PEOPLE tend to think of dogs as being hard-core carnivores; however, there seems to be enough evidence to prove otherwise.
When we investigate how feral dogs fare in the wild, it is consistently demonstrated that there is quite a lot of variety in their natural diet.
The contents of wild dog’s stomachs have revealed that a significant portion of their diet consists of plant matter.
Surviving in the wild means feral dogs must rely on a broader spectrum of food sources than the meat acquired from their more sporadic kills.
Indeed the dog may prefer to eat its animal prey as a primary source of nutrition; however, a successful hunt occurs less frequently than it would otherwise choose, necessitating that it forage for other botanical food sources in its environment.
Meat is relatively easy to digest; the intestinal length of carnivores is relatively short like cats.
Plant material is more difficult to break down, so herbivores have much longer intestines and a high ability to extract nutrition from plant matter as the result of their ability to ferment it.
Dogs, like omnivores, fall somewhere in between, with an intestinal length just slightly longer than the cat, and thus they can be classified as omnivorous.
Opportunist scavengers forage in the wild
The dog’s digestive system allows it to eat chunks of raw meat, crunch up and swallow raw bones and ingest fibrous plant materials. The lack of digestive enzymes in their saliva and their inability to move their jaws from side to side for grinding food means that they have to gulp everything down; so the entire digestive process takes place in their stomach.
Wild dogs will readily eat the semi-digested contents of their prey’s stomach, which contains partially fermented vegetable matter including valuable enzymes required to aid its own digestion.
They will search for rotten fruit and some will dig up vegetables and eat grasses and herbs.
Dogs are also scavengers that eat the leftovers from every animal that is killed or dies.
With large, expandable stomachs with very strong stomach acids, dogs receive valuable nutrients from materials that we humans find totally repugnant such as vomit, faeces and decaying flesh.
The wolf and dog connection
There have been a lot of portrayals of dogs and wolves having the same dietary requirements, especially to promote the raw meat diet by dog food companies who conveniently use cheap abattoir waste. Such comparisons often ignore the fact that wolves, the dog’s wild ancestors, ate plenty of grains as well as raw meat. It has been recorded that wolves will not only indulge in the occasional berry but that they will also binge on grains contained within their prey’s stomach.
The seasonal diet composition of wolves (Canis lupus) was studied on the Scandinavian Peninsula in 2006 by analysing 2063 wolf scats.
A relatively high occurrence of plant material, including grasses, was observed in the analysed scats both in summer and winter.
The consumption of grasses is supposed to be effective as a purgative and to wipe the intestine from parasites and hairs (MECH & BOITANI 2003).
Consumption of both grasses and berries was more frequent in summer than in winter due to the higher availability of plants during the summer months.
It was initially thought that dogs didn’t eat grain because they couldn’t digest it properly and, even if they could, they couldn’t convert it into sugar and store it for later use.
It is important to note, however that dogs have evolved alongside humans over thousands of years, resulting in them now having different genetic components that allow them to digest and make excellent use of starch-rich diets.
Dogs evolved with us
Over time as dogs became domesticated, human food scraps became an increasing part of their diet, causing behavioural and physiological adaptations to a more varied diet that included plant-based foods.
Today, domesticated dogs can metabolise carbohydrates and subsist on a lower protein diet than their wolf ancestors, effectively making them omnivorous.
It was recently found that dogs are different from their wild cousins in that they have three genes related to starch and glucose digestion. As such, it’s hard to deny that dogs have become especially adapted to eating grains and other vegetation.
Another paper on Animal Genetics cites that domestic dogs not only developed a better ability to digest starch, but a greatly-improved ability to utilise and benefit from these starches than their wolf counterparts: “The researchers found that dogs have more copies of a gene called AMY2B, crucial for amylase production, than wolves.
“And in dogs, this gene is 28 times more active in the pancreas than in wolves . . . Dogs also showed changes in specific genes that allow for the breakdown of maltose into glucose, another key starch digestion step, and in genes allowing for the body to make use of this glucose.”
What’s in a name anyway?
The domestic dog is a member of the genus Canis, which forms part of the wolf-like canids and is described as the most widely abundant terrestrial carnivore.
However the name and description is less about how the animal behaves in wild survival mode and more about its common meat-eating fate living in domesticity with humans.
This excerpt from a paper by Dr Brennen McKenzie, MA, VMD is very telling: “The concept of ‘evolutionary nutrition’ ignores the simple fact that taxonomy and phylogeny are not destiny, nor do they reliably predict the specific details of a species’ biology, including its nutritional needs. Sure, dogs are in the order Carnivora, but so are giant pandas, which are almost exclusively herbivorous.”
The myriad diet options
There is enough evidence abound that dogs do not need meat to live a healthy, long life, but they do need certain amino acids (protein), fats, vitamins and minerals - all of which can be found from plants.
A recent study concludes that vegetarian diets for dogs can be perfectly healthy, as long as they are complete and balanced.
There are as many ‘ideal’ diets espoused for feeding dogs, as we humans also have to circumnavigate in modern life to find balanced nutritional health. Every dog owner has their own way of feeding their beloved canine friends, some give their dogs solely raw meat, others serve cooked meat, while others prepare a mixture of meat and vegetables for their omnivorous fur babies.
A more rare group of dogs are fed only vegetarian meals and are said to thrive nonetheless while at the other extreme are the ‘junk food’ dogs fed solely on processed canned and dried food. The raw meat model is questionable, so say many experts and veterinarians, because it lacks in broad-spectrum nutrition and there is also the hazard of contamination to consider.
There’s always a cost
It would be negligent to not consider how feeding meat as a staple to our dogs, as well as to ourselves, has massive and increasingly deleterious impacts on our planet and our wellbeing as a consequence.
As the vegetarian and vegan movement continues to gain global momentum, more people are waking up to the harsh ethical, health and environmental realities and repercussions of the seemingly insatiable taste that humans have for animal meat.
Of course, the growing vegan population will question the ethical inconsistency that as animal lovers, why would we love certain animals, yet eat others?
Dogs seek their own medicine
Most dog owners notice that their dogs regularly ingest plant material, including grasses and often when the dog is showing signs of illness before plant eating.
One of the more common theories is that dogs, in particular, use grass for medicinal purposes to help them vomit.
Other claims include eradicating intestinal parasites, a result of a dietary deficiency or just because they enjoy the taste of it.
Studies have shown that of the plant-eating dog population, younger dogs ate plants more frequently than did older dogs and were less likely to appear ill beforehand or to vomit afterward.
This is very good reason for dog owners to be careful when using pesticides, fertilisers and herbicides on or near plant material that is accessible to their pets.
Healing that only plants can offer
Dogs are omnivores so they do not need to exclusively eat meat to live a healthy, long life. They are even capable of thriving only on a complete and balanced plant-based diet.
Plants provide a broad range of nutrients such as amino acids (protein), fats, mucilage, vitamins and minerals which all contribute to the holistic health of the dog.
Plants also offer medicinal actives such as antiseptics, emetics, pain relief, antioxidants, anti-inflammatories, antispasmodic and more, that cannot be found in meat.
Of course many people will not agree to turning their dog into a full blown vegan, but most people will see good sense in reducing their meat intake and including a good amount of plant food in their dogs meals to maximise their health and vigour.
An interesting study from the British Journal of Nutrition concludes that even high-intensity sprint racing huskies can excel on a complete and balanced meatless diet.
However we decide to feed our dog, a balanced diet means that all of their nutritional requirements are adequately met.
One things for sure, including specially chosen botanicals for their high nutritional potency and exceptional healing capacity to our dogs food, be it raw meat, a cooked mix with vegetables or solely plant-based, is a very good idea.
They will gain much from any missing elements that they are unable to acquire in the modern environment.