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The Evolution of Pet Food - Keeping up with the Changes!

How we feed our pets has undergone significant transformations over the past century in Australia. 

As more individuals ponder over their pets' nutritional needs, newer alternatives like insect protein and pre-packaged fresh food diets have gained attention. This prompts a reflection on the evolution of pet food. 

From leftovers to premium brands, and now the growing popularity of fresh food feeding, let’s take a closer look into the historical progression of pet food manufacturing, tracing its evolution from humble beginnings to the sophisticated array of choices available today.

The Beginnings of Commercial Pet Food

It wasn't until the 19th century that pet ownership gained broader acceptance within society. During the earliest days of keeping dogs as pets, dogs typically consumed whatever leftover food was accessible from the table. During this era, most domesticated pets weren't confined indoors all day; instead, they were allowed to roam freely. Being adept scavengers, they would naturally find sources of food and water while on their travels. It's believed that many dogs followed familiar routes, visiting known spots where food was reliably available. 

In the 1860s, commercially manufactured dog food made its debut. Spratt's, established by American entrepreneur James Spratt, is credited as the pioneer of contemporary dog nutrition. Spratt formulated the initial dog biscuit using a blend of wheat meal, vegetables, and animal blood in England around 1860. Initially marketed to English rural elites for their hunting and sporting canines, these biscuits gained popularity.

Several people noticed the success of Spratt’s “dog cakes”, and in the early 1900’s others began to create their own line of dog biscuit recipes. An Englishman by the name of F.H. Bennett produced Milk Bone dog biscuits in 1907, which he promoted as a complete dog food. Spratt and Bennett were the two major commercial pet food brands until the 1920’s.

As most of these early pet food manufacturers knew very little about the specific nutrient requirements for dogs and cats, companies would generally produce identical products for both species with different labels. 

In 1948, Mark L. Morris contacted Hill Packing Company to produce Canine K/D, becoming the first diet ever created to specifically cater for dietary disease management. 20 years later in 1968, Hill’s Science marketed a line of specialised products for different life stages (puppy/kitten, adult, and senior). This innovation fundamentally changed the pet food industry by introducing the concept that pets require varying nutritional support as they age, a notion that was relatively unexplored at the time. Prior to this, most pet foods were formulated with a one-size-fits-all approach, without considering the changing dietary needs of pets at different stages of their lives. Many companies soon followed this approach.

The War and emergence of Canned Food

After World War I, a significant shift in dog diets occurred with the introduction of canned meat, primarily sourced from surplus horses in French trenches. This marked a notable change in dogs' food preferences. In the 1920s, the United States witnessed a surge in canned meat production led by companies like Ken L Ration and the Chappel Brothers.

In the 1930’s, Cadet and Snappy canned pet food brands emerged, and canned foods become more popular than dry. However, in World War II, tin was required for the war effort and as a “non-essential” product, canned pet food production ceased dramatically. The popularity of dry pet food then rose and surpassed canned food due to the convenient packaging.  By 1946, dry food comprised approximately 85% of the pet food market in the US due to WWII.

Convenience and a focus on health

Since the mid-20th century, convenience has been a major driving force behind the popularity of pre-packaged dog foods. But now, there's a seismic shift in the way pet owners approach their furry companions' nutrition. 

Enter the era of premium dog foods, touted as the holy grail of canine nutrition. With an abundance of products flooding the market, pet parents are flipping labels, questioning ingredients, and demanding transparency like never before. As we delve deeper into the correlation between diet and health, our pets are reaping the benefits of a more discerning approach to their meals. 

In Australia, where pets have ascended to near-family status, owners are sparing no expense to ensure their companions lead the good life. The demand for higher quality and greater transparency in pet food production has resulted in pet foods containing high-quality proteins and vegetables, purported to enhance a pet's vitality, coat condition, and overall health. The push for transparency has led manufacturers to be more open about their ingredient sourcing, often opting for locally sourced or organic components that reassure pet owners about the purity and safety of their pet's diet.  

However, the premium dog food market is not without its challenges. The higher cost of these products can be a significant barrier for some pet owners, making it difficult to sustain a premium diet for their pets. Furthermore, the industry's use of terms like "premium" or "natural" can sometimes be misleading, as these labels are not always regulated, leading to confusion about the true quality of the product. Despite these concerns, the trend towards premium dog foods reflects a growing recognition of the importance of quality nutrition in maintaining pet health and happiness. 

Current Commercial Pet Food Options in Australia

The Australian market now offers a wide range of commercial pet foods, catering to different dietary needs and preferences: 

  • Dry food (kibble), including grain-based, grain-free, and various protein sources.  

  • Wet food, available in tins or sachets.  

  • Cooked dog rolls.  

  • Prescription veterinary food, both in kibble and wet forms.  

  • Commercially prepared raw food.  

  • Commercially prepared cooked food.  

  • Air-dried foods.  

  • Freeze-dried foods.  

  • The brand new Micro-steamed diets by ZIWI Peak, offering a novel preparation method. 

The Internet and Social Media influence

Social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Reddit and TikTok have become breeding grounds for pet nutrition discourse. From raw feeding tips to testimonials, these online communities are reshaping the way we approach pet care and has contributed to a more informed and engaged community of pet owners, eager to explore different dietary options and share their findings with a wider audience. 

However, the very accessibility and variety of information that make social media an invaluable resource also introduce significant challenges, particularly regarding the accuracy and reliability of the information shared.

Pet owners, especially those without a background in veterinary science or animal nutrition, may find it challenging to distinguish between evidence-based recommendations and anecdotal evidence or personal opinions presented as facts. This scenario is further complicated by influencers or non-expert individuals who, despite their lack of formal qualifications, may have significant followings and influence over pet owners' decisions.

Another negative aspect is the potential for the spread of extreme or unbalanced dietary regimes that have not been scientifically validated. For instance, raw diets and homemade pet food recipes shared online may not always provide complete nutritional profiles, exposing pets to risks of deficiencies or excesses of certain nutrients. Moreover, the promotion of such diets often overlooks critical safety considerations, such as the proper handling and preparation of raw foods to prevent bacterial contamination, or where to purchase recipes from legitimate, qualified professionals.

Sustainability – Another Evolution

Amidst the sea of alternative diets, there's a growing consciousness about the environmental footprint of traditional pet foods. Enter insect-based diets, the avant-garde of pet nutrition. Not only do they promise a high-quality protein alternative, but they also leave a smaller ecological footprint, offering a guilt-free option for environmentally conscious pet parents.

As the pet food industry continues to evolve, one thing's for certain: the way pet guardians are feeding their pets is also going to continue to evolve. 

How have these changes impacted the Vet Industry?

The evolution in pet nutrition has had a significant impact on the veterinary profession. Veterinary training covers a broad spectrum, including nutrition, to ensure practitioners can diagnose, treat, and prevent animal diseases. The rise of premium and alternative diets has introduced new complexities to veterinary nutrition. 

However, the diversification of diet options has also provided veterinarians with new tools for managing health issues, such as allergies, by offering novel proteins and specialised diets. This has led to a more personalised approach to pet nutrition, requiring collaboration between veterinarians, pet owners, and nutrition specialists to find the best dietary solutions for each pet, prioritising safety, nutritional adequacy, and owner preferences. 

As technology advances and our understanding of pet nutrition grows, the industry is moving towards more sustainable, health-focused, and personalised pet food options, aligning with the evolving demands of pet owners and the needs of their pets. It is an exciting space!  

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