The Weird History of How World War II Changed Dog Food

The Weird History of How World War II Changed Dog Food

Throughout history, humans have shared their lives with dogs. A companion animal’s diet consisted of food left over from its caretaker’s diet. If a dog’s family was wealthy, then the dog ate better – remember, dogs were a luxury item primarily owned by the rich. The concept of domesticating an animal really took hold in the late 1800’s with the birth of veterinary medicine – the idea being that dogs had to lose their ‘taste’ for blood in order to live with people. Wild animals ate fresh meat and thus domesticated dogs should not. Not science, but the concept took hold. Little by little there was a shift from pets eating natural foods to packaged ‘pet food,’ and then things really took a turn – here’s how World War II changed pet food.

More Pet Food History

Through the ages, humans have explored the world – looking for new places. One barrier to exploration was food. No different than if you were camping out in the boondocks. While you might get dirty without a shower, and have to be creative with your bathroom activity, you could only stay out in the middle of nowhere until you ran out of food and water… Or you’d die. Same was true for world exploration. Thus ‘packaged’ food was created – think Neil Armstrong and the astronauts.

Explorers traveled by boat that, unlike today, required ‘man-power’ to travel across oceans. Man-power required food that would not spoil – and so they were fed things that lacked fresh produce and proteins (as these items would rot), and as a result lacked nutrition. But what they were fed filled them up. A typical sailor’s meal consisted of compressed flower, water, and salt, baked until dried and hard – these were called a ‘ship biscuit.’

Picture courtesy of shorpy.com

Yes indeed… An entrepreneurial soul saw the ship biscuit and soon Spratt’s Patent Meal Fibrine Dog Cakes were on the market. Spratt’s creation was a direct response to the expanse of the middle-class, who had slowly begun to own dogs – expanding pet ownership from a wealthy few to a fast growing population. The pet food flood gates opened and then came the masses:

  • A.C. Daniel’s Medicated Dog Bread – late 1800’s
  • F.H. Benner Biscuit Company – early 1900’s
  • Ken-L-Ration, made from horsemeat, and sponsored Rin-Tin-Tin – 1920’s
  • National Biscuit Company (Nabisco) purchased Benner and started Milkbones – 1930’s

How World War II Changed Dog Food

Picture courtesy of pinxpets.com

Up until this time, dog food marketing was primarily regional and Ken-L-Ration was the big player – breeding and slaughtering horses in the tens of thousands to keep up with demand. Nabisco and Ken-L-Ration could be found in grocery stores, but there wasn’t really competition – pet food just wasn’t on the radar in terms of return on investment in the commercial food market. World War II changed this concept and a new breed of marketing set in. Patriotism and ‘the world of tomorrow’ were the norm – and advertisement went from radio to television with national ads, where people could see things all made easy for them in neat, tidy and efficient ways. And, if you didn’t follow suit – well, you were just unpatriotic!

The world of tomorrow marketing focused on ease and convenience and a few key companies created products with elongated shelf-lives. Purina was one of those companies. Starting with breakfast cereal, Purina’s use of extruding brought a whole new line of pet food to the masses. Extruded foods were highly compressed, moisture free and marketed as nutritious and fantastical due to the newly developed extruding process – and thus Purina Dog Food was formed.

The Science of Nutrition

Extruding is a process still used today. Ingredients are cooked and pushed through a tube under high pressure and puffed up with air to remove all moisture. This process makes food stay ‘fresh’ longer because there is no fat. But, your body and a dog’s body need fat. Fat is a key essential ingredient to life, a pet’s body cannot make fats. So, pet food makers add a bit of oil to their extruded dog food and things are a-okay. But not really. There are two things going on here: quality of resulting product and the chemical change due to extruding.

The Weird History of How World War II Changed Dog Food, by Rebecca Sanchez, The Pet Lifestyle Guru at MattieDog

Fat and extended shelf-life are an oxymoron – they can’t co-exist with quality… Fat goes rancid. It’s a fact of life. Plus, your dog needs a variety of fats – Omega-3 and Omega-6 are primarily important. These yummy fats naturally come from lean protein, including fish. And while extruding is pretty space-agey, the problem is that the process employs methods that result in nutrient-poor foods – no different than if you were to steam your broccoli for an hour. It might taste like broccoli but the vitamins and minerals have been cooked out. In order to meet the nutritional requirements for your pet, dog food companies add the cooked out good stuff back in through powder form – the final extruded result is dry little kibble pellets. This would be like humans eating cereal at every meal, every day, 365 days a year.

Extruded foods are a risk factor for diabetes, increasing propensity for tooth decay, significantly increases the availability of carbohydrates, and destroys the natural chemical structure of proteins. As human’s health has gone, increased obesity, high blood-pressure, and diabetes, so go our pets…. We need to return to the diets of our ancestors: fresh and whole.

What ‘Pet’ Food Should Look Like!

How You Can Feed Your Dog Nutrition

Dog food can be just that, food… Real food. There are a number of ways you can include naturally occurring nutrition in your dog’s diet. Start by adding more proteins and lightly steamed veggies in your dog’s meals. We began by giving our dogs a little bit of the foods we prepared – lean ground beef and a few pieces of kale along with a blueberry or two goes a long way! It doesn’t have to be complicated and it isn’t dangerous… Back in the 60’s, to help increase sales of prepackaged pet food, the Pet Food Industry released ads about the dangers of feeding human food to pets – again, this stuck. It’s hype… of course any living creature will benefit from pure, whole foods in their natural state. Now we purchase our dog’s food through a raw food pet co-op, as well as pre-made raw dog food.

Resources we use to make our pet’s food:

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You might also like to read some of our other homemade doggo food articles:

It’s pretty amazing to think that dog food has come full circle – except now fresh, healthy and nutritious dog food isn’t just for the elite. It’s easily accessible to all budgets, including mine! Real food is so important, it has all of the vitamins, minerals, amino acids, fats, proteins, and other good things that ‘feed’ your dog and keep him in optimal health. Start with what you can – typically it’s some of the dog-friendly food that you make for yourself: meat, de-boned fish, chicken breast, and a few pieces of steamed veggies. After you get comfortable you can explore  – just look for raw or home cooked dog food books. Your dog will thank you!

Rebecca Sanchez, The Pet Lifestyle Guru at MattieDogThanks for reading, and until next time – take care and keep on lovin’ your dog! MattieDog A little dog making a big impact in this world, MattieDog, social media superstar, animal advocate, animal author


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Rebecca Sanchez is a nationally recognized leader in the human-animal bond. Known as "The Pet Lifestyle Guru™" at MattieDog (her heart dog)! Rebecca is an award winning writer that blogs about her life with her doggos, and sometimes about her husband who reluctantly agrees to participate in her shenanigans. Rebecca's work can be seen in numerous dog magazines, and in her books on Amazon.

18 Comments

  1. You are so right. As long as we do not cook food coated with spices and oil, lean meat or boiled pieces of chicken and some veggies is so good for our fur babies.

    Reply
  2. This was a very interesting read. The dogs I grew up with and had when I was first married, all ate the popular dry dog food, but they all lived to be seniors with no or few health problems. I feel like they were just lucky, and they certainly would have loved more fresh food. (We gave them some as treats.)

    Reply
  3. What an interesting read and walk through dog care history! When I was younger, food really wasn’t something people concerned themselves with. In fact, living in farm area meant that a lot of the dogs were fed whatever…amazing that we know what we know now!

    Reply
  4. What an interesting read and walk through dog care history! When I was younger, food really wasn’t something people concerned themselves with. In fact, living in farm area meant that a lot of the dogs were fed whatever…amazing that we know what we know now!

    Reply
  5. I heard a little about this on Pet Fooled, but not to this extent so thank you for sharing in detail. 🙂 I think it’s insane!!

    Reply
  6. Very interesting post! I feed my dogs a homemade/raw food diet. I have fun prepping their food for them, and they sure do love eating it! It works especially well for my older dog, who has some pretty severe food allergies. He would be so limited on what commercial foods he could eat, and for both my dogs I love knowing exactly what is going into their food.
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  7. You know, this is the first time I’ve ever considered the history of dog food. I think my brain just assumed that table scraps were the go-to for feeding dogs in the early 20th century. You learn something new everyday!

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  8. I’m waiting for us to go full circle on the food we as people eat too. Once upon a time we ate what we grew. Then we started to eat packaged food. Now a lot of us eat fast food. One day we too need to return to more natural food. Our bodies will appreciate us for it!

    Reply
  9. This is a fascinating post! The history of dog food has always amazed me. It’s interesting how my grandparents and great grandparents went from feeding their dog table scraps (and the dogs living until 15+ years of age), to packaged food, and here I am a huge believer of feeding my dog raw food. Funny (and sad) how things ebb and flow are how dogs’ diets are influenced by our own convenience and needs. I started a book on this very topic awhile ago but sadly never finished it. This has inspired me to pick that book back up!

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  10. What a fascination history – I actually remember Ken-L-ration!! What I don’t remember is the horse meat part, UGH! I don’t know how my poor childhood dog lived to be a healthy 17 year old with all the crap our family fed her, so many brands of dog food! It was probably all really sub par. She did often get my Mom’s fabulous meatballs & spaghetti though, maybe that was what kept her so healthy, LOL!!
    Love & Biscuits,
    Dogs Luv Us and We Luv Them

    Reply
  11. What a great idea for a post. I remember Ken-L Ration commercials on TV when I was a kid. It was interesting reading the history of dog food. My grandparents fed their dog table scraps all the time!

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  12. What an interesting post, I just had a history lesson thanks so much. I cook for Layla and mix her food with Grandma Lucy’s Macanna Pre-mix and it is amazing. She has over night become an 11 year old puppy LOL.

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  13. This is really interesting to read about the development of dog food. I am willing to eat anything, but I definitely love when my humans give me roasted chicken and chicken skin!

    Reply
  14. Great article and video. I remember Ken-L-Ration from when I was a kid and we used to feed the cheapest kibble. Now my husband makes dog food, but we use it for about a third of their food. He doesn’t add all the nutrients, just chicken livers, rice, and whatever veggies he has plenty of in his garden. I also use a high quality kibble plus left over people food. The dogs love the variety!

    Reply
  15. Like Shelby, I watched Pet Fooled and learned about pet food companies switching from canned to dry because of WWII tin rationing. Your specific examples of dog food changes, and the change in marketing tactics during this time is fascinating. I’m going to share this post with one of my social studies teacher friends. Middle schoolers will get a kick out of those can pictures.

    Reply
  16. Like Shelby, I watched Pet Fooled and learned about the changes in pet food from canned to dry during WWII due to the tin rationing. But your information about the specific brands and the changes in marketing tactics is fascinating! I’m sharing with one of my social studies teacher friends. Middle schoolers will get a kick out of those old fashioned can designs!

    Reply
  17. I never realized this until my 20’s when I lived in Hungary for a few years. Hungarians love their dogs (think Vizslas, Pulis, Komondors, etc) and only feed them “table scraps” – human food. If you are eating it, the dog will eat it too.
    WWII – and the Great Depression – also changed how people eat food. We have to have it stockpiled and mass produced as a security tactic, but holy cow, there have been some serious marketing ploys to get us to eat a lot of awful stuff.
    The history of food is so fascinating!

    Reply
  18. I can understand how dog food came to be. I can also understand the idea behind using up food stuffs people won’t eat. But there are much better way of doing all that other than the run-of-the-mill kibble.

    Reply

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