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What Do Dogs Eat in the Wild?

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Dog Food By Ben Team 17 min read May 25, 2021

What Do Wild Dogs Eat

Anytime people start talking about the best way to feed dogs, the discussion invariably turns to wolves.

This certainly makes sense to some degree, as wolves are unquestionably the closest living relatives of domestic dogs.

But that doesn’t mean wolves and dogs are the same thing – because they’re not!

In fact, contrary to popular perception, domestic dogs are not the direct descendants of grey wolves.

Rather, most researchers now agree that domestic dogs and grey wolves are evolutionary cousins. They’re both thought to have descended from a now-extinct wolf species that lived in Europe and Asia.

So, while it is helpful to consider the things wolves eat when trying to determine the best possible diet for our pets, doing so won’t provide any clear-cut answers (don’t worry — we’ll discuss the diets of wolves and other wild canines anyway).

But there are other animals we can consider: Domestic dogs who live in the wild.

We’ll talk about free-ranging dogs below and examine the things they typically eat.

This, combined with the things we know about wolf diets and the things veterinary nutritionists have been able to figure out, should help us all better understand our dogs’ dietary needs and the best way to feed them.

Wild Dogs: Now Available in Several Different Styles

There are actually a few different types of wild-living dogs in the world today. They all descend from normal, domestic floofs, but they’ve adapted to their circumstances in a multitude of ways.

We’ll explain the basics of each below, so you can understand the subtle differences between them.

1. Free-Roaming Dogs

What wild dogs eat

Free-roaming dogs are pets who’re simply given a considerable (and – depending on where you live – an usually inappropriate) measure of freedom. They have a home and a human or two of their own, but they’re typically allowed to just run free.

These dogs obviously aren’t wild, but their eating habits should still prove instructive.

Free-roaming dogs look like typical puppers, and they come in an array of shapes, breeds, and sizes. You can usually distinguish them from the other types of wild dogs discussed below by looking for a collar. Most (but not all) free-roaming dogs will be wearing a collar.

2. Stray Dogs

Stray Dog Diet

Stray dogs are pretty similar to free-range dogs, except that they don’t have a home or human family of their own.

Many strays start out as free-roaming dogs, and they simply wander off at some point. Others were abandoned by their humans and forced to fend for themselves.

Like free-range dogs, stray dogs usually tolerate people; some are even friendly. However, they may become less trusting of people as they spend longer periods of time living on their own.

Stray dogs are just as varied as free-range dogs and typical pet puppers. Some are big, some are small, some have long hair, some have short coats. But they all look like normal dogs.

Well, normal dogs who need a bath.

FUN FACT: Interestingly, the dog DNA testing company Embark has done tons of new cutting-edge research identifying and cataloging what they refer to as “village dogs.” In many parts of the world, dogs serve more as community loiterers, not being owned by any single individual but instead functioning as a kind of cross between a free-range dog and a stray, with many different individuals providing food and care for village dogs.

3. Feral Dogs

Diet of Feral Dogs

Feral dogs are those who live completely independently of humans and have done so since a very young age. As a matter of fact, many feral dogs are actually born in the wild.

Unlike free-roaming and stray dogs, feral dogs tend to fear humans, having not bonded with any two-footers during their socialization window.

In fact, a fear of humans is one of the broad criteria often used to distinguish feral dogs from strays.

Strays will often learn to trust people over time, particularly with repeated, positive experiences. But feral dogs tend to retain their fear of people and go to great lengths to avoid us entirely.  

Feral dogs look like typical puppers you’d see at the dog park, but, as the Internet Center for Wildlife Damage Management put it, “after a few generations of uncontrolled breeding, a generalized mongrel tends to develop.”  

Note that truly feral dogs are pretty rare, at least in the U.S. Some authorities contend that feral dogs only make up about 2.5% of the world’s entire dog population.

4. Dingoes

The origin of dingoes is a bit muddy, and scientists debate the precise history and proper classification of these doggos. Nevertheless, they’re clearly the descendants of domestic dogs, who’ve gone on to live on their own in the wild.

Dingoes live in very different habitats and have faced very different selective pressures than domestic dogs, but they should still serve as a valuable data point for our discussion.   

Dingoes have been around for about 3,000 years or so, and they’ve diverged from domestic dogs in a few ways over this time. Obviously, this includes their lifestyle, but they also exhibit some minor skull detail differences too. They essentially look like tan-colored, medium-sized, shepherd-like dogs.  

5. New Guinea Singing Dogs

New Guinea Singing Dog Photo from Wikipedia.

The New Guinea singing dog is closely related to the dingo, and its history is similarly cloudy. But they live in pretty much the same manner that dingoes do and feed upon similar foods.

Singing dogs also resemble dingoes physically. Singing dogs do, however, stand a little shorter and possess blockier heads than their dingo cousins.

6. African Wild Dogs

Diet for Wild Dogs

African wild dogs – known to biologists as Lycaon pictus – are beautiful and amazing creatures, whose hunting behaviors and diets have been thoroughly examined by researchers.

But unfortunately, these gorgeous African dogs are not domestic dogs – they’re actually quite distantly related to the carnivore sleeping on your kitchen floor at the moment.

So, we won’t be diving very deeply into their feeding habits here. But we wanted to mention them, so we could explain why we’re not including these “wild dogs” in the discussion.

So, What Do These Wild Dogs Eat?

There are some subtle differences between the diets of the various types of wild dogs we identify above.

However, the vast majority eat the same thing: whatever they can find that is edible and readily available.

Dogs, it turns out, are decidedly opportunistic.

A few of the most common foods that grace the menus of wild-living dogs include:

Carrion

Carrion (dead animal carcasses) is an important food source for many wild carnivores and omnivores.

Wild-living dogs may stumble across a delicious-looking corpse just about anywhere, but roadkill is likely the most consistent source for this type of food in the developed world.

Bugs

Most pet pooches will eat bugs from time to time, so it shouldn’t be surprising that stray and feral dogs also include them on the menu.

This surely includes large, relatively slow (and therefore easy-to-catch) bugs, such as roaches, caterpillars, and beetles. But wild dogs also consume the flying bugs foolish enough to fly within snout-snapping range.

Many of us have surely seen this happen with our own dogs, and it is likely a semi-automatic, predatory reflex, rather than an attempt to satiate their hunger.

Of course, we should also point out that some dogs seem better-suited for battling bugs than others.

Small Animals

Dogs living in the wild consume a lot of small animals, just like many similar-sized canines who are truly “wild.”

Coyotes, for example, subsist in large part on rats, mice, squirrels, chipmunks, and similar critters, and it appears that wild-living dogs do the same.

Slightly larger animals, such as geese and ducks, also end up looking down the business end of a hungry wild canine on occasion. However, these animals are usually only targeted when they’re obviously injured, and therefore, unlikely to be able to escape.

Large Animals

Although it doesn’t happen terribly often, wild dogs do occasionally predate on large animals.

This includes animals like deer, but farm animals – including sheep, goats, and small pigs – are likely the most common large animals wild or feral dogs eat.

sheep

In fact, wildlife management officials must learn to distinguish between livestock who were killed by dogs, versus those that were killed by coyotes or wolves.

Many times, ranchers are shocked to discover that many supposed coyote or wolf kills were actually caused by stray or feral dogs.

Leafy Vegetation

It isn’t 100% clear which plant stalks and leaves wild dogs seem to prefer, but they are known to consume leafy green material from time to time. This should be expected, as dogs are omnivores, who enjoy a variety of different food types, including vegetables.

green leaves

It is entirely possible, however, that much of the green leafy material that ends up in a wild dog’s stomach was consumed inadvertently.

For example, a dog may accidentally pick up a mouthful of grass or tree leaves when it picks a dead squirrel carcass off the ground.

Fruits

Many fruits are popular with wild-living dogs (as well as truly wild canines, such as coyotes and foxes).

This includes everything from the mangoes, peaches, and pears that homeowners cultivate deliberately, as well as common wild fruits, such as blackberries, raspberries, persimmons, and cherries.

blackberries

Trash

All of the above-discussed items show up in the diets of wild dogs with regularity. However, there is one overwhelmingly common food source that just about every wild pooch enjoys: Garbage.

That’s right, human refuse is an incredibly important food source for wild-living dogs (for that matter, plenty of pet pooches peruse trash pails on a regular basis).

And this makes perfect sense.

After all, human foods make up a large portion of the garbage we throw out on a daily basis, and the dogs living in human homes essentially subsist on leftovers. Sure, those “leftovers” are made in a commercial kitchen somewhere and shipped in a bag with an adorable pooch on the label, but they’re essentially fancy table scraps.

So, it shouldn’t be surprising that wild dogs often rummage through our trash to help fill their bellies.

Wild dogs eat trash

What Do Other Wild Canines Eat?

While we’re trying to remain focused on the diets of wild dogs, we figure some of our readers may simply be curious about the diets of other canines, such as wolves and coyotes.

We’ll explain the basic diets for these and other wild canines below.

What Do Wolves Eat?

The diets of wolves have been studied extensively, so there’s little mystery regarding the meats they eat.

Different wolf populations focus on different prey species, but generally speaking, wolves eat large, hoofed herbivores. This includes everything from deer to moose to elk, but they’ll also consume sheep and other livestock when the opportunity presents itself.

Wolves also eat smaller prey, such as rabbits and waterfowl, especially when hunting without a pack.

What Do Coyotes Eat?

Coyotes eat the same types of foods that many wild dogs do, which is to say that they eat a little of everything.

They get a lot of their calories by scavenging trash, roadkill, and pet foods left outdoors. Coyotes are also fond of fruits and vegetables, and some individuals will pilfer the produce homeowners grow.

But coyotes also capture and eat living prey. They primarily feed on small prey, such as squirrels, chipmunks, rats, and mice, but they’ll occasionally eat larger animals, such as deer. And unfortunately, coyotes occasionally catch and consume small domestic dogs.

What Do African Wild Dogs Eat?

African wild dogs are some of the most formidable predators on the savanna, so they eat just about anything they like.

Because they’re highly social pack hunters, African wild dogs are capable of bringing down prey that is much larger than any individual dog is. Some of their most common targets include zebras, wildebeests, warthogs, antelopes, and gazelles.

Wild dogs will also snatch smaller snacks, including birds, small mammals, and large lizards, when they get the chance.

What Do Foxes Eat?

Foxes are pretty small by canine standards; most weigh less than 15 pounds. This means that they must subsist on smaller prey than wolves or African wild dogs.

Accordingly, the menu of most foxes is full of things like birds, eggs, rabbits, and rodents.

Foxes also eat quite a bit of vegetation. They’ve been known to steal fruits and vegetables from gardeners and farmers, and they frequently gorge on persimmons and other naturally growing fruit.

Foxes will also dig through human garbage and compost heaps looking for edible items.

Wild-Dog Diets Change with Time and Location

Note that dogs – even wild-living or feral dogs – are all individuals.

So, they all exhibit different preferences and tendencies, which can manifest in their choice of food sources. One dog may love scavenging at the dump, while another prefers preying on chipmunks in the forest.

Additionally, these dogs all live in different places, which provide different habitats, food sources, and climate trends for the four-footers.

Dogs living in a tropical developing nation will undoubtedly consume different foods than those living in a rural, agricultural region of the American West.

Dogs living in the wild also alter their feeding habits throughout the year. Bugs, for example, are typically more readily available in the summer, while things like roadkill and trash serve as nice, year-round fallback options.

Some foods, such as winter-ripening berries, are only available during the winter, so dogs will use the opportunity to gorge themselves.   

Where Do Wild Dogs Get Water?

Just like domestic dogs, wild dogs need regular access to water to stay healthy. And they get water from a variety of places, including all of the obvious sources.

They’ll drink from rivers, streams, lakes, and ponds, and they’ll even lap up the water in puddles if need be (just like many of our own pets do). They may also lick the dew off of vegetation in the early morning hours.

In human-occupied areas, free-roaming, stray, and feral dogs may also drink from bird baths, and various items that have collected water.

wild dogs get water

Additionally, wild dogs get a lot of their water from the food they eat.

Our own dogs often need to drink copious amounts of water because they usually eat kibble, which is extraordinarily dry. But muscle meat, fruits, and vegetables are all full of water, which helps keep wild puppers hydrated.

Other Important Characteristics of Wild-Living Dogs

We’ve primarily been focusing on the diets of wild-living dogs, but there are a variety of other traits these free-roaming and feral dogs exhibit that deserve some discussion.

We’ll share a few of the most interesting traits and factoids about wild dogs below.  

Domestic Dogs Usually Live Alone (Except When They Don’t)

Although there are a lot of misunderstandings surrounding the social behavior of wolves, they do often pal around with other wolves and form packs.

However, dogs usually live on their own.

In fact, as explained by researcher Sarah Marshall-Pescini who recently carried out a study comparing wild dogs with wolves: “We were surprised at how little the dogs did cooperate.”

Nevertheless, feral dogs will occasionally form short-lived packs. According to Bonnie V. Beaver, in her 2009 book Canine Behavior:

“Most feral individuals are solitary scavengers that participate in a pack for only brief periods under a rigid hierarchy. When feral dogs do pack together, the pack has up to 10 members, consisting of two males and six to eight females. A feral dog pack typically lasts only 1 to 2.5 weeks and has a large dog as its leader.”

Meat Is a Clear Favorite

As mentioned earlier, wild dogs feed heavily on garbage.

But while they’ll surely sample whatever is available, and they undoubtedly consume carby foods, fruits, and veggies they find in the trash, wild canines exhibit a strong preference for meat.

According to Beaver’s book, fried liver and baked chicken were two of the menu items dogs preferred most.

Obviously, it’s not surprising that dogs like meat, but it does further illustrate the importance of meat in your dog’s diet.

Dog Food with Beef

Fresh Food Is Preferable to Old Food

Another completely unsurprising fact researchers discovered when studying wild-living dogs was that the canines preferred fresh garbage to old. Studied dogs typically prioritized eating foods that were less than about 72 hours old.

It’s easy to understand why they do.

For one thing, fresh garbage surely taste better than old garbage does (that’s a phrase I never expected to write). But fresh garbage is probably safer to eat too, as the bacteria present haven’t yet had time to multiply as much as they will over an extended period of time.

They Often Become Seasonal Breeders

In contrast to cats and some other animals who have a pretty well-defined breeding season, domestic dogs are non-seasonal breeders.

The timing of their breeding behaviors is related to hormonal rhythms, rather than day length, as occurs in cats. This is why pet dogs may become pregnant in any month of the year.

But at least some wild dog populations – such as one in West Bengal, India, which was recently studied by biologists – have shifted to a strongly seasonal breeding cycle.

These particular dogs demonstrated a single breeding season, but some other populations appear to breed twice each year.

Feral Dog Diet

How Should We Use This Knowledge About Wild Dog Feeding Habits?

Knowing what wild dogs eat is one thing, but – ideally – it’d be great to use this information to better care for our pets. Here are a few interesting takeaways:

  • Wild dogs appear to consume a wide variety of foods, and we should probably provide our pets with the same from time to time. You don’t want to change your dog’s food very often, as it can lead to stomach upset, but you can offer your pupper the occasional human-food treat for variety’s sake. Maybe you give your pooch an ounce or two of baked, unseasoned chicken breast with his dinner this week, and change it up and add a handful of blueberries to his bowl next week. Just be sure to avoid foods that are dangerous to canines.  
  • Your floof may be domestic, but he’s likely still a capable predator. A study of wild dogs in Poland found that the canines killed about 33,000 animals every year, plus about 280 farm animals. So, for the sake of the other critters living around your home, keep an eye on your pupper – especially when he has access to smaller animals.
  • Dogs are incredibly flexible animals. One of the most noteworthy things illustrated by the research on wild dog diets is that dogs can adapt to just about any circumstances imaginable. This won’t really help us care for our pets any better than we already do, but it does help explain why the dog-human relationship has been so successful.

Does This Mean I Can Feed My Dog Raw Food?

Given the fact that wild dogs often consume raw animal carcasses (as well as spoiled and otherwise grody foods), some readers may take this as evidence that a raw-meat-based diet is safe for their pet.  

But that would be a mistake.

Wild dogs do consume raw meat pretty frequently, but they also die at young ages.

In fact, according to one study, only 19% of the puppies born in the wild survive to 6 months of age. That means four out of five members of every litter are destined for an early death (statistically speaking).

We haven’t been able to find good studies that examined the life expectancy of wild dogs, but several authorities (such as this one) report that most puppies born in the wild can only expect to live for a matter of hours.

Of those who are lucky enough to survive this difficult time, most probably only live for one or two years.

The reasons that these poor wild puppers die so young vary.

Some die from encounters with predators, while others are hit by cars or intentionally killed by humans. However, disease and illness are also important factors that lead to the deaths of countless wild dogs, and this undoubtedly includes some who ingest dangerous bacteria, such as Salmonella or E. coli.

Most owners are not willing to take similar risks with their pets, which is why it is usually a bad idea to provide dogs with raw meat.

There’s very little upside to the practice (kibble or cooked meat are both perfectly sufficient), and yet the risks associated with the practice are quite high.

***

We hope you’ve found this article interesting, and that it has given you some insight into the lives of wild dogs.

Can you think of any other lessons we can glean from this information? Has this information changed the way you intend to care for your pet moving forward?

Let us know your thoughts and questions in the comments below!

can-my-dog-get-sick-from-raw-meat
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Written by

Ben Team

Ben is the senior content editor for K9 of Mine and has spent most of his adult life working as a wildlife educator and animal-care professional. Ben’s had the chance to work with hundreds of different species, but his favorite animals have always been dogs. He currently lives in Atlanta, GA with his spoiled-rotten Rottweiler named J.B. Chances are, she’s currently giving him the eyes and begging to go to the park.

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