A dog’s diet
Part 1: The domesticated dog’s stomach and unsafe human food
We’ve all heard that dogs descend from wolves and that they share 99% of their DNA with them. However, unlike their carnivorous ancestors, dogs are not ‘obligate carnivores,’ which means they can benefit from extra ingredients beyond meat in their diets. Unfortunately, several pet food manufacturers (and some pet parents) exploit this fact to add as little actual meat as possible in dog food. Doing this causes several health issues in dogs that consume these diets for a prolonged time. To understand a dog’s diet, let’s look at where they came from and how they became the loyal companions that we know them as today.
From wolf to woof:
Based on the oldest specimen found yet, it is widely agreed that dogs were first domesticated 20,000–40,000 years ago. The earliest human farmers settled about 10,000 years ago. This means that we had domesticated dogs even as nomads. The first domesticated dogs came from dogs that would enter human camps in search of food, and evolved to become human companions. In human company, their behaviour and diet changed too. Over the millennia that dogs have been our companions, they have been selectively bred to enhance or remove certain characteristics. Many dogs were bred to become smaller in size than their ancestors for aesthetic reasons and so that they could be fed less and trained with ease. As physical appearances started varying from wolves, their ability to hunt also reduced, and in some cases, disappeared entirely.
While the dog and wolf jaws have the same number of teeth, dog jaws are weaker than wolf jaws because they evolved to scavenge human food and often food waste. As they changed externally and started eating almost daily (unlike wolves who might go for a few days without prey), internal changes, especially in their gastrointestinal system, ensured they could process this new regular diet of human food. As a result, their ability to process the high-protein, high-fat diets of wolves was reduced, and their body adapted to processing starch and fibre — components of human food. Today, a dog on a high-protein, high-fat diet needs regular and rigorous exercise to maintain optimal health and avoid becoming obese.
Present-day dogs can easily digest cooked starches and have a lesser capacity to process the diets that their ancestors get from hunting prey. This means that while dogs benefit immensely by eating meat, they can also be given plant-based components that supplement the nutrition they receive from the meat. This, however, does not mean that they can be fed only plant-based diets. A dog’s digestive system can process plant matter but while dogs are not obligate carnivores, they are not omnivores either and are certainly not herbivores. Your dog may survive on a vegetarian or vegan diet but will certainly not thrive on it and will slowly begin showing signs of nutritional deficiencies and malaise. Regardless of personal belief and societal expectations, it is important to centre your dog’s diet around meat (actual meat and organs from an animal; just eggs will not do) and add in vegetables, fruits and other components to balance it out.
Human food for dogs:
Note: If your dog has consumed any of the unsafe foods, seek immediate veterinary help. If your dog ate any of these and is okay, congratulations! Going forward, please do not test the limits of your dog’s ability to withstand the effects of known toxins.
While dogs have evolved to digest human food, not all food safe for human consumption is safe for dog consumption. As a general rule, one should avoid feeding their dog anything with artificial colour or flavour, especially items like chewing gum that, if ingested, can be harmful to humans too. However, even natural/ everyday foods that are safe for humans may be dangerous to your dog.
Here are a few things you should never feed your dog:
Chocolate: Theobromine found in chocolates is toxic to dogs.
Onions, Chives and Garlic: Can cause GI irritation and damage red blood cells. Garlic is safe when consumed in controlled quantities. It is used in food to repel ticks and fleas and in some home remedies. Onion and Chives should never be consumed by your dog- neither in raw nor in cooked form.
Macadamia Nuts and Walnuts: Toxic to muscular and nervous systems of dogs.
Xylitol (artificial sweetener): Can cause Hypoglycemia in dogs. Often present in peanut butter or ice cream.
Grapes and Raisins: Toxic to dogs. May cause liver and kidney failure.
Cooked bones: Cooked bones can splinter and cause internal bleeding, which can turn fatal.
Caffeine: Caffeine consumption can prove fatal for dogs. Dogs should not be given coffee, tea or colas. Energy drinks and some medicines also contain caffeine. You should monitor your dog’s access to your kitchen and pantry to prevent them from consuming beans or grounds.
Yeast dough: Yeast rises and produces alcohol in the process. The rising yeast can cause stomach or intestinal rupture, and the alcohol may cause disorientation and poisoning in dogs.
These are things that you can feed your dog with caution:
Fruits: It is always a good idea to remove any seeds, pits, rinds and skin before you feed your dog the fruit. If you are unsure about how to feed a particular fruit or whether to feed it at all, you can look online for clarification. Some dogs do not like to eat fruits and should not be forced to eat them.
Vegetables: Most vegetables are safe for dogs in a cooked form. Your dog may be able to digest ground up or mashed vegetables better. However, some vegetables cause flatulence in certain dogs so be careful about that.
Avocados: It is usually mentioned on the toxic list. However, it has been found that dogs are more resistant to Persin (the toxin present in Avocado fruit, pits, leaves and plant) than other animals. As a result, some dogs might tolerate Avocado flesh (which contains trace amounts of Persin) in controlled amounts. Avocado flesh also has a high fat content and can cause stomach distress and vomiting in dogs. If you have to feed your dog avocado, do so in limited quantities under supervision.
Raw meat and eggs: Some dogs take well to a raw diet. However, you should always freeze meat and wash eggs before you feed them (if you are feeding the eggshell). Frozen eggs also make a good treat. If you’re introducing your dog to raw meat and treats, always keep an eye out to ensure they’re okay with it.
Mushrooms: Dogs can eat all varieties of mushrooms that humans can. However, if you are out in the woods and your dog eats a mushroom, especially one you can’t identify, it’s best to get medical help.
Hard bones or Antlers: If your dog is not used to chewing on bones, start them off with a softer chew like a trachea or a meaty bone. Always supervise your dog’s chewing time and intervene if you believe your dog is uncomfortable.
Dairy: It is a common misconception that dogs like milk. However, many dogs are lactose intolerant and do not derive any benefits from milk. Avoid feeding your dog milk. If you have to, try using goat milk. For probiotics, you can offer your dog curd (since that does not have lactose) or kefir, whichever suits your dog. Fermented vegetables are a non-dairy source of probiotics.
Salt and Sugar: Unlike humans, dogs do not need to flavour their food using salt and sugar. Regularly adding salt to your dog’s bowl may cause blood pressure issues and dehydration. Regular consumption of sugar may cause dental issues, obesity, and even diabetes.
Nuts: While Macadamia Nuts and Walnuts are toxic to your dog, other nuts such as peanuts and almonds might be okay, depending upon your dog’s health. If your dog has health issues, ask your veterinarian before giving these as a treat. Never give your dog more than a couple of pieces each day.
Your dog might have food allergies or develop intolerance towards certain ingredients. Always monitor your dog’s health and food intake and alter it according to what’s best for your dog.
We’ve seen how dogs evolved to accommodate human food and which human foods are unsafe for them. Further in this series, we’ll go through the components of a balanced, meat-based diet, natural supplements, natural treats and common diet models.
Dog diet and nutrition is a topic that cannot be summed up in just a few paragraphs. I have split this up in 3 parts on the blog and even that feels like it’s too little to cover this extensive topic. In the interest of keeping the blog short, I will be adding resources from the next blog featuring information on dog diets, dog nutritionists, sources for meal plans specific to your dog, etc.