Why Does My Dog Need Protein?

Veterinarian Trisha Joyce, DVM, of BluePearl Pet Hospital, has seen the consequences of canine protein deprivation. Six weeks after Hurricane Katrina, Dr. Joyce headed to New Orleans to volunteer her time, providing care for animals impacted by the storm. “The dog was like a skeleton with skin on it,” she recalls. “Without the normal amount of protein, the body begins to break down. The poor animal could barely walk.” This poor body condition indicates the importance of protein in your dog’s diet.

As Dr. Joyce and her colleagues set out to put the meat back on the beagle’s bones, it was good quality high protein dog food that played a significant part in returning the dog to its fighting weight. Below, Dr. Joyce weighs in on the importance of protein and what kinds your dog needs to stay healthy.

Dogs evolved from wolves in the wild, surviving primarily on a diet of other animals. Their digestive systems learned to utilize meat, fat, and bones. This diet provided them with amino acids, the building blocks of protein they needed and could only get from animal food sources. They came to rely on these amino acids to build, maintain, and repair their bodies, from the skin to muscle tissue. But not just any protein will do. “Like humans, dogs need a variety of amino acids, and not all proteins contain them,” says Dr. Joyce.

The protein in dog foods can be supplied by animal sources, plant sources, or a combination of the two. Familiar animal-based protein sources used in dog food include chicken, lamb, fish meal, and beef. Familiar plant-based protein sources used in your dog’s food include corn-gluten meal and soybean meal.

High Protein or Low Protein Dog Food – How Much Protein Do Dogs Need?

Have you heard that too much protein is bad for your dog? Or have you heard that dog food doesn’t have enough protein? When you look at the labels on various dog foods, some are high protein, while others are lower protein. Some say they have 30 percent protein, some 26 percent, 22 percent, or 18 percent. How much protein does your dog need?

Protein is a nutrient that provides four calories of energy per gram. It’s a building block for muscles, organs, bones, and connective tissue. It makes up blood cells, antibodies, hair, and enzymes. The body that oversees pet nutrition, the American Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), requires that all dog foods have a minimum of 18 percent protein in adult dog food and 22 percent protein in puppy food when all water is removed from the food. But is this what your dog needs? The answer is, it depends.

Active dogs (sled dogs, police dogs, field or hunting dogs, herding dogs) need more protein which can be found in sporting dog food. These super fit dogs are physically working for several hours each day. They usually require 25 percent or more protein in their diet to build muscle and repair injuries. Puppies, too, need higher protein because they’re growing.

Best High Protein Dog Food Recommendations

Even though some dogs are fed plant-based diets, your dog is not an herbivore. It’s an omnivore. That means your dog is a critter that eats both animal and plant-based foods.

The body structure of your domestic dog is similar to that of its carnivorous ancestors and relatives, which include wolves, coyotes, foxes, and jackals. These animals are all meat-eating machines. Their teeth and digestive systems are designed to chow down on animal flesh. Consider the following:

  • Your dog possesses the enlarged carnassial teeth that carnivores are named after. These teeth are efficient at digging into and holding prey, skills that were essential for survival in the wild. 
  • Your pet’s gastrointestinal tract is uncomplicated and cannot digest large amounts of plant products.

High-quality animal-source proteins contain all the essential amino acids your dog needs, whereas some plant-based proteins may be deficient in certain essential amino acids. So although your dog is classified as an omnivore, it is best mainly fed as a carnivore.

Animal vs. Plant Protein in Your Dog’s Diet

Dogs are omnivorous, meaning they can make use of the nutrients in both plant and animal sources. However, plant protein alone does not supply the amino acid balances they need to thrive. “For dogs,” says Dr. Joyce, “vegetable protein is inferior to animal protein.”

While protein in commercial dog foods comes from both meat and plant sources, the most nutritious dog food will have a high-quality animal protein listed as one of its first (if not the first) ingredient. “The body more easily uses higher-quality animal protein,” explains Dr. Joyce.

What Can I Give My Dog for Protein?

Recent studies have examined how the type of protein in a diet affects adult and senior dogs’ body composition.

In this study, dogs were fed diets with varying amounts of protein from chicken and corn gluten meal. The study analyzed their body composition (muscle versus fat tissue). Additionally, the study also measured levels of essential blood and muscle proteins.

Compared with dogs that were fed a diet with 100% chicken protein, dogs that consumed foods with decreasing levels of chicken and increasing levels of corn gluten meal had:

  • Decreased lean tissue
  • Increased body fat
  • Reduced levels of blood proteins routinely used as markers of superior nutritional status

This was independent of the overall dietary protein level — 12 or 28% — also examined in each of the four test groups.

As your dog ages, its body composition and muscle-specific proteins decline. Therefore, another study looked at the differences that became evident when elder pooches consumed a 32% protein chicken-based diet, a 32% protein chicken and corn gluten meal diet, or a 16% protein chicken-based diet.

Senior dogs fed the 32% chicken protein diet had better body composition and a muscle-specific protein pattern identical to what was measured in healthy young adult dogs. However, those results were not seen in either of the other two diets.

Protein and Your Dog

Feeding your dog a diet with primarily animal-based protein sources helps to do the following:

  • Maintain your dog’s muscle mass
  • Reverse some age-related changes in skeletal muscles in senior dogs
  • Enhance the long-term health and well-being of adult and senior dogs

The bottom line is good-quality, meaty dog foods that will have your dog licking its chops and wagging its tail. At the same time, you can smile with confidence, knowing that you’ve fed your loyal friend what it craves and what its body needs.

What Percentage of a Dog’s Diet Should Be Protein?

When considering your dog’s protein needs, consider his physical condition and activity level. Generally, an adult dog in good health requires around 18-25 percent protein as part of their daily diet. Most commercial dog foods should have a minimum protein content of about 18 percent.  

If your dog isn’t active and not getting much exercise, a food with 18 percent protein might be sufficient. Another sign of inactivity is excess weight. (If you have trouble feeling your dog’s ribs through too much padding, then it is probably overweight.) The critical thing to remember is that age, activity level, fitness, and health problems should all be considered. If you have a senior dog that doesn’t run around much, then lower protein is right. If he’s still hunting or pulling sleds, he can benefit from a higher protein diet.

While people once believed that older dogs routinely needed lower protein diets to avoid stress to their kidneys, veterinary nutritionists have done an about-face on this. Older dogs with kidney problems do, indeed, need low-protein food. But older dogs with healthy kidneys may need more protein as they age because muscle mass tends to diminish with age, and the seniors need the extra protein to maintain their muscles.

Protein in your dog’s diet is essential, but remember how much depends largely on your dog’s age, activity level, and fitness. Talk to your veterinarian about what’s right for your dog.

What Happens If a Dog Has Too Much Protein?

But isn’t too much protein bad for a dog? Again, it depends. Thousands of sled dogs are routinely fed high-protein diets without a problem, but these dogs metabolize all that protein in their work. They’re lean and healthy and lead long lives, sometimes 15 years and older. 

Dogs are only able to use a certain amount of protein each day. As protein is highly calorie-dense, any excess is then stored as fat on the body, which can then lead to obesity and the conditions it causes. Excess protein is excreted as nitrogen in your dog’s urine, turning your green lawn yellow. As the liver and kidneys have to metabolize the by-products of protein, feeding your dog a diet high in protein can increase these organs’ workload.

How Do I Know If My Dog is Getting Too Much Protein?

There are a couple of things to look out for to make sure you are not feeding your dog too much protein. Firstly, your dog’s weight is a good indicator, and secondly, if your dog is leaving yellow patches on the lawn from doing his business. If your dog is putting on weight, then check the protein levels of the food you are feeding your dog to make sure they are not too high. Feed your dog food with a protein level of around 18 percent to see if this helps these symptoms. Check with your veterinarian if you have any concerns about the protein levels in your dog’s diet.

What are the Types of High-Quality Protein for Dogs?

Meats and meat by-products provide high-quality protein for dogs. By-products, including blood, internal organs, and bones, might not sound appetizing to a human palate but necessary for canines in the wild. Before becoming companion animals to humans who fed them promptly and nutritiously every morning, these dogs could not afford to leave any part of their prey uneaten. Their bodies came to rely on the whole animal as a nutrition source.

How Can I Identify a High-Quality Protein Dog Food?

Identifying high-quality protein will only take a minute but may require that you put on your reading glasses. As mentioned above, the first ingredient listed on your dog’s food bag should be a specifically identified high-quality protein source. “The label should specify which animal the protein comes from, for example, chicken or beef,” says Dr. Joyce. Any variation on, say, chicken is acceptable (for example, chicken meal or chicken by-product meal).

Protein Do’s and Don’ts for Your Dog’s Diet

  • Do feed your normal-weight dog a commercial food containing high-quality protein like chicken, chicken meal, or chicken by-product meal.
  • Do consult your veterinarian about the special dietary needs of your pet at all life stages.
  • Don’t feed your dog table scraps. Your pet’s protein needs should be satisfied during mealtime. Any extras may lead to stomach problems and weight gain.
  • Don’t give your dog protein supplements (unless your veterinarian recommends them).

With a diet rich in high-quality protein, your dog will maintain muscle mass as it ages and be more likely to experience long-term health and well-being, just like Dr. Joyce’s once anorexic beagle. Dr. Joyce reports that it is now living in Florida, fat and happy with its lucky new family.

Article written by Authors: Margaret H. BonhamTimothy BrillDarcy Lockman, and The Dog Daily Expert

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