Our dog Birch loves his dry dog food. In fact, mealtime for him is the height of joy.
My wife wrinkles her nose when she pours it out, asking "How can he stand to eat this stuff?"
Answer: with unbelievable rapidity.
"It smells awful," she continues. "Isn't there something else we could get?"
I was loath to switch brands, since one of our previous pups had lived to the age of 19 on this stuff, which is like living to the age of 133 on a diet of Slim Jims and wood chips.
Now and then I buy a can of glop to top the kibble, as a treat. And Birch does get table scraps — hamburger, rice, a piece of steak. Of course, the steak is gone in an instant, and he still spends about 7 minutes getting every molecule of food from the bowl into which the steak was dropped.
But I decided to look around and discovered that the dog food options are greater than ever. And the fresh-wet genre (often sold in tubes, not just cans) is becoming easier to find in supermarkets, so you don't have to drive to the big box pet stores. I wondered if we should be feeding our dog something else.
That's what made me look into the history of dog food.
For a while, people and dogs ate the same brand of food: Ralston-Purina.
Ralston-Purina introduced Dog Chow, the first dry dog food, in the 1930s.
(In case you're wondering, there wasn't any Mr. Ralston. The name came from a 19th-century self-help movement called Ralstonism, which preached good diet, good posture and mind control of lesser people through magnetism. The founder of Purina was interested in Ralstonism, appended the name to his company, and made whole-wheat cereal that conformed to the Ralston diet.)
Surprisingly, canned dog food preceded dry dog food. Ken-L Ration was presented to grateful canines in 1922. Main ingredient: horses.
The subsequent history of dog food is unremarkable for a long while, aside from the groundbreaking case of Eick v. Perk Dog Food Company in 1952. A Perk ad campaign said the company would send a Seeing Eye dog to a blind girl if people sent in the labels of the can to a guide-dog foundation.
They neglected to tell the girl whose photo was used in the ad, however. She already had a guide dog, and said it made her look as if she was angling for an extra pooch. The courts found for Miss Eick, a ruling regarded as one of the earliest precedents for the "Right to Privacy."
The next great dog food innovation came in 1961, with Gaines-burgers.
You might remember these pseudo-hamburgers, wrapped in cellophane. Permanently moist. You crumbled them up into the bowl, and the dog ate it with slobbering gratitude.
The brand was discontinued in the 1990s, but has been recently reintroduced by dVour Brands. This time around, the patties come in beef/beef liver and turkey blueberry. Purina makes a version of dog food that contains loose pseudo-ground-chuck.
These days, the options for dog food are kaleidoscopic — with raw food, fresh food, protein-first food and canned food that's priced higher than a can of Hormel chili. There are even vendors like thefarmersdog.com that deliver human-grade food via a subscription model.
That may explain why the average U.S. dog owner's annual expenditure on food was $260 in 2018, according to petfoodindustry.com.
I took a trip to PetSmart and picked up a dog food that was labeled as "Deli Fresh." I fed it to Birch along with his regular food. He ate it all up in a trice.
The next day, however, he had a post-digestive episode that brought to mind the early experiments with liquid-fused rockets. I don't know if it was the new food, a change in food or the dead squirrel he found on the walk and carried for half a block before concluding it wasn't filet mignon.
I decided to stick with the dog food we've been feeding Birch. He's healthy. He's happy. And he, like most dogs, has appalling taste.
Besides, we discovered it wasn't the dog food that smelled so bad. It turns out there was a very small and very dead mouse at the bottom of the bin where his food is kept.
To us, "Disgusting!" To the dog: "I knew there was something really good about this batch!"