Natural Diets for Dogs

Natural history of dogs, Canis familiaris

Domestic dogs are descended from wolves and are closely related to them. Wolves usually hunt in packs and prey on medium to large animals such as deer and moose. Solitary wolves feed on rodents and other small mammals. The skin, fur and most other parts of animal prey are eaten. Wolves also eat insects, fish, fruit, nuts and grasses.

During their 15, 000 years of association with humans, dogs have mainly subsisted on waste animal and vegetable products and vermin.

Common-sense feeding

An affordable and healthy diet for your dog can use a variety of commercial foods as a base, supplemented with careful feeding of meat, raw bones, fish, eggs, milk, vegetables, rice, pasta, potatoes, etc. (See Foods suitable/unsuitable for dogs, below.)

Cooking a bit more when preparing your own meals is a convenient way of adding healthful variety to your dog’s diet. If these foods make up more than 10% of your dog’s diet, then take extra care to provide the right balance of nutrients (see table below). Nutritionally balanced recipes for dogs are available in books and on the internet.

A good way to assess how well your dog is digesting his/her food is to inspect the faeces which should not be overly runny (diarrhea) or hard and dry (the dog may be constipated).

Cooking meat increases its digestibility, palatability and food safety (there should be no safety issues anyway) but destroys some nutrients, especially vitamins.

Important nutrients for dogs

An average adult dog needs:

  • Protein: 20-25% of diet
  • Fat: 9-15% of diet
  • Vitamins: A, D, E, K: in liver, fats, oils, cereal germ
  • Calcium (Ca): 1000 mg/day (9kg dog)
  • Phosphorous (P): 880 mg/day (9kg dog)

Food type

Nutrients provided (g per 100g as fed)

Protein

Fat

Ca

P

Ca : P ratio

Chicken mince (meat & bone)

13

19

0.8

0.5

1.6:1

Canned tuna in water

28

0.8

0.02

0.2

0.1:1

Raw venison mince

21

3

0.004

0.4

0.01:1

Raw beef liver

20

4

0.01

0.4

0.03:1

Egg

13

12

0.05

0.2

0.3:1

Milk

4

4

0.12

0.09

1.3:1

Cheese

25

32

0.8

0.5

1.6:1

Rice (cooked, white)

2

0.1

0.02

0.06

0.3

Whole wheat bread

11

3

0.1

0.2

0.5

Bone

30

17

1.8:1

Note that:

Providing Ca:P in the ratio between 1:1 and 2:1 is important.

Supplementation (e.g. with Ca) can cause health problems, so seek veterinary advice before using supplements.

Growth & lactation are critical times when extra nutrients are needed, from good quality formula feeds or well-informed diet planning.

Aged pets can’t easily deal with a poor diet or excessive nutrients. In general they need highly palatable, digestible food, with reduced protein, phosphorous and sodium. They can become reluctant to eat dried food due to decreased secretion of saliva. If you feed dried food ensure there is a readily accessible, continuous supply of clean water.

Foods not suitable for dogs

  • Sudden changes in diet
  • Raw fish (some have harmful organisms and toxins)
  • Onions & garlic (large amounts are toxic)
  • Raw egg white on its own (ok with raw egg yolk)
  • Chocolate (feed only sparingly, and do not feed dark chocolate)
  • Xylitol sweetener (e.g. in some chewing gum)
  • Grapes (toxic at 32g/kg dog),
  • raisins (toxic at 11g/kg dog)
  • Macadamia nuts (even just a few can be toxic)
  • Cooked bones (can splinter), or more than 1-2 large raw bones/week (can obstruct the digestive system)
  • Excessive milk (milk is very nutritious but give no more than 20 ml/kg of body weight, and make sure it’s not causing diarrhea – some dogs can’t digest it)
  • All-meat, or all-fish diets (deficient in calcium and other important nutrients)
  • Excessive liver (can cause vitamin A poisoning, so feed liver only 1-2 times/week)

Foods suitable for dogs

  • Whole eggs, cooked or raw
  • Milk (most dogs can enjoy small amounts) & cheese
  • Meat (cook or deep freeze offal, pork or mutton)
  • Large raw bones (nb: unsuitable for dogs that swallow large pieces or become constipated from bones)
  • Vegetables (cooked or raw)
  • Fish (cooked, boneless)
  • Fats & oils (no more than 10% of diet)
  • Grass (have clean, long, green grass available)
  • Starchy foods e.g. potatoes, pasta, and rice (rice is considered the most digestible of these 3)

Natural Diet for Cats

Domestic cats are true carnivores, with teeth designed for shearing flesh and bodies superbly adapted for hunting small animals. They are thought to be descended from the African wild cat, a desert animal. Wild and domesticated cats eat most parts of their prey, usually starting with the head, but usually leave the entrails (or “guts”).

Cats have a different way of using animal protein and a higher requirement for it than dogs. In cats, protein is used as an energy source by enzymes in the liver. They can’t turn these enzymes off when a low protein diet is fed.

Cats need about 25-30% of their diet as protein, and thrive on high-fat diets (the fat content of the diet should be 25-50%). They have especially high needs for some nutrients that are supplied by animal protein. These nutrients include the protein taurine, and the vitamins niacin, Vitamin B6, and Vitamin A, and the essential fatty acid, arachidonic acid. For these reasons, commercial food that is prepared for dogs is not a balanced diet for cats.

Some cats, especially females, are very erratic feeders, but in general a cat likes to snack every few hours. Free-choice feeding is recommended (unless the cat has a weight problem), or at least three meals a day, especially during productive times (growth, reproduction, and lactation).

Any single item, e.g. canned fish, should not be more than 25% of the cat’s diet. The diet should be varied, from a young age, to prevent the cat developing a fixed food preference. Meat (muscle) on its own is not a balanced diet for a cat, being low in important nutrients (e.g. calcium).

Cats vary greatly in the amount they need to eat. Owners should aim to keep the cat at optimal weight, when the ribs can’t be seen but there is no excess fat under the skin (e.g. in the tummy area).