Lots of animals digest food differently than we do (we all know about the multi-compartment stomachs that cows have!). But have you ever wondered about the canine digestive system?
The truth is that a dog’s digestive system is very different compared to the human digestive system than you might think. So lets jump right into it, how long does it take a dog to digest food?
How Quickly Does a Dog Digest Food?
A dog’s digestive system is set up much differently than a human digestive system. Dogs keep about 70% of ingested food in the stomach and only about 30% in the intestines.
For humans, that number is reversed: we keep about 30% of just-ingested food in the stomach and 70% in the intestines. That means that food will move three times as fast through a dog’s digestive system as it will through a person’s.
So how long does it take for food to pass through a dog? The big difference in digestion time boils down to this: it will usually take your dog about six to eight hours to fully digest a meal. Puppies and smaller dogs will often digest food faster (as quickly as four hours), while older dogs may take closer to 10-12 hours.
That’s a pretty stark difference from human digestion: human digestion takes about 20 to 30 hours from start to finish!
A Tour of the Dog Digestion Process
The process of digestion has a major impact on your dog’s health. So to make sure you have a healthy dog, it’s a good idea to have at least a basic knowledge of how food passes through your dog’s body.
Mouth – Obviously, this is where food intake happens. But dogs really don’t chew food like humans. Their teeth are primarily made for tearing pieces of raw meat, and they can’t chew by moving their mouths side to side.
And if you’ve ever wondered why dogs seem to inhale their food, that comes down to instinct — in the wild, wolves generally needed to devour food as fast as possible. Lots of digestive problems stem from dogs devouring the wrong things, so pay attention to what goes into your dog’s mouth!
Esophagus – Once your dog swallows a bite, the food enters the esophagus. This is a tube connecting the mouth to the stomach. Since wild ancestors of dogs could sometimes even swallow prey whole, it’s relatively rare to see a dog suffer from something stuck in the esophagus. However, dogs can get heartburn!
Stomach – This is where digestive enzymes really get to work. You dog’s GI tract produces both enzymes and stomach acid to break down food so the intestines can extract essential nutrients later. The stomach is also where older adult dogs tend to develop digestive issues. Older dogs will sometimes need supplements or food additives that can improve food digestibility.
So how long does food stay in a dog’s stomach? Since dogs do most of their digestion here, the food spends as much as eight hours in the stomach.
Small Intestine – Like that of a human, a dog’s digestive tract has both small and large intestines. The small intestine is where most absorbable nutrients are extracted. This organ also produces additional enzymes to help break down and then absorb proteins, fats, and other necessary nutrients.
Large Intestine (Colon) – Once partially digested food reaches the colon, the process of canine digestion is almost done! This part of the gastrointestinal tract is especially important when it comes to the absorption of water and electrolytes. The colon also plays a major role in absorbing vitamins, especially vitamin B and vitamin K.
Dog Poop – Though poop is what comes out of the canine digestive system, it’s worth mentioning. Your dog’s stool can be a useful indicator of digestive health. For instance, if you routinely see what looks like undigested food in your dog’s poop, it might be time to get some veterinary advice.
What Impacts the Speed of the Digestive Process?
Though there’s definitely a normal range for a dog’s digestion time, not all dogs digest their food at the exact same rate. How long it takes your dog to digest food also depends on these factors:
Age – A dog’s age is one of the major factors in the speed of the digestive process. As a dog ages, the digestive process will often slow down. So if you have an older pet, it may be worth looking into switching over to a highly digestible diet if you haven’t already. This type of diet will maximize gut health and make the digestive process as smooth as possible.
Size – Obviously, the size of your dog impacts the length of the gastrointestinal tract. Generally speaking, small dogs will complete the digestive cycle faster than larger ones.
Breed – Different breeds have different features, and some of these features may be significant factors when it comes to digestive health. If you know your dog’s breed, make sure your pet is in the healthy weight range for the breed. Often, one of the first signs that something is wrong in the digestion process is a change in weight.
Exercise – Exercise is important for your pet’s health, but did you know it has an impact on the speed of digestion as well? Very active dogs tend to develop quicker digestive systems, as their bodies need energy quickly. If your dog is sedentary (and especially if their caloric intake is too high), the digestive cycle will probably be a lot slower.
Type of food – Processed foods will sometimes contain a lot of grain, and carbohydrates tend to be metabolized more slowly in dogs. Protein will usually be absorbed much more quickly. The food type matters, too. Wet food can often be digested more quickly than dry food, as it has already been partially broken down.
Choosing Digestible Food
Digestive health is of course very important to your dog’s overall health. So naturally, you’d want to purchase the most digestible food you can.
But what makes food easy for your dog to digest? The two main factors in a dog food’s digestibility are the protein source and the way the food is processed.
Different types of dog food include different meat types. But some are easier on your dog than others. There’s a good bit of research suggesting that dog food made with fish meal or poultry meal is best for your dog’s digestion.
Some dog owners look for dog food containing beef. This is great in theory, as actual meat from healthy cattle is generally good for dogs. But since beef is expensive, much of the “beef” in dog food is made from bones, organs, and other parts of cows that are otherwise unusable. Unsurprisingly, these ingredients are harder for your dog to digest.
There’s some conflict over how well a dog’s GI tract can absorb lamb meal, as lamb has relatively recently been used in dog food production. But since lamb, like beef, is expensive, the lamb meal used in dog food often contains animal parts that are hard to digest.
The Impact of Processing
Some dry dog food brands have more additives than others. When looking for digestible dog food, make sure the protein source is listed as the #1 ingredient!
Labeling laws for pet food can be complex, so some cheaper brands might make it look like they contain much more protein than they actually do. But the nutrition label is the most important to look at.
You might think it’s strange that many dog foods contain grains. However, as dogs became domesticated, they evolved to be able to extract valuable nutrients from carbohydrates. Grains can provide your dog with valuable vitamins and minerals. But as always, consult with your vet to see if your dog would do best with dog food containing grains.
General food quality of course matters here, too. The most expensive dry dog food isn’t necessarily the best. But if you see excessively cheap food, it will probably be more difficult for your dog to digest.
When it comes to choosing your dog’s diet, make sure to consult with your veterinarian. As we saw above, there are lots of factors that impact digestion. Your vet can take these into account and help you select the best food for your dog.
Symptoms of Digestion Problems in Dogs
Now that you’ve answered the question “how long does it take a dog to digest food?” you might be wondering how to tell if there’s a problem with your dog’s digestion. Here are some of the key symptoms for dog owners to look for:
- Excessive gas
- Weight gain or weight loss
- Abdominal pain
Regularly checking your dog’s poop will also let you know if something is amiss. These symptoms can suggest a digestion issue:
White spots – Might indicate a worm problem
Streaked with red – May indicate internal or external cuts
Greasy and grey – Can mean there’s an issue with bile or the pancreas
Green – May mean a gallbladder problem or that your dog is eating too much grass
Tarry and black – May mean bleeding in the digestive tract
Yellow or orange – Might mean there is a problem with the liver or bile
Diarrhea that doesn’t quickly go away may mean that there’s a problem with your dog’s ability to digest food. However, there are lots of potential causes for diarrhea in dogs. In order to get to the bottom of the issue, make sure to contact your vet.
Keeping Your Dog Healthy
Now that you know a little more about dog digestion, you’ll be well-equipped to keep your pet as healthy as possible. The right dog food supports digestive tract health and even your dog’s immune system. Best of all, it helps make sure your furry friend will be with you for years to come.
Still have some concerns about your dog’s digestive health? Here are some common questions:
It will usually take 6-8 hours for a dog to poop out food. But if your dog has eaten a foreign object, it can sometimes take longer –it might take up to 24 hours. But if the object is not small enough to pass through your dog’s intestinal tract, they may need surgery. If your dog eats something foreign, contact someone experienced in veterinary medicine as soon as possible!
A dog’s digestive system works pretty quickly — from the first bites to pooping something out, it will take your dog 6-8 hours on average. Depending on your dog’s age and health, it may sometimes take up to 12 hours.
Looking at your dog’s poop might not be fun, but it’s the best way to tell if food is being digested properly. Your dog’s poop should be solid, brown, a little bit squishy, and in one piece.