I think this is the end of the debate when it comes to the appropriate, “natural” diet for dogs.
Google “natural dog diet,” and you’ll typically see sites with people extolling the virtues of feeding dogs raw meat with bones and making claims about how much healthier their dogs are on this “more natural” diet.
Virtually all veterinarians are skeptical of these diets, especially in regard to the claims that they are the “natural” diet for dogs.
Well, it turns out that some researchers have looked into the dog genome and compared it with wolves.
Wolves actually have a very hard time digesting starches, and it is generally considered a good practice to feed them on a diet of raw meat and bones. Many wolf keepers feed their charges road-killed deer and other ungulates.
But a recent genome-wide analyses of dogs and wolves revealed that dogs have more copies of a gene that allows dogs to produce amylase, which is used in the digestion of starches. Wolves have only two copies, but dogs have anywhere from four to thirty.
This paper appears in the journal Nature today. (I’ll provide a citation whenever one becomes available).
Of course, some people are jumping to conclusions about what this study says. On the Washington Post write-up of the story, Raymond Coppinger is at least alluding to the possibility that this study proves his somewhat dubious theory about dog domestication.
It really doesn’t
This study doesn’t do anything for us but show us that dogs and wolves have different genes for producing amylase.
It is not any more of a revelation than the discovery that Europeans can digest lactose but Native Americans cannot.
It also doesn’t meant that dogs evolved as scavengers on human civilizations. Dogs are products of hunter-gatherer societies. Dogs– and by this I mean animals that have all the features you’d see in a dog of today– have been found in camps of hunter-gatherers that existed thousands of years before agriculture. I’m thinking particularly of the dog found in the Bonn-Oberkassel site. This dog was once dated to 15,000 years ago, but it was since revised to 14,000. It was buried with humans, and what’s more, it was in Germany thousands of years before there was any agriculture.
Dogs existed before agriculture.
But then dogs continued on as agriculture progressed. To better survive in a world with large farms, dogs evolved the ability to digest starches more easily.
That’s actually a pretty amazing finding in itself.
I also think this study pretty much ends a lot of discussion about the “natural” diet for dogs. Dogs do not have be fed like wolves.
They can eat foods with grains in them.
Some dogs have an easier time than others, which is why some dogs thrive on modern diets and others seem to do better with fewer grains.
But the whole argument that dogs must be fed like captive wolves has simply been debunked.
Now, whether we can say that this study tells us how dogs were domesticated, well, that’s a different question.