Trends in Commercial Pet Food
The pet food industry started in the 1930s, and like all industries, it has changed and evolved in response to market demands, product research and development, and even commercial trends. In their ongoing attempts to stay in business, pet food manufacturers are constantly striving to provide what they believe cat owners want to feed their cats, while still making a decent profit.
Companies that began providing canned foods — made from meat products left over after animals were butchered for human consumption — are now offering a variety of products made from chicken and other animals and incorporating grains and vegetables. Today, there are literally hundreds of commercially prepared foods and treats available on store shelves, from Internet-based suppliers, and from veterinarian offices. Each product boasts a label that suggests it is the best one for all cats, but it can be quite the daunting task for a caring cat owner to find out what is really inside those cans and bags of food.
Even when products claim specific health and nutritional benefits, the truth of the matter is, only cat owners who buy the ingredients and prepare their cat’s food themselves know what is really going into their pet’s food dish.
History of the Pet Food Industry
Though humans and cats have cohabitated for thousands of years, cat owners have only been feeding their pets’ commercial food for about 100 years. James Spratt, an American electrician living in London who made dog biscuits out of wheat, vegetables, and meat, created the first foods produced. His idea for prepackaged dog treats caught on, and soon pet food manufacturers were creating and marketing special treats for dogs and cats in Europe and the United States. The treats were made from a mixture of the leftover grains and vegetables that were deemed unfit for human consumption. Often the food was moldy, mildewed, or otherwise spoiled. It seemed the “special” treats were not that special.
Unaware of the true ingredients in the products, pet owners enjoyed and even began to rely on the convenience of purchasing the treats. And soon, after World War I, the Ken-L-Ration brand of dog food appeared, selling canned whole meals as dog food. The initial products consisted primarily of horsemeat because it was a convenient way to dispose of the thousands of horses who died during the war. Eventually, in the 1930s, Gaines Food Company introduced canned cat food that contained, in addition to horse, cow, pig, and poultry, parts that remained after those animals were butchered for human consumption. Almost immediately, other companies followed Gaines’s lead and started producing their own foods and treats. In fact, for companies such as Nabisco and General Mills pet foods became a way to make use of the meat by-products that were left over after preparing canned goods for humans. They were able to increase their profits because they now had more offerings to sell while reducing the amount of waste they created. The concept caught on, and by the 1950s, pet food became a $200 million dollar industry.
During the 1980s, the Baby Boom generation realized they were now aging, over-30 adults, and, as they do so well, they rebelled. Only this time their rebellion was not against the government, the capitalist system, or any other authoritative figures. This time they rebelled against themselves. They took aim at their new adversaries — protruding waistlines, sagging cheeks, and flapping underarms. From that, a new fad began — the fitness craze. Never before had humans focused to such an intense degree on their physical health and the various ways to maintain it. People began exercising and making wiser food choices, and because they realized their diet played a huge role in their overall health, they sought to change it for the better. One of the most popular changes made was to rely more on fresh, whole foods to replace the processed, prepackaged ones they had been stuffing themselves with. They realized fresh food not only tasted better, but also the nutrition available in it was often higher than processed foods, and it contained fewer calories. Whole, natural foods became a win-win opportunity for them. They were able to enjoy better tasting foods that were also healthier.
As health awareness grew from a trend and into a movement, perhaps it is only natural that people started looking closer at their pets’ food to see what they were giving their animal companions. What pet owners discovered was that many pet food manufacturers acted like typical companies — they tried to maximize their profits by using the cheapest ingredients they could find and then sell their products at the highest margin their customers would pay. The results were cat foods and treat made with products most owners’ did not feel comfortable feeding to their beloved pets.
Unfortunately, there are few laws that prevent rancid, moldy foods and other unsavory items from being put into our pets’ food. The leftover products that humans cannot eat continue to be used to make pet food today. And though cats do eat the whole animal in the wild, they rarely eat the whole exterior of the animal. Things like claws, beaks, chicken feet, hooves, and teeth that wild cats would leave behind, can be ground up, labeled “meat by-products,” and put in cans and bags by pet food manufacturers.
As health-conscious pet owners learned what they were feeding their cats, they began to demand better products from the pet food industry. In reply, premium brands emerged offering foods with what promised to be more wholesome ingredients. Pet product manufacturers also began offering foods aimed toward animals in various stages of their lives, from kitten to nursing mother to senior cat. Then, the industry realized they had a market for formulas specially designed for cats with particular health needs, such as diabetes and chronic renal failure.
Today, pet owners have a variety of products, food, and treats to offer their cats. The whole gamut of quality materials can be found at just about any price, and pet owners continue to buy whatever they can for their pets. Though the industry may be changing, Americans remain steadfast in their commitment to their pets. According to the American Pet Products Association, more households in the United States have pets than they have children. Those pet owners spend more money on pet food than on baby food, and the pet food industry is proving to be recession-proof. By 2007, it was a $15 billion industry.