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The Evolution of Dry Dog Food

Looking back in history, it’s probably fair to say that around 1860 we saw the birth of the dog food industry. It was an American James Spratt, after a voyage to England, who came up with the idea of baking simple snacks using ‘stone ground flour, water and salt’ and selling them to the upper and middle classes for them to feed their dogs. Spratt soon discovered there was a growing demand for readymade dog food and money to be made. As time went on ‘meat’ was introduced into the ‘baked snacks’. In the 1950s, Spratt’s company was bought by ‘General Mills’ which is still in business today with its Blue Buffalo brand in the USA.

During the early twentieth century, dogs were commonly being fed human food scraps, meat and bones. Around 1930 canned meat and cereal was introduced and became popular with dog owners. Then in 1941, during the 2nd World War, metal was in short supply and the dog food industry had to find an alternative to selling dog food in cans. The idea came up of using by products from cereal manufacturers which meant that dry dog food could be sold in bags. The dry dog food industry was now well and truly thriving. What we must remember is that it was based on cereal products that were unfit for human consumption.  It is thought that many dogs would have suffered from indigestion, constipation and skin problems due to lack of fibre and to the amount of grain in the dry food. But you were feeding dogs so why would it matter? As time went on, and probably to the present day with some brands, the dog food industry continues to use inferior ingredients in their dry food. Sad to think there are still dog food manufacturers getting away with making money more important than the wellbeing of dogs that are fed their products.

It’s probably in the last 10 years or so that premium dry dog food has come into its own. There has been enormous investment in technology by some companies. For example, in the last decade technology has enabled the manufacture of very high levels of fresh meat into premium dried pet food. Freshtrusion™ technology has enabled more fresh ingredients to be used in dry pet foods than any other extrusion in the world. Ingredients include fresh meat, fresh vegetables, herbs and botanicals. Dog owners are much more concerned about their dogs’ health and diet. It appears to mirror the more healthy diets that humans have embraced and what’s good for them they believe is good for their dogs.

Technology has also created ‘innovative microbiological and indirect analysis’ which ensures safety, digestibility and nutrient analysis of every product that goes into the manufacture of dry dog food. It provides zero tolerance on Mycotoxin, Salmonella and Enterobacteriaceae which are common bacterial infections. Technology has enabled meat to be cooked gently at lower temperatures to protect proteins and ensure maximum digestibility and nutritional value. It also provides a fuller flavour and leaves much more of the natural nutrients intact.

We now have an amazing assortment of premium dry dog foods. Quality recipes come under labels of Super Premium, Grain Free, Superfoods and there are many brands of dry dog food which have as much as 50 – 80 percent of single source meat or fish. On the other hand, we still have brands owned by large conglomerate companies who are producing dry dog food containing both ‘cereal and meat derivatives’. Meat derivatives covers all warm-blooded land animals. Generally it’s bits of the meat carcass left after the ‘good bits’ have been taken out for human consumption. This is predominantly made up of offal as well feathers, beaks and even hooves. The problem is that the manufacturer can change the animal source and use any combination of meat and animal derivatives at time of production. Usually they will use whatever ingredients are the cheapest which is also the case for cereal derivatives added to the recipe.

By using these derivatives, it’s very difficult to assess what exactly is in the content of the dry dog food you are feeding your dog. These recipes cannot be recommended as a balanced diet. Many add sugar, synthetic preservatives, flavours and colouring, vitamins and antioxidents to make the food more palatable for dogs. The most important factor in your decision should be finding a dry food that meets all your dog’s nutritional needs. On that basis you would be very wise to read the detail in the labels on the back of the dry dog food bag. It’s astonishing how many people don’t bother.

It’s worth noting that Pet Food Manufacturers’ Association (PFMA) is the trade body representing the UK pet food industry for over 50 years. They represent 100 member companies in both pet food manufacturing and suppliers who account for 90% of the UK market. PFMA members are required to provide the highest standards, safety and quality to the nation’s pets. They have access to regular training, latest technical, regulatory and science updates as well as ‘tailored advice from leading industry experts’. PFMA state “Members have to adhere to strict legislation and therefore provide nourishing wet, dry or raw diets for your pets”.

Let’s get back to labels on the packaging. This is important simply because it’s necessary to choose the right food for your dog. What we feed our dogs has an impact on their health, well being and temperament. Keep in mind that the manufacturers have a statutory requirement to give truthful information about the nature and quality of their products. What you read on the label is going to be correct. Those dog foods who use animal and cereal derivatives have to declare this. If labels don’t declare that they are using derivatives then look for the meat content percentage. You will be surprised that some of the big brand names don’t declare the meat content. Why? Probably because they will use the cheapest meat product they can buy at time of production. So it could be chicken. But the next bag of dog food you buy from them could have pork or beef in the recipe. 

Look at the meat or fish ingredients. Ideally they should be shown as single-source protein with a high content. Basically that means one meat like chicken or turkey and no other meat content. Roughly the super premium food has meat or/and fish content ranging from 30% to 45%. The grain free food has meat or/and fish ranging from 40% to 60%. Then we have the Superfoods with meat or/and fish content in the 60% to 80% range. This should be clearly shown at the top of the ingredients list. Then look at what tends to be called ‘fillers’. Potato and rice are perfectly digestible carbohydrates and tend to be in the Super Premium ranges. Sweet Potato tends to be in the grain free and superfood recipes. It is low in fat and rich in vitamins. It is not a cheap ‘filler’. Grain free dry dog food is made with recipes that don’t include cereal. The cereals tend to be replaced by vegetables such as sweet potato, other vegetables, herbs, etc. It is thought they are far more palatable for dogs than rice-based foods. Superfoods are grain free too with a much higher meat content with fresh vegetable and botanicals.  

The list or composition will then show the percentages of other ingredients in the dry food. There should also be an analysis of crude protein, crude fibre, crude ash, calcium, phosphorus, omega fatty acids, etc. If you need to know trace elements and vitamins you may have to contact the manufacturer if required. They should have data sheets.

What are you getting from the label overall? You should be looking for natural, wholesome foods. You want to see a percentage of the meat and/or fish content to be at least 30-40 percent. You may also be looking for a Joint Care Pack in the recipe if you have a senior dog or a large breed puppy. No artificial colours and preservatives are necessary as quality dry dog foods are now using natural preservatives such as rosemary extract. There is so much choice out there amongst quality dry dog food it can be overwhelming for the dog owner. But reading labels will help and give you the best chance to choose the right food for your dog as well as your pocket.

These days the choice for different size dogs, different aged dogs, different allergies in dogs, overweight dogs and different dog breeds is enormous. For example, small breeds need a small kibble for the size of their mouths to enable them to eat their food comfortably. Small breeds also require proportionately higher nutrient levels in comparison to medium and larger breeds because they reach adult size more quickly. Senior and overweight dogs need a recipe that is lower in calories and possibly a joint care pack in the recipe to support cartilage for healthy joints. Large breeds have a choice of larger kibble to stop them from eating their food too quickly. The market appears to have covered just about every requirement for every dog.

Dogs fed dry dog food in Britain is around 90-95% of the pet dog population. Now that is a very high proportion of pet dogs.  The reasons are probably quite simple in a way. Dry dog foods are convenient. You can pick up your dog food from shops and supermarkets whilst you are doing your weekly shop or buy online and have the dry dog food delivered to your door. There is a wide range of prices but you should try and stay away from cheap brands and those with meat and cereal derivatives. Those brands that cannot tell you on the label what meat or fish is in the recipe, stay clear of them for reasons already stated. Check the dry dog food you can buy from your Vet. I have questioned vets and one vet told me it wasn’t necessary to see the meat content on the label because she could phone them up and find out if she wanted to. If she had phoned them up how would they know unless they investigated that bag and traced it back to the batch it came from.

Feeding dry dog food can require little preparation. It can be easily stored and it lasts for a long time with an 18 month timeframe for an unopened bag. Dry dog food doesn’t need to be refrigerated. So it saves on your electricity bill if you had to buy another freezer. Technology has made dry food safer with very little chance of passing bacterial problems on to your dogs. Another good feature is that quality dry dog food with only a minimum of a specified good cereal like oats or barley or a totally grain free recipe can provide dogs with firm stools. Those with a high cereal derivative content tend to produce loose stools and gases. So another reason to stay clear of dry food with derivatives.

To sum up we can say that dry dog food has come a long way from ‘stone ground flour, water and salt’ on its journey from the 19th Century to where we are today. There are multiple choices but if you want a happy healthy dog choose the best you can afford by scrutinising the label on the back of the bag.

Helen Seddon