A Dog’s Digestive System: How Does It Work?

Dogs and their digestive system … can they handle any type of food?
A dog's digestive system: how does it work?

Many of the foods that the dog eventually ingests are meant to be for humans. But can a dog’s digestive system handle that type of food?

Nowadays, dogs live inside our homes and in many cases we give them food that we eat daily, even though we should feed them food that is specially developed for dogs.

It may seem like dogs can eat almost anything you put in front of their nose. The truth is, however, that it can lead to liver and kidney problems that you will not directly associate with their diet.

How does a dog’s digestive system work?

A dog’s digestive system is primarily structured to eat meat. It starts with a digestive tract that starts in the mouth and then goes down to the esophagus, stomach, upper intestine and lower intestine.

Then there are the organs that help process food, such as the liver, pancreas and gallbladder.

At the macroscopic level, you may not see many differences from our own digestive system. But there are some important differences. One big difference is that dogs obviously have teeth different from ours.

Their digestive tract is also not as long (proportional), especially when it comes to the upper intestine.

All adult dogs have the same number and type of teeth – a total of 42. Here they are:

  • 12 incisors
  • 4 canines
  • 16 premolars (premolars)
  • 10 molars
The dog's teeth

A dog’s jaws

Even with the same number of teeth, their bite can vary. For example, some dogs close their mouths with their teeth like a pair of pliers, which means that the front teeth touch each other.

Then there are other dogs that chew with the inner edge of their upper front teeth against the outer edge of their lower front teeth.

In some cases, the lower jaw protrudes longer than the upper jaw, also known as prognathism. This is very common in dog breeds such as boxers and bulldogs.

You can also see the opposite version of this in some dogs, where the lower jaw is further back than the upper jawbone – this is called enognatism. This is always seen as a defect.

If you follow the digestive tract, the food goes through the esophagus and down into the stomach. The inner walls of this organ have large folds that help break the food when it comes from the mouth.

The food usually comes down in large chunks because dogs do not chew much.

Even further down, in the gut, there are lots of enzymes that help to chemically digest food.

Some new studies have found that many dog ​​breeds have higher concentrations of enzymes that help them digest carbohydrates better than other breeds. They all have the right enzymes to digest protein.

Diagram of dog's digestive system

Dogs also have very short intestines. This is actually typical of carnivores, although some dog breeds have longer intestines than others. The intestinal bacteria that you find in dogs are also typical of predator species.

Are dogs predators or omnivores?

If you look at the ingredients in commercial dog food, you will see that they have many different components. They tend to have everything from meat to different types of grains or beans.

This combined with the fact that dogs generally eat what you put in front of them may make you think they are omnivores, but they are not. Dogs are rather optional carnivores.

This means that they should preferably have a diet that is only meat, but they can also survive on an omnivorous diet.

A dog in front of a plate of vegetables and a plate of chicken.

Basically, it is in the dog’s nature to be a carnivore. There are a few reasons for this:

  • Their intestines are very short, ranging from 1.8 to 4.5 meters. This difference has a lot to do with the breed, and it is important for you to keep that in mind. The length of the intestine, its permeability to nutrients and the bacteria in them can vary. All-consuming animals like humans have 4.8 to 7 meter long intestines.
  • Dogs have very sharp teeth. Their canines help them tear the food apart and their cheek teeth help them divide it into smaller pieces so that they go down the esophagus more easily.
  • The intestinal bacteria in carnivores are very different from herbivores and omnivores. The bacteria in the gut can help them ferment certain nutrients such as carbohydrates. Dogs, on the other hand, have a very hard time fermenting carbohydrates.
  • An animal’s brain works mainly thanks to the glucose they get from the carbohydrates. So dogs actually have different metabolic pathways that allow them to produce carbohydrates from proteins.

So if dogs are not omnivorous, how can they digest herbal foods?

Epigenetics: what role does it play in a dog’s digestive system?

At the moment, it should be clear that dogs are mainly carnivores. But if so, why can they digest foods other than meat ?

To explain this, you need to understand the concept of epigenetics. This term has to do with how our environments can actually affect our genes.

A simple example of this idea is how turtles are born male or female, depending on the temperature in the area they have developed in. Something similar has happened to dogs, but for a much longer time.

We are talking about more than 10,000 years. This started during the time we have made them tame, and especially in the earlier stage, dogs have eaten our leftovers.

This has put pressure on their digestive system which has led to changes in how they synthesize the enzymes they need to digest nutrients.

It has helped them adapt to survive on a more varied diet. Nowadays, they can therefore digest lots of plant-based food sources. That is why we also call them optional carnivores.

So, do you think you know your dog’s body a little better? We hope we have helped you in that regard, and hopefully you can take this knowledge with you to your dog’s diet!

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