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The History of Dog Food: From Wolf to the Modern Dog

Dogs have been our loyal companions for thousands of years, but have you ever wondered how they evolved to eat and how our influence has changed their diet? In this blog post, we dive into the ancestry and history of dog food, how wolves went from being carnivores to dogs eating unhealthy carb based diets. We reveal how humans have shaped the course of canine health and longevity.

From Wolves to Dogs: A Journey Through Time

The History of Dog Food: From Wolf to the Modern Dog

Dogs are direct descendants of wolves, which roamed the earth around 20,000 to 40,000 years ago. Wolves were fierce hunters and skilled scavengers. Their diet primarily consisted of meat from prey animals, and they often hunted large hooved animals like deer, bison, elk, and smaller mammals when they were available.

The Wolf’s Diet: Nature’s Recipe for Survival

Wolves hunted in packs, using their sharp senses and incredible teamwork to track and take down prey. They relied on their physical prowess and strategic planning to secure food.

They were incredibly active in their pursuit, in the harsh winters of North America, wolves would follow migrating herds of elk or caribou, often travelling great distances in pursuit of a meal. This nomadic lifestyle ensured they had access to ample food sources throughout the seasons and kept healthy through intense exercise.

In addition to their primary prey, wolves adapted to their environment by eating available plant matter. During summer, when hunting was less predictable, wolves consumed berries, grasses, and other vegetation to supplement their diet. This omnivorous behaviour ensured they could survive even when prey was scarce. There are numerous anecdotes from early explorers and settlers who observed wolves foraging for wild blueberries and other fruits.

The Transition to Modern Dogs

The History of Dog Food: From Wolf to the Modern Dog

As humans began domesticating wolves, they selectively bred them for traits that suited human needs and lifestyles. This process eventually led to the evolution of dogs.

Early domesticated dogs often lived on the fringes of human society, scavenging for whatever food they could find. Archaeological evidence shows that these early dogs were opportunistic feeders, much like their wolf ancestors. They consumed a variety of foods, including meat scraps, bones, and plant matter discarded by humans.

As time went on, unlike wolves, dogs didn’t always have access to fresh meat. Their diet became more varied, incorporating whatever humans provided. It was during the agricultural revolution, when humans moved from hunter-gatherers to farmers, that we started to change dogs' genomes, and they developed the ability to digest carbohydrates by producing more amylase (an enzyme that breaks down starch). This was a remarkable evolutionary feat- one that kept them alive but not necessarily healthy. Digestion and metabolism are two very different things, and while dogs can digest carbs, they still don’t metabolise them well- and excess carb intake leads to systemic inflammation and obesity.

It is worth noting that some researchers suggest that even 150 years ago, dogs received less than 10% of their caloric intake from carbohydrates. The real skyrocketing of carb ingestion came in the 20th century when processed dog food became the norm.


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The Beginning of Commercial Diets: James Spratt and the Invention of Dog Biscuits

Once upon a time- there were no dog biscuits or kibbles. The idea of processed dog food had not yet been conceived—until an enterprising electrician and lightning rod salesman from Ohio saw an opportunity and changed everything.

In 1860, James Spratt was on a business trip to England when he observed something peculiar. Dogs on the docks were eating ship hardtack—a non-perishable cracker made from processed cereals that sailors took on long voyages. These hardtacks were far from nutritious, but they were a staple for sailors who needed sustenance.

Seeing a business opportunity, Spratt decided to market a new kind of food for dogs, specifically targeting the elite who pampered their pets- telling them this was the “healthier” choice. He created the first commercial dog biscuit, the "Patented Meat Fibrine Dog Cake."

This biscuit was made from a mixture of ingredients such as wheat, beetroot, and various vegetables, bound together with beef blood and baked. The precise protein source still remains a mystery to this day, as Spratt kept this detail secret throughout his life.

The History of Dog Food: From Wolf to the Modern Dog

A Sensation in America

The turning point for Spratt’s invention came in 1889 when the Patented Meat Fibrine Dog Cake was featured on the front page of the first-ever American Kennel Club Journal. This endorsement caught the attention of the American public, who quickly embraced the idea of feeding their dogs something specially formulated for them, rather than leftovers from the family dinner. Suffice to say- James was a marketing genius- promising health and vitality to dogs in an age when research on the subject was non-existent.

As more people bought into the idea of commercial dog food, the market grew rapidly. Spratt’s company flourished, and after his death, it became publicly listed. Spratt had successfully leveraged the concepts of "health" and "longevity" to sell a man-made product, forever changing the way we feed our canine companions.

The History of Dog Food: From Wolf to the Modern Dog

Commercial Food Today

Today, Spratt’s legacy lives on through the commercial diet, which is filled with additives and grains—a far cry from the wolf's ancestral feeding habits.

The industrial revolution and advances in food processing technologies allowed for the mass production of commercial dog food. The industry has made extensive use of agricultural by-products. Ingredients such as corn, soy, and wheat are commonly found in many dog foods today. These by-products are often used as fillers to bulk up the food and reduce costs. While they provide carbohydrates and some nutritional value, they are not as nutritionally dense as high-quality meat sources.


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The Modern Dog’s Digestive System

Today, dogs have digestive systems that have evolved from their wolf ancestors, albeit not as dramatically as one might think. While they still thrive on a diet high in protein and fats, they have also adapted to digest certain carbohydrates (but not in high quantities!).

We need to remember that dogs are still primarily carnivorous by nature. Their digestive systems are designed to process meat efficiently. They have sharp teeth for tearing flesh and short digestive tracts that quickly process protein. Their ability to digest carbohydrates is limited compared to humans.

Why dogs aren’t built to digest high volumes of carbs

The introduction of carbohydrates into their diet is a relatively recent development in evolutionary terms. And there are certain biological indicators that show us this:

  • Salivary Amylase: Unlike humans, dogs produce little to no salivary amylase, an enzyme that begins the breakdown of carbohydrates in the mouth. This indicates that their bodies are not primarily designed to process a high-carb diet.

  • Stomach Acidity: Dogs have highly acidic stomachs, which are ideal for breaking down protein and killing potential bacteria in raw meat. This acidity aids in the digestion of bones and other tough animal tissues.

  • Short Digestive Tract: The short length of a dog’s digestive tract means that food passes through quickly. This quick transit time is suitable for the digestion of protein and fat but less efficient for breaking down complex carbohydrates and plant matter.

  • Insulin Response: Dogs have a different insulin response compared to humans, making them less efficient at processing high levels of carbohydrates. This can contribute to weight gain and other metabolic issues if their diet is too carbohydrate-heavy.

Fresh Whole Foods- Meat, Fat & Veg

Like their ancestors, modern dogs benefit from a diet rich in fresh, whole foods. High-quality protein sources such as meat and fish should form the basis of their diet. Healthy fats are also crucial for their energy levels and overall health.

Many commercial dog foods are high in fillers, artificial ingredients, carbohydrates, and low-quality proteins. This can lead to numerous health issues, including obesity, diabetes, and even lower seizure thresholds in canine epilepsy. Dogs with seizures, in particular, need a diet that supports their neurological health. Poor nutrition can exacerbate symptoms, making it crucial to choose the right foods.

Conclusion: The History of Dog Food: From Wolf to the Modern Dog

Understanding how dogs evolved to eat helps us appreciate their nutritional needs today. Focusing on high-quality, nutrient-dense foods can support their health and well-being, reducing the risk of conditions like canine epilepsy. Remember, a healthy diet is key to a happy, healthy dog.

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