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Domesticated cats have been with us since at least predynastic Egyptian times -- about 6,000 years ago -- but commercial cat food dates back fewer than 200 years. So what were cat owners feeding their pets way back when? How did packaged cat food emerge and evolve?
Although the Industrial Revolution was well underway in the early 1800s, many people at the start of the 19th century were living a rural lifestyle. Cats were valued allies, particularly on farms, because they ridded the land of pesky rodents. Those who lived on the farms may have set out bowls of meat and cream for the cats. These were more supplemental foods and served as attractants, meant to keep the cats healthy and ready to feast on mice and rats.
James Spratt’s Mid-1800s Breakthrough
The world’s first commercial alternative to feline farm life vittles emerged in the mid-19th century, according to Stephen Zawistowski, science advisor for The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. At this time, James Spratt -- an electrician from Ohio -- was selling lightning rods, which might have fueled his own mental light bulb. “He watched how dogs would eat up hard tack biscuits on fishing docks, and thought, ‘Wow, I could make something similar,’” says Zawistowski.
Spratt compressed beet root, various other vegetables, meat and wheat into cakes, baked them, and the first manufactured pet food was born. He called it a “Meat Fibrine Dog Cake” and cleverly printed ads on the opposite side of dog show flyers, which he printed and controlled with business partner Charles Cruft, founder of Crufts dog shows.
Cat aficionados soon latched on and bought the cakes too. At this time, small-business owners -- often working through farm animal feed operations or veterinary offices -- started selling their own pet food products to locals. Horsemeat was a popular ingredient in early cat foods, since horses were plentiful then.
Regulated Products and the Birth of AAFCO
With the growing popularity of commercial pet products came a need for regulation. In 1909, the Association of American Feed Control Officials was founded to oversee pet food quality. To this day, quality pet foods feature an AAFCO nutritional adequacy statement that indicates that the food is complete and balanced for a particular life stage. Kurt Gallagher, communications director of the Pet Food Institute, indicated that AAFCO paved the way for canned cat foods, with regulations established in 1917 for canned pet food products. Store-bought items were thought of as elite, since only wealthy individuals shopped beforehand.
1950s Machinery Breakthrough
The two World Wars put a dent in businesses, but during the high-growth 1950s, snack food manufacturing resulted in yet another ingenious moment. Clever observers, watching cheese puff extruders turn out tasty bites, had the idea that such machinery could produce dry pet foods with yummy nutritious coatings, says Zawistowski. This resulted in the first pellet-sized dry foods, similar to those that are still sold today.
During the early- to mid-20th century, new influential entrepreneurs associated with companies like Purina, Hill’s Pet Nutrition and Iams forged new commercial ground. Paul Iams, for example, “worked as a dog food salesman during the Depression,” according to Jennifer Bayot of The New York Times. “Not even severe economic hardship, he learned, could deter pet owners from paying the price to feed their companions.” Iams created some of the first meat-based, high-protein foods for pets, putting the emphasis on quality and good health. At the same time, interest in pets began to skyrocket. “Cat food sales in 1958 were 52 million,” says Gallagher. “In 2010, they were about 6.5 billion.”
Continued Emphasis on Quality and Growth
To this day, most cat owners feed their pets foods that contain high-quality ingredients with health benefits. The “eat healthy” trend really kicked in during the late 1960s, with momentum building with each year. “The pet food industry continues to grow and expand,” says Zawistowski. “Even during the toughest economic times, owners want the best for their pets.”
Jennifer Viegas is the managing editor of The Daily Cat. She is a journalist for Discovery News, the news service for the Discovery Channel, and has written more than 20 books on animals, health and other science-related topics.