A customer recently asked me if I had salmon heads available for her dog. “What?” I asked, taken aback. “Salmon heads. You know, for my boxer,” she clarified. Here was a women offering to buy salmon heads from me and there I was thinking of all the salmon heads I had thrown into the sea this last summer. As I talked to the customer and thought about it, it started to make so much sense. This customer, like so many DC pet owners, was deeply attached to her pet and so absolutely concerned for its health and happiness. If she was a salmon eater why shouldn’t her dog at least get the heads? But the head might not be just the scrap we don’t want.
I thought back on all the times I had seen brown bears eat only the head and skin of a salmon and let the birds have the rest. Early in the summer, when the salmon first start to run, the bears eat every salmon they can catch––the whole thing. But as their bellies sag, swollen and ready for a long winter of hibernation ahead, they become picky. They want only the most nutritious and calorie dense parts of the salmon. From their behavior I take this to be the skin and the head. Those bears, or at least their relatives, have survived in that impossibly harsh landscape at least since the last ice age by repeating that eating behavior summer after summer. For our pets or even for ourselves, there is something to be learned from it.
Coincidentally, when I have had the pleasure of spending lots of time with bears while they are feeding, I have aften entertained the private notion that they are very similar to golden retrievers. I kept this decidedly unwild take on bears from the bear-viewing guest I was often escorting who had paid top dollar and traveled half way around the world to see something truly wild. But there the bears were, sitting by the river with their back paws ungracefully splayed out on either side of them, staring into the rushing water with more of dopey glazed over look on their faces than the look of a killer top predator. But, like a dog, they would come alive the instant a something moved and engaged their wild instinct to chase, to capture and to feed. My wife’s parents have two golden retrievers (they used to have three) and, as odd as it sounds, every day they remind me of most of the brown bears I have seen in my life.
These and other thoughts swirled through my head as I thought of the glorious possibility of being able to truly use every part of the salmon. While there is currently very little waste in the filleting of a salmon, if I changed my definition of “waste” to exclude the head, I would find myself being very wasteful.
My research revealed that feeding whole, raw and often wild food to dogs is, if not common, certainly done by some folks around the country. The website www.rawfed.com says, “You can feed just about any prey animal [to dogs] that can run, swim, or fly.” This movement among pet owners runs parellel to the human Paleo diet popularized in the 1970s and gaining momentum today. Whether for people or pets, the concept is simple, and, to me, makes sense.
It is commonly thought that the only animal to affect our own evolution as a species is the dog. We have evolved symbiotically together. That evolution supported out natural eating habits–the dietary patterns our respective bodies had evolved for. That is, dogs are carnivores (meat) and people are omnivores (a little of almost everything). During the 2-2.5 million years prior to the end of the Paleolithic ara (ending 10,000 years ago with the end of the last ice age) when most recent human evolution took place, we were hunter gatherers––eating from the land without domesticated animals or agriculture. This may not have been the smartest way to eat as is evidenced by the low overall population during that time, the short life span and the boom or bust nature of that existence, but it was nevertheless the lifestyle and diet our bodies had evolved for. When “civilization” began with the first rows of cultivated plants and the first pens of domesticated animals, people’s diets began to change radically. Although this new super efficient way of procuring food helped grow the population and staved off the previously common periods of starvation, the pace of this dietary change outpaced our physiological ability to evolve to this new and radically different diet. Because there has not been enough time in the last 10,000 years to physiologically adapt to this new diet, physically we are still those paleolithic men and women roaming the tundra hunting and gathering and, yes, sometimes starving. The concept behind “eating paleo” is not that we wear loin cloths, live in tipis and kill all our own meat, but that we simply try to match our eating to what our pre-paleolithic ancestors ate––the diet our dna still dictates we eat.
Here is an insightful excerpt from The Intelligence of Dogs by Dr. Stanley Coren:
“…We will probably never have conclusive evidence to tell us how dogs and humans first formed their personal and working relationship with each other, but it is most likely the case that man did not initially choose dog; rather dogs chose man. Dogs were likely attracted to human campsites because humans like dogs were hunters, and animal remains, such as bones, bits of skin, and other scraps of offal from the victims of recent hunts, were likely to be scattered around human campsites. The ancestors of today’s dogs (being ever food conscious) learned that by hanging around man’s habitations, they could grab a quick bite to eat now and then, without all the exertion involved in actual hunting.
Although primitive man may not have been very concerned with cleanliness, health issues or sanitation, it is still true that rotting food stuff does smell, and attracts insects that will make humans uncomfortable. Thus it is likely that dogs were initially tolerated around the perimeter of camps simply because they would dispose of the garbage. This waste disposal function continued for countless centuries and is still being fulfilled by the pariah dogs in many less developed regions of the world. Anthropologists studying primitive tribes in the South Pacific have noticed that on those islands where people keep dogs, the villages and settlements are much more permanent. Villages without dogs have to move every year or so simply to escape the environmental contamination caused by rotting refuse. This has even led to the suggestion that dogs may have been a vital element in the establishment of permanent cities in that bygone era before we learned the importance of public sanitation.
Once the wild canines that would eventually become dogs were attracted to human settlements, our ancestors noticed an added benefit. Remember early humans lived in dangerous times .There were large animals around which looked on humans as potential sources of fresh meat .There were also other bands of humans with hostile intentions. Since the canines around the village began to look upon the area as their territory, whenever a strange human or wild beast approached, the dogs would sound the alarm. This would alert the residents in time to rally some sort of defense if needed. As long as dogs were present, the human guards did not need to be as vigilant, thus allowing for more rest and a better lifestyle.
It takes only a short journey to get from dogs guarding the village to a personal house dog. Humans now knew that dogs would sound the alarm if their territory was invaded. Suppose that this idea was taken one step further. A dog which considered a home as its territory would then provide a personal warning for a family. This might serve as the benign purpose of alerting the family to the approach of visitors (a sort of canine doorbell), or warn of the approach of someone with malicious intentions (a canine burglar alarm). Clearly, this was one of the motivations for taking puppies from the wild dogs, bringing them into the home, and domesticating them as house dogs….”
Here is a good study on the peleo philosophy –– download the PDF.
With dogs having been our closest companions for at least 10,000 years and possible 15,000 years or more, it was only natural that their eating habits mirrored our own––when we began to eat fattier meats and more of them, dairy, grains, etc., dogs did as well.
People should probably eat more or less a peleo diet and dogs, not being omnivores like us, certainly should. That being said, salmon makes sense. Dogs should eat salmon for all the same reasons we should––improved overall health, brain function, skin, hair/fur, etc.
My research also revealed some health concernes regarding an illness called Salmon Poisoning Disease (SPD) which can sicken and even kill dogs. The disease only effects canids (dogs and wolves) and is limited to salmon of the Pacific Northwest. This disease does not occur in Alaskan salmon and is also a non-issue if the salmon is either cooked or frozen below 16 deg F for a period of time (reports suggest anywhere from 24 hours to 30 days). If I were to bring salmon heads back with me next summer, they would, of course, be clean as they are from Alaska and not the Pacific Northwest, and also vacuum sealed and flash frozen for 30 days or more. The problem is also not known to be found in the head.
If anyone is interested in salmon heads of their pets, please contact me.
Here is a long and rather funny video of a dog really enjoying a raw salmon head: