With dozens of brands lining the shelves, navigating the dog food aisle can be confusing, if not overwhelming. As dog owners, we strive to provide optimal, complete and balanced nutrition for our pets.
More and more, plant-based ingredients are showing up in dog food. Adding plant-based ingredients to your dog’s diet seems like a healthy choice, especially given that humans thrive on them.
But we omnivores have different nutritional needs than our carnivorous pets, so what’s best for us isn’t necessarily ideal for them.
In this blog, we explore the anatomy of dogs to help us gain insight into their nutritional needs. After all, a high-quality diet is essential to sustaining a healthy life and reducing the risk for disease.
Dogs are of the order Carnivora, and a subspecies of wolves known as Canis lupus familiaris. Carnivora is a Latin word that literally means “flesh devourer.”
Animals who eat other animals for their nutrients are carnivores, versus herbivores (like cows) that get their nutrients from plants, and omnivores (like humans) who eat both animals and plants.
To better understand what this means, it’s helpful to know more about your pup’s anatomy — after all, this is how we learn what and how a body is designed to eat.
Clue No. 1: The Mouth
Most adult dogs have 42 teeth that are meant for grabbing, ripping, tearing, shredding meat and crushing bone. You’ll notice that their molars, which are the teeth in the very back of their jaw, are pointed for crushing bone. By contrast, herbivores and omnivores possess flatter molars for grinding plant matter.
While in the mouth, which is where the digestion process begins, we also notice that dogs lack the digestive enzyme amylase in their saliva--the enzyme that aids in carbohydrate digestion (not to be confused with pancreatic amylase.) Herbivores and omnivores possess this amylase enzyme in their saliva.
Clue No. 2: The Stomach
The stomach is where the process of breaking down food into nutrients that are then assimilated by the body begins to take place. It’s worth noting that dogs have an extremely acidic stomach. In fact, when food is being digested, the acidity in a dog’s stomach ranges between 1-2 on the pH scale, a level similar to that of car battery acid.
These potent gastric acids and enzymes in canines are able to break down meat and bones while at the same time killing any pathogenic (or bad) bacteria that might be on the meat or decaying flesh.
Clue No. 3: The Intestines
The intestines of dogs are short. Combined, the small and large intestine are only about two to three times the length of a dog’s body. Human intestines are about five to six times the length of our bodies.
A dog’s shorter intestines are designed to push food and bacteria quickly through the body before it has time to ferment. This is another reason why healthy dogs are able to handle raw meat--the gastrointestinal tract moves it quickly through the body before pathogenic bacteria takes hold. It’s also another reason why sometimes when you feed your dog whole vegetables they come out the same way they went in.
Amino Acids + Carnivores
Another way we know that dogs thrive best on a meat-rich diet is how they process amino acids — the building blocks of proteins. Dog bodies require high amounts of protein to thrive and no two protein sources are the same.
The best source of protein for our dogs will come from animal muscle meat and organ meat. Protein from both these sources will have the highest biological value (which simply means how efficiently the body can digest, utilize and absorb the protein.) Not only are animal meat and organs the easiest to digest but they also contain all of the essential amino acids that the canine body needs. (Though high in protein, organ meat should not make up more than 10 percent of a dog’s diet, of which only 5 percent should come from liver. If overfed, it has the potential to cause Vitamin A toxicity.)
There are 22 amino acids found in proteins. These amino acids are the building blocks of protein and play key roles in the body. They build and repair organs and tissue, combat disease, and transport molecules. They also influence how organs, glands, tendons, and arteries function. In addition, they are essential for removing all waste deposits produced in connection with the metabolism.
Of these 22 amino acids, ten are what we call “essential amino acids.” Unlike non-essential amino acids, which can be synthesized by the canine body, essential amino acids must come from an outside food source. ALL of these ten essential amino acids can be found in animal protein. This is important because dogs require all ten of these essential amino acids in the right proportion at the right rate and at the same time otherwise there will be a limiting amino acid. And so, if one essential amino acid is missing, or is not being provided in adequate amounts, then the body can utilize none of the other subsequent amino acids. This is because protein synthesis cannot occur past this limiting amino acid, which can seriously compromise health. If this is to occur—the dog’s body will eventually begin to break down its own tissue to compensate for the lack.
What About Carbs?
Dogs are adaptable and can survive on carbohydrates--but they will not thrive on a diet high in them--because their body wasn’t designed to. Ideally, they should make up no more than 10% of their daily diet.
When feeding carbohydrates in the form of vegetables or fruit to our dogs, remember that dogs lack the amylase enzyme in their saliva needed to break down and digest those carbohydrates fully. In order to maximize the nutritional benefit a dog gets from a vegetable or fruit, the cell walls should be broken down prior to entering their mouth. In nature this would occur when their small prey would have eaten vegetables or berries, and these carbs would be predigested in the contents of their stomach.
If you choose to offer carbohydrates to your dog, focus on vegetables and fruit that their prey would eat — those that are low in starch and natural sugars and high in antioxidants. And remember, too many carbs, especially soluble ones, will lead to weight gain, so keep them few and far between.
Understanding how the canine body is anatomically designed gives us a clearer understanding of their nutritional needs. Fruits and veggies are healthy choices for humans. But when considering the healthiest option for your dog, look for a carnivore-appropriate, minimally-processed food high in protein derived from animal meat. And don’t forget to inspect treats. Opt for limited-ingredient treats that are high in protein and low in carbs.
Think nutrition as nature intended, and offer your pup quality ingredients that their bodies need to be healthy and happy.
The points of view expressed above are those of our clinical nutritionist and supported by science, her education and experience. However, we recognize there may be different points of view or opinions on some aspect or even the premise of this article. Our goal at Bow Wow Labs is to provide the best, clearest, and most helpful information possible to help keep your dog happy, healthy and safe
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