As paleo and keto diets have grown in popularity for humans, many pet parents have begun considering whether an ancestral, species-appropriate diet is right for their dog.
After all, if high consumption of carbohydrates leads to insulin resistance and diabetes in humans, it would logically follow that dogs may be sensitive to similar modern diets too.
In this article, we explore the so-called wolf diet and whether your dog should follow it according to the latest scientific research.
What is the wolf diet?
Wolves are facultative carnivores, meaning they tend towards a carnivorous diet but can eat plants as well. In the wild, their diet consists primarily of hoofed mammals such as deer, moose and wild boar.
That is their main interest, and it’s supplemented with various small animals, such as beavers, rabbits, rodents, birds, reptiles and insects. They also eat negligible amounts of fruits and vegetables when animal prey is not readily available.
Wolves do not eat breakfast, lunch and dinner at set times every day. They eat in a feast or famine manner, and their bodies are adapted to maintain high function even if they haven’t eaten in a long time. A grey wolf can eat up to 22 pounds in one sitting, but usually there is no food around. You could say wolves are the ultimate canine intermittent fasters.
Of primary interest to many pet parents is the ratio of protein:fat:carbs found in a wolf’s diet, as it may indicate what carbohydrate consumption is in line a dog’s natural biology.
Answer: Harvard says a wolf’s diet consists of 54% protein, 45% fat and 1% carbohydrates.[*]
Are carbohydrates bad for dogs?
Carbohydrates are simply chains of sugar molecules. When consumed, carbs are broken down into sugar molecules (i.e. glucose), which enter the blood.
As blood sugar levels rise, a dog’s pancreas produces insulin, which communicates to cells throughout their body to absorb sugar for energy. When the blood has too much sugar beyond what cells can accept, it causes an overproduction of insulin to occur. Over time, cells lose their sensitivity to insulin.
The question is whether dogs can eat carbohydrates safely, and if so, if there is a limit?
According to the National Academy of Science “Nutrient Requirements of Dogs and Cats” 2006 Edition, today’s dry dog foods generally contain between 46% and 74% carbohydrates. This is far higher than a canine’s ancestral diet and has caused many pet parents concern.
Is a low carb diet better for dogs?
There is growing evidence that a low carb diet may be healthier for dogs.
Research from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) showed in a 2020 study that a diet with white rice, a simple carbohydrate, led to higher levels of triglycerides and cholesterol in dogs. This study indicates high carbohydrate diets can lead to precursors of canine diabetes.[*]
Researchers in a 2012 NIH study showed that dogs’ blood sugar levels were healthier and remained more balanced throughout the day when fed a lower carbohydrate diet.[*]
A 2009 NIH study revealed a low-carbohydrate, high-protein diet may be beneficial for dogs, including those requiring a sustained energy source for long periods of time, or dogs with diabetes requiring better glycemic control.[*]
A recent 2017 NIH study showed that dogs consistently self-select a low carb diet if given the option.[*] Their nature still tends towards the wolf diet. Last but not least, a groundbreaking 2019 NIH study found that a dogs with a lower carb diet were healthier across most biomarkers.[*]
Overall, the research in this area points towards high carbohydrate diets having a negative impact on canines, and it supports a low carb diet like that of wolves.
Can dogs benefit from carbohydrates in their diet?
While carbohydrates themselves are not essential for dogs, many fruits and vegetables contain other nutrients that are beneficial for their health including vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, fiber and fatty acids.
In 2017, an NIH study concluded that a diet containing antioxidants may be a valid approach to restoring strong cell metabolism and neutralizing excess free radicals in dogs.[*]
A 2012 NIH study of aging beagles showed that a diet rich in antioxidants improved cognition and reduced oxidative damage.[*] Another NIH study in 2000 showed that consuming antioxidants resulted in reduced DNA oxidation.[*]. A separate 2012 NIH study came to the same conclusion.[*]
Antioxidants reduce cellular damage, which in turn promotes greater longevity. Unlike wolves, dogs live in the modern society filled with free radicals floating around in the air. Antioxidants help combat free radicals, reducing several health risks associated with aging along the way.
Does my dog need fiber?
Fiber is yet another way fruits and vegetables can benefit your dog. The research to date broadly supports fiber's benefits for dogs, particularly for improving their gut microbiome.
A 2017 NIH study showed that dogs fed a natural diet had 70% higher microbiome diversity—a biomarker of improved health.[*] Another study conducted in 2019 highlighted similar indicators of improved gut health from increased fiber consumption.[*]
An NIH study from 2010 revealed that a diet formulated to include high levels of both protein and fiber helped promote weight loss in obese dogs.[*] This suggests fiber may also help an overweight dog get back to healthy body fat levels.
In short, these studies all support the consumption of fruits and vegetables. The easily absorbed vitamins and minerals they contain can benefit dogs in ways meat alone won't do.
Should your dog follow the wolf diet?
While dogs share a common ancestry with wolves, we believe the research indicates most dogs can safely consume 20-25% of their diet as carbohydrates. Keep in mind, that’s far below the carb content of most commercial pet food, which is often over 50% of the formulation.
Simple carbohydrates should be avoided entirely, as they have been shown to lead to the precursors of diabetes. Keep in mind carbohydrates are an inexpensive source of calories, and that’s why most pet food companies include them in their food.
The low carb wolf diet is closer to what your dog’s ancestors ate for millions of years, and they’re biologically adapted to it.
The only plants that are necessary for dogs are those that provide science-backed health benefits such as antioxidants and fiber. If you’re looking for a low carb pet food with this balance, here’s a low carb dog food we recommend.
We encourage you to combine the fundamentals of a wolf's diet with modern science to achieve the optimal health outcome for your dog.