Starch digestion in dogs vs. wolves: how dogs adapted to the human diet

By: Bethany Richardson

As food scientists, most of our education and work experience generally focuses on feeding ourselves; however, we should not forget that pet food is a major area of food science and nutrition research and technology.  Many people, including myself, consider our pets as family members and believe that their diets should be as healthy and palatable as our own.  Although there are significant differences in nutritional requirements and taste preferences between domesticated animals and humans, new research published this week suggests that dogs’ diets, and subsequent genes, evolved in order to live alongside humans.  A study published in Nature by Erik Axelsson et. al. analyzed genes related to starch digestion in domesticated canines and their ancestors, wild wolves.  The research hypothesizes that when humans transitioned from a nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle to a settled agricultural one, wolves began to scavenge food scraps left by the humans in the garbage; these contained higher amounts of starch than was commonplace in their traditional carnivorous diets.  Therefore, the wolves who had the ability to digest starch and take advantage of this new convenient food source developed an evolutionary advantage. 

The researchers identified 36 genomic regions that differentiated dogs and wolves.  Ten of these play roles in starch digestion and fat metabolism, such as amylase and maltase, two key starch breakdown enzymes.

From a personal standpoint, I find this study very interesting- I never realized that there might be an evolutionary reason behind why my golden retriever was so jealous of the muffin I was eating for breakfast! 

If you would like to learn more about the study, it is available online from: .  Erik Axelsson was also interviewed on NPR’s Morning Edition yesterday, you can listen to the full story here:


We want to hear from you! Have you ever done research on animal nutrition or worked at a pet food company?

Axelsson, E.; Ratnakamur, A.; Arendt, M.; Maqbool, K.; Webster, M.; Perloski, M.; Liberg, O.; Arnemo, J.; Hedhammar, A.; Lindblad-Toh, K.
The genomic signature of of dog domestication reveals adaptation to a starch-rich diet.
Nature 2013
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  1. Great find, Bethany! I do tend to “forget” about the pet food industry, but you are so right about people treating their pets as family members. They deserve high quality food too! I wonder why dogs didn’t evolve to be able to digest chocolate properly..they’re missing out!

  2. And don’t they know it- Callie is always begging for some (getting sick the first time she broke into the pantry hasn’t deterred her yet!)

  3. This is really cool! I know that the pet food companies have a lot of positions open for emerging food scientists, so it’s good to keep that option in mind.

  4. I work for an internationally recognised veterinary nutrition company, and was so excited to read this research, especially since now I can explain this to customers who keep saying dogs are like wolves and should eat raw meat all the time!

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