What a Wolf Eats
Research on wild canids can help inform dietary planning for dogs.
by CJ Puotinen
Few topics excite the passions of dog lovers as much as food. Should
dogs eat meat? Bones? Fruits? Vegetables? Grains? Dairy? Should
their food be commercially prepared? Home-prepared? Raw? Cooked?
Fresh? Frozen? Should dogs eat what people eat? What dogs in the
wild eat? Whatever the choice, is it safe? Is it dangerous?
From left to right, ambassador wolves Lukas, Apache, and Atka, who
live at the Wolf Conservation Center in South Salem, New York. The
WCC promotes wolf conservation by teaching about wolves and the
human role in protecting their future.
For thousands of years, domesticated dogs ate whatever their humans
fed them plus whatever they could find on their own. No one worried
about fat/protein ratios, the role of carbohydrates, or how much
calcium is too much.
For help in planning the ideal canine menu, some turn to canine
species in the wild, especially wolves. But even here there is
confusion and misinformation. What exactly do wolves eat?
To find out, Melinda Miller, who consults to veterinarians, pet
supply stores, pet food companies, and the Wolf Conservation Center
of South Salem, New York, invited one of the world's most respected
experts on the wolf, David Mech, Ph.D., to present a seminar about
what wolves eat.
Since 1958, Dr. Mech (pronounced Meech) has studied wolves, first on
Isle Royale in Lake Superior in Minnesota, then in Canada, Italy,
Alaska, and Yellowstone National Park. A founding board member of
the International Wolf Center in Ely, Minnesota, he is an
internationally recognized expert on wolf ecology and behavior,
predator-prey relations, and wolf population regulation. Mechs
latest book, coedited with Luigi Boitani and published in November
2003, is the encyclopedic and definitive Wolves: Behavior, Ecology,
Dr. Mech has been a senior research scientist for the U.S.
Department of the Interior since 1970 and is an adjunct professor at
the University of Minnesota. His research in Denali National Park in
Alaska measured the interactions between wolves, caribou, moose, and
Dall sheep. On Ellesmere Island in Canadas Northwest Territories,
which is so remote that its wolves are unusually tame, he documents
the interactions of pack members and their pups around their den,
plus wolf interactions with musk-oxen and Arctic hares. His research
in Yellowstone National Park involves the interactions of wolves
with their prey.
All of Dr. Mechs research involves the gray wolf, Canis lupus. Gray
wolves live throughout Europe, Asia, and North America, and it was
from this species of wolf that the dog was domesticated.
On September 25, 2004, Dr. Mech presented a what wolves eat
seminar in New York. It was attended by about 100 people, some of
whom had traveled from New Zealand, Denmark, Quebec, Ontario, Texas,
California, and the Midwest.
No consensus yet
Dr. Mech began his seminar by asking the audience which animal on
the planet has been most researched with regard to health and diet.
The answer? Human beings. But despite decades of intense study,
scientists have yet to prove that any one diet is ideal.
If science doesn't have definite answers regarding human health,
said Dr. Mech, it certainly doesn"t have them regarding dogs and
wolves. There is simply too much that we don't know. In addition,
dogs were domesticated from wolves somewhere between 13,000 and
100,000 years ago, so their diets should not necessarily be the
What scientists do know about wolves, he said, is that they are
opportunistic omnivores. Left to their own devices, they will eat
whatever they can whenever they can.
This varies by location, season, and conditions, he explained, so
wolves in one place may have a radically different diet from wolves
in another. Their preference is freshly killed meat, but when that
not available, they'll eat anything that could remotely be
For example, there are few prey animals in Italy or Israel. Most
people don't even know that wolves live in those countries, but they
do, and they eat whatever humans throw away. In Italy, there are
about 500 wolves and around 500,000 feral dogs, and they have the
same basic diet whatever they can scrounge from garbage cans and
local dumps, as well as whatever livestock they can kill.
In the wild, says Dr. Mech, wolves hunt live prey. In British
Columbia, where game is abundant, that includes moose, bison, wild
hare, two types of deer, goats, mountain sheep, elk, caribou, and
assorted small animals. In other locations, there may be only a
single prey species.
Any variety is provided by circumstances, not by conscious effort,
and some wolves have thrived for decades or even hundreds of years
on a monotonous diet of one or two prey animals,said Dr. Mech.
Yellowstone's wolves are at the high end of the wolf prosperity
scale, for elk are so abundant in the park that wolves eat whenever
they're hungry. Wolves in other areas go through periods of feast
The wolves'work day begins in the early evening, and they will
typically hunt all night, then sleep from mid-morning to late
afternoon. If fully fed, they may sleep for 12 hours or more. If
hungry, wolves hunt all day, often traveling 15 to 30 miles or more
in search of prey. Although they usually hunt in packs, single
wolves acting alone have been recorded killing all of the wolf'
large prey, including moose, bison, and musk-oxen.
What' for dinner?
What does the average adult wolf eat? That's hard to say because
wolves are difficult to observe. When fitted with radio transmitter
collars and tracked by aircraft, at least a few wolves can be
monitored. We have a good idea of what those wolves eat during
winter months because they're easy to find when there's snow on the
ground, Dr. Mech explained. Assuming there is sufficient game,
they eat an average of two to ten pounds of meat per wolf per day.
In summer, no one knows, but I expect the totals are similar.
Those figures are averages, said Dr. Mech, because wolves eat as
much as possible at every opportunity. An 80-pound wolf can eat 22
pounds of meat in one sitting. When game is scarce, wolves can go
for weeks, even months without eating. If sufficiently fat at the
outset, a wolf can fast for up to six months.
According to Dr. Mech, wolves that live in areas populated by large
prey (such as elk or caribou) kill mostly old, maimed, sick, or very
young animals, such as newborn calves. I wouldn' say that a wolf
could never kill a healthy adult. But it' more likely that an adult
animal that appears healthy and is brought down by a wolf is not as
healthy as other animals in the herd. It may have been deaf, for
example, or had a malnourished grandmother. Starvation is a hazard
that all animals face, and malnutrition affects two or more
Wolves that hunt large prey have to be careful because they risk
their lives every time they attack. Elk, moose, and other large
animals can and do kill wolves, he said. All it takes is a well-
placed kick. One of the most interesting findings of our research
was the very low percentage of successful wolf attacks. You think of
wolves as killing machines, and they are, but wolves may chase a
hundred or more prey animals before they succeed in bringing one
down. That' why it makes sense for wolves to study the herds,
watching for anything out of the ordinary a elk that doesn' hold
his head high, for example, or one with a limp.