Omnivore or Carnivore? 10/07/11
Paul Jacobson gives you valuable insights into what you should be feeding your dog.
Is your animal companion an omnivore or a carnivore?
Whether you consider your pet to be a “wolf” or a domesticated dog is a very important one. What you decide will guide you towards the diet that you should be feeding your animal and what is appropriate. The consequences of inferior diet can be dire and can affect behaviour as well as general wellbeing, health and longevity.
So, where did the canine evolve from?
Some believe that our beloved “Fido” is a descendent from the wolf, and therefore believe that all canines need to eat only raw meat and bones. Scientists however, have confirmed that our furry friends could not all have descended from the wolf as there are too many different genetic sequences for this to be possible – 26 to be exact. They propose that it’s possible that our canine friends could have descended from the dingo, jackal, fox, or even coyote. If this is the case, then the canine would have been more of a scavenger and certainly would have been less dependent on raw meat as a primary protein source.
In 1868 Darwin wrote “We shall probably never be able to ascertain their origin with certainty.” However, the one thing we do know for certain is that regardless of where they originated from, research has shown that domesticated dogs have been eating cooked food for thousands of years.
For years our pets have been fed table scraps and over time, their metabolism has adapted. Our dogs can no longer digest copious amounts of raw meat but prefer a diet that is rich in vegetables and nutritional pulses, together with reasonable quantities of quality meat. In fact, many people believe that their companion animals can live on an exclusive diet of vegetables and grains. The Chow Chow for example, evolved to be almost vegetarian in nature, after been fed only grains and veggies by the Tibetans.
Some argue that dogs are classified as carnivore and thus this classification should settle the issue. Absolutely not. Bears and raccoons are carnivores, but they are clearly adapted to an omnivorous lifestyle. Giant pandas are also classified as carnivores, despite the fact that they have a diet consisting of bamboo. Evolution can do funny things with animals, so classification won’t help settle this particular issue.
Another notable issue in determining whether our dogs are carnivores or omnivores revolves around the ability of dogs to digest grains and vegetables. The digestive tracts of animals give clues as to what kind of diet they can eat. The shorter the length of small intestine, the less capable the animals are of digesting plant materials. Herbivores have very complex and long digestive tracts, whereas humans have somewhat simpler and shorter digestive tracts. If you compare the length of the small intestine in cats (obligate carnivores) with that of a dog, the dog’s small intestine is longer relative to the animal’s body length (4:1 intestine/body length ratio in cats, 6:1 in dogs). Based on digestive system anatomy, and plant digestibility, it would seem that dogs are adapted to eat a diet that includes vegetable material.
The next issue is amylase, the enzyme that digests starch. Grains are mostly starch, so an animal would need to make amylase if it is going to digest starch. People have amylase in their saliva, so starch digestion begins when you chew your food. Dogs, like cats, don’t have amylase in their saliva. But this ignores the fact that dogs secrete large amounts of amylase from their pancreas. Since meat doesn’t contain starch, why would dogs need to make amylase in their pancreas? Obviously because they are equipped to eat and digest plant-derived starches. Foxes, which are closely related to dogs, eat just about anything in the wild, from bugs to birds, to fruits, grains and berries. They too are very adaptable “carnivores”.
Taurine is essential for all animals, but because it is absent in plant material, herbivores and omnivores must synthesise it from other amino acids in their diet. In order for obligate carnivores to get enough taurine, they must eat other animals that contain taurine in their meat and organs. Cats need taurine in their diet, and they are obligate carnivores.
So what about taurine in dogs? Dogs can synthesise their own taurine, indicating that they are not obligate carnivores in terms of physiology.
So in essence, the discussion as to whether our pets evolved from a wolf or dingo, anyway, is of no consequence at all. The modern dog cannot be considered as a derivative of a wolf. This is an antiquated belief and certainly presenting nutrition based on this ideology is incorrect. The same analogy could be made with humans aspiring to a diet that apes eat – nuts, fruits, grass, etc. As humans we certainly could not maintain ourselves on such a diet. The same is true for our pets.
That said, one should still strive to serve a diet that is natural and free of preservatives.
One should support pet nutrition that is ethical and moral and steer away from companies that support animal testing. Where possible, organic herbs and veggies should be used as well as free-range meat.
The use of high quality pulses like long grain brown rice, pearl barley, split peas, millet, wheat germ and oats is preferred rather than those that are commonly used in processed food like brewers rice (leftovers from the breweries), soya meal, corn meal, wheat and corn gluten.
Cold-pressed olive oil is also preferred as a high quality omega rather than rendered fats that the industry is known to use.
Our pets, therefore require a balanced diet of protein (whether derived from a meat or vegetable source), veggies and carbohydrates.
Judging by their loyalty, commitment, love and affection it is very evident that we are no longer dealing with a wolf or dingo but rather a domesticated companion and friend. We have a responsibility to protect them from harm and assure them of basic humane rights and that includes a diet that is appropriate, safe and free of dangerous preservatives.
[Update: For extra reading on this and also why you shouldn’t feed your dog a raw-meat diet, take a look here.]
If you have any queries, please leave a comment below and Paul will get back to you.
Paul Jacobson is a Pet Food Nutritionist and qualified chef and owner of Vondis Holistic Pet Nutrition. Vondis has been producing natural pet food for 14 years and is a registered nutritional pet food. Vondis is actively involved in educating the public on the benefits of natural diets for pets and a holistic approach when treating them. Go to www.vondis.co.za for more information.