The Differences in Diets
Humans – Omnivores
As Homo sapiens we know the importance of a varied diet for our health. Human beings are omnivores, meaning we can assimilate nutrients from a wide array of foodstuffs: fruits, vegetables, meats, grains, fungi, etc. Some members of the animal kingdom with their own unique digestive systems have a more limited repertoire. Cats are a classic example of this limitation.
Cats – Obligate Carnivores
Being obligate carnivores, cats can get all of their nutrients from prey animals which provides them a basic meat-organ-bone diet. They do not need grains, fruits or vegetables in their diets, and, in fact, if given consistently those starchy foods will degrade a cat’s health, requiring its’ digestive system to process foods that are foreign to feline biology. The more stress put on the cat’s system from an incorrect diet the shorter and less healthy its’ lifespan will be. While humans find fruits and vegetables naturally appealing, please avoid them for your cats as they are at best unnecessary and at worst a potential root cause of major health problems.
Dogs – Facultative Carnivores
Dogs, Canis lupus familiaris, are also carnivores, but they are facultative carnivores, meaning their primary food source should be a meat-organ-bone diet but they can digest and assimilate small amounts of other edibles as well. Ask ten certified canine nutritionists what the correct amount of plant material for an optimal canine diet should be, and you will most likely get ten different answers. Perhaps looking at our dog’s wolf ancestor, Canis lupus, will give us a hint at how to best feed our domestic dogs.
Wolves vs. Dogs
Wolves in the wild are apex predators (top of the food chain), and their meals of choice are large hooved herbivores. They consume almost all of their prey, including muscle meat, organs and some bone material. Often they eat the stomach contents of their game but vastly prefer the stomach lining itself (tripe). If there is a shortage of their favored prey, wolves will consume smaller animals, and if a food shortage lasts too long, they will eat whatever they can find, such as old, cached kills, to fend off starvation. These survival foods would only be consumed under the harshest conditions. Additionally, wolves’ diets reflect seasonal food opportunities such as the consumption of apples, berries, melons and some roots when available. Biologists have noted these high fiber carbohydrate foods are usually consumed in an advanced state of ripeness which they term a “predigested condition,” making them more easily metabolized.
How Much Do Dogs & Wolves Differ?
Right now you may be thinking, but my domesticated dog is not a wild wolf, and you would be correct. Although wolves and dogs share DNA that is 98.6% to 99.9% identical (experts do not agree on an exact percentage), their lifestyles are quite different. Wolves run in packs for many hours a day. Wolves need to strategize for safety and have larger brains. They have larger jaws and teeth, reach sexual maturity later and cannot be truly domesticated. And while all of these features have an effect on their nutritional requirements, a wolf’s digestive system is nearly identical to a dog’s. It may be hard to believe that little Tinker Belle, your 7-pound Chihuahua, needs to eat a diet similar to her wolf ancestor, nevertheless it is true.
The Whole Prey Diet
So, if Canus lupus’ proper diet consists of meat-organs-bones, why not simply feed our dogs the same mix? Should we even consider feeding our domesticated dogs any vegetables and fruits at all? To answer the first question, many people do feed their dogs what is called a Whole Prey Diet. Proponents of whole prey feeding suggest that the fur, feathers, intestinal contents, brains, secreting organs, etc., provide a wider variety of nutrients and fiber for our pets than can be found in a typical raw diet of 80% meat (including 10% organs, 10% bone), 18.5% vegetables and fruits, and 1.5% natural supplements. They feel that feeding a domesticated dog a wild wolf diet is adequate for their pet’s nutritional needs. I applaud the dedication of Whole Prey Diet feeders but have three major concerns.
Why is the Whole Prey Diet Not the Answer?
1) Anxiety Over Deficiencies & Proportions
First, very few people will take the time to procure the correct panoply of ingredients needed in a whole prey diet nor will they be willing to spend the money for those foodstuffs. Having fed my dogs a raw diet for over 40 years I know how difficult it is to find eyeballs, true green tripe, glands, feathers or fur, ad infinitum, which are all needed to construct an accurate prey model diet. And without the whole prey animal to consume nutritional deficiencies will inevitably happen. The anxiety I witness on prey animal feeder websites tells me these people are not enjoying feeding their dogs. There is constant worry about the accurate proportions of their choices. Instead of their dog’s mealtime being a relaxing, bonding experience, the prey model feeders seem stressed, and we all know our emotions affect our dogs. Uncertainty and tension during meals creates a negative atmosphere which can upset the pet’s digestion and mental state. The effects of this may be subtle but can be cumulative and damaging.
2) Lifestyle and Environment
Second, very few domesticated dogs live a lifestyle that is remotely similar to their wild ancestors, and lifestyle absolutely affects dietary needs. Most dogs in industrialized societies are companion pets, living indoors with limited exercise and problem-solving opportunities. They are usually spayed or neutered at an early age, surrounded by synthetic furnishings, unnatural electro-magnetic fields and are highly vaccinated and medicated against pests. Modern day dogs are also exposed to much higher levels of environmental pollutants than are wolves living in the wild. All of the above factors directly influence their nutritional needs and must be considered when choosing an optimal diet for your dog.
3) Better Genes to Break Down Starches
Third, nutritional science is constantly moving forward. Recent genetic research by geneticist Kerstin Lindblad-Toh, et al, and reported in “Nature” 3/21/2013, has determined that there are ten genes in dogs that give them an increased ability to “break down starches and metabolize fat” better than wolves. Three of those ten genes “make dogs better than meat-eating wolves at splitting starches into sugars and then absorbing those sugars.” This confirms what we have all observed, domesticated dogs can absorb some nutrients and survive on a starchy diet.
How Your Pet Can Thrive
Of course, mere survival is not what we want for our precious pets. We want our dogs to thrive, avoiding degenerative diseases and living a long healthy life. This is where a limited number of targeted fruits and vegetables can offer your dog great nutritional benefits. Ideally, you are feeding your cats an exclusive meat-based diet without added carbohydrates. But what about your dog? Ideally, your dog should predominately be eating a meat-based diet with the addition of a small number of highly nutritious vegetables and fruits for optimal health in their far from natural way of life and polluted environment.
Do the best you can when feeding your pets. Relax and relish guilt-free mealtimes with your dog or cat by using a complete and balanced raw food diet which includes a limited number of vegetables and fruits. The most nutritious raw diet when fed confidently is a key ingredient in the recipe for your pet’s lasting health.
In Part 2 we will learn the benefits of including fruits and veggies in your dog’s diet.