Dog Food Wonkery: A History of the Market

This link goes to a lengthy page of excerpts from the book The Lost History of the Canine Race by Mary Elizabeth Thurston. It’s so lengthy, that only the dog-food-wonkiest among you are likely to read it from beginning to end but I wanted to share it and see if anyone has comments, disputes, or any other sort of feedback. I’ve never come across the book before so if anyone here has read it, please share your thoughts on the book as a whole.

One of the most interesting take-aways from the page about food is the author’s repetition that dog food marketing has consistently been designed to capitalize on current societal trends – never on what’s best for the dog.

By 1980, growing consumer worries about artificial additives in their own diet convinced many companies to tone down outlandish marketing ploys and return to advertisements that stressed the nutritional value of their products. To counter accusations that pet foods contained harmful additives, the industry cast itself as a “scientist” rather than a recycler, dedicated to the never-ending search for the perfectly formulated dog food. The PFI acknowledged that “pet health officials increasingly voiced a need for more information and verification…concerning nutritional claims for pet foods,” so the organization announced a “self-enforcement program” to provide pet health professionals and pet owners with added assurance of quality nutrition in their pet foods.

How’s that “self-enforcement program” going?


26 thoughts on “Dog Food Wonkery: A History of the Market

  1. As someone who is living with the results of the toxic pet food debacle, I am always interested, but very skeptical about anything they say. I don’t trust most of the PFI and do not believe their claims to be concerned about pet health – if they truly were, then things would be very different. They are anything but transparent and their goal – still – is to make a lot of money and if we have pets get sick and/or die, oh well, collateral damage.

    1. I don’t begrudge any pet food company’s right to make a profit. I do begrudge them the right to mislabel, mislead, substitute ingredients because they are cheaper and not because they are as (or more) healthful, fail to be transparent with their practices, circle the wagons when pets start dying from their products, etc.

      1. No, I don’t mind them making a profit the RIGHT way! I’m still budgeting for residual medical issues for my 16 year old who got the toxic pet food and then metacam which blew out what was left of her kidney function. She’s with me, but has had ongoing medical problems that have been treatable because I live close to a university teaching hospital and have been willing to spend money for treatment. Not everyone has been that “lucky”!

  2. I don’t have dogs so can’t speak to the dog food industry but I have noticed it in cat food. Cats need 95% meat in their diet so those “well balanced” cat foods with vegetables are not actually well balanced for cats – but they do appeal to people who don’t realize that and think cats need veggies like humans do. I always look at the ingredient lists and it’s hard to find any food where the first three ingredients are meat – and I don’t count anything labelled as “meal”.

      1. I like the wet food soultistic – it’s a Petco brand but most of the flavors start off with “Tuna, Chicken, Salmon” – depending on what is supposed to be in it. Some do have other ingredients, but based on what you see when you open the cans/pouch it looks like the meat is the biggest ingredient. I once had the thought “If the zombie apocalypse comes I could probably survive on this for a while”. But that would be my last choice! :-) For dry foods my cats are picky – I really liked Wellness core but my cats didn’t agree with me! One of them has bladder crystals so they are now on a prescription diet because I had proof that it was really helping Leo. I also give them Friskies because they really like them. I figure that I like my junk food every once in a while so why not let them indulge too, as long as they don’t get it all the time. :-)

  3. I have read the book, but it was so long ago that I don’t even remember what was said about dog food. I do remember finding it fascinating as far as historical tidbits, but, as a Celtic mythology nerd, being greatly put off by some major errors in references to same. And of course, that gaff made me wonder what else she got wrong, and take the whole with a grain of salt.

  4. It waxes a bit poetic towards the end there. But it’s true that there is an element of “nurturing” to home cooking for one’s pets. I have been known to cook something now and again for my raw fed crew…and leftovers are always appreciated by the house mongrels here!

    As for the industry self-enforcing more assurances, no, not so much. Even if you trust a company, can you trust their manufacturer? Can you trust the shipping/storage/handling?

    In 2007 we saw pet foods that were never even supposed to have rice protein or wheat gluten or whatever added to them contaminated with the melamine-laced products anyway. Some companies were horrified (Canine Caviar comes to mind) and leapt to the internet to spread the word that you should stop feeding their products immediately. Some tried to sweep it under the rug and decided to wait for more tests, more consumer complaints, more data, etc. before they finally and begrudgingly revealed that there might be a problem…

    And then there’s the Orijen horror in Australia. The food was fine until it was subjected to radiation. Now cats are paralyzed, sick, dying. Orijen is all “hey, it’s not OUR fault”… no, but it was your food and for someone who is supposed to care all about the pets, you’re not doing a very good job of helping pet owners get information and assistance.

    The PFI is interested in profits, first and foremost. And that’s fine, I suppose. But when they screw up, pets die. And when pets die, people are impacted by the pain, grief, and often huge vet bills (that some folks are STILL struggling with to this day because their animals ended up needing long term care). Do I trust them? No farther than I can throw them.

  5. I have my doubts about the history given. Thing is, the vintage adverts I’ve been finding on-line mention health, well-being, strength, good growth & longevity – not convenience – and as early as the 1930s there’s an emphasis on their being ‘complete nutrition.’

    I also suspect, based on memory, that the interpretation of ‘Wagon Train’ adverts is incorrect – that the mix-your-own-gravy aspect, like adding an egg to box bakery mixes, was intended primarily to make you feel that, as convenient as the mix was, you were still preparing food for your family. Thing is, up through the 70s most everyone I knew fed a mixed diet, commercial plus butcher’s & kitchen scraps and the occasional special meal of organ meats or eggs & milk, which were considered especially healthful at the time.

    It wasn’t until the 1980s that I had a vet recommend an entirely commercial diet.

    1. I’ve just been through the adverts I have to date, along with some new ones, and also – *none* emphasize the ‘recyclers’ aspect. Not a one. Nor are gimmicks very common. It’s not until the 70s that I even run into an advert for cat food that emphasizes anything other than health.

      Also, to get back to ‘Wagon Train’ which the author clearly sees as gimmicky, it looks like there were other mid century dog foods which were intended to be mixed with liquids or other foods.

      1. In re-reading my post, I think my word choice was poor in that it didn’t reflect quite what I meant to convey. I should have maybe said the *behind the scenes* marketing strategies were centered around societal trends and not what was best for the dog. IOW, even when the industry noted that it was trendy to market foods as healthful, it’s not as if they were actually changing their manufacturing practices in any meaningful way. Rather, they were simply tightening their grip on the market, calling themselves scientists, photographing chunks of prime meat, fresh vegetables and whole grains for the bags but in reality putting the same garbage inside as usual.

      2. Ah. That makes sense. There used to be a history of pet food development & marketing up at the Pet Food Institute’s website that pretty much made that point, but it’s no longer up and I’m afraid I didn’t keep a copy. Perhaps someone else has one? I know it was being circulated in 2007, during the melamine recalls. The Wayback Machine this morning seems to indicate that the change went in last year, but Wayback is also a bit wonky and I may try it again later.

  6. Well, let me begin by stating that commercial fare for pets has always been of poor quality. Of course, almost all study of canine/feline nutrition is a by-product of this industry, but its easy to see that by selecting the most thorough studies the only conclusion to be made is that a well thought out home made diet is far superior to the vast array of commercial choices.

    I’d be happy to fully review the entire book, I just need to locate a copy.

    For the record, I’m not anti-commercial pet food. I’m anti-crappy commercial pet food, which sadly includes most of today’s available options. Our dogs are fed a base diet of locally sourced and produced grain free kibble. To convince us that this was a suitable choice, I went so far as to visit the factory, and for years was on a first name basis with many of their people. Still, I understand that any mass produced product is going to have the occasional mishap, and so wee temper this risk by switching varieties every other week and ensuring that the bulk of their diet still comes from our refrigerators and freezers. Raw meat, bones, appropriate low fat table scraps, lots of pulped veggies, some cooked, others raw, and the occasional specially preppared beef stew all ensure that we’re never dependant on a single company. This way, very few recalls concern us.

    As foor their health, they have regular bloodwork to satisfy my very open minded vet who thinks my girls are two of his healthiest clients. One is 8, the other 3, and with one exception they’ve never seen a vet for anything beyond a wellness check. They’ve only gotten fleas twice (a miracle in our area) and the one exception was a very mild case of kennel cough that cured itself when a few foster dogs brought it through my house.

    As for the myriad arguments against home feeding via the pet food companies, they don’t amount to anything substantial.

    When it comes to PFCs in this house, we have a saying-

    “Anything you can do, I can do BETTER.”

    Oh, and if you can’t find a problem with your pet food, you’re not looking hard enough. Go ahead, try me. ;)

    Great excerpt Shirley – can’t believe I don’t have this book…

  7. The thing about Pet Food is it stopped being FOOD halfway through the last century. The law around Pet Food (Actually called FEED by the governement) is not strict, confusing, and allows company to be duplicitous in thier labeling. Full disclosure – I have a pet food company that was based on changing what we do to our pets with 90% of the products out there. I highly recommend a few books and sites to see what is happening out there. (my Site)
    Book: Food pets Diet For by Ann N. Martin
    Pet Food Politics: by Marion Nestle

      1. The thing I hear most often from cat owners who have tried to feed raw or homecooked diets is that the cats won’t eat it. And with cats, you don’t have the luxury of allowing them to fast themselves day after day in protest until they at least try the food you put down. Have you ever tried any home prepared foods with your cats db?

      2. When my cat was diagnosed with cancer 4 years ago she was givien 4 months to live. We completely changed her diet to real food, mostly meat, and also used an algae supplement. We lost her a few weeks ago. No Chemo, no surgery, no radiation. Just food in her diet. And she lived a good life for an additional 4 years. I cannot stress the improtance of real food in your pets diet.

      3. When I cook for myself if it is something that you add seasoning to it after it is cooked I will put a little aside for the cats before I add the spices. Sometimes I will put a little aside before it is cooked. Of my 8 4 turn their noses up at it no matter what it is, the other 4 will eat some of it – depending on what it is. There is probably a way you can move to raw food after feeding cats commercial food, but it is more then I want to go through. My cats are healthy and I keep an eye on them to make sure they stay that way. I don’t think commercial food is the best thing for them, but I also don’t think it is the worst thing either.

  8. How’s it working- one word- NOT

    and I have dead animals and thousands in vet bills to prove it.

  9. Changing cats to raw can sometimes be challenging- but I have gotten every one of the 40 sanctuary cats onto raw.

    I started out with mixing raw in with their canned. Increasing amount of raw. Had a few holdouts – so partially cooked the raw to increase smell.

    Also used some Forti Flora sprinkled on it. That is horrible stuff that the PFManf. use to get cats to eat their cardboard crap. Got them off that as soon as I could and they now eat raw without it.

    I have buried too many of my soulmates because of the junk out there and lack of anything but the bottom line to these companies.

    You can get more info from many sites – here are 2- the truth about pet food and Dr. Lisa Pierson.

  10. Perfect example if PMI-
    I called taste of the wild back in Jan and told them there was something wrong with their Sierra blend. Their very nice arrogant get called me back and assured me that since “I” was the only complaint basically it was all in my head. Well now Diamond who makes TOTW Cosco and others has removed all products and suppliers are not able to reorder till further notice. Yet NO official recall of all Diamonds products- and this is NOT diamonds first recall- just they learned from the first on to just remove without official recall as they don’t want to lose market share again. Got the dog back on raw and table scraps- which means I have to cook for us too so I have some :^) I can just nuke cardboard for myself- I gotta feed the dog good stuff!!!

  11. To answer your cat food question, I have tried most everything and my cats are stubborn about anything new! My oldest girl has had feeding tubes 4 different times because when she doesn’t feel well, she stops eating. So, we’re to the point that I give her the best of what she’s willing to eat!
    My younger ones are very fussy about what they will eat (although one of them will eat scrambled eggs and my boy used to love slurps of vanilla ice cream).
    I’d love to be able to put together some real food in a crock pot and feed them. Dogs (at least from my experience) are a whole lot easier to feed!

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