The Ancestral Diet for Dogs

You may have heard of the “Cave Man” diet as it applies to humans, the theory being that unprocessed fresh foods high in protein and low in carbohydrates are best for people who evolved successfully over thousands and thousands of years consuming just such a diet.

The concept of the “Ancestral Diet” for dogs is similar in nature. Dogs and other canids evolved successfully through hunting and scavenging, consuming foods that were not at all like the kibble so many are fed today. Recent nutritional science increasingly supports an ancestral-type diet—high protein, balanced fats, and at least some fresh foods—as the healthiest approach to feeding most dogs.

There is no way of knowing for sure exactly what constituted the diet of the ancestors of the modern, domesticated dog. And, of course, depending on the natural environment (the geography and climate) in which they lived, it may have varied considerably. However, there has been a lot of research done on this subject and we do know quite a bit about the diets of the dog’s closest wild relatives such as the wolf, coyote, and fox.

One thing that we are quite sure of is that dogs were hunters and scavengers, their diet consisting largely of meat (including some fish) with some lesser amounts of fruit and grasses.

Based on a review of the literature and my own research, I have concluded that the ancestral diet consisted of about 85 to 90% meat (primarily from whole prey) along with small amounts of fish and eggs, and 10 to 15% scavenged grasses, berries, nuts and other vegetation.

This is a high-protein diet, with almost 50% of the calories coming from protein, 44% from fat, and only 6% from carbohydrate. This protein level exceeds all but a few dry and raw foods, and all of the homemade raw foods that I’ve analyzed, unless the recipes specify very lean meats. There are few fat animals in the wild!

The fats in the canine ancestral diet were well balanced; I’ll write more about that in a future blog.

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  • Sighthound owner

    This should be obligatory reading to any future and current dog owners. Too often I read posts by people who proudly tell about turning their dog(s) and/or cat(s) into vegetarians. Reading your article above further convinced me that vegans should be banned from owning dogs and cats, or any other carnivores. The mislead persons who believe themselves to be animal lovers are actually abusing their own beloved pets.

    • lucy

      HI there, I eat a raw vegan diet, my canivore companions ( dog and cats) eat a raw carnivore diet ( meaty bones) . I hope vegans are never banned from keeping cats and dogs. please dont tar us all with the same brush, I know many people who eat a conventional diet and feed their dogs on junk. blessings to you xx

  • Steven Brown

    Well, I think one can formulate a vegetarian diet that is “adequate” for dogs; a diet that meets all AAFCO nutrient requirements. But I doubt a vegetarian diet can ever be “good” for dogs. I suspect that many of the supplements (vitamin B12, zinc, EPA and DHA) that will need to be added will come from meat, fish or meat products, so a “vegan” diet may not be possible.

    On the other hand, many vegans feed their dogs raw diets. Vegans often understand nutrition, and want to feed their dogs a natural diet.

  • Sam

    Recently I viewed the documentary film, “Wolves At Our Door.” One item of information I learned of from this film and, I was very surprise at, was the natural life span of wolves was about ten or eleven years and that their hunting ability begins to degenerate at eight years old. My dog Polka, since I got her as a pup, has been on a diet consistent with all and more of the nutritional advice provided in your blog but does not include raw food. She is ten now and is vibrant and as healthy as when I first got her. She is examined every six months and is in perfect health. I assume wolves in the wild still maintain the so-called “Cave Man” diet that you indicate is the more naturally balanced diet. Why then do they have such a short life span and degraded hunting ability by eight or nine years old? Sam

  • Steve Brown

    Sam – An 8 year-old wolf is somewhat like a 50 year old person. Even in the best of health, with the best food possible and a toxin-free environment, a 50 year old person will be slower and more prone to injuries than a young person. Not even Michael Jordan was able to play basketball at age 50.

    When an older wolf can no longer run and cut at full speed, or gets injured in anyway whatsoever, the wolf will no longer be able to hunt and feed herself. She will die. Life in the wild is rough, and if an animal slows down even a little bit, it may not be able to catch its food.

    Our well-cared for dogs, on the other hand, don’t have to catch their food. So even when they slow down and are no longer as fast and agile as they were when young, they still get fed.

    If your dog Polka had to catch of her food, she probably wouldn’t live as long either.

  • SELVA

    An interesting take on the doggie diet. Thank you for sharing.

  • N Bondarenko

    This is very good guidance for feeding dogs. If we look at the diet of feral and scavenging dogs in more recent times, I think that they are more omniverous than canids that hunt in packs. Even wolves will eat frogs and mice and insects when unable to hunt. Also, Juliette De Bairaclii Levy mentioned reports of foxes going into wheat fields and stripping the wheat if other prey were unavailable.

    Dogs are scavengers more than hunters so they are biologically able to digest a range of foodstuffs. However, these days we require more than that a dog survive – we need dogs to have glossy coats, clean eyes and teeth, and plump condition, which is why it is more and more important to feed biologically appropriate, organic, fresh preferably raw food.

  • N Bondarenko

    This is very good guidance for feeding dogs. If we look at the diet of feral and scavenging dogs in more recent times, I think that they are more omniverous than canids that hunt in packs. Even wolves will eat frogs and mice and insects when unable to hunt. Also, Juliette De Bairaclii Levy mentioned reports of foxes going into wheat fields and stripping the wheat if other prey were unavailable.

    Dogs are scavengers more than hunters so they are biologically able to digest a range of foodstuffs. However, these days we require more than that a dog survive – we need dogs to have glossy coats, clean eyes and teeth, and plump condition, which is why it is more and more important to feed biologically appropriate, organic, fresh preferably raw food.

  • Howard

    Steve
    An interesting article, I own and work dogs for shooting/hunting and on the whole I agree with what you are saying, the one missing consideration though is activity.

    “Ancestral dog” had to hunt to stay alive and needed the energy, domestic pets have their food on a platter, literally! look at sportsmen or those involved in very physical work, they eat high protein, high fat diets without issue whilst the same diet eaten by someone with a sedentary lifestyle (most pets) would suffer health issues.

    Surely the best diets for any animal are those suited to their lifestyle. I need to feed my working dogs the highest energy(read fat and protein) diets I can find but when they retire this is changed, Historically when a dog was no longer fit to run and hunt with the pack it would eventually get pushed out and die, pet owners surely must take their dogs activity into account when looking at nutrition.