The First Commercial Dog Food Was Inspired By A Sad Scene

Dogs, by and large, aren't the world's pickiest eaters. If their human happens to be eating something, or even opens a packet or rustles a wrapper within earshot, they come barreling over to investigate. Should that human happen to allow something to fall on the floor while preparing a meal, dogs will pounce on and devour it without a second thought.

It may be unfair to characterize all dogs in this way, but many owners of these crafty canines will agree that no food is safe when a dog's around. They've been around, furthermore, for a very long time. According to History, humanity began domesticating dogs (well, wolves) 15,000 years ago. Over the millennia, we've learned to share our body heat, our homes, and our hearts with them. Dogs are more than just friends; they are invaluable companions. Evidence from the first century — art discovered in the ruins of the city of Herculaneum — revealed that dogs were already being employed as early guides for the blind.

Food is another thing humans have been sharing with dogs for centuries. It was, unsurprisingly, the sight of down-on-their-luck dogs that drove one bystander to develop the very first dedicated commercial dog food.

James Spratt saw hungry dogs in need

As Healthline reports, eggs, green peas, bread and meats like chicken and ham are staples that are enjoyed by both humans and canines, though it's important to keep moderation in mind. At the same time, though, the likes of chocolate and onions can be incredibly dangerous for dogs.

The September 2009 study "Some food toxic for pets," from Natália Kovalkovičová et al (posted at the National Library of Medicine) states, "Chocolate is toxic to all species, especially to smaller dogs ... dark chocolate is more toxic, whereas milk chocolate less so, and white chocolate must be consumed in extremely large quantities to cause a serious problem." The abstract of the study concludes: "The best advice must surely be to give animal fodder or treats specifically developed for their diets." Who made the first such animal fodder? BBC Future reports that James Spratt created the first dog food in 1860, supposedly after watching some stray dogs struggle with some very tough food indeed.

Per BBC Future, James Spratt was an Ohio lightning rod salesman and electrician. He traveled far and wide in order to advance his business — including as far as Liverpool, England, it seems, a city of great importance for its dock. It was at this dock, according to the story, that Spratt saw some unfortunate stray dogs feeding on discarded hardtack biscuits. These were presumably the only morsels the strays could muster, a food that was potentially deadly in and of itself.

Spratt's Meat Fibrine Dog Cake

Hardtack, according to Military History Now, is a simple wheat flour biscuit that has long provided sailors and soldiers with simple, long-lasting rations. Baked very hard indeed, it would last long after other rations had been consumed or gone bad, perhaps for years on end. The downside of this was that it usually had to be soaked in liquid to soften it — it was known to break teeth otherwise — and was often infested with creepy-crawlies. Spratt's idea was to develop a more palatable food specifically for dogs. Prior to this, household animals, BBC Future goes on, would find their own food or just survive on the scraps from their owners' tables, but Spratt started to change this.

Spratt's Meat Fibrine Dog Cake was the result, made of vegetables, beetroot, and beef, held in shape by grain. The product proved a great success, per the Pet Food Institute: The world's first commercial dog biscuits were marketed to wealthy pet dog owners who wanted the best for their valuable pooches. Spratt's company moved from a small New York City property to a grander one in Newark, New Jersey. Others soon emerged, the outlet goes on, such as F. H. Bennett Biscuit Co., but Spratt's brainwave appears to be the very first of its kind.