BY DR. IAN BILLINGHURST AUTHOR OF "POINTING THE BONE AT CANCER"
Does anyone truly understand or appreciate exactly what our dogs should be eating on a daily basis for a lifetime?
How do we find out? For an evolutionary biologist, the answer is simple. She (or he) will look backwards and examine what our dogs have eaten over the last few million years, the foods that have created their genome and made them what they are today — nutritionally speaking.
Prior to becoming associated with man, the overwhelming evidence is that our dogs were wolves, and so clearly, for the longest period of time, our dogs’ ancestors ate the food of wolves and the food of the ancestors of wolves, which were mostly animal-based foods. However, when considering the impact evolution has on the nutritional requirements of any species , it is important to realise the evolutionary process did not finish some time in the past. Evolution continues right up until the present moment. Although the dog evolved from the wolf, the dog diet, although close, is NOT exactly the same as the wolf diet; evolution has caused a number of changes.
We should understand the eating habits of the wolf as a basis for what dogs should be ating today. In a nutshell, the ANCESTORS of our dogs ate OTHER ANIMALS. This means that our dogs are nutritionally adapted to eat skin, bones, flesh, blood and internal organs. What they never ate during this long period of nutritional adaptation was cooked grain - and very little raw grain either.
The first true canids (dog-like animals) appeared approximately 40 million years ago and they were obligate carnivores. About one million years ago, the first true wolves appeared and it is generally agreed that the dog evolved from the wolf. These wolves ate the whole carcass of the animalvs they killed which sometimes included the vegetable material in the gut.
This brings us to the second period, which I have called the “Camp following” era. It began around 100 to 200 thousand years ago and ended around 15,000 years ago. These camp following wolves had discovered that scavenging the remains or scraps of human hunting exploits was an excellent way to live and survive!
They were also making changes in their eating habits, adopting more of the scavenging lifestyle with less hunting. They still did not eat much in the way of cooked food and they did not eat any cooked grains. This period ended around fifteen thousand years ago and ushered in the third era, which saw the most significant changes to the wolf’s nutritional genome. This third period or era I have called the “Domestication” era. And it was this period that saw the emergence of the modern dog. Mankind was shifting from the hunter and gatherer lifestyle to that of the farmer; during a relatively short period of evolutionary time, humans changed from eating a diet high in wild game, fish and fowl, some vegetables and adopted a largely grain based diet.
The skeletal remains of humans from this period show this DRAMATIC change in diet coincided with a drop in human height of around six inches together with never before experienced—degenerative disease processes such as arthritis, diabetes, all sorts of neurological problems, gastrointestinal issues and many more, including cancer.
Farming, a settled lifestyle and a relatively reliable and constant food source saw humans grow dramatically in numbers. And lots of people means an inevitable increase in waste including unwanted vegetable scraps, bones and scraps from slaughtered animals, together with masses of faecal material. And quite naturally, those camp following wolves now spent increasing periods hanging around mankind’s rubbish dumps, which became a reliable food source.
In a matter of a few hundred years, those rubbish dumps began the rapid evolution of the dog from the wolf. This happened - we now know - by selecting for the trait “friendliness.” Over time the traits of friendliness and familiarity and acceptance of the presence of mankind became more deeply and firmly embedded in the genome of these wolves BECOMING Dogs.
From a nutritional point of view, these wolves living in close contact with humans and their rubbish were also becoming less of a carnivore and more of an omnivore. However — and this is important — these changes in our dogs nutritional genome did not make any major impact on the basic physiology of our dogs. Our dogs still required raw food, they retained a physiology that had no adaptation to cooked and grain-based food. Their bodies remained unable to adapt to the physiological consequences of gluten and masses of soluble carbohydrate-rich food.
This brings us to the fourth or “Breed Development” era. This era has lasted up to 2000 years for some breeds and less than one hundred years for others. This era has had a negligible impact on the nutritional requirements (the nutritional genome) of the modern dog. The food fed during this period has still been mostly raw and mostly of animal origin. And let me stress, during this breed development era, cooked grain (carbohydrates) has been minimal to absent as a significant part of the diet of most breeds of dogs. And so, because of the shortness of this era and because this era ushered in little change in our dogs’ eating habits, we are forced to conclude that this “Breed Development” Era has produced very little genetic change in the canine dietary genome. Any change that has occurred would only be in terms of fine-tuning to the local nutritional environment, and then only maybe!
The fifth and final era in the development of the canine dietary Genome, what I call the “Modern pet Food” era began in earnest during the 1930’s. During this period of eating cooked and processed fake industrial food there has been no impact on the genetic make-up of our companion animals. It takes many thousands, maybe tens of thousands of years for a species to make any dramatic changes in its genome in response to a changing nutritional environment. The health problems caused by these modern nutritional changes mostly impact the post-reproductive years and many of the problems associated with reproduction are overcome with changes in husbandry practices and modern veterinay intervention. Given the evolutionary history of the canine dietary genome, we are now in a position to formulate a healthy nutritional programme for our modern dogs.
This article is based on and adapted from “Pointing the Bone at Cancer”
Ian Billinghurst BVSc (Hons) BScAgr Dip Ed
Veterinary Surgeon | Acupuncturist | Author | Educator | Nutritionist