In the vast span of evolutionary time, the shared history of dogs and wolves is many orders of magnitude larger, and longer, than the time since the split.
It’s thought the first gray wolf probably appeared in Eurasia about a million years ago, in the early Pleistocene period.
Scientists guestimate that dogs evolved from wolves between 13 000 and 17 000 years ago, although the exact timing is a matter of debate. Technically it’s thought dogs didn’t evolve from the wolf we see today. Instead, it’s likely they both descended from a common wolf ancestor.
What’s the significance of this?
It means that the basic anatomy of dogs — from their teeth to their digestive systems — was set a very long time ago, before they evolved from wolves.
Physiologically, dogs have fundamentally the same bodies as their wolf ancestors.
Of course dogs didn’t stop evolving once they were domesticated.
It is possible for a species to adapt to a change in diet. Palaeontologists believe this takes about 100 000 years.
DNA sampled from two Neolithic German dog fossils that were 7 000 and 4 700 years old, found these Stone Age dogs were very similar to modern European dogs, including the majority of breeds people keep as pets. In other words, dogs had undergo no major physical changes in 7 000 years.
Why does this matter?
Well, the first dog biscuits, a forerunner of kibble, were invented 150 years ago. In his book Give your dog a bone Australian vet Dr Ian Billinghurst explains how many diseases commonly seen in modern dogs can be traced to the widespread adoption of kibble.
In another 100 000 years from now, dogs might have adapted enough to be able to eat this highly processed junk without it causing disease.
Right now though, kibble (and canned food, for that matter) in no way resembles a species-appropriate diet for dogs.
Why did wolves become dogs?
The theory is the dawn of agriculture triggered the domestication of wolves into dogs.
No longer were people nomadic. Instead they lived rooted in place. The refuse associated with human settlements created a new niche for wolves. Scavenging on leftovers drew wolves into closer association with people.
It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. But it also sowed the seeds for a decline in the health of these wolves-turned-dogs, as they began consuming a diet that differed in significant ways from the one their bodies were designed to eat — and not just in that it was cooked.
What do wolves eat?
Data on the feeding ecology of wolves originally indicated they were true carnivores, eating whole prey including bone while consuming a negligible amount of plant matter.
Wolves tend to prey on large ungulates or hoofed animals like elk, deer and boar. When livestock is available to them wolves have been known to prey on sheep and cows but they will also eat smaller mammals, reptiles and insects if necessary.
But more recent observations have revealed that fruit plays a larger role than previously thought in the diet of some wolves. One wolf pack in Northern Minnesota was found to consume more than 80% blueberries for an entire month at the height of summer.
Perhaps the best description of wolves is as “facultative” carnivores (in contrast to cats which are strict or “obligate” carnivores). This means while meat is their first preference, they can sustain themselves on fruit as a secondary food when prey is scarce.
Notwithstanding the advertising claims of the pet food industry, and the aide of vets in promoting their products, the nutrient profile of commercial dog food differs in several aspects from the wolf diet and scientists acknowledge these differences “may pose physiological and metabolic challenges“. What’s that in English? Kibble is so far from a dog’s natural diet that it makes dogs sick to eat it.
How often do wolves eat?
As wild animals, wolves live in tune with natural cycles of boom and bust. In other words, the wolf metabolism (and, by extension, the dog metabolism) is adapted to a highly variable nutrient intake.
The significance of this for domestic dogs has multiple dimensions.
First, the average domestic dog is fed much more often than dogs ate during their evolutionary development ie during the time when their core physiology was formed and honed to perfection.
The effect of this overfeeding is compounded when you consider that domestic dogs are much more sedentary than their wild ancestors.
Compounded again when you factor in how much more fat is in the diet of domestic dogs. Our pets are fed on the deliberately fattened products of human agriculture. Farm animals are dramatically fatter than the lean game meats that dogs, in an evolutionary sense, are used to.
Fasting is part of the wolf’s natural lifestyle. Yet we feed domestic dogs daily.
About three times a week is closer to normal for dogs/wolves.
The shock with which this idea is typically received by the average dog owner shows how little we understand about our dogs’ actual needs for optimum health.
By avoiding daily feeding, you can incorporate periods of fasting into a dog’s regular routine.
This regular digestive rest promotes healing and renewal at a cellular level. It’s called autophagy. The body switches into this mode during sleep and during fasting. These processes are impeded when the body is constantly occupied with the energy-intensive tasks of digestion. (By the way, the same goes for human bodies.)
Most owners struggle to fast their dogs because of their own psychological need to feed their dog. The dog itself has no requirement for daily feeding and all the evidence suggests he will in fact be healthier with less frequent meals.
There is now increasing recognition of the power of fasting to prevent and heal disease in both dogs and humans.
Are dogs’ nutritional needs different from wolves’?
Based on their shared physiology? You’d have to say no.
However, there are some differences in digestive capacity between dogs and wolves that have developed as a result of domestication.
When wolves began eating human leftovers, a process of natural selection favored those individuals that could thrive on this new resource which differed from the wolves’ previous diet in a major way: it was rich in starch.
Dogs and wolves share more than 99.8 per cent of their DNA and can interbreed to produce viable offspring. They are the same species.
Within that 0.2 per cent of difference, scientists comparing the dog and wolf genomes have found dogs have many more genes than wolves for the production of amylase (the digestive enzyme that breaks down starch).
So dogs have adapted to better digest the starchy diets they get around humans.
Should dogs eat diets high in starch?
Does this mean it’s a good idea to deliberately feed dogs diets high in starch like cereal grains and root vegetables?
Manufacturers of pet food would like to have you think so. Since 1964 the Pet Food Institute, a lobby group for the pet food industry, has been campaigning to convince people to stop feeding their dogs real food and to instead feed nothing but packaged dog food. Why? Because that’s what they sell.
Dog food contains starch not for the sake of your dog’s nutrition. It contains starch because it’s cheap.
The fact that dogs can digest starch doesn’t mean they require it. And just because a dog can digest something doesn’t mean doing so won’t have consequences for their health.
I can eat McDonald’s but I don’t think anyone would argue it’s good for my health. Except McDonald’s, of course.
There’s another problem with feeding starch to dogs. It’s the way its done.
The lie of “complete and balanced”
Commercial dog foods stuff every ingredient under the sun into the one meal and claim that’s a good thing because then it’s a “complete and balanced” diet.
But this is not how wolves eat in the wild. They always eat meat separately to plant matter. Mono meals, as they’re known.
Balance in a dog’s diet should be achieved over time, not all in one sitting. Dog food makers only do this because they’re trying to sell you an all-in-one product. They don’t want you buying real, fresh food from the butcher or supermarket and preparing it yourself.
How social are wolves?
Wolves live in tight social units based around monogamous mated pairs. A wolf pack consists of a mother and a father and their most recent litter, as well as their offspring from previous years.
The average size of a wolf pack is six.
Our pet dogs are not wolves.
But dogs and wolves share a long evolutionary history.
There is much to be learned about optimal dog nutrition by considering how wolves eat, because dogs ate that same way for a long period during their evolution.
Very little time has passed — on an evolutionary scale — since dogs began eating differently because of their association with humans. As a result, much of their physiology is still best suited to a wolf-like diet.