Something’s Fishy: A Brief Cat Food History Lesson

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My cats don’t care for wet food, which, I suppose, has plusses and minuses.  The plus side, of course, for many would be the convenience.  The minus, definitely, the smell.  No matter well it is positioned to have the appearance of a gourmet feast of something-or-other in the advertisements, it still has a unique eau de parfum. Perhaps if I add a bit of parsley? Um, I think I will pass. However, with the variety of options that are out there for our pets, I found myself wondering a bit about how the concept of cat food, well, any food for pets, really, came to be.

Feline Nutrition‘s Margaret Gates has dug into how cat food went from something an animal provided for itself to a viable product turned huge industry. It is a fascinating read, but in the interest of expediency, here are some of the highlights she uncovered:

  • Cats, originally when living with humans, caught what they ate. Certainly, they also got some delectable scraps from the table.
  • 1860 saw the creation of James Spratts’s dog biscuit (a first) in England. His biscuits were exceptionally popular and other companies began making them, with the first commercial pet food product venture in the United States in 1890.
  • 1900 saw the surge of popularity is prepared commercial pet food.
  • Gaines Food® brought out canned cat food in the 1930’s.
  • During World War II, metal was rationed and with pet food being classified as “non-essential” there was a market shift to dry food.
  • The 50’s and 60’s saw many companies adding pet food lines to align with their human product offerings as a way to incorporate market by-products for revenue.
  • Purina came up with the extrusion process, also in the 50’s, a process that cooks all the ingredients down to liquid form, then forces it through a mechanism that expands the food before it is baked.  It gave the impression of getting “more for your buck,” as individual pieces were larger in size, although lighter. Additionally, nutrients were added to replace what was lost during the process and the product was sprayed with fats and flavors to enhance the taste.
  • 1964 saw the Pet Institute put out a marketing campaign encouraging people to avoid feeding tables scraps to their pets and instead use processed foods.  At this time, dry varieties, in particular, were made more attractive to the consumer with varying shapes, colors, and interesting names.
  • The mid-1970’s brought about prescriptive foods that were predominately available through vet offices.
  • Recently, there has been a return to the raw food market, with all kinds of companies having entered into that arena.

What it all seems to boil down to is, in a word, marketing. Someone has an idea, it catches on, until another person or company comes up with a “better” idea, often resulting in cost savings/increased profit, and it becomes a standardized, accepted way of life.  Some of those ideas are really good and healthful for our pets, while others, perhaps not so much.

While it can be challenging to sort out exactly what is the best thing for your cats or dogs when it comes to food, much of it comes down to making sure that your pets are receiving the proper nutrition they need, regardless of form, manufacturer, or celebrity endorsement.  If you have questions and concerns about what you are feeding your pets, take that all important moment to check with your veterinarian.

All I can tell you for certain is this: my cats are always happy to let me know what they like…and especially, what they don’t.


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