Learn how the popular and healthy Paleo Diet can be adapted to your dog or cat.
The Paleo Diet has become very popular in the last few years. The idea is to eat the way our ancestors did during the Stone Age (the Paleolithic period) — prior to the development of agriculture and the advent of grains, which occurred about 12,000 years ago. In other words, it’s a basic “hunter-gatherer” diet: meat, fish and seafood (when they could catch it), along with nuts, vegetables, fruit and honey. Given the Paleo Diet’s popularity, it’s not surprising there’s a corresponding movement to feed domestic dogs and cats based on their own ancestral diets.
Ancestral canine and feline diets
So, what were dogs and cats eating in the misty past? Both species are classified in the Order Carnivora. Cats are easy to figure out: until recently (and currently, in many cases), they ate whole raw prey. This diet is common to all cats, large and small. Dogs, however, are considered facultative omnivores, meaning they can get nutrition from plant-derived foods as well as meat.
Dogs are descended from wolves. Domestication may have begun as early as 30,000 years ago. Wild wolves, hanging around people, learned to pick up scraps and leftovers. People probably raided wolf dens to pick the friendliest cubs to raise alongside them, ultimately creating the first true dogs.
Humans have been using fire for hundreds of thousands of years, and likely cooked most or all of their meat. Early dogs may have shared in cooked scraps, but they also scavenged the parts of carcasses the humans did not eat. Dogs also likely continued to hunt on their own, consuming their prey raw.
The rise of grains
As agriculture and society developed, grains became a larger part of the human diet. As meat became scarcer and costlier, it was reserved mostly for the upper class. Poorer folk depended on grains, fruits and vegetables. But dogs in any class of society ate what the surrounding people ate. It benefitted dogs to adapt to a wide variety of foods; and indeed, dogs today are better able to digest starch than their wolf cousins.
Pet food is a recent innovation
It’s only since the 1940s that commercially-produced pet food became popular and turned into the sole diet for most North American dogs and cats. Pet food manufacturers have taken advantage of the dog’s nutritional flexibility by substituting grains and starchy vegetables for meat, particularly in dry kibble products. The same has happened with many cat foods, even though cats are obligate carnivores. Dry food is the cheapest to produce, and consequently the most profitable. Unfortunately, the proliferation of cheap, poor quality pet foods has given rise to a range of health problems in dogs and cats, ranging from diabetes to dental disease.
Adapting the Paleo Diet to your dog or cat
Most of us aren’t going to stock freshly-killed prey in our kitchens, but we can follow the Paleo Diet’s general nutritional framework based on the prey animals dogs and cats used to eat. A rodent, for example, contains about 55% protein, 40% fat and <10% carbohydrate. A white-tailed deer fawn comprises 57% protein, 25% fat, 11% minerals and 7% carbohydrate.
Carbohydrates are mostly in the form of glycogen and other sugars stored in the liver and muscles, and in the contents of the prey’s digestive tract. Raw, homemade and even many high quality canned feline diets approximate this distribution fairly well. Dogs can thrive on this nutritional makeup, but equally well on diets containing more Paleo-acceptable carbohydrates.
While most humans use cooked meat in their own Paleo program, for dogs and cats the meat may be either raw or cooked. Grains play no part in the Paleo Diet, because they were not available during the earliest periods of history.
Grains play no part in the Paleo Diet, because they were not available during the earliest periods of history.
Both raw and cooked vegetables and fruits may be included in a Paleo Diet for dogs. But for cats, high-starch vegetables and nearly all fruits should be avoided.
- Green leafy vegetables are best, followed by zucchini, celery and green beans.
- Somewhat starchier veggies, such green peas, beets and sweet potatoes, can be used sparingly if weight is not an issue.
- Cruciferous vegetables, like cabbage, broccoli and kale, are extremely nutritious, and while they are said to interfere with thyroid function, this is not a concern when they’re cooked and fed in moderation.
- Spinach and rhubarb should be avoided in pets with a history of urinary crystals or stones.
- Plant foods that are or could be toxic to dogs or cats include onions, garlic, grapes/raisins, cherries and macadamia nuts. Do not feed fruit containing seeds or pits, which may contain cyanide.
Dogs and cats do not produce the enzymes needed to digest plant cell walls, so veggies need to be steamed and/or pureed to access the nutrients. For example, raw carrot chunks do not contribute any meaningful nutrition, although they do provide flavor, entertainment and a little chewing action, which many dogs enjoy. Organic baby food is a very easy way to include veggies and fruits in a dog or cat’s diet. Adding a digestive enzyme supplement (but not pancreatic extract) is also helpful.
Benefits of a Paleo Diet
- “Live” enzymes (in raw ingredients). The many enzymes present in raw foods are destroyed by cooking. Just keep in mind that vegetables need “pre-digestion” by heat or mechanical breakdown.
- Increased bioavailability. Raw or lightly-cooked meat and organs are more digestible for both dogs and cats, and can therefore be better absorbed and utilized by the body.
- Weight management. Many Paleo-type diets are high in protein and low in carbohydrates. In cats, dogs and humans, low-carbohydrate diets have proven their value in weight loss.
- Better insulin metabolism. For cats, eliminating high-carbohydrate foods will virtually eliminate their chances of developing diabetes, and will help many already-diabetic cats achieve remission. For dogs, the diet-diabetes link is less clear, but a low-carb diet provides better blood glucose control for diabetic dogs than typical high-carb dog foods.
- Healthier immune system. The microbiome (gut bacteria) has a huge influence on the immune system. One of the most consistently-reported changes in dogs fed a raw Paleo Diet is that inflammatory problems diminish or disappear.
A basic “Paleo Diet for pets
- Fresh meat, poultry, organ meat and eggs
- Fresh, non-starchy vegetables and fruits (up to 25% of the diet for dogs, 15% for cats)
- Omega-3 fatty acids
- Probiotics and digestive enzymes
- Vitamin and mineral supplements as needed
Ideally, ingredients should be organic, 100% grass-fed or pasture-raised, and/or locally sourced. However, adding any fresh foods to your dog or cat’s diet will have far-reaching benefits. The closer you get to the natural ancestral diet, the better.
As with any major dietary change, the Paleo Diet should be introduced gradually to your dog or cat. Ultimately, most pets do very well with this approach.