Ah, the age old debate. Well, maybe not age old. Few decades old. A generation, tops.
Nevertheless, it’s a question I am asked often. Is my dog an omnivore or a carnivore? And I can completely understand why you would ask this; looking around at commercially available foods for dogs and even many homemade dog food recipes, one would almost certainly be lead to the conclusion that dogs require plant matter, grains and even cereals in their diet.
But they don’t.
I don’t mean to be a negative Nancy and there are certainly some benefits to adding small amounts of suitable vegetables and even a little fruit to your dog’s diet; I do it regularly in order to give my dog as many nutrients as I can. But dogs are not equipped with the physiology required to eat an indiscriminately omnivorous diet like we are. Giving a dog supplementary plant matter does not make them an omnivore. Much like being vegan does not make you a herbivore. Whether a dog is an omnivore or a carnivore is determined by their natural feeding habits and their physical design. All of this strongly indicates that they are carnivores, designed to eat a prey-based diet.
Proponents of the view that dogs are omnivores will likely tell you that they’ve evolved, like it’s us Neanderthal-esque heathens feeding our dogs a diet based around animal protein who need to get with the program. What, in a hundred years? I’m no evolution expert, but I’m pretty sure that’s not how it works. But that is roughly how long domesticated dogs have been eating omnivorously in the form of commercial pet food. Prior to this, dogs ate much more in line with their biological needs.
It is possible that dogs have adapted to tolerate greater quantities of plant matter (even grains) in their diet as a product of domestication, but this does not mean that it is either inherently good for them or that their physiology has changed.
On the contrary, just like their wolf ancestors, the modern dog’s teeth, jaw and digestive system are specifically designed to eat meat and bones.
Tellingly, dogs do not produce sufficient quantities of the enzymes necessary to efficiently digest and extract nutrients from starches, a process that begins in the mouth. This is the reason wellness gurus will tell you that digestion begins in the mouth and suggest that you chew your food 32 times before swallowing it. And by all accounts you probably should …because you’re an omnivore.
A dog’s digestive system is designed in a way that facilitates the digestion of meat, bones and fat, while also managing any harmful bacteria that may be present. This is why dogs can often eat rancid meat and drink out of gutters without getting sick, but we cannot.
Feeding large amounts of plant matter to dogs is a recipe for gas, stomach upset and excessive waste. Grains in particular cause digestive problems, while offering minimal nutritional benefit.
You can certainly feed your dog supplementary plant matter in the form of suitable (this part is important) vegetables and small amounts of fruit for a nutritional boost. I do it and I recommend you do it too, with the help of a food processor.
So are dogs omnivores or carnivores?
Well, I don’t think wolves had food processors.
Olsen L (2010) Raw and Natural Nutrition for Dogs, Revised: The Definitive Guide to Homemade Meals. Dharma Café Books. Berkley, California.
Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine. http://www.eclinpath.com/chemistry/pancreas/amylase