Primal Cravings: What Did Dogs Eat Before Dog Food?

wolves

In my many years as a Coonhound wrangler, the one constant reminder that my dogs descended from wolves is their love of bacon. More accurately stated, their love of all things meat. So what did dogs eat before dog food?

I have had the rare good fortune to live among wolves. The contrast in the diets of my hounds and the wolves is striking -- but there are also many similarities.

The wolves in this small wild pack at a wolf sanctuary are fed five pounds of raw chicken twice per week. My hounds would not be pleased with the other five days.

So What Did Dogs Eat Before Dog Food Became Commercially Available?

The simple answer to the question of what did dogs eat before dog food was sold in supermarkets is meat. Raw meat was primary to their diets. Dogs are descendants of wolves, and like wolves, they eat mostly meat.

Before pulverized puppy nuggets from Purina, domesticated dogs ate a diet that resembled that of their ancestors. They are predators -- even a Chihuahua is a hunter bred from a wolf into a small domesticated pet. However, genetically they are not that different.

Domesticated dogs certainly have evolved friendlier dispositions. This has contributed significantly to them becoming "man's best friend." But when exploring the question "What did dogs eat before dog food?" we can be concise in saying meat -- they ate meat.

While it is a bit more complicated than that, the basic answer will always remain the same. Whole Dog Journal lays out concisely how we fed our pups before commercial dog food.

Surprisingly, commercial dog food wasn't available until 1860. If you had a dog, you knew what your dog ate, and you just fed them. Since the invention of commercially produced dog foods, we now have a wide variety of dry kibble and moist canned foods from which to select.

Veterinarians are quick to recommend their favored brands. We no longer have to wonder, "What did dogs eat before dog food?"

We stand in the dog food aisle and painstakingly read the long list of ingredients. Among the most popular brands, you see a mix of meat- and plant-based ingredients. In the end, your dog may eat it, or he may snub his nose at it.

There is much debate about what is the healthiest diet for our hounds. However, there is little debate about what they originally ate. They are not vegetarians.

Early Domestication Of Dogs

Scientists estimate that dogs were domesticated between 20 to 40 thousand years ago from wolves according to Science Daily. So we know dogs come from wolves genetically. Therefore a dog's diet should resemble that of their ancient kin.

Dogs were the first animal that humans domesticated. Before cows and sheep and other farm animals, there was a bond that formed between wolves and people.

Brian Hare, director of the Duke University Canine Cognition Center, discusses the physical changes that took place over the centuries for Smithsonian Magazine.

Physical changes began to appear in dogs over time. These include the familiar floppy ears and curly tails. These changes follow a pattern known as self-domestication.

Hare notes it is what likely happened as friendlier wolves entered into a mutually beneficial arrangement with humans. The most friendly animals of a species gain an advantage. Friendliness is associated with these physical changes. This can happen in only a few generations.

So the research indicates that "friendlier" wolves had a genetic advantage when it came to becoming man's best friend. And once you become friends with a wolf, you have to make sure they eat.

The Invention Of Commercial Dog Food

The first commercial dog food was invented in Britain by James Spratt. It later evolved into a profitable venture here in the United States where the main ingredient was horsemeat as described by the Pet Food Institute.

Spratt, after seeing dogs eating leftover biscuits from a ship, created the first dog biscuits.

They were a mix of wheat meals, vegetables, beetroot, and beef blood. Spratt’s business venture was a hit among dog owners. It particularly met demands for affluent English hunters to feed their sporting dogs.

A British public company began mass-producing Spratt’s formula. It wasn't too long before U.S. production began. Companies sprang up marketing their recipes for biscuits and dry dog food.

Ken-L Ration was introduced in 1922 as the first canned wet food. The main ingredient was horsemeat.

This did not have the same stigma as it does today. Our understanding of horses has evolved, and they are no longer considered an acceptable ingredient in dog food.

As we continue to grow as a society, our understanding of canines has increased as well. By examining the entire scope of the question "What did dogs eat before dog food?" we realize that changes are happening in the pet food industry.

As time progresses, the dog food industry is beginning to follow different trends. One of the newest trends is a raw food diet that coincided with the popularization of a more Paleo diet for humans.

Dogs Are Hunters

Domesticated dogs are still hunters. They are hardwired to hunt, much to our dismay. While we like to distance ourselves from our furry friends' instincts, dogs have it in them to chase squirrels and rabbits.

Nature made it this way, and you can not nurture this instinct out of the canine. A feral dog is going to survive by hunting. There are no two ways about this.

But a well-loved hound has no survival need to hunt if you feed it a healthy diet.

Dogs are omnivores as well. That is why they will happily eat your french fries or even a garden salad. But their teeth tell a story about their diet. They do not have the grinding teeth of an herbivore. Their teeth are meant to shred meat.

A dog is an opportunist and it will eat what is available. It is as simple as that. Before our evolution into suburban and urban living, dogs hunted. They also scavenge and eat what falls from our tables, as spelled out by the Pet Food Institute. They eat what we do.

woman with dog and gun

Image by pixabay

In most households during the middle ages and through the mid-19th century, little consideration was given to what dogs ate. A dog’s diet was much like that of its owner historically -- mostly consisting of table scraps.

In the mid-1800s, a dog's diet had slightly more variety in cities. People could purchase horse meat for their pets. Working horses died in the streets and disposing of their bodies was mutually beneficial to both humans and their dogs.

So, what did dogs eat before dog food and what gave rise to the popularity of commercial pet food?

How Did The Pet Food Industry Prosper?

animal food

Image by pixabay

After the invention of processed pet foods, the habit of feeding a raw diet to our animals slowly gave way to feeding a diet of processed dog food.

There are many reasons why the pet food industry blossomed and now prospers. Chief among them is the constant stream of waste from grain mills and slaughterhouses. The leftover dregs of human-food processing plants is a boon for the pet food industry.

This waste is the primary source of what we now feed our dogs.

This also leads to much debate about what we are feeding our pups.

Boutique Diets Rise In Popularity

A recent study has found that the trend in grain-free dog food presents heart health risks. However, this is somewhat controversial. Many dog owners swear by a grain-free diet as is evident from what is now available at any pet store.

University of California, Davis, veterinarians led a team that has found a link between some popular grain-free, legume-rich dog diets and a type of nutritional deficiency and canine heart disease known as taurine-deficient dilated cardiomyopathy.

Researchers found a specific risk for dogs eating some of these boutique diets. They appear to develop taurine deficiency. Taurine is an amino acid necessary for heart health. A taurine deficiency can lead to dilated cardiomyopathy. DCM is a disorder of the heart muscle that can lead to congestive heart failure.

The study finds that the fillers used in grain-free food are insufficient for proper nutrition. Manufacturers, like Purina with their popular Purina Pro Plan, have been addressing this concern. Their formula gives the appropriate amount of taurine required for a dog's health.

We've been discussing raw food diets, and this is why.

The New Trend In A Raw Food Diet

Many research houses have been exploring the potential benefits and risks of a raw food diet. This new trend has played on the fears associated with processed dog food. It also allows us to feed them a diet more closely resembling what dogs ate before domestication.

Raw dog food diets are controversial. But the popularity of the diets, which emphasize raw meat, bones, fruits, and vegetables, is rising.

Many working breeds such as sled dogs have long eaten raw food diets. Incorporating those feeding practices into the life of the suburban dog is a more recent proposition.

Australian veterinarian Ian Billinghurst is known as the father of this movement. He named his recommendations the BARF diet. BARF is an acronym that stands for Bones and Raw Food or Biologically Appropriate Raw Food.

Billinghurst believed that adult dogs would thrive on a diet similar to their wolf ancestors. This diet primarily consists of raw, meaty bones and vegetable scraps. Grain-based commercial pet foods, he contended, were harmful to a dog’s health.

The Diet Typically Includes Raw Meat, Vegetables, And Some Dairy

A raw dog food diet can vary, but these ingredients are relatively standard:

  • Muscle meat, often still on the bone
  • Bones, either whole or ground
  • Some dairy including cheese and yogurt
  • Organ meats such as livers and kidney
  • Broccoli, spinach, and celery, but no onions
  • Apples and bananas are fine
  • Raw eggs

The primary risks intrinsic to a dog's health with a raw diet is bacterial contamination. Many folks who feed their dogs a raw diet disinfect their meat -- particularly on the outer surface.

The idea that feeding a dog the same foods that a wolf would eat is rather obvious. A dog is a wolf that has become a Labradoodle.

So What Is The Right Thing To Feed Your Dog?

It is debatable. That is for sure.

In the end, it is most likely that how you love your dog matters most. There are undoubtedly many foods we eat that are taboo for dogs. For example, onions and chocolate can be toxic.

But if you want to know what a dog should eat, consider the diets of wolves. That is why knowing the answer to "what did dogs eat before dog food" matters so much. The genetic differences between your Lab and a timber wolf are minor. That is why they can interbreed.

That is also why their dentition and intestines are so similar. When it comes to answering the question "What did dogs eat before dog food?" we need only look at their teeth.

Dogs are what they are -- even if they do like broccoli.

What do you prefer to feed your furry friends? Share your favorite foods in the comments below.

Featured image: Pixabay license, by Comfreak via Pixabay

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