Samui Wining & Dining
Animal Crackers
A look at the evolution of pet food and the way it’s changed over the years.


Animal CrackersWhen I was a boy (spoken in a quavering voice) … I can remember opening a tin of cat food and blinking at the smell of it. I spooned the mush into the bowl and pushed it towards my moggie. She dived in, then froze and backed away. She was blinking too, and then, with a squeak of reproach, wandered off with her tail in the air. My childhood memories of tinned pet food are not good ones and I often wondered how any creature could eat this stuff. Fortunately things have changed today, and for the better.


This is all about food for pets: working animals like hunting dogs or farm cats are a whole different kettle of fish (so to speak). And before the advent of tinned pet food, domestic cats and dogs were either fed kitchen scraps and leftovers or left to scavenge what they could. There’s always been a difference between city animals and those in the country – particularly in the rural areas where grain is harvested and stored. And no doubt many a plump mouser has reflected on just how thoughtful it was of the humans to leave huge mounds of rodent-bait lying around to lure the next feline meal within their grasp. But the story of ready-made tinned, or packaged, pet food didn’t begin to emerge until the middle of the 19th century.


This was the era of sailing ships, and they spent a long time at sea. Fresh food perished rapidly on board and so the sailors’ staple diet became ship’s biscuit, or ‘hardtack’ (as it was generally known), as these items might pick up a few weevils but seemed otherwise indestructible. (A perfectly-preserved and presumably still-edible hardtack biscuit from 1860 can today be seen in the Wentworth Museum in Florida.) At ports and docks everywhere, stray dogs were drawn to ships coming in to berth. And they flocked around the barrel-ends of the maggoty and crumbling biscuits that were dumped on the dockside for their benefit.


Enter into the story one James Spratt, a resident of Cincinnati, Ohio, and an electrician by trade. He’d headed for London to seek his fortune by manufacturing and selling lightning rods and conductors. But, when he noticed the enthusiasm with which the wharf-dogs were wolfing-down these biscuit scraps, he instantly envisioned a far better business plan.


Hardtack was ridiculously cheap to buy. But he made it more desirable (and marketable) by adding beef blood and vegetables to the mix. His packets of dog biscuits were keenly seized-upon by English country gentlemen who bought them for their sporting dogs. And James’ American background prompted him to promote his product with colourful posters depicting hunting scenes with ‘Red Indians’ on horseback slaughtering buffalos specifically to stock the British market.


It took another 30 years before the concept of ready-made pet food took root ‘across the pond’ and, by1910, domesticated four-legged Americans were already accustomed to a diet of ‘Milk-Bone’ dog biscuits. But it was the Great War of 1914-18 which was responsible for the next step-up in the saga of pet food. In this era, horses were the essential mode of transport but the war resulted in a great many dead or injured animals. Preserved horsemeat was now plentiful and just perfect for the pet food industry. And the period after the war only served to amplify the situation, as machinery and tractors rapidly took over from horses, mules and donkeys. At this time, there were only three international manufacturers; Spratt’s in England (although James Spratt had already sold out and returned to the USA a wealthy man) and, in America, Ken-L-Ration and Gaines Food, both of them selling canned horse meat for cats and dogs, and dry meat-meal dog food.


And so, by the late 1930s, the original dry pet biscuits had taken a backseat and were seen more as a snack, due to the plentiful supply of ‘real’ meat. But that was suddenly to change completely and also, almost by accident, set the stage for the scene we know today. As World War II necessitated metal rationing and reclamation, tinned pet food was deemed ‘non-essential’ and ceased production, and the industry shifted to dry foods. In fact, by the time this war was over, dry pet food represented 85% of the market.


And that brings us to the origins of the word ‘kibble’, which are pleasantly obscure. ‘To kibble’ means to grind up grain or cereal very coarsely into small rough chunks (rather than the usual fine powder) and the term was first used in England in the mid 1800s. But, as a noun (and in the context of pet food) ‘kibble’ didn’t appear until the 1930s. However, after WW11, the word had entered the language with a vengeance, due to all the types of dry pet food that had of necessity been produced in the interim. No one can say for certain how or why these small pellets came about; some suggest that it was the need to vary the appearance of what was essentially all the same product. Other people say that the hardships of the war years led to making-do with scraps or ‘kibbles’ in the first place. But, in the booming years of the 1950s and ’60s, many manufacturers added pet food lines to their products. Companies such as Quaker Oats, Campbell’s Soups, Mars, Lipton and Nabisco saw pet foods as a profitable way to market their otherwise wasted by-products.


It was in this same period that the use of an extrusion process developed by Purina came to the fore. The ingredients were cooked together as a liquid, pushed through an extruder to expand the pellets and then baked. The end product was more-uniform and also lighter than previous methods and this additionally gave the food a ‘more for your money’ appeal. Unfortunately, the process also reduced the nutritional value to zero! But this was another perfect opportunity for the advertising agencies. And a quick post-production spray with a vitamin solution or minerals, plus the addition of just about any flavour imaginable (‘gourmet poached salmon with kelp’?) soon proclaimed that this form of dried pet food was the most-affordable and wholesomely-nourishing thing since … well, actual horsemeat, one supposes, although this reference doesn’t appear in any of the publicity material.


Today, things remain much the same, with the exception that, nowadays, exclusive ‘gourmet’, ‘premium’ and ‘holistic’ tags have been added to each company’s line-up. Personally I don’t take a lot of notice of all this hype and usually go for the tins with the biggest lumps in them. Although there is one thing that’s definitely changed since I was a boy – today’s pet food sure doesn’t smell like it did back then!


Rob De Wet


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