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Peggy Keener: Fancy fare for Fido

“Do not feed the dog at the table!” Mom reprimanded us.  Still, how many times did we continue to sneak little bites to Rex when she wasn’t looking?  Why not?  It was such a great way to vanish the food we didn’t like.  But then, alas, how often were we caught red handed when Rex left the proffered bite on the kitchen floor because he also didn’t like broccoli?

Many folks today think that dog food has always come in bags and cans.  Yet, the more senior among us can remember when dogs ate only table scraps … and always stayed outdoors.

It was only after the Industrial Revolution that a more affluent middle class came into being, bringing along with it indoor house pets.  Clearly these creatures were of a more highly refined genre of critters, thus convincing their owners that they deserved more suitable fare. … the word “scraps” having a distasteful flavor (if you wll) to it.

From Ohio entered James Spratt — no relation to the infamous Jack Spratt whose wife, it seems, ate the entirety of their table scraps leaving none for either their dog or bony Jack.  In 1860, Mr. Spratt, an electrician by trade, traveled far and wide with his craft. On one trip to England (where he was attempting to sell lightning rods to the Brits), he noticed that on the riverbanks in Northern London the stray dogs were eating hardtack left behind by the sailors.

Hardtack was a biscuit made of flour, water and salt, and was not only inexpensive, but was also indispensable food for the sailors’ lengthy sea journeys as it could be stored indefinitely. This got Jack thinking.  Why couldn’t dogs eat hardtack, as well?  Before he knew it, Jack ditched his electrician gig — along with the lightning rods — and set himself upon a new career path.  Biscuits for dogs.  Upscale British dogs.

Spratt’s Meat Fibrine Dog Cakes were a mixture of wheat, vegetables, beetroot and the dried, unsalted, gelatinous parts of Prairie Beef.  (It is interesting to note that throughout his lifetime, Spratt remained notoriously tight lipped about just exactly what the source for “prairie beef” was???)

The biscuits were expensive, a 50-pound bag costing the equivalent of an entire day’s work for a skilled craftsman.  With that in mind, Spratt wisely targeted English nobility who could afford such frivolous luxuries for their dogs.

Despite the steep price tag — as well as the clouded mystery surrounding his meat source — Spratt billed his biscuits as a dog’s primary food source.  In the 1870s, he used an aggressive advertising strategy where he targeted health conscious pet owners as well as professional dog show participants.  Additionally, he recruited some old friends of the rich English country gentleman persuasion to share their testimonials touting the benefits of Spratt’s dog cakes.

Then in January of 1889, he moved back across the Atlantic and brazenly bought the full front cover of the first American Kennel Club Journal.  In no time, the American public was hooked, trading in their table-scraps-for-Fido-routine for Spratt’s biscuits.  His campaign was so successful that before long he pioneered the concept of “animal life stages” where he concocted appropriate foods for each age period of a dog’s life.

In 1922, Ken-L Ration entered the market with canned food made of “lean red meat” made from horse flesh.  This shady bit of information was disclosed in very small letters at the bottom of the can. Within two decades, the canned food was so successful that horses were being bred for dog food, 50,000 of them slaughtered each year.

But, soon push back came from both furious horse lovers, as well as the WWII rationing of tin and meat.  A further blow came when dog food was classified as non-essential. Both factors created an opportunity for a new more stable shelf product.  In stepped General Mills who in the 1950s bought out Spratt.  Meanwhile, the Ralston Purina Company modified their Chex cereal machines so they could process dog food.  As tin cans were still rationed, innovative cardboard boxes were used.

Currently both regular and organic dog foods are cooked at extremely high temperatures, then dried after extrusion to remove the moisture.  This method optimizes shelf-life, but impacts the nutritional value, as well as creating health risks.  Much of the current dog food is lamentably unregulated, resulting in frequent recalls.

Still the two tenets that guided dog food production 120 years ago — shelf-stable and convenience — remain.  But, as today’s health conscious dog owners turn to eating unprocessed food themselves, so do they feed their dogs fresh human-grade food.  Thus it seems, we are returning to where we started back in the 1800s.  One thing, moreover, has not changed.  No matter how clever you may think yourself to be, it’s still good practice not to feed Fido under the dinner table.  Especially if you’re eating with Mom.