As many of us know, wolves are the common ancestor of all breeds of domestic dog.
Though dogs have evolved differently from wolves and have become incredibly variable in size, shape, and appearance, scientists and dog nutritionists still study the wolf’s diet in relation to that of the dog’s.
By comparing wolves and dogs, they hope to learn more about what type of diet could benefit dogs the most.
In this article, we will study both the wolf’s diet and the dog’s, sharing information from pertinent sources along the way.
We will also answer some common questions such as “what do wolves eat,” “how often do wolves eat,” “how much do wolves eat” and “do wolves eat plants?”
What Do Wolves Eat?
Wolves are carnivores, and their diet consists primarily of ungulates (hoofed mammals) such as deer, moose and wild boar. These large animals are supplemented with a number of small animals, such as beavers, rabbits, rodents, birds, reptiles, and even insects.
Because various commercial dog foods advertise fish (usually salmon) as a main ingredient of their formula, and some of them even show pictures of wolves on the packaging, many people wonder, “do wolves eat fish?”
The answer to this question is yes, but not often. Compared to their overall diet of large mammals, the amount is infinitesimal.
Plant material including grasses and fruits such as strawberries, blueberries and raspberries have also been found in wolf feces.
However, like fish, the amounts are negligible and are not considered part of the wolf diet as a whole.
Wolves hunt in packs, which is why they prefer sizable prey. For the most part, they eat only what they kill. However, they are adept at scavenging when prey is scarce.
Wolves’ eating habits are feast or famine, meaning that when they are able to find food, they eat a lot of it (a grey wolf can eat up to 22.5 pounds in one sitting), but they also face times when there isn’t much to eat.
However, their bodies support this lifestyle. Wolves are capable of preserving both protein and fat, which are stored and then used during times of famine.
Because of this, wolves can fast for long periods of time and easily regain any weight they lost due to low food availability.
This feast and famine lifestyle means that how much or how often wolves eat is dependent on whether or not they can find suitable prey.
Though wild ungulates appear to be their preferred diet, researchers have noticed that wolves will also eat domesticated farm animals and even garbage.
They attribute this to scarcity of natural prey, which is often a result of high human population.
Nevertheless, wolves are capable of subsisting on a wide variety of foods.
What Do Wolves Eat?: Macronutrients
There are three key macronutrients that are observed in a wolf’s diet: protein, fat and carbohydrates.
Protein, fat and carbohydrates are all sources of energy. Scientists usually talk about these nutrients in relation to metabolic energy requirements (MER), which they then compare using ratios.
A wolf’s diet is typically high in protein and fat, but low in carbohydrates. The ratio of protein:fat:carbs found in a wolf’s diet is 54:45:1 percent.
What Do Dogs Eat?: Commercial Pet Food
Despite being related, a dog’s diet is very different from that of a wolf, not just in what they eat but also in macronutrient intake.
This is largely because dogs do not control what they eat the way wolves do. It is up to a dog’s owner to determine what to feed their dog.
There are many different diets for dogs out there, but the majority of people feed their pets commercial dog food, the most popular of which is dry kibble.
Some people also feed wet food, but due to the expense it is more commonly used to supplement the diet, make meals more appetizing or is given as a treat.
Typical ingredients in commercial dog foods include grains, meats, vegetables and sometimes fruit.
Ingredients will vary from brand to brand, and some ingredients are actually mixtures of multiple things.
For instance, meat by-product could include any or all of the following: lungs, spleen, kidneys, brain, livers, blood, bone, partially de-fatted low temperature fatty tissue, and stomachs and intestines freed of their contents.
Not all ingredients in dog food are easy to understand, which is why the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) has provided definitions on their website.
What Do Dogs Eat?: Macronutrients
It is difficult to ascertain how much of a certain macronutrient your dog is getting.
In the Guaranteed Analysis on pet food labels, only the crude minimums for fat and protein as well as the maximum of fiber are provided.
Companies are not required to list any information about carbohydrates, so it is often not included on the labeling.
Therefore, you do not know the actual amount of protein, fat, carbohydrates or fiber your dog is getting.
Furthermore, dog food manufacturers are only calculating crude amounts. This means that the quality of each macronutrient is not taken into account.
Higher quality macronutrients are more digestible, allowing them to be used by the body rather than turned into waste.
Unlike protein, fat and carbohydrates, dogs do not get energy from fiber. In fact, their bodies are not well-suited to digest it. Yet, it is still common in commercial dog food.
Many dog food companies claim that fiber is a great option for helping dogs lose weight because it does not provide them with any calories, and it will keep them feeling full for longer.
Sadly, studies have shown that this is not true and that fiber does not satiate a dog’s hunger.
Though fiber doesn’t keep dogs feeling full, it can still help manage obesity because it has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory qualities. These are also good for managing and preventing other chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease and type-2 diabetes.
Similarly, there are a few myths about fats and grains.
Many people search for special formulations of dog food such as low-fat or grain-free, believing that such formulations are better for their pooches.
However, neither grains nor fats are actually bad for dogs.
Dogs are capable of efficiently digesting starches (a type of carbohydrate) from grains. These starches act as a source of energy.
Fats contain omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids that provide a plethora of health benefits to dogs.
They keep skin and coat healthy, reduce the incidences of some diseases (cancer, sudden cardiac death), and can help treat atopy, inflammatory disease, chronic renal disease and some cancers.
Furthermore, research shows that dogs actually prefer high fat diets.
In one study, dogs were allowed to select their meals over a 10-day period. They were offered three different food options: high protein, high fat and high carbohydrate.
The average ratio of nutrients that the dogs selected was (in order of protein, fat, carbohydrate) 38:59:3 percent.
However, researchers noted that dogs picked high fat diets in the beginning of the study but moved toward higher levels of protein near the end. The ratio on the last day of the study was 45:51:4 percent.
It’s uncertain exactly why the dogs acted that way, but it could have something to do with their wolf ancestry. Wolves intake high amounts of fat to store when food is scarce.
Perhaps these dogs were doing the same and moved toward selecting higher amounts of protein once their bodies realized the food wasn’t going anywhere.
In a different study, dogs were said to select a ratio of 30:63:7 percent. Either way, it is clear that dogs prefer to get a decent portion of their energy from fat.
Still, it is important to keep in mind that many dogs act like bottomless pits and don’t seem to know when to stop eating. Fat in itself isn’t bad, but moderation is important.
What Do Wolves Eat That Is Also in Dog Food?
Though there are numerous brands and types of dog foods out there, there are only a few ingredients that come from the same animals that make up the majority of a wolf’s natural diet.
These ingredients include bison, elk, deer and moose.
However, if we look outside of the wolf’s natural diet, there are many things they will eat when ungulates are scarce, including pork, beef, poultry, goats—anything made of meat.
The main ingredients you will see in dog food that is not consumed by wolves are vegetables and other plants.
Comparing Dogs and Wolves
You may have noticed that dogs and wolves have some similarities and some differences that affect their eating habits.
Both dogs and wolves seem to prefer diets high in protein and fat but low in carbohydrates, though wolves have been shown to favor protein whereas dogs seem to favor fat.
Dogs are also able to fast for long periods of time, just like wolves. The longest fast by a dog on record was 117 days.
Not only that, both dogs and wolves are capable of quickly gaining back body weight that they lost during a period of famine.
Despite their domestication, dogs have kept the trait of eating large amounts of food when given the opportunity. Because of this, they can become overweight if their meals are not given in controlled proportions.
The biggest difference between dogs and wolves is the ability to digest starch. This is believed to be affected by three key genes: AMY2B, MGAM and SGLT1.
Dogs have more copies of AMY2B, especially. Therefore, unlike wolves, dogs can actually do well on diets high in starch, even if they do mirror their ancestors in their preference for fat and protein.
Wolves do have this gene, but they only have two copies, whereas dogs have been observed to have between four and 30 copies.
Although dogs are better suited to digesting starchy foods compared to wolves, the impact of consistent, high amounts of this on a dog’s overall health and lifespan has yet to be determined.
A wolf’s natural diet consists mainly of large animals, including moose, elk, deer, bison and wild boar, and is supplemented by smaller animals such as beavers, rabbits and other rodents.
They live a feast or famine lifestyle and can go for long periods of time without food. They are able to quickly regain weight lost when food is scarce.
Though they prefer to hunt, wolves are adept at scavenging when necessary. They are capable of surviving on a variety of foodstuffs and will even eat garbage if they have to.
In fact, wolves do perfectly well in areas that are highly populated by humans. Oftentimes, ungulates are scarce in these areas, but wolves make do by preying on livestock, scavenging and eating smaller animals such as rodents.
Wolves get most of their energy from protein and fat, and almost nothing from carbohydrates. This is because they are carnivores.
On the other hand, dogs, which are considered a subspecies of wolf, have some omnivorous traits. Namely, they are capable of efficiently digesting starches.
This is why so many dog foods contain vegetables and grains as ingredients, and why a dog’s diet is so different from a wolf’s.
Most ingredients in dog food are not things that wolves would eat. Though wolves will eat anything made of meat if they have to, they seem to show preference for their natural prey.
Interestingly enough, though dogs do fine on starchy diets, they prefer to get their energy from protein and fat rather than carbohydrates, just like wolves.
Unlike their kin, dogs are fed regularly and live very different lifestyles. So, even though they share their ancestor’s instinct to gorge themselves when food is abundant, it’s important that their food be given in controlled portions.
Overall, though we can learn a lot about dogs’ dietary preferences and evolution by observing wolves, we cannot base our dogs’ needs off of those of wolves.
References and Further Reading:
Arendt, M., et al., 2016, “Diet Adaptation in Dog Reflects Spread of Prehistoric Agriculture,” Heredity, Vol. 117, no. 5, pgs. 301-306
Axelsson, E., et al., 2013, “The Genomic Signature of Dog Domestication Reveals Adaptation to a Starch-Rich Diet,” Nature, Vol. 495, no. 7441, pg. 360
Biagi, G., et al., 2004, “The Role of Dietary Omega-3 and Omega-6 Essential Fatty Acids in the Nutrition of Dogs and Cats: A Review,” Progress in Nutrition, Vol. 6, no. 2
Bosch, Guido, et al., 2015, “Dietary Nutrient Profiles of Wild Wolves: Insights for Optimal Dog Nutrition?” The British Journal of Nutrition, Vol. 113, pgs. S40-S54.
Butterwick, R. F., et al., 1995, “Effect of Level and Source of Dietary Fiber on Food Intake in the Dog,” Journal of Nutrition, Vol. 124, pgs. 2695S-2700S.
Di Cerbo, Alessandro, et al., 2017, “Functional Foods in pet Nutrition: Focus on Dogs and Cats.” Research in Veterinary Science, Vol. 112, pgs. 161-166.
Newsome, Thomas M., et al., 2016, “Food habits of the world’s grey wolves,” Mammal Review, Vol. 46, no.4, pgs. 255-269.
“Pet Food Labels – General,” U.S. Food & Drug Administration
Roberts, M.T., et al., 2017, “Macronutrient Intake of Dogs, Self-Selecting Diets Varying in Composition Offered Ad Libitum,” Journal of Animal Physiology and Animal Nutrition, Vol. 102, no. 2, pgs. 568-575.
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