What Is the Natural Diet of a Dog in the Wild?

Melissa holds a Bachelor's Degree in Biology and is a plant and animal enthusiast with multiple pets.

Feeding Dogs Like Wolves

In recent years, there's been substantial promotion among pet owners and some veterinarians for feeding dogs (Canis lupus familiaris) and other pets raw, meat-based diets. These diets are said to be "biologically appropriate", "ancestral", species-specific, and natural. [6].

In other words, dogs and other pet carnivores are fed these formulas because, unlike kibble, it is meant to simulate a dog's diet if that dog were living in the wild. To accomplish this for dogs, the diets are said to be based on their ancestor the grey wolf (Canis lupus). There is a popular claim that while dogs have been kept as pets for thousands of years, their biological attributes have remained unchanged [3]. There are some significant problems with this model.

Dogs Did Not Evolve From Modern Wolves

It is generally agreed upon that dogs evolved from grey wolves in the scientific community, but what does this really mean? Many people mistakenly believe that a grey wolf as it exists today represents a glimpse into our dog's past, but not all wolf populations are or were the same.

In fact, current evidence points to the dog's ancestor as being a much smaller "wolf" that no longer exists, which was the progenitor to the dog populations that eventually became our companion animals. This could have been an ancestral Chinese wolf [24] or Pleistocene grey wolf. These wolves may have even resembled dogs more than modern grey wolves [16][20].

The grey wolves we see today descend from another wolf line that diverged, or split, from those that would become proto-dogs. The wolf population our dogs evolved from were likely medium-sized, generalist scavengers [26].

Wolf Diets Don't Apply to Dogs

There is one inherent problem with basing diets for dogs off of the grey wolf, or any wolf, however. While the theories of how dogs were domesticated vary, one fact remains clear: dogs have been evolving for thousands of years, separate from their wolf ancestors. In addition, the modern grey wolf lineage we are familiar with has also been evolving separately from dogs for thousands of years.

In fact, our modern dogs evolved not directly from wolves, but "primary" dogs before intensive selective breeding persisted. This switch, just as is the case with other species that undergo evolution, brought about significant changes to the dog's behavior and physiology, as well as its dietary habits [24].

A Summary of Dog Domestication

  • Dogs were the first animals to be domesticated and played an essential role in human civilization. Scientists are still not in agreement on when, how, and where the first domestication event occurred.
  • Researchers have estimated dog domestication to have occurred at least 10,000 years ago and up to 40,000 years ago in either southern East Asia, Central Asia [19][20], Europe [8], or Eurasia [9], predating agriculture [28].
  • There are many theories regarding whether or not dogs evolved from a single group of wolves or multiple wolf populations, and some studies suggest dogs were domesticated more than once in different areas or may have back-crossed with wolves at some point [2][20][22].
  • Sometime around 6400 [9] to 33,000 years ago, dogs and wolves began to diverge from each other, eventually leading to one group of wolves scavenging around and living close to human populations, inadvertently resulting in the process of self-domestication [24].
  • Characteristics such as tameness, smaller overall body size, and decreased age of reproduction may have resulted in wolf populations adopting the diet of an obligate scavenger [19]. These "non-breed dogs" were eventually intentionally selectively-bred by humans, resulting in approximately 400 dog breeds of which we are familiar with today, that are only about 200 years old [19][24][28].

Differences Between Wolves and Dogs

Evolution involves organisms adapting and changing to different environments, or selective pressures. Dogs have evolved specifically to live around the presence of humans, and this has led to some fundamental differences between them and the modern wolves of today.

  • Starch Digestion: Dogs can digest and thrive on a starch-rich diet. In fact, this was a key part of their evolution [2][5][28].
  • Dogs are Scavengers. While modern grey wolves have evolved as cooperative group hunters, dogs have evolved as mostly solitary scavengers that specialize in human refuse [17] and this ecological history is evident in their behavior [14]. Dogs also often compete with native scavengers, jeopardizing wildlife [25].
  • Wolves are "true carnivores" that consume a negligible amount of plant material [4]
  • Social Cognition: Dogs behave differently from wolves when it comes to human interaction and interaction with other wolves [2].
  • Lower aggression: Dogs, compared to even human-socialized grey wolves, exhibit lower levels of aggression and human avoidance, even seeking out human attention more often [12].
  • Hunting. When hunting, dogs form small, unstable groups and often don't hunt cooperatively [25].

What "Wild" Dogs are Actually Eating

Advocates of feeding dogs like modern grey wolves often forget one important fact; "wild" versions of our dogs still exist. In fact, free-ranging "non-breed" dogs are the most populous dogs in the world. They are called village dogs, and they make up 80% of the world's dog population [14].

Extant village dogs, sometimes also called "pariah dogs", are genetically diverse animals that live commensally among humans and sometimes interbreed with landraces and modern breeds [20].

Village dogs likely behaviorally mirror the non-breed dog populations our modern dogs descended from, and perhaps even the scavenger wolf populations that preceded those dogs. Village dogs live among humans, but they are also free-ranging and free-breeding just like "wild" animals. Each region has its own genetically distinct village dog population and their diets vary as well.

Village Dog Diets

Since village dogs represent the domesticated dog in its "wild" state, it would make a lot more sense, if it is desired to feed a dog the way it would "naturally" eat, to emulate their diet instead of modern grey wolves that have evolved independently of dogs for thousands of years. What do village dogs eat?

  • Carrion: Dogs, of course, love to eat meat. Village dogs in Zimbabwe consumed a lot of carcasses that they did not kill [7][23].
  • Insects were the only animals reported to be "hunted" by dogs alive within certain seasons and in smaller numbers [23].
  • Garbage: Free-ranging dogs in India and Zimbabwe subsist on human-derived foods such as refuse [23].
  • Human feces: It might shock some people that our beloved companions readily consumed human excrement, although coprophagy is consistently observed in domesticated dogs. In Ethiopia, India, and Zimbabwe, free-ranging dogs consumed a significant amount of human feces as part of their diet [1][7][15]. In fact, human waste may have played an important role in the domestication of dogs [7][10].
  • Grains: Dogs have specifically evolved the capacity to digest starch, which was obtained from human hand-outs and garbage. In Zimbabwe, free-ranging dogs readily consumed sadza, which is a porridge.
  • Fruits and vegetables are also eaten by village dogs[23].

Do Free-Ranging Dogs Hunt?

Dogs most certainly do attack, harass, and "hunt" other animals, including domestic livestock, native ungulates, numerous small animals and birds [27], but it is often the case that this is done for "fun" and if the animal is killed in the process, the dogs often don't feed on the prey regularly [13][25].

The only exceptions are the closely related but genetically distinct dingoes, and the geographically isolated "Highland Wild Dogs", from which the "domesticated" New Guinea Singing dogs in captivity descend, which hunt prey independent of humans and have self-sustaining populations [26]. The origin of these canines and whether or not they are or were domesticated is still in dispute [11][20]

There are multiple factors that may cause dogs to roam and seek out other food sources, including human interaction, the sex of the dog, and seasonal changes. Free-ranging "pet" dogs were found to prey on sea turtle eggs when offered nutritionally deficient diets from humans and possibly due to humans feeding them turtle eggshells occasionally [18].

What Should Pet Dogs Eat?

Should we feed our pets diets like they would eat in the "wild"? Should dogs be fed food scraps, feces, insects, and various vegetables that they have clearly evolved to do eat?

Obviously, this isn't a good idea. It is not always best to feed captive animals an attempted simulation of what they would naturally consume, especially when there are better options available that are well-studied and tested to be safe and nutritionally complete.

Dogs in the "wild" are highly opportunistic scavengers that have directly evolved to feed on human-derived sources of energy. This doesn't mean that is an ideal diet nor is there any reason to model a dog's diet like the modern grey wolf, from which dogs did not evolve from. Just as is the case for all animals, a diet that has been research-based to be biologically-available and nutritionally-balanced while causing the least amount of harm will remain the best option.


  1. Atickem, Anagaw, Afework Bekele, and S. D. Williams. "Competition between domestic dogs and Ethiopian wolf (Canis simensis) in the Bale Mountains National Park, Ethiopia." African Journal of Ecology 48.2 (2010): 401-407.
  2. Axelsson E, Ratnakumar A, Arendt M-L, et al. The genomic signature of dog domestication reveals adaptation to a starch-rich diet. Nature. 2013;495(7441):360-364. doi:10.1038/nature11837
  3. "Evolutionary Nutrition".
  4. Bosch, Guido, Esther A. Hagen-Plantinga, and Wouter H. Hendriks. "Dietary nutrient profiles of wild wolves: insights for optimal dog nutrition?." British Journal of Nutrition 113.S1 (2015): S40-S54.
  5. Botigué, Laura R., et al. "Ancient European dog genomes reveal continuity since the Early Neolithic." Nature communications 8.1 (2017): 1-11.
  6. Brown, Steve. Unlocking the Canine Ancestral Diet: Healthier Dog Food the ABC Way. Dogwise Publishing, 2009.
  7. Butler, James RA, Wendy Y. Brown, and Johan T. Du Toit. "Anthropogenic food subsidy to a commensal carnivore: the value and supply of human faeces in the diet of free-ranging dogs." Animals 8.5 (2018): 67.
  8. Callaway, Ewen. Prehistoric genomes reveal European origins of dogs. 14 November 2013
  9. Frantz, Laurent AF, et al. "Genomic and archaeological evidence suggest a dual origin of domestic dogs." Science 352.6290 (2016): 1228-1231.
  10. Herzog, Hal. Did Eating Human Poop Play a Role in the Evolution of Dogs?. Aug 24, 2020
  11. Koler‐Matznick, Janice, et al. "An updated description of the New Guinea singing dog (Canis hallstromi, Troughton 1957)." Journal of Zoology 261.2 (2003): 109-118.
  12. Lazzaroni, Martina, et al. "The effect of domestication and experience on the social interaction of dogs and wolves with a human companion." Frontiers in Psychology 11 (2020): 785.
  13. Lessa, Isadora, et al. "Domestic dogs in protected areas: a threat to Brazilian mammals?." Natureza & Conservação 14.2 (2016): 46-56.
  14. Marshall-Pescini, Sarah, et al. "Exploring differences in dogs’ and wolves’ preference for risk in a foraging task." Frontiers in Psychology 7 (2016): 1241.
  15. McDonald, Robbie A., et al. "Ecology of domestic dogs Canis familiaris as an emerging reservoir of Guinea worm Dracunculus medinensis infection." PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases 14.4 (2020): e0008170.
  16. Perri, Angela. "A wolf in dog's clothing: initial dog domestication and Pleistocene wolf variation." Journal of Archaeological Science 68 (2016): 1-4.
  17. Rao, Akshay, et al. "Differences in persistence between dogs and wolves in an unsolvable task in the absence of humans." PeerJ 6 (2018): e5944.
  18. Ruiz-Izaguirre E., A. van Woersem, K. C. H. A. M. Eilers, S. E. van Wieren, G. Bosch, A. J. van der Zijpp & I. de Boer (2014). Roaming characteristics and feeding practices of village dogs scavenging sea-turtle nests, Animal Conservation, 18(2) 146-156. DOI: 10.1111/acv.12143.
  19. Shannon, Laura M., et al. "Genetic structure in village dogs reveals a Central Asian domestication origin." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 112.44 (2015): 13639-13644.
  20. Shipman, Pat. "What the dingo says about dog domestication." The Anatomical Record (2020).
  21. Stony Brook University. Study Reveals Origin of Modern Dog Has a Single Geographic Origin.
  22. University of Oxford. Dogs were domesticated not once, but twice… in different parts of the world. 2 Jun 2016
  23. Vanak, Abi Tamim, et al. "Top-dogs and under-dogs: competition between dogs and sympatric carnivores." Free-ranging dogs and wildlifeconservation (2013): 69-93.
  24. Wang, Guo-Dong, et al. "Out of southern East Asia: the natural history of domestic dogs across the world." Cell research 26.1 (2016): 21-33.
  25. Wierzbowska, Izabela A., et al. "Predation of wildlife by free-ranging domestic dogs in Polish hunting grounds and potential competition with the grey wolf." Biological Conservation 201 (2016): 1-9.
  26. Yates, B. C., S. Bulmer, and I. L Jr. "The New Guinea singing dog: its status and scientific importance." Australian Mammalogy 29.1 (2007): 47-56.
  27. Young, Julie K., et al. "Is wildlife going to the dogs? Impacts of feral and free-roaming dogs on wildlife populations." BioScience 61.2 (2011): 125-132.
  28. Zhang, Zhe, Saber Khederzadeh, and Yan Li. "Deciphering the puzzles of dog domestication." Zoological Research 41.2 (2020): 97.

© 2020 Melissa A Smith

The Raw Debate

People are very passionate when it comes to the subject of what they feed their dogs, and with good reason. A good diet can contribute to a long and healthy life and even psychological well-being for our pets. The question is, what is the best food to feed domesticated dogs? While the majority of people feed a commercial kibble or canned food, many owners today are looking for other options.

A raw food-based diet is one approach that has grown in popularity over the last decade, but along with this growing popularity has come growing controversy regarding the benefits of feeding a raw diet.

One of the reasons people cite for feeding a raw diet is that it is a more “natural” diet for dogs. The theory is that wild canids would eat a diet mainly consisting of raw meat and bones, so people should try and mimic this diet when feeding their pets. However, the pet dogs that live in our homes do not resemble their wild cousins. We have bred dogs to have a range in size from the tiny Papillon to the massive Neapolitan Mastiff, and a variety of builds from the light-framed Whippet to the bulky Bulldog. In addition, there are breeds like the Bedlington Terrier that are prone to specific nutrient deficiencies. With all of these physiological differences between our pets and wild canids, can we be certain that what a wild canid eats is indeed an ideal diet for Rover?

One of the biggest challenges in deciding whether to feed a raw diet is the overwhelming amount of conflicting information, and the fact that much of this information is anecdotal in nature. There are numerous websites and message boards extolling the virtues of a raw diet and there are others condemning raw diets as unsafe and unhealthy. When choosing how and what to feed your dog, you need balanced information—information that outlines both the good and bad so that an educated choice can be made.

Below, we outline the major benefits and concerns regarding raw diets to help you in deciding if a raw diet would be right for your dog. Keep in mind there are benefits and risks associated with all choices of food for your dog, so you must decide if the benefits of a raw diet outweigh the potential risks. When making the best choice for your dog, it’s important to remember that what is right for you and your dog may not be right for someone else and their dog. A raw diet may not be appropriate for all dogs and before you decide what is right for your dog, you should discuss your options with your veterinarian. Consulting a canine nutritionist can also be very beneficial when designing a diet specific to your dog’s requirements.

Types of Raw Diets
There are two major types of raw diets: commercial and home-prepared. Commercial raw diets, which may be fresh or frozen, supply all of the dog’s requirements and are typically in a meat patty form.

Home-prepared raw diets usually consist of raw meat and bones, with veggies, fruits, supplements, and added grains. These diets may not be balanced each day but, if designed properly, should meet the dog’s requirements over the long term.

The Benefits
Safety. Over the past couple of years, there have been a number of pet food recalls. When preparing your dog’s food at home, you have total control of what you include in your dog’s food and where those ingredients are from.

Health. Raw diets (especially home-made diets) allow you to meet your dog’s specific needs. Raw diets can be prepared to avoid foods that your dog is allergic to and can be made to meet your dog’s specific nutrient requirements. The high water content present in raw food may allow you to feed more while still keeping the calories low for portly pooches.

Processed foods often have added preservatives that enhance product shelf life. Food that has been freshly prepared and has not been processed or had preservatives added is commonly considered a healthier choice. Commercial raw diets are usually frozen, which means they don’t require added preservatives.

The bones that are part of the raw diet are anecdotally considered to be good for dental hygiene, which can be good for overall health.

Other. Feeding a raw diet may provide your dog with a natural outlet for her chewing tendencies this may help to improve her overall behaviour.

The Risks
Safety. Raw diets have been found to contain Salmonella, Campylobacter, Escherichia coli O157:H7, Clostridium perfringens, Clostridium botulinium, and Staphylococcus aureus, all of which are known human and canine pathogens. These bacteria are shed in dog stools and may be transferred to carpets and furniture as the dog moves around the house. These pathogens usually only pose a serious human risk to the immuno-compromised, the elderly, and young children however, this is a very important consideration if you are feeding a raw diet and have people in these risk groups living in your home.

In addition, there is a potential risk to dogs from certain pathogens found in raw foods, such as Neospora caninum, found in raw beef, Nanophyetus salmincola, found in raw salmon, and Trichinella spiralis, which is found in raw pork and wild game such as deer, elk, and moose. All of these pathogens can make your dog sick and are potentially fatal.

Feeding bones can cause choking, intestinal blockage or perforations, and chipped or broken teeth.

Health. Because it can be difficult and time consuming to adequately balance a raw diet, nutritional deficiencies, especially in vitamins and minerals, are a significant possibility. To complicate the matter even further, some nutritional deficiencies take many months to show up and you may not see the problems with feeding a particular diet until the animal has been eating it for months or years.

Raw vegetables are often poorly digested by dogs. Most of the nutrients in raw vegetables are rendered more available when they are lightly cooked and then ground.

Convenience. Feeding raw food is expensive and time consuming. The preparation of balanced meals for your dog every day can be a challenge to fit into a busy lifestyle. As a rule of thumb, if you are eating out more than three meals a week, you are likely too busy to properly prepare meals for your dog, so a home-made raw diet may not be the best choice for your life schedule.

Raw diets are particularly inconvenient if you travel frequently, whether your dog goes with you or stays behind. Many hotels are not equipped to deal with raw food storage, not all commercial brands are available everywhere, and some boarding facilities charge a premium for dogs on raw diets because of the space required for food storage.

Unfortunately, there is little scientific research on feeding raw foods. This means that some of the information provided here is based on anecdotal evidence and has not been proven at this time. Much of the existing research on raw diets surrounds the microbial risks of raw meats and is very important to take into consideration. Hopefully, future research into raw diets will allow you to make a more informed choice about what to feed your dog.

Laura Scott holds a Master’s degree in animal nutrition. She lives with two Golden Retrievers, a 12-year-old couch potato and 2-year-old who loves training and competing in dog sports. Liz Pask is a PhD candidate studying nutritional toxicology. She has two Labrador Retrievers who train and compete in a variety of sports.


Nutritional imbalance

Just reading this it seems that raw feeding is really the best. But I found a summary of studies about the risk of raw food diets:

Hypervitaminosis A was reported in a cat fed a pork liver-based raw food. The cat returned to normal health when the diet was changed back to a commercial canned food. Feline pansteatitis was reported in 10 cats fed a homemade diet of cooked pig brain or raw and cooked oily fish. Nutritional osteodystrophy was reported in 2 litters of 6-week-old large breed puppies fed a bones and raw food (BARF) diet from about 3 weeks of age. Nutritional secondary hyperparathyroidism has also been reported in a litter of German shepherd puppies fed a diet of 80% rice with 20% raw meat. The diet contained excessive amounts of phosphorus. Not all puppies fed the diet experienced problems, suggesting individual or genetic susceptibility.

A nutritional analysis of 5 raw food diets (2 commercially produced and 3 home-made) found low calcium and phosphorus in 3 of the 5 diets. Two commercial diets were high in vitamin D. Two of the diets were deficient in potassium, magnesium, and zinc.

These are just some individual cases so it is not possible to say that in general the raw food diets are bad. So the same article mentions:

Supporters of raw food will argue that feeding a variety of foods will lessen the risk of nutritional imbalance.

Infectious disease risk

The same article mentions a study about the infectious disease risk:

There are several studies that document the presence of infectious agents in raw foods and the potential for contaminating or shedding these agents in the pet’s environment. A recent study analyzed 240 samples from 20 commercially prepared raw meat dog diets (beef, lamb, chicken, or turkey), 24 samples from 2 commercial dry dog foods, and 24 samples from 2 commercial canned foods. The commercial foods were collected on 4 different dates, 2 months apart. Three samples were collected from each product at each sampling point and were evaluated by culture for Escherichia coli, Salmonella enterica, Campylobacter, and by polymerase chain reaction (PCR) for Cryptosporidium, Neospora, and Toxoplasma. The PCR was performed only during the third and final sampling period. Almost 6% of the raw food diets were positive for Salmonella, while none of the conventional diets were positive. Escherichia coli were isolated from all types of diets. It was found in almost 50% of the raw food diets but in only 8/24 (33%) dry and 2/24 (8%) canned diets. There were no significant association between the type of raw meat and the agents isolated.

In conclusion you should know which incredients your dog needs to avoid nutrition imbalance and you should keep the food fresh and cool in a clean environment, if you want to feed your dog with homemade raw food diet.

Raw Dog Food: Dietary Concerns, Benefits, and Risks

Are raw food diets for dogs an ideal meal plan or a dangerous fad? Experts weigh in.

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

Racing greyhounds and sled dogs have long eaten raw food diets. Extending those feeding practices to the family pet is a more recent idea, proposed in 1993 by Australian veterinarian Ian Billinghurst. He called his feeding suggestions the BARF diet, an acronym that stands for Bones and Raw Food, or Biologically Appropriate Raw Food.

Billinghurst suggested that adult dogs would thrive on an evolutionary diet based on what canines ate before they became domesticated: Raw, meaty bones and vegetable scraps. Grain-based commercial pet foods, he contended, were harmful to a dog’s health.

Many mainstream veterinarians disagree, as does the FDA. The risks of raw diets have been documented in several studies published in veterinary journals.

Potential benefits of the raw dog food diet that supporters tout include:

  • Shinier coats
  • Healthier skin
  • Cleaner teeth
  • Higher energy levels
  • Smaller stools

  • Threats to human and dog health from bacteria in raw meat
  • An unbalanced diet that may damage the health of dogs if given for an extended period
  • Potential for whole bones to choke an animal, break teeth or cause an internal puncture

Since Billinghurst’s book, Give Your Dog a Bone , wa s published, several other types of raw dog food diets have emerged, including commercially processed raw food diets that are frozen or freeze-dried and combination diets that use blends of grains, vegetables, and vitamins that are mixed with raw meat purchased by the owner at the grocery store.

Raw dog food recipes and meal suggestions are readily found online and in books. Interest from pet owners continues to grow, with the widespread recall of melamine-contaminated pet food in 2007 bringing in new followers.


We recommend feeding a raw natural diet. Since dogs, cats, ferrets and other carnivores in the wild don’t cook or wash their food, does it really make sense to feed them dry, heat processed, grain based pet foods? About 95% of all dry pet foods are “extruded”, a method wherein a mixture of ingredients is steam conditioned, compressed and forced through a steel disk in the extruder. This method lessens protein quality, makes the food less appetizing, and destroys heat sensitive vitamins. *

Our pets need valuable nutrients, vitamins, enzymes, probiotics, and minerals. Whole raw food, similar to what carnivores would find in the wild, supports a healthy pet by providing all of these essential ingredients. No nutrients are lost in the processing of raw food.

Not ready for raw? No worries! We carry high quality dry pet food as well.

* Sci Food Agric 88:1487–1493 (2008)

Watch the video: Family Pets Junk Journal by Julie Rohrer! (September 2021).