The History of Cat Food

Photo Credit: Kārlis Dambrāns via Flickr

Believe it or not, the aisles and aisles of commercial cat food has not always existed. Cats have been responsible for  their own diet until about 100 years ago. The process of creating commercial cat foods has been a very long process that seems to almost have come full circle.

Throughout Most of History

The History of cat food -Cat with mouse

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Before their domestication cats ate whatever prey they could find in the wild (rodents, birds, insects, etc). It is believed that the domestic cat’s diet is what brought them to become domesticated in the first place. Humans stored up grain as a part of their own food supply, which in turn drew a lot of rodents that realized they could steal a quick meal. Those rodents became a huge problem for humans who relied on those grain stores as a source of food. A mutually beneficial relationship formed between the humans who wanted to save their grain and the cats who found a plentiful supply of tasty rodents around that grain. This new friendship between cats and humans allowed cats to eat not only their usual prey but food scraps left over from humans.

The Invention of Commercial Cat Food

Cats continued to live on a diet of human table scraps and whatever prey they could find until the late 1800’s.  In 1860 an electrician from Ohio named James Spratt invented the first commercial food intended for dogs. It was a biscuit produced in London, England made from beef blood, vegetables, beet root, and wheat. It also appears that Spratt may have created the first commercial cat food as well. An advertisement from 1876 sells Spratt’s Patent Cat Food with the statement “Entirely supercedes the unwholesome practice of feeding on boiled horse flesh; keeps cats in perfect health.”

In 1895, Spratt brought his commercial pet foods to the U.S. Other companies began making pet foods as well. Slowly, but surely they made their way into people’s homes. Purchasing a special food just for the family cat or dog was still considered a luxury until the 1920’s. There was expansion in the pet food industry in the 20’s and 30’s which included the introduction of canned cat food. However, pet foods were still unregulated at the time, which meant anything could be sold as a pet food.

The Effect of World War II

kitteh

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When the U.S. entered World War II pet food was changed forever. Dry pet food took over as the popular choice for pets because of 4 wartime circumstances:

  1. Pet food was labeled as “non-essential” by the U.S. during wartime. Resources were limited and “essential” industries would get the first pick of them.
  2. Metal was rationed, making it unavailable for pet food cans.
  3. Food was rationed, which led to fewer table scraps being available for pets to eat.
  4. Processed foods began being manufactured on mass scale. These were intended to sustain soldiers fighting overseas, but they made their way into homes (and pets’ bellies) as well.

After World War II the U.S. economy saw tremendous growth. Pet food became more affordable to the general population. Humans were consuming more foods which led to more scraps and waste from those foods. Pet food companies were quick to begin profiting from the human leftovers. The still highly unregulated pet foods began containing meat from deceased livestock, uninspected waste from the seafood industry,  leftover restaurant grease, grains that failed to pass inspection, and even road kill. Most cat food was made of fish at this time.

In the late 1950’s a the process of extrusion was introduced to the pet food industry. This process was inspired by the way breakfast cereals are produced. Ingredients are mixed together, cooked, pushed through an extruder to expand the foods, baked, and sprayed with fats and flavorings to make them more palatable to pets. These pet foods were capable of being mass manufactured inexpensively and allowed pet food companies to use a variety of shapes and colors of kibble.

The Pet Food Industry Under Scrutiny

Eventually people began to question the appropriateness of ingredients in pet foods. These concerns lead to tighter regulations. The FDA now regulates pet food through its partnership with the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). Many regulations are still left up to individual states.

In the 1980’s cat food was found to be lacking essential nutrients such as taurine. This oversight caused cat owners to push for more research into the nutritional needs of cats and appropriate adjustments from the cat food industry. Especially after the huge pet food recalls in the mid-2000’s, pet owners have called for pet food manufacturers to be more conscious of their ingredients and processes. Pet foods manufactured in Asian countries have been highly criticized. Moves toward fresher, human-grade ingredients are desired. Many pet owners have begun making their own pet foods at home to have the greatest control over the ingredients.

Do you think that homemade cat foods are a passing phase or something that will become more popular?

Sources & Digging Deeper

How Dry Pet Food is Made – Pet Food Institute

The Kennel Club Calendar and Stud Book – Frank Pearce

History of Pet Food – Pet Food Institute

A Brief History of Cat Food – Feline Nutrition Foundation

The Best “Pet” Food Money Can Buy…And the Worst – Dr. Karen Becker, DVM