt expanded to the US, first to New York and later moving to New Jersey. He targeted those interested in the dog shows and kennel clubs. The average American family could not afford Spratt’s dog cake. Although Spratt died in 1880, his company continued operations and was purchased in 1950 by General Mills.

The Milk Bone

In 1908 the F.H. Bennett Biscuit Company invented a bone shaped dog treat made from minerals, meat products and milk. It was initially called “Maltoid Milk Bone.” Between 1918 and 1926 the name was changed to simply “Milk-Bone.” In 1931, the New York City based company was bought by the National Biscuit Company, more famously known as Nabisco. As a division of the Kraft, Nabisco sold the rights to “Milk Bone” to Del Monte foods in 2006. Today there are over 25 varieties of Milk Bone treats.

Until the 1920’s, Spratt’s dog cakes and Milk-Bones were the only major commercial dog foods available in the US. Despite their growing popularity among affluent dog owners, there were problems with the products. The lack of processing and packaging technology available at the time often meant the products had a short shelf-life. They often became moldy and rancid.

Changes during the Roaring Twenties and Depressing Thirties would solve storage problems.

More dog food history stories will be featured periodically on this blog. It is a fascinating history that corresponds to the economic, agricultural and demographic changes in the US and later in other developed countries. Watch for next installment – The Roaring Twenties and Depressing Thirties.

Dr. Ken Tudor,


Homemade Dog Food Recipes and Supplements


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