There is no way of knowing for sure exactly what constituted the diet of the ancestors of the modern, domesticated dog. And, of course, depending on the natural environment (geography and climate) in which they lived, it may have varied considerably. However, there has been a lot of research done on this subject and we do know quite a bit about the diets of the dog’s closest wild relatives such as the wolf, coyote, and fox.
One thing that we are quite sure of is that dogs were hunters and scavengers, their diet consisting largely of meat (including some fish) with some lesser amounts of fruit and grasses. Here are summaries from five researchers who have studied the diets of canids in the wild:
The staple diet of carnivores living in a natural setting includes other animals, carrion, and occasionally fruits and grasses.1
Scraps of meat, bones, pieces of carcass, rotten greens and fruit, fish guts, discarded seed and grains, animal guts and head….2
Their [wolves]preference is freshly killed meat, but when that’s not available, they’ll eat anything that could remotely be considered edible.3
Wolves typically utilize most parts of an ungulate (hoofed animal) carcass, which is essential for their nutritional demands.
Organs such as the heart, lungs, liver, and kidneys are high in B vitamins, vitamin A, minerals, and fatty acids that are required for maintenance, growth, and reproduction. Some hair is ingested along with meat, which may aid in faster passage through the intestinal tract.4
Wolves prefer fishing to hunting, new (2008) research suggests. When salmon is available, wolves will reduce deer hunting activity and instead focus on fish.5
Note: details on all footnoted material are listed in the Citations.
Based on a review of the literature and my own research, I have concluded that the ancestral diet consisted of about 85 to 90% meat (primarily from whole prey) along with small amounts of fish and eggs, and 10 to 15% scavenged grasses, berries, nuts, and other vegetation. For the estimates of nutrient content, I used the extensive database from Dierenfeld, et al, which includes more than 1,000 analyses of whole mice, rats, deer, chickens, rabbits, reptiles, and amphibians (including organs and glands).6 The composition of the vegetative portion of the dog’s natural diet varied, but probably consisted of easily available foods.7
Using these findings, here is what I believe constituted a close approximation to what the canine ancestral diet would have consisted of expressed in terms of foods available today:
85% whole prey*
2 % green leaf lettuce
2 % broccoli stalks
2% apples with skin
2% cereal grass
1% whole egg, including shell
0.5% sunflower seeds
*Note that whole prey includes all parts of the prey animal: fur, bones, eyes, tongue, and all the organs and glands.
Nutritional analysis of the ancestral diet
Let’s look at this definition of the ancestral diet from a nutritional standpoint. Tables 1.1–1.3 summarize the key findings. Table 1.1 shows that the ancestral dog’s diet was a high protein, moderate fat, and low carbohydrate diet.
Table 1.1 Macronutrient content of the canine ancestral diet*
*All values have been rounded to the nearest whole number and therefore the total may not equal 100%.
**kcal is short for kilocalorie, which many people refer to as Calorie, with a capital C. A kilocalorie is the amount of energy (heat) needed to increase the temperature of 1 kilogram (kg) of water 1° C. A typical active 45-pound dog consumes about 1,000 kcal per day.
Large amounts of high-quality protein
49% of the calories in the ancestral diet were from protein, primarily from fresh animal sources. Protein from animals, unlike protein from most plants, contains balanced amino acids and a complete range of protein-type nutrients, including taurine and carnitine. This protein level exceeds the levels found in all modern commercial dog foods and all of the typical homemade diets I’ve analyzed.8
Dog owners need to be aware that the meat used in most modern dog foods almost always comes from commercial feedlot animals. Not surprisingly, just as wild fish have higher quality fats than farm-raised fish, wild prey animals have higher quality fats than farm-raised animals. They have much higher fat content (therefore less protein per pound) because feedlot animals are sedentary and are fed in such a way to be fattened up. While that is probably obvious in the case of beef and chicken, even smaller domesticated animals such as ducks and rabbits have less protein and more fat in their meat than their wild counterparts.
Moderate amounts of balanced and complete fats
44% of the calories in the canine ancestral diet were from a wide variety of fats. Both the amount of fat and the balance of fats are important. The ancestral diet contained 49 grams (g) of fat for every 1,000 kcal. This amount is close to the mid-range of the National Research Council’s (NRC) current recommendation of 21.3-82.5/g for puppies.
Fats represent a broad category of nutrients, just as vitamins and minerals are broad categories. Dogs need to consume the proper amounts of vitamins and minerals, all in a proper balance. Similarly it is very important that dogs consume a variety of fatty acids—the basic components of fats—in proper amounts and balance. This is a little-known but critical component in the ABC plans.
Before domestication, a dog’s diet provided a complete range of fats because the ancestral dog ate many different parts of the prey animal:
• Muscle meat fat contained saturated fats (SFAs), monoun-saturated fats (MUFAs), and polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs).
• Storage fat (fat used for storage of excess energy from food) contained primarily SFAs.
• Bone marrow contained primarily MUFAs.
• Organ fat contained primarily MUFAs and PUFAs, with fat protecting organs primarily SFAs, and the fats in brain and eyes primarily PUFAs.
The polyunsaturated fats consumed contained a number of important fatty acids including:
• Linoleic acid (LA), a short-chain omega-6.
• Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), a short-chain omega-3.
• Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), long-chain omega-3s.
The ratio of omega-6s to omega-3s was between 2:1 and 6:1, within the range now considered optimum by most nutritionists. By contrast, as we’ll discuss, dogs today do not normally get access to such a wide range and balance of fats.
It is difficult to estimate the fatty acid balance in the ancestral diet, but based on the evidence I will make the best-educated estimates I can. Overall, combining a lot of disparate data, I believe that the approximate fat balance of the dog’s ancestral diet was as follows:
Fats in the ancestral diet, in g/1000 kcal
Low in carbohydrates
Because of the predominance of meat in their diets, only 6% of the calories consumed by the ancestral dog were provided by carbohydrates, primarily from fruit, grasses, and vegetables. This is substantially below what the typical modern dog consumes—in fact dogs do not even require carbohydrates if they have enough protein available to them. It’s not that carbohydrates are so bad per se (see discussion in Chapter 8), it’s just dogs can get the nutrition they need without them.
While the ancestral diet itself did not contain high amounts of fiber (defined as a carbohydrate), it did contain fur and other indigestible parts of the dog’s prey, which served a similar purpose.
Mineral and vitamin content
The wild prey animals that made up such a significant portion of the ancestral dog’s diet contained a higher mineral content than found in modern dog food. The muscle meat, organs, and small glands of wild prey were considerably more mineral-rich than the corresponding parts of today’s feedlot-fed animals.
The wild prey animals consumed by the ancestral dog contained greater amounts of antioxidants than in the meat available to most dogs today. Antioxidants are chemical compounds, such as vitamins C and E, that inhibit oxidation. The body produces some of its own antioxidants and some must be obtained from the diet. The polyunsaturated fats in the dog’s ancestral diet were consumed with ample amounts of vitamin E and other antioxidants—this makes sense because the dog’s prey probably ate nuts, seeds, and other vitamin E rich foods, much more so than present domesticated animals eat. For example, wild duck meat contains 25 IUs of vitamin E per kilogram, while whole domesticated duck has only 10.5 IU/kg.
As shown in the following two tables, the ancestral diet was comparatively rich in vitamins and minerals, exceeding modern nutritional recommendations as set by the National Research Council of the National Academies 2006 Report, Nutrient Requirements of Dogs and Cats.
Table 1.2 Vitamin A and E content of the canine ancestral diet, IU/1000 kcal
Table 1.3 Mineral content of the canine ancestral diet compared with NRC standards, per 1000 kcal
The gold standard
The canine ancestral diet consisted of fresh, high protein, balanced fats, meats, and a smaller amount of fresh fruits and vegetables. As I show in chapters to come, this truly can be thought of as the gold standard of diets for dogs. My task for the rest of the book is to show you a variety of ways to adjust and enhance what you feed your dog so he can enjoy as many of the benefits from the ancestral diet as possible.