Today, the way to feed our pets seems obvious: just open a packet of kibble, a can of pâté, et voilà! Ironically, the plethora of options is what makes it so complex: dry food, wet food, mixed diet, BARF diet, vegan diet... We're spoilt for choice! In reality, our pets' diet (more so for dogs) has evolved over the centuries, going from extremely simple—though relatively balanced—to very elaborate.

Dogs and cats entered our domestic lives at different stages of human evolution, each with their own special role to play alongside us. Since prehistoric times, dogs have assumed the greatest number of roles: guardian, hunter, warrior, shepherd, and, finally, man's best friend. However, their diet was hardly the focus of attention, except when it came to working dogs, who needed special care.

A Diet Adapted to each Role

In ancient times, leading thinkers and poets were definitely not sparing with their pets’ diets, especially our Greco-Roman and Gallic ancestors who showed a real affinity for dogs (one immediately calls to mind the prolific iconography passed down through the ages, thanks to the rediscovery of Pompeii). It was a passion that knew no borders; in the East, Persians cared attentively for their canine companions, while Egypt remains famous for its deification of the cat and immense respect for the feline form (which went so far as to sentence to death anyone who killed a cat). A dog's diet had to be appropriate to their "role". And this was the origin of the dietary recommendations we follow for our pets today.

Peasant Dogs, Noble Dogs: Not the Same Diet!

Dogs, humans, same struggle: the quality of food has long been conditional upon social standing. Thus, as dogs were only just starting to enter into homes in the Western world and mostly served as work aids, it was the "farm" diet that prevailed. Dogs—and cats, too—were fed table scraps and surplus food which made for a very varied diet, although not as unbalanced as you might think! Cats and dogs were also perfectly free to supplement this base diet with the product of a hunt... or theft! As we well know, even today, as soon as they see a chance to steal a morsel of food... they take it!

However, there was one exception to this: hunting dogs. Because hunting dogs can't eat just anything! Both a sprinter and a marathon runner, the hunting dog is an athlete who needs to eat an athlete's diet: comprehensive, balanced, and full of protein (beef or game meat), fat, and fibre. In France and England in particular, many aristocrats distinguished themselves by drafting hunting treatises, which inevitably included a chapter on their dogs' nutritional care.

As for small companion dogs, which were first found exclusively in noble and bourgeois homes, it was not uncommon for them to be a little "too spoiled"... which is to say stuffed full of sweets and other foods unsuitable for their build!


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A More Considered Diet

Perhaps surprisingly to us today, dogs ate a bread-based diet, practised in ancient times and throughout the centuries, until at least the 19th century.

It was only thanks to the Industrial Revolution that the dog's diet began to change, following human evolution. With the emergence of the middle class, customs—and especially eating habits—began to change, and most domestic cats and dogs gradually became house pets. Was it still possible to feed them table scraps—i.e. rubbish—once they became members of the family? In the 1830s, the famous naturalist, Grognier, and Eugène Gayot, director of the Pin and Pompadour stud farms and author of numerous treatises on domestic animals, advocated the widespread use of a certain type of diet, along with other recommendations. According to them, you could feed your dogs bread, certainly, but meat as well, and never bread exclusively, because that could be detrimental to the dog’s health. Obesity was to be avoided at all costs (already back then!), and vegetables should be cooked to make them tastier and more nutritious.

1860: The Birth of the Pet Food Industry

It was around the 1860s that the large-scale production of stereotypical pet food began in the United States, thanks to the impetus of a certain James Spratt, who is today considered to be the inventor of pet food.

His approach, however, began with the most prosaic of observations: watching sailors disembark in a port, he noticed that stray dogs were gladly feasting on leftover biscuits that the men had on board to snack on during long voyages at sea. These biscuits were made of flour, water, and, of course, salt, for better conservation. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that this was the model for future pet food, which we now feed to all our pets! Spratt bet on a demand from pet owners for foods that were easy to store and distribute. Based on this idea, he created the first dog biscuits: Spratt's Meat Fibrine Dog Cakes.

The Glorious 30s and the Emergence of Dry Dog Food

Immediately after the war, canned food reappeared in the United States and was exported to Europe in the mid-1950s. In 1956, the first dry dog food was produced using a process called extrusion, a method used to make large quantities of shelf-stable foods (just like cornflakes). The process is simple: wet and dry ingredients are mixed to form a paste, then baked at a very high temperature before being extruded through a die-cut machine, resulting in the small, solid shapes that we know today. Once the manufacturing process had been perfected, manufacturers had to convince pet owners to exclusively feed their animals this type of food, as Spratt had done in his day. And so we entered the 1960s, the golden age of advertising... Quickly, dry dog food occupied the majority of the pet food market and consumers' cupboards! Studies done at the end of the 1970s showed that, between 1963 and 1975, the production of dry food increased fivefold in the United States, and the population of domestic dogs grew 10 times faster than the human population... hence the challenge of the pet food industry to feed them all!

The use of extrusion also expanded considerably during the 1960s and 1970s as companies gradually introduced all kinds of flavours and varieties. To differentiate itself from competitors, the Hill's brand launched a genius idea in the 1980s: so-called “prescription” pet food, suitable for several types of ailments (in particular, kidney and liver failure) or weight problems.

And today?

After evolving from a diet of bread and milk, to meat and vegetables, and, finally, to dry food, are our pets really eating any better today? As of the start of the 21st century, the state of scientific expertise in the field of nutrition has improved considerably. If, for several decades, dry food was valued as both the most practical and balanced form of pet food from a nutritional standpoint, these days the impact of the extrusion process on the nutritional composition of dry food is increasingly discussed: in effect, all ingredients (even high-quality ones) are cooked at the same extremely high temperature, then dried after extrusion to extract moisture. Which could pose a risk to our animals' health...

The point is, our dogs and cats have followed our dietary evolution over the past century: As we have consumed more mass-produced, widely distributed, processed foods, they have experienced the same trend. However, over the past twenty years, from a human perspective, the harmful effects of industrial food have been widely documented, and a return to healthy, traditional food is more and more encouraged. Are our pets on the verge of experiencing the same trend reversal? Who knows, maybe tomorrow we'll be feeding our dogs bread and meat broth again, in hopes of keeping them healthy for as long as possible. As Hippocrates put it 2400 years ago (!), "Let food be thy medicine, and let medicine be thy food."


By the Hector Kitchen medical and scientific team


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