how to feed your dog

If you feed your dog a raw diet or you’ve read anything about raw feeding, you’re probably familiar with the theory that you should feed your dog like a wolf.

Wolves are classified by the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History as canis lupus and dogs are a subset – canis lupus familiaris. Dogs are considered opportunistic carnivores, meaning they are primarily meat eaters but can supplement with food from other sources.

While selective breeding means many modern dogs don’t look like wolves, they still have a lot in common physiologically and anatomically with their wolf ancestors.

Similarities

Dogs’ mouths and teeth are similar to wolves, with teeth designed for grabbing and ripping prey (the canines), for tearing meat from the bone (premolars, behind the canines), and for crushing bones (molars, at the back of the mouth). Wolves’ and dogs’ jaws are hinged, to allow them to open wide to accommodate prey. Their jaws don’t make side-to-side grinding movements like those of vegetarian animals.

dog-skull-DNM                         wolf-skull-DNM

 

Wolves and dogs also have similar digestive systems that are designed primarily to eat meat.

Unlike humans, wolves and dogs don’t have salivary amylase, which is an enzyme that helps digest carbohydrates … but they do have pancreatic amylase, so they can digest some vegetable matter and starches. These shared characteristics cause may experts to recommend raw meat diets for dogs, similar to what wolves eat.

So, if your dog should eat like a wolf, what does that mean?

Learning From Wolves

It turns out it’s not just about tossing your dog a raw meaty bone or a big hunk of meat every day. When you dig a little deeper, there’s a lot you can learn from wolves about feeding your dog. We got some expert advice on this topic from Dr Isla Fishburn.

She’s widely qualified in the realm of animal behavior and conservation. She has a BSc in Zoology, and a Masters and PhD in Conservation Biology. Dr Fishburn has worked with wolves, wolf hybrids and domestic dogs for several years.

Isla Ellis with a wolf at The Wolf Centre in Combe Martin, Devon, 1st September 2012. Pic by JohnRobertson/BARCROFT MEDIA.

Dr Fishburn with a wolf at The Wolf Centre in Combe Martin, Devon 1st September 2012. Pic by JohnRobertson/ BARCROFT MEDIA

Dr Fishburn shared with us some fascinating information about wolves’ feeding habits and their parallels in domestic dogs.

Feed The Individual

When we talk about wolf diets, we tend to lump all wolves together … but actually there’s a lot of variety in how individual wolves and different packs eat. Within their pack, young wolves are taught not only how to hunt, but what and how to eat. As you’ll see shortly, the prey they eat varies from one pack to another, and not just because of what’s available in their geographic location.

Experts disagree on the best raw diet for dogs … but like wolves, individual dogs have different needs and should be fed as individuals, not a “one size fits all” diet. This means that different dogs in your family may be better off eating different diets.

Adult wolves’ primary source of food is prey animals. Wolves will also eat some plant materials like grasses, seeds, sedges, acorns and berries or other fruit.

Prey Choices

Depending on where they live, wolves often have a wide range of prey animals to choose from. Wolves eat differently from one pack to another and their diets can vary seasonally because of prey migration. Typical prey for wolves includes deer, moose, elk, caribou, bison, wild boar, rabbits, wild sheep, goats and horses, beaver, as well as fish, eggs, and livestock.

What’s really interesting, though, is that wolves’ stomach contents have been found to contain only one or at most two prey sources. So a wolf group may be surrounded by deer, wild boar and elk, but only eat deer. Another wolf group with the same choices may pick wild boar. This may partly be due to geographical limitations or hunting opportunities … or perhaps they instinctively know what they need nutritionally.

Your dog probably has a much wider choice of protein sources. Most experts advise giving a range of proteins so that dogs get a variety of nutrients. But do you ever get that look from your dog that says “is this really what you’re giving me to eat today?”

It’s not clear why wolves only eat one or two prey sources … but it does make you think perhaps you should pay attention when your dog seems to prefer one kind of meat to another. Perhaps, as wolves seem to, dogs also know better than we do what they need?

The Whole Animal … Almost

Wolves eat most of the carcass of their prey, but with larger game animals they’ll leave behind the weight bearing bones and some of the fur.

They do eat fur … it’s important as a source of fiber and also because it protects the digestive tract from sharp bones that could be harmful. Wolf scat often contains pieces of bone with fur wrapped around them.

Weight bearing bones tend to be very hard, so make sure the bones you give your dog are softer, consumable bones like ribs and necks.

If you can find a source of wild game or whole prey with the fur still on it, feed it to your dog, especially if he eats a lot of bones.

How Much Food

Studies show wolves can eat about 7 lbs of food in a day … which seems like a lot! But after a really big feed they might not eat again for several days … so on average they eat about 1% of their body weight a day.

For dogs, most experts recommend feeding 1% to 3% of your dog’s body weight per day depending on his activity level. If you find your dog’s too thin, feed more, or if he’s gaining weight, cut back.

Fasting is natural to the dog’s physiology as well. Some dogs will naturally fast themselves, which usually distresses their owners. But it mimics what would happen in nature and it gives the digestive system a break. So don’t fret if your dog doesn’t eat for a day or two. Some experts even recommend fasting dogs one day a week, perhaps just giving them a recreational bone to gnaw on that day. 

Food Temperature

When wolves kill prey, they get a warm meal.  But scavenged food will usually be cold, and certainly their food temperature isn’t always the same.

Most raw fed dogs get their food straight from the refrigerator … every day. You might want to experiment with a room temperature meal for your dog once in a while to see if he likes that better.

Scavenging For Survival

Animals have a fundamental need to survive so when wild animals can’t find their primary source of food, they will turn to secondary food choices. When wolves eat grasses, seeds, acorns or fruit, this may be an instinctive way to supplement the diet nutritionally … or it could even be for medicinal purposes.

Wolves are also scavengers and when they need extra food to survive (rather than thrive), they’ll eat whatever they can find, including scavenging at garbage dumps. Domestic dogs are not usually underfed, but they still supplement their diets with extras and have the scavenging instinct.

You may see your dog eating grass (sometimes vomiting afterwards) or picking vegetables or herbs from your garden. He might grab a fallen apple off the ground, or eat berries right off a bush … not to mention guzzling goodies like rabbit poop. Some dogs scavenge by helping themselves to garbage in your kitchen or snatching a McDonalds wrapper off the ground while out on a walk.

Lots of dogs are just greedy and take advantage of anything extra they can find to eat. But dogs may also look for extra foods because of nutritional need.

Let Your Dog Choose

Dr Fishburn believes that dogs do sense what they need nutritionally and that they will select appropriate foods. She keeps a basket of fruit and vegetables in her kitchen for her dogs to choose from whenever they want. One of her dogs might ignore the basket for weeks but then will eat three apples in one day … this suggests it’s meeting a nutritional need.

Again, this is about feeding your dog as an individual and letting him make the choices he needs.

So you may want to offer him a wider variety of foods … some extra veggies (pureed or steamed are best for digestibility), or the occasional bowl of fruit. If he’s a grass-eater you might also want to add some nutritional herbs such as alfalfa, dandelion or nettle to his diet. (You’ll probably want to skip the McDonalds wrapper.) Or use Dr Fishburn’s idea of keeping a basket of fruit and veggies readily available!

Remember The Individual

Wolves show us that animals make choices and instinctively know what they need to eat. Treat your dog as an individual who knows what he needs and let him make food choices.

Domestic dogs may be missing out on certain nutritional resources as we stop them eating things like contraband in the alley … so if you give your dog more varied options, you may end up with a healthier, happier dog!