Many people point to the power of fruits and vegetables to fight off disease, support the body in health, and provide lots of nutrients. There are lots of studies that show how various fruits and vegetables contain extraordinarily powerful properties that aid in health. These studies, which are frequently done with humans or other omnivores, are often held up as though they are true for everything, even carnivores like our dogs and cats. Since these properties are inherent in the fruits and vegetables, the thinking often seems to be that they are good for anyone (human or animal) that eats them.
For example, I often hear people talk about leafy green vegetables being important in warding off cancer. I also hear them say that pumpkin can add valuable fiber to a pet’s diet and help firm up their stool (indeed, I used to regularly give pumpkin myself, before I learned about feeding a species-appropriate diet!). I have recently read several articles by various veterinarians and other people involved in pet health, and all of them have referenced studies that pointed to the inherent disease-fighting properties of fruits and vegetables as a reason to feed our carnivore pets fruits, vegetables, and even grains.
However, what the people who reference these studies don’t take into account is that our carnivore pets have a completely different digestive system than we omnivores do. They cannot break down the plant material like we can, which means they cannot access the nutrients and other healthy properties of the fruit or vegetable being consumed. And actually, it isn’t just a matter of them not being able to access the nutrients. Because their digestive system can’t readily break the plant material down, it stresses the various digestive organs because they are being asked to do something for which they weren’t designed.
Carnivores don’t possess amylase in their saliva, which means that the digestive process cannot begin in the mouth, as it does for herbivores and omnivores. Furthermore, carnivores cannot chew their food, which means they cannot grind their food and aid in the breakdown of plant material. They are designed to shred, tear, and gulp their food, and rely on the high acidity in the stomach and their relatively short intestines to break down the food. Plant matter, however, takes a longer amount of time to break down, which is why herbivores and omnivores have longer intestines and a longer colon than carnivores. These organs in an herbivore or omnivore are designed to help them pull out all the nutrients in the plant material. Carnivores, though, cannot take advantage of the nutrients in these plants, because their systems are designed totally differently.
When carnivores eat a species-appropriate diet, they are eating exactly what they were designed for: raw meat, bones, and organs/glands. They are even designed to get their fiber through the fur and feathers of their prey (not, as many believe, through canned pumpkin). Their prey may have some vegetable material in their stomach which the carnivore may or may not consume (in many instances, they may shake the stomach out before eating it, but not always). However, if they do end up consuming the plant material that was in the stomach of their prey, it has been broken down already. Their internal systems don’t have to do the work of breaking it down. Also, it is a small percentage of the overall food intake, and certainly not anything that their bodies rely on to meet nutritional needs.
Because we are omnivores, and because we have been conditioned as a society to eat processed foods, there has been a big push to eat raw, natural food. This is wonderful for us as people, but much of the thinking has spilled over onto how we feed our pets. We know that when we eat spinach or broccoli or pineapple, or any of a multitude of other fruits and vegetables, that we are consuming food that is healthy and nutritious. And of course, we want to share those same benefits with our pets. However, we forget that they are not omnivores like we are. They are carnivores, and that means that they rely on meat, bones, organs, and glands for their nutrients.
Providing our dogs with a species-appropriate diet will go a long way towards giving their bodies the support they need to survive and thrive. The key here is “species-appropriate”—we should focus on giving them what is appropriate for their particular species rather than what is appropriate for our species. After all, while most of us consider our dogs to be part of our family, they are not the same as we are. In loving our pets, we should honor their nature, even if it is different than ours.