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What Is the Natural Diet of a Dog in the Wild?

Melissa holds a bachelor's degree in biology and is a plant and animal enthusiast with multiple pets.

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Feeding Dogs Like Wolves

In recent years, there's been substantial promotion among pet owners and some veterinarians for feeding dogs (Canis lupus familiaris) and other pets raw, meat-based diets. These diets are said to be "biologically appropriate", "ancestral", species-specific, and natural. [6].

In other words, dogs and other pet carnivores are fed these formulas because, unlike kibble, it is meant to simulate a dog's diet if that dog were living in the wild. To accomplish this for dogs, the diets are said to be based on their ancestor the grey wolf (Canis lupus). There is a popular claim that while dogs have been kept as pets for thousands of years, their biological attributes have remained unchanged [3]. There are some significant problems with this model.

natural-ancestral-biologically-appropriate-diet-dog-wild

Dogs Did Not Evolve From Modern Wolves

It is generally agreed upon that dogs evolved from grey wolves in the scientific community, but what does this really mean? Many people mistakenly believe that a grey wolf as it exists today represents a glimpse into our dog's past, but not all wolf populations are or were the same.

In fact, current evidence points to the dog's ancestor as being a much smaller "wolf" that no longer exists, which was the progenitor to the dog populations that eventually became our companion animals. This could have been an ancestral Chinese wolf [24] or Pleistocene grey wolf. These wolves may have even resembled dogs more than modern grey wolves [16][20].

The grey wolves we see today descend from another wolf line that diverged, or split, from those that would become proto-dogs. The wolf population our dogs evolved from were likely medium-sized, generalist scavengers [26].

natural-ancestral-biologically-appropriate-diet-dog-wild

Wolf Diets Don't Apply to Dogs

There is one inherent problem with basing diets for dogs off of the grey wolf, or any wolf, however. While the theories of how dogs were domesticated vary, one fact remains clear: dogs have been evolving for thousands of years, separate from their wolf ancestors. In addition, the modern grey wolf lineage we are familiar with has also been evolving separately from dogs for thousands of years.

In fact, our modern dogs evolved not directly from wolves, but "primary" dogs before intensive selective breeding persisted. This switch, just as is the case with other species that undergo evolution, brought about significant changes to the dog's behavior and physiology, as well as its dietary habits [24].

A Summary of Dog Domestication

  • Dogs were the first animals to be domesticated and played an essential role in human civilization. Scientists are still not in agreement on when, how, and where the first domestication event occurred.
  • Researchers have estimated dog domestication to have occurred at least 10,000 years ago and up to 40,000 years ago in either southern East Asia, Central Asia [19][20], Europe [8], or Eurasia [9], predating agriculture [28].
  • There are many theories regarding whether or not dogs evolved from a single group of wolves or multiple wolf populations, and some studies suggest dogs were domesticated more than once in different areas or may have back-crossed with wolves at some point [2][20][22].
natural-ancestral-biologically-appropriate-diet-dog-wild
  • Sometime around 6400 [9] to 33,000 years ago, dogs and wolves began to diverge from each other, eventually leading to one group of wolves scavenging around and living close to human populations, inadvertently resulting in the process of self-domestication [24].
  • Characteristics such as tameness, smaller overall body size, and decreased age of reproduction may have resulted in wolf populations adopting the diet of an obligate scavenger [19]. These "non-breed dogs" were eventually intentionally selectively-bred by humans, resulting in approximately 400 dog breeds of which we are familiar with today, that are only about 200 years old [19][24][28].

Differences Between Wolves and Dogs

Evolution involves organisms adapting and changing to different environments, or selective pressures. Dogs have evolved specifically to live around the presence of humans, and this has led to some fundamental differences between them and the modern wolves of today.

  • Starch Digestion: Dogs can digest and thrive on a starch-rich diet. In fact, this was a key part of their evolution [2][5][28].
  • Dogs are Scavengers. While modern grey wolves have evolved as cooperative group hunters, dogs have evolved as mostly solitary scavengers that specialize in human refuse [17] and this ecological history is evident in their behavior [14]. Dogs also often compete with native scavengers, jeopardizing wildlife [25].
  • Wolves are "true carnivores" that consume a negligible amount of plant material [4]
  • Social Cognition: Dogs behave differently from wolves when it comes to human interaction and interaction with other wolves [2].
  • Lower aggression: Dogs, compared to even human-socialized grey wolves, exhibit lower levels of aggression and human avoidance, even seeking out human attention more often [12].
  • Hunting. When hunting, dogs form small, unstable groups and often don't hunt cooperatively [25].

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What "Wild" Dogs are Actually Eating

Advocates of feeding dogs like modern grey wolves often forget one important fact; "wild" versions of our dogs still exist. In fact, free-ranging "non-breed" dogs are the most populous dogs in the world. They are called village dogs, and they make up 80% of the world's dog population [14].

Extant village dogs, sometimes also called "pariah dogs", are genetically diverse animals that live commensally among humans and sometimes interbreed with landraces and modern breeds [20].

Village dogs likely behaviorally mirror the non-breed dog populations our modern dogs descended from, and perhaps even the scavenger wolf populations that preceded those dogs. Village dogs live among humans, but they are also free-ranging and free-breeding just like "wild" animals. Each region has its own genetically distinct village dog population and their diets vary as well.

Village Dog Diets

Since village dogs represent the domesticated dog in its "wild" state, it would make a lot more sense, if it is desired to feed a dog the way it would "naturally" eat, to emulate their diet instead of modern grey wolves that have evolved independently of dogs for thousands of years. What do village dogs eat?

  • Carrion: Dogs, of course, love to eat meat. Village dogs in Zimbabwe consumed a lot of carcasses that they did not kill [7][23].
  • Insects were the only animals reported to be "hunted" by dogs alive within certain seasons and in smaller numbers [23].
  • Garbage: Free-ranging dogs in India and Zimbabwe subsist on human-derived foods such as refuse [23].
  • Human feces: It might shock some people that our beloved companions readily consumed human excrement, although coprophagy is consistently observed in domesticated dogs. In Ethiopia, India, and Zimbabwe, free-ranging dogs consumed a significant amount of human feces as part of their diet [1][7][15]. In fact, human waste may have played an important role in the domestication of dogs [7][10].
  • Grains: Dogs have specifically evolved the capacity to digest starch, which was obtained from human hand-outs and garbage. In Zimbabwe, free-ranging dogs readily consumed sadza, which is a porridge.
  • Fruits and vegetables are also eaten by village dogs[23].

Do Free-Ranging Dogs Hunt?

Dogs most certainly do attack, harass, and "hunt" other animals, including domestic livestock, native ungulates, numerous small animals and birds [27], but it is often the case that this is done for "fun" and if the animal is killed in the process, the dogs often don't feed on the prey regularly [13][25].

The only exceptions are the closely related but genetically distinct dingoes, and the geographically isolated "Highland Wild Dogs", from which the "domesticated" New Guinea Singing dogs in captivity descend, which hunt prey independent of humans and have self-sustaining populations [26]. The origin of these canines and whether or not they are or were domesticated is still in dispute [11][20]

There are multiple factors that may cause dogs to roam and seek out other food sources, including human interaction, the sex of the dog, and seasonal changes. Free-ranging "pet" dogs were found to prey on sea turtle eggs when offered nutritionally deficient diets from humans and possibly due to humans feeding them turtle eggshells occasionally [18].

The New Guinea Singing Dog is a close relative of domesticated dogs, but genetically distinct enough that some consider it to be another species.

The New Guinea Singing Dog is a close relative of domesticated dogs, but genetically distinct enough that some consider it to be another species.

What Should Pet Dogs Eat?

Should we feed our pets diets like they would eat in the "wild"? Should dogs be fed food scraps, feces, insects, and various vegetables that they have clearly evolved to do eat?

Obviously, this isn't a good idea. It is not always best to feed captive animals an attempted simulation of what they would naturally consume, especially when there are better options available that are well-studied and tested to be safe and nutritionally complete.

Dogs in the "wild" are highly opportunistic scavengers that have directly evolved to feed on human-derived sources of energy. This doesn't mean that is an ideal diet nor is there any reason to model a dog's diet like the modern grey wolf, from which dogs did not evolve from. Just as is the case for all animals, a diet that has been research-based to be biologically-available and nutritionally-balanced while causing the least amount of harm will remain the best option.

References

  1. Atickem, Anagaw, Afework Bekele, and S. D. Williams. "Competition between domestic dogs and Ethiopian wolf (Canis simensis) in the Bale Mountains National Park, Ethiopia." African Journal of Ecology 48.2 (2010): 401-407.
  2. Axelsson E, Ratnakumar A, Arendt M-L, et al. The genomic signature of dog domestication reveals adaptation to a starch-rich diet. Nature. 2013;495(7441):360-364. doi:10.1038/nature11837
  3. Barfworld.com. "Evolutionary Nutrition".
  4. Bosch, Guido, Esther A. Hagen-Plantinga, and Wouter H. Hendriks. "Dietary nutrient profiles of wild wolves: insights for optimal dog nutrition?." British Journal of Nutrition 113.S1 (2015): S40-S54.
  5. Botigué, Laura R., et al. "Ancient European dog genomes reveal continuity since the Early Neolithic." Nature communications 8.1 (2017): 1-11.
  6. Brown, Steve. Unlocking the Canine Ancestral Diet: Healthier Dog Food the ABC Way. Dogwise Publishing, 2009.
  7. Butler, James RA, Wendy Y. Brown, and Johan T. Du Toit. "Anthropogenic food subsidy to a commensal carnivore: the value and supply of human faeces in the diet of free-ranging dogs." Animals 8.5 (2018): 67.
  8. Callaway, Ewen. Prehistoric genomes reveal European origins of dogs. 14 November 2013
  9. Frantz, Laurent AF, et al. "Genomic and archaeological evidence suggest a dual origin of domestic dogs." Science 352.6290 (2016): 1228-1231.
  10. Herzog, Hal. Did Eating Human Poop Play a Role in the Evolution of Dogs?. Aug 24, 2020
  11. Koler‐Matznick, Janice, et al. "An updated description of the New Guinea singing dog (Canis hallstromi, Troughton 1957)." Journal of Zoology 261.2 (2003): 109-118.
  12. Lazzaroni, Martina, et al. "The effect of domestication and experience on the social interaction of dogs and wolves with a human companion." Frontiers in Psychology 11 (2020): 785.
  13. Lessa, Isadora, et al. "Domestic dogs in protected areas: a threat to Brazilian mammals?." Natureza & Conservação 14.2 (2016): 46-56.
  14. Marshall-Pescini, Sarah, et al. "Exploring differences in dogs’ and wolves’ preference for risk in a foraging task." Frontiers in Psychology 7 (2016): 1241.
  15. McDonald, Robbie A., et al. "Ecology of domestic dogs Canis familiaris as an emerging reservoir of Guinea worm Dracunculus medinensis infection." PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases 14.4 (2020): e0008170.
  16. Perri, Angela. "A wolf in dog's clothing: initial dog domestication and Pleistocene wolf variation." Journal of Archaeological Science 68 (2016): 1-4.
  17. Rao, Akshay, et al. "Differences in persistence between dogs and wolves in an unsolvable task in the absence of humans." PeerJ 6 (2018): e5944.
  18. Ruiz-Izaguirre E., A. van Woersem, K. C. H. A. M. Eilers, S. E. van Wieren, G. Bosch, A. J. van der Zijpp & I. J. M. de Boer (2014). Roaming characteristics and feeding practices of village dogs scavenging sea-turtle nests, Animal Conservation, 18(2) 146-156. DOI: 10.1111/acv.12143.
  19. Shannon, Laura M., et al. "Genetic structure in village dogs reveals a Central Asian domestication origin." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 112.44 (2015): 13639-13644.
  20. Shipman, Pat. "What the dingo says about dog domestication." The Anatomical Record (2020).
  21. Stony Brook University. Study Reveals Origin of Modern Dog Has a Single Geographic Origin.
  22. University of Oxford. Dogs were domesticated not once, but twice… in different parts of the world. 2 Jun 2016
  23. Vanak, Abi Tamim, et al. "Top-dogs and under-dogs: competition between dogs and sympatric carnivores." Free-ranging dogs and wildlifeconservation (2013): 69-93.
  24. Wang, Guo-Dong, et al. "Out of southern East Asia: the natural history of domestic dogs across the world." Cell research 26.1 (2016): 21-33.
  25. Wierzbowska, Izabela A., et al. "Predation of wildlife by free-ranging domestic dogs in Polish hunting grounds and potential competition with the grey wolf." Biological Conservation 201 (2016): 1-9.
  26. Yates, B. C., S. Bulmer, and I. L Jr. "The New Guinea singing dog: its status and scientific importance." Australian Mammalogy 29.1 (2007): 47-56.
  27. Young, Julie K., et al. "Is wildlife going to the dogs? Impacts of feral and free-roaming dogs on wildlife populations." BioScience 61.2 (2011): 125-132.
  28. Zhang, Zhe, Saber Khederzadeh, and Yan Li. "Deciphering the puzzles of dog domestication." Zoological Research 41.2 (2020): 97.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

© 2020 Melissa A Smith

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