“Eat your vegetables!” From our mothers to modern day health practitioners, we’ve been bombarded for years with the plea to consume more produce. We’re told to partake in the rainbow of colors that make up the bountiful array of fruits and veggies. And even if Mother didn’t have the science behind her, she now joins the ranks of many nutritionists who recommend incorporating more produce into our diets.
Today we know, through much studied research, that fruits and vegetables contain a staggering amount of nutrients including vitamins and minerals, antioxidants, new fangled words like phytonutrients, and other compounds that are good for our bodies.
So, if fruits and veggies are so loaded with good “stuff” they must be good for our canine friends too, right? One would think that if produce contains all those great nutrients for us, it would benefit our dogs to consume them also. Alas, the answer is a bit more complicated and yet comes from great simplicity in physiology.
It’s All In The Teeth
Do me a favor, please. Find an herbivore. Any ol’ horse, cow, sheep, or goat will do. What, not all of you have one of these hanging out at your house waiting for you look in its mouth? If not, use your mind’s eye to visualize how these animal’s teeth differ from your dog’s teeth. True herbivores have flat teeth, except for a few up front that are used to tear off vegetation for the other teeth to chew and chew and chew. They are built for lots of chewing because plants contain a rigid cell wall called cellulose. Cellulose is a linear polysaccharide polymer with many glucose monosaccharide units. Try that sentence out on your friends at your next dinner party! If there’s a smart one in the crowd they’ll know that you’re really just talking about fiber (but it doesn’t sound nearly as impressive).
If you check your dog’s mouth (I’m sure you have one of those around) you’ll find very different teeth. Your dog has the teeth of a carnivore. They are sharp and ridged, not flat. Your dog’s teeth are obviously made for holding, ripping, and tearing flesh. Plus, unlike the herbivore, your dog’s jaw is designed to move up and down, not sideways. Dogs don’t chew cud, which is a method of breaking down the tough cellulose wall by mixing it with salvia and doing more chewing, chewing, chewing. Dogs’ salivary glands are used to lubricate food so it can be wolfed down in chunks. We humans are somewhere in the middle with sharp and chewing teeth. Unlike dogs, our saliva contains the enzyme amylase which breaks down starch (contained in some vegetables and fruits).
If we move down into the dog’s stomach, we find that it’s small compared to an herbivore’s stomach. The stomach is the place where food is dissolved and liquefied. Only food that is dissolved can be digested. Cellulose from plants is difficult for dogs to digest and can alter the normal pH of the stomach. Most, if not all of it, passes through without being dissolved. By the way, even the folks that do the research to make the guidelines for pet foods have stated that dogs have no nutritional need for fiber. The more fiber/cellulose you feed, the bigger the stool as the matter goes through your dog’s body without being properly dissolved and digested.
The Small Intestine
The dog’s small intestine is very important in the digestive process as it’s the place where the dissolved food is digested. It also has ducts from the pancreas and liver which supply enzymes to break down fats and proteins into fatty acids and amino acids.
And let’s not forget the colon. Our dog’s colon harbors healthy organisms such as good bacteria and synthesized nutrients. An herbivore’s colon is designed to ferment cellulose, thus helping to break it down even further. Our dog’s body is not designed the same way.
So, by taking this in depth journey into our dog’s digestive process we find that they are well equipped to consume and digest their natural diet of, to be quite blunt, other animals. That is, a diet predominately consisting of meat, fat, bones and those lovely extras that come with life in the wild. Yes, even though they have been our domesticated friends for a while, their digestive system is still that of their wild ancestor, the wolf.
Into The Wild
There have been a few misleading ideas about wolves and plants. For example, you may have heard that wolves eat the stomach contents of their prey first and that’s why dogs should eat vegetables and fruit. But leading wolf experts have actually found that when wolves bring down a large herbivore, they shake the stomach contents out of the stomach lining before consumption. And if they were to consume an entire small prey animal, only a small amount of vegetation would be consumed. Wild canids do nibble on wild berries in season and regularly get small amounts of nutritious pond scum when drinking. We do know that if whole fruits, berries, or other vegetation are consumed, they show up much the way they went in, when looking at wild scat (poop). You may have noticed this with your own domesticated carnivore. Give a dog a whole carrot or berry and you’ll most likely see it looking pretty much the same when you’re on poop patrol.
Surprising as it may seem, in my practice as an animal nutritionist, the most common imbalance I find in dogs eating either home prepared or premade raw diets is the feeding of too many vegetables and fruit. Sometimes I think we humans are trying to make up for any guilt we feel about not eating many ourselves. But, you don’t get brownie points if you’re not eating them! I’ve had many people share with me that even though they’ve been feeding a raw diet for a while, they’re still experiencing health issues with skin, ears, urinary system and more. Very often, when I conduct a private consultation for them, I find they are feeding an overabundance of produce. Too many fruits and vegetables can alter pH level; add fructose sugar, too much fiber, and other issues. It’s quite common for the issues to clear up when the vegetation has been reduced.
Keeping in mind the natural diet and the physiology of your carnivore will help you choose foods for them that they will digest and utilize the best, and in the proper amounts. So, let Bugs binge on the carrots and feed dogs a species appropriate diet for their good health and wellbeing.