Cat foods were a minor factor in the early petfood industry. They were produced primarily along the coast where fish were readily available and were sold in 1-pound cans.
Not so long ago, some hunters purchased old mules and
horses, led them to a remote area, killed them, slashed their
hides and left them for hound food. Flies, odors, putrefaction
and sick dogs were common. Happily this practice was replaced
with commercial petfoods. We've come a long way and the
industry has much to be proud of.
Understanding our history inspires innovation and helps us
avoid mistakes. What are the lessons from the commercial
petfood industry's past, positive and negative? The answers are
subjective, different people will learn different things. But
are there some big lessons on which most of us would agree?
Here are my nominees.
1. Milk-Bone as forefather
Today's global petfood industry descended from a product
that came to be known as Milk-Bone. And in many ways, the
evolution of Milk-Bone reflects the evolution of the petfood
Perhaps inspired by the success of the first commercial dog
food, Spratt's Dog Cakes, Milk-Bone was created in 1908 by the
F. H. Bennett Biscuit Co. Originally named Maltoid, the biscuit
was a bone-shaped dog food. The aim was to produce a biscuit
with nourishing ingredients such as meat, cereals, milk, liver
oil (to provide minerals), wheat germ and irradiated yeast (to
provide vitamins). Milk-Bone was born as "Bennett's Milk-Bone
Dog and Puppy Foods," packaged in individual boxes rather than
in bulk (as was common then) to preserve its freshness, and
various sized biscuits to meet the needs of different sized
2. Nabisco paves the way
In 1931 the F. H. Bennett Biscuit Co. was acquired by the
National Biscuit Co. (now Nabisco), a company with its roots in
making durable biscuits to sustain sailors on long journeys.
Milk-Bone was the only Bennett product kept alive after the
Nabisco was the fist national human food company to enter
the petfood business. Thus, it behooved the company to overcome
the apathy toward prepared dog foods. The missionary job was
given to Nabisco's army of 3,000 salesmen who called upon the
nation's grocery stores.
Up until then, petfoods were sold in feed stores and other
independent retailers. The idea of stocking dog biscuits in
grocery stores was an appalling one to grocers at first. But,
through sheer persistence in selling, Nabisco laid the
groundwork for distributing petfoods through retail grocery
outlets. Since then some petfood companies have shunned
distribution through grocery outlets and cultivated
distribution through pet and feed stores. Most of these
specialty channel companies went on to sell directly to pet
superstores and some have gone back to the grocery.
In 1985, the tobacco company R.J. Reynolds purchased
Nabisco, forming RJR Nabisco. Since then the Milk-Bone brand
has had several owners.
Milk-Bone shows that brand names can live on, regardless of
ownership. Over the decades, the Milk-Bone marketing focus
shifted from Milk-Bone being just a dog treat to a product that
promoted cleaner teeth and better breath.
3. From horse meat to Quaker Oats
Meanwhile in 1922, the Chappel brothers of Rockford,
Illinois, USA, introduced Ken-L Ration, the first canned dog
food in the United States. It was horse meat. (Coincidentally,
Rockford is also the corporate headquarters of Watt Publishing
Co., parent of this magazine.)
Ken-L Ration became such a success that by the mid-1930s the
Chappels were breeding horses just for dog food and
slaughtering 50,000 of them a year. In 1942 Quaker Oats entered
the petfood business through the purchase of Ken-L Ration
(Chappel Brothers Packing Co.)
By 1941 canned dog food had a 90% share of the market, until
the US entered World War II and the government started
rationing tin and meat. Then dry dog food became popular again
and the Chappel brothers switched to producing dry dog
4. Dog meal and Gaines-Burgers
The emergence of dog biscuits, kibble and canned horsemeat
as basic categories of commercial petfood paved the way for a
major new dry formula called dog meal. The pioneer was Clarence
Gaines who in 1925 began heading up the Gaines Food Co.
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
pointers at field trials across the US where the superior
quality of his entries nurtured interest and good will for
Gaines Dog Meal. In a decade, Gaines had attained national
distribution. In 1943, General Foods acquired the Gaines Food
Gaines-Burgers was a brand of dog food introduced in 1961 by
General Foods and produced through the 1990s. The product
consisted of individually wrapped hamburger-like patties of
soft-moist dog food that could be stored indefinitely at room
temperature. At the time, soft-moist products were relatively
new. The technology used to produce Gaines-Burgers was adapted
and refined for human food products during the 1960s and
5. Extrusion's big impact
In 1950 the Ralston Purina Co. started using a cooking
extruder to make their Chex cereal. Ingredients were pushed
through a tube, cooked under high pressure and puffed up with
air. This allowed Chex to stay crisp in milk.
At about the same time, the company was getting complaints
about the appearance, texture and digestibility of its dry dog
food. Purina's petfood division borrowed an extruder from the
cereal division and experimented with it for three years. The
result: Purina Dog Chow was introduced in 1957 and in two years
became the leading brand of dog food in the US. This expanded
product had greater palatability due to its structure and fat
coating. The exploded bulkiness of it resulted in much larger
bags for the same weight as meal, a feature not overlooked at
the supermarket level. Basic dry petfood processing hasn't
changed much since, although a growing variety of alternative
petfoods claim unique processing techniques.
Purina traces its roots to 1894, when founder William H.
Danforth began producing feed for various farm animals under
the name Purina Mills. In 1902, he merged with health guru
Webster Edgerly, founder of Ralstonism, to form the
Ralston-Purina Co. The letters for the word Ralston came from
Regime, Activity, Light, Strength, Temperation, Oxygen and
6. It's about time: cat food
Cat foods were a minor factor in the early petfood industry.
They were produced primarily along the coast where fish were
readily available and were sold in 1-pound cans. Many labels
were dubbed with the multiple title "dog and cat food" but
little was known of the cat's nutritional requirements.
Smaller 6½ -ounce cans opened up a huge market, and soon cat
foods were available in hundreds of varieties. Advertising
began stressing that cats were also meat eaters as well as fish
eaters, and petfood makers came up with ingredient combinations
to woo the "finicky" cat. In 1982, Nestle launched Fancy Feast
gourmet canned cat food in 3-ounce cans.
Petfood companies also found that cats, like dogs, would eat
dry and soft-moist foods. Now cat foods are 40% of the dollar
volume of the US petfood market.
7. Super sales of superpremium
In the mid 1970s, superpremium petfoods such as Hill's, Iams
and Nutro began to make their mark. These companies contended
that their products needed to be sold through pet and feed
stores, veterinarians, breeders, groomers and kennels,
somewhere a pet owner could be educated as to features and
benefits. Hill's especially relied on veterinary
recommendations to increase sales. All had breeder programs
that led to breeders recommending their products to new puppy
and kitten owners. This allowed for relatively low marketing
costs and high profits.
8. Pet parents take over
Today, the petfood industry is dominated by large
multinational companies such as Nestle, Mars, Proctor &
Gamble, Colgate-Palmolive and Del Monte. They have fostered and
continue to foster the emotion that pets are part of the family
and that "pet parents" should give them the best.
Pet owners' desire to treat their pets especially well is
leading to numerous niches, including ultrapremium, natural,
raw, organic, grain free, human-quality ingredients and
protein-focused diets. There are also niche products for skin
health, gut health, dental health, urinary tract health,
hairball prevention, pets with allergies and many more.
On the horizon, nutritional genomics will allow petfoods to
be tailored to specific breeds and to an individual pet's
genetic needs. New science and pet humanization will lead to
even more new niches.
My take on these episodes boils down to these
Ken-L Ration is of a brand of dog food that is no longer
produced. In recent history, Ken-L Ration was owned by
Quaker Oats, but the brand was sold to H. J. Heinz Co. in
1995. Since being sold, the brand has faded into obscurity.
Ken-L-Ration is notable for a popular advertising jingle
from the 1950s. The advertisement was based on two children
My dog's faster than your dog,
My dog's bigger than yours.
My dog's better cause he gets Ken-L Ration,
My dog's better than yours.
Other jingles and slogans that have also made their way
into the minds of many, include:
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