Are Bears Related to Dogs?
Bears and dogs are two types of animals that often look alike to a ridiculous degree. This doesn’t apply to all dogs, however.
But some of the larger and extra hairy breeds look so much like bears that they are often nicknamed as such.
And, at the end of the day, bears and dogs do share a lot of the same physical characteristics. Are bears related to dogs or is this visual appearance just a matter of chance?
Let’s go over the basics below.
Are Bears Related to Dogs in Any Significant Way?
The short answer here is no. Quite categorically too.
Even though bears and dogs are exceptionally similar in most physical aspects, they are surprisingly far from each other in the evolutionary tree.
Dogs are a part of the Canidae family together with wolves, foxes, and jackals.
Bears, on the other hand, belong to the Ursidae family together with the 100% vegetarian panda bear.
So, even though we often hear stories of families accidentally adopting baby bears, thinking they are dogs, the two species just aren’t related.
Why Do Bears and Dogs Look Alike So Much Then?
The reason is simple – similar evolutionary paths and natural selection incentives.
Both animals needed thick furs, powerful paws and claws, sharp canine teeth etc. if they were to survive.
This isn’t to say that their lifestyle is identical of course.
While both dogs and bears are categorized as omnivores (i.e. they can eat both meat and plants), most bears are much more tolerant of a herbivore diet than dogs.
Yet, even bears that survive almost entirely on fruits and plants still have their signature long canine teeth, sharp claws, and muscly bodies.
Aren’t Dogs and Bears a Part of the Carnivora Order?
Indeed they are, but that doesn’t mean that they are strictly carnivores.
The Carnivora Order includes all mammals who eat meat either as the only, main, partial, or side part of their diet.
For example, the Carnivora Order also includes the panda, raccoons, and badgers.
So, the fact that dogs can eat certain roots and vegetables, and that bears love to eat almost everything that grows off the ground, doesn’t disqualify them from the order.
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What Is the Most Common Ancestor of Both Bears and Dogs?
The most recent common ancestor of dogs and bears that scientists have managed to pinpoint dates back to 42 million years ago.
This ancestor was neither large nor “bear-like”. Instead, these were animals belonging to the now-extinct Miacidae family.
They were small, lived on trees, and had long tails. They had smaller carnassial teeth and they ate meat.
While these looked nothing like the bears and dogs of today, the Miacidae family is believed to be the direct predecessor to the Carnivora Order.
As all the animals of the Miacidae started evolving away from each other, scientists started categorizing them all as members of the Order.
Soon after, anthropologists also divided the Carnivora species into two sub-groups:
- Feliformia - which includes tigers, lions, and all other wild cats, including the now-extinct saber-tooth species
- Caniformia - which includes dogs, wolves, jackals, bears, and even animals such as seals and raccoons
Given that both bears and dogs belong to the Caniformia sub-group of the Carnivora Order, you can view them as “related”.
But that’s an incredibly loose relation. As stated before, the last time these two species were “related” was 42 million years ago.
For comparison's sake, dogs and wolves “split up” some 100,000 years ago as many studies show, which is much sooner in the grand scheme of things.
That’s why we still count dogs and wolves as “related”.
What Are “Bear Dogs”?
You may have heard about a long-extinct carnivore species and a fellow member of the Carnivoran Order – the Bear dog. Or, more accurately, the Amphicyon.
These large, ambush-style predators were widespread in both North America and Eurasia for a long time between 10 and 40 million years ago.
They were one of the first members of the Carnivoran Order too. But, despite their name, they were actually neither bears nor dogs.
Today’s bears and dogs do come from the Miacidae family. But they existed and evolved separately from the Amphicyon, instead of evolving from it.
In other words, the Amphicyon was a cousin to bears, dogs, as well as cats. It was not their predecessor.
What earns this giant predator the nickname “Bear dog” are some of the physical features it shares with both of its cousins.
The Amphicyon had long and powerful snouts like dogs, as well as their signature long tails to help it run.
The hind legs of this species were also clearly built for long jumping, which indicates that this was an ambush-style predator that likely worked alone, just like tigers.
At the same time, the Amphicyon had a massive and stocky body, similar to that of a bear.
This animal also walked on its whole paws like a bear and not just on the front halves of its paws like cats and dogs.
Eventually, some 10 million years ago, the Amphicyon was outcompeted for its food source by the combined presence of cats, wolves, dogs, and bears.
This was due to multiple factors:
- Climate change
- The slow disappearance of larger prey
- The over-specialization of the Amphicyon compared to the broader omnivore approach of dogs and bears
The Karelian Bear Dog
When wondering “are bears related to dogs”, you may have also stumbled upon the Karelian bear dog breed.
Despite their name, these dogs also have no genetic relation to bears in any way.
Instead, they are a Finish canine breed that was bred by both Finish and Russian farmers, as both a watchdog and a hunting dog.
Karelian bear dogs are well-built and of a medium size – 19 to 23.5 inches tall (48 to 60 cm) and 44 to 49 lbs in weight (20 to 22 kg).
They have a nice white & black coat, a typical canine long muzzle, and a classic dog look.
While they were mostly bred for hunting and as watchdogs, they were also bred for winter rescue missions.
Their watchdog duty included protecting against bear attacks, which is how they got their name.
Karelian bear dogs are as related to actual bears as English sheep dogs are related to sheep – in other words, not at all!
Dogs and bears are similar in a lot of ways, which is why they are even sometimes confused with each other.
They do belong to the same Carnivora Group, after all. However, there are a few key differences that put them in separate families called Canidae and Ursidae.
Here are the main differences to note.
Head and Neck Differences
Like wolves, dogs tend to have longer snouts, narrower heads, and long necks.
That’s because they often hunt prey that’s much larger than them and the further away the dog’s jaws are from its torso, the safer the it is from damage.
Furthermore, the narrow muzzle allows the dog to better dig into its prey’s carcass for that valuable organ meat.
Bears, on the other hand, have wider heads and wider necks.
The necks aren’t necessarily “short” but they are thick and muscular – their purpose isn’t to keep the torso of the bear at a safe distance at all.
Size is probably the most obvious difference between bears and dogs.
There are some small bear species, such as the Borneo Sun Bear that weighs just 75 to 80 lbs (34 to 36 kg).
There are also some truly huge dogs such as the English Mastiff, which tends to weigh between 250 to 300 lbs (110 to 135 kg).
However, on average, bears are significantly larger than dogs. Even an English Mastiff looks minuscule compared to a 1,500 lbs (680 kg) Kodiak bear.
This size difference informs us a lot of the other differences between bears and dogs.
So, while a dog or a wolf has to hunt in packs and keep safe from their prey’s retaliation, a large bear has no such concerns.
Dogs also have their signature long tails that bears usually lack. The purpose of the tail is to help the dog or wolf keep a steady balance while running, as well as to steer mid-run.
Bears have tails too, but those are small and short and don’t really serve a purpose – they are an evolutionary left-over, similar to our human tailbones.
A very key difference is that dogs have 78 chromosomes in their genome while bears have 74.
This alone shows just how different these animals actually are, despite their physical similarities.
Another big difference is the fact that – like cats – dogs and wolves don’t step on their whole paws.
Instead, what used to be their heels and their fifth toes (also called dewclaws) now just stay above ground, almost like a second knee.
The reason for that is simple – faster running and better agility. As smaller and therefore – more vulnerable – predators, dogs and wolves need to always be alert and ready to sprint.
That’s not the case with bears. Like humans and many other animals, bears step on their whole soles.
This gives them a less agile, but firmer and more stable stance. They need this to carry their massive bodies around, as well as to fight more effectively in their “stand your ground” style.
Jaws and Teeth
The jaws and teeth of dogs and bears are similar in a lot of ways.
They both have long, sharp, and deadly canine teeth that can kill most prey and deter most adversaries.
Additionally, they both have more multi-functional chomper teeth that can be used for meat as well as for vegetation.
It’s this multifunctionality that helps both bears and dogs be omnivores and better adapt to food scarcity – something that cats and the now-extinct Amphicyon never had.
However, there are still differences between the jaws and teeth of dogs and bears, that extend beyond the narrower muzzle of canines.
For one, a bear’s bite is usually much more devastating than that of a dog. That’s a function of their size and more powerful musculature, but it’s still worth mentioning.
For example, some Turkish Kangal dogs have a bite force of over 730 PSI (pounds per square inch) which is phenomenal!
However, the vast majority of other dog breeds are in the 100 to 300 PSI range.
On the other hand, polar and grizzly bears have a bite force of 1,200 PSI, with Kodiak bears being close to 1,000 PSI too.
So, an average bear usually has a ten times stronger bite force than the average dog.
Even wild wolves have a bite force of around 400 PSI, which is three times weaker than that of a grizzly.
For further context, lions have a bite force of about 650 PSI, tigers – around 1,050 PSI, and jaguars – 1,350 PSI.
This makes jaguars one of the very few members of the Carnivora Order with a more powerful bite than a bear.
An honorable mention goes to hyenas, a close relative to dogs, who sport a bite force of 1,050 PSI.
In addition to that powerful bite, bears’ jaws are also better suited for an omnivore or herbivore diet than dogs.
Dogs can chomp on the occasional root or tube if needed, but a bear’s back teeth are even better at grinding any plant they find, including leaves.
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The Main Behavioral Differences Between Dogs and Bears
Physicality aside, bears and dogs also live very different lives. Almost all dogs are pack animals, from wolves and hyenas to dingos and domesticated dogs.
There are a few exceptions of self-isolating canines such as some foxes and jackals, but most dogs are social creatures.
With bears, the reverse is true. Some bears tolerate the presence of other bears from time to time, especially when there is an abundance of resources.
However, most are self-isolating hunters and foragers. The diet of bears and dogs is another notable difference.
While both are technically omnivores, all canines have a strong preference for meat protein. A wolf, a dog, or other canines will only ever eat vegetables or roots when they are starving.
That’s still an amazing adaptation skill that has allowed canines to survive to this day, of course.
Most bears, on the other hand, eagerly eat plants, fruits, honey, leaves, and so on.
Some, like the Chinese panda, are exclusively herbivores too. And, there are exceptions in the bear world, most notably the polar bear which is strictly carnivore.
But, for the most part, bears are a more balanced omnivore while canines are omnivores only when they are forced by their circumstances.
Which Animals Are the Closest Relatives of Dogs?
We tend to recognize most of the dogs’ closest relatives pretty intuitively.
Scientists today believe that all domesticated dog breeds have evolved from wolves and not from other members of the Canidae family.
It is speculated that there have been two separate evolutions from wolves at two separate times, however.
Either way, it’s clear that both dogs and wolves share a lot of similarities with other Canidae family members too.
So, let’s quickly mention most of the most well-known and closely related wild Canidae family members:
- Wolves – this includes sub-species such as the gray wolf, Arctic wolf, Arabian wolf, Timber wolf, the now-extinct dire wolf
- Foxes – including red foxes, bat-eared foxes, fennec foxes, Arctic foxes, gray foxes, island foxes, kit foxes, and others
- Jackals – including Black-backed jackals, Side-striped jackals, Golden jackals, etc.
- Coyotes – the American cousins of jackals as the latter are often called “Old World Coyotes”
- Dingos and the closely related New Guinea Singing Dogs and other wild dogs from southeast Asia
- Dholes – common in Russia, the Himalayas, and especially India, these Caninae family members look like Dingos but have fewer teeth and more teats
Which Animals Are the Closest Relatives of Bears?
Bears come in a lot of shapes and sizes too, but you may be surprised by some of their close relatives. On the one hand, you have the many different species of bears that include:
- Asiatic Black Bear – up to 200 and even 250 lbs (90 to 115 kg) and similar to the American Black Bear but has a more distinct chest blaze which gives it the nickname “Moon Bear”
- American Black Bear – these common American bears can weigh anywhere between 120 and 500 lbs (55 to 225 kg) and are avid tree climbers and fruit lovers
- Polar Bear – the largest species and the largest terrestrial carnivore overall, these beasts can get as big as 1,500 lbs (680 kg)
- Kodiak Bear – the second-largest species, Kodiaks also often reach 1,500 lbs (680 kg) but are considered just a bit smaller than Polar Bears
- Brown Bear – the most common type of bear across the world. This includes the American Grizzly sub-species of Brown Bears. Can be as heavy as 900 lbs (400 kg)
- Sloth Bear – with a long snout and claws, the sloth bear can weigh up to 300 lbs (135 kg)
- Spectacle Bear – loves to spend time in trees despite weighing up to 275 lbs (125 kg)
- Malayan Sun Bear – the smallest of the living bear species, this bear is smaller than a lot of dog breeds
- Giant Panda – almost classified as a type of raccoon at one point, the Panda has after all been recognized as a bear
These are just different types of bears, so listing them is like listing different breeds of dogs.
What are some different species of animals you might be surprised are closely related to the Ursidae family? Here are a few examples.
Seals, Walruses, and Sea Lions
These animals belong to the Pinnipedia family which, believe it or not, is the closes related family to the Ursidae family.
These animals may look nothing like bears at first glance but they are very similar to them genetically.
Besides, if you look past the flippers and the lack of bushy fur, seals, walruses, and sea lions have very similar skeletal and skull structures as well as almost identical jaws to bears.
Bears share a much more recent ancestor with seals and sea lions than they do with dogs and wolves.
The Ursidae and Pinnipedia families simply strayed into two very separate directions – one stayed on land while the other prefers the sea.
It is a little ironic that seals are the preferred food of polar bears, but that’s nature for you!
Otters, Badgers, Weasels, Ferrets, Wolverines, and Minks
Those animals belong to the Mustelidae family. Some of these species can look more like bears than seals and sea lions, as they are terrestrial and have fur.
However, the Mustelidae family is more distant from the Ursidae than the Pinnipedia family. Still, they are pretty similar in a lot of respects.
They too are sturdy, furry, and omnivore, however they are much smaller. They also tend to have elongated, quick, and agile bodies.
Raccoons, Coatis, Ringtails, Kinkajous, and Others
These belong to the Procyonidae family. They are very closely related to the Mustelidae family, but not as much as the Pinnipedia and Ursidae family.
Even kinkajous are closer relatives to bears than dogs are.
10 Dog Breeds That Look Like Bears
If you want a dog that looks like a bear as much as possible, there are quite a few breeds you can look into.
Our preferred 10 suggestions are as follows:
- Alaskan malamute
- Bush dogs
- Caucasian shepherd dogs
- Chow Chow
- Great Pyrenees
- Maremmano-Abruzzese Sheepdog
- Tibetan Mastiff
So, are bears related to dogs? Yes and no.
The two species are related only as much as humans are related to lemurs and lorises in the Primate Order – a little bit, but not to a significant or meaningful degree.
To further illustrate, humans and apes are related similar to how dogs and wolves are related, but bears are too distant of a relation to count.
I hope this article answered your question, now you have all the information you need to educate others!
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