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dog parent must-knows
Dog eating from three bowls

Why is protein important for dogs?

Protein should be part of a dog’s well-balanced diet because it, along with other minerals and vitamins, is necessary to both build and maintain the tissue that helps carry out a dog’s biological reactions1 and to sustain joint health. Dogs have also evolved to turn to proteins and fats in particular as primary energy sources.

Is there such a thing as “the best protein” for dogs?

Short answer? Not exactly. The best protein for your dog will be one your dog isn’t allergic to, one your dog enjoys eating, and one that’s high in quality — or bioavailability.

How much protein does a dog actually need?

When you’re shopping for commercial dog food, look for products that meet the standards recommended by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), which currently lists protein standards for dogs are 22.5% for growth and reproduction and 18% for adult maintenance.

But exactly how much protein your dog needs varies depending on your dog’s breed, weight, health conditions, and activity level. For example, active or athletic dogs with kidney disease may need less protein than those without the condition. You’ll find that the average diet for an adult dog contains 25-30% crude protein on a sample food label, but a diet curated for dogs with renal disease may contain closer to 15% crude protein.

Protein and sensitive stomachs

Not all dogs will digest all proteins equally, and just like humans, some may be sensitive to certain protein sources and food ingredients. If Fido has a sensitive stomach, your vet may recommend switching from a chicken-based diet to a diet with more beef or fish.

What happens when a pet doesn’t get enough protein?

Pets that don’t receive enough protein can potentially experience health problems2 like weight loss, weakness, muscle loss, poor digestion and a build-up of flood in their chest and abdomen. Dogs with insulin resistance or diabetes3 in particular can benefit from high-protein, low-carb foods.

When deciding on the amount of protein and which sources to include in your dog’s diet, remember to consult your veterinarian.

Can a dog have too much protein?

Extra protein in a healthy pet is unlikely to be harmful2, because it will probably just be broken down in the body. Historically, excess protein has, however, been linked to kidney failure in dogs, but there’s some misunderstanding behind that, experts say4.

When a kidney fails, it allows a byproduct of protein metabolism called urea to build up in the blood and make Fido ill. Decreasing protein in the diet can decrease that mechanism of urea build-up, yes, but if protein is too low, this can cause even more harm to your pup.

Researchers continue to debate whether dogs with kidney disease should limit protein intake, but the one consensus is this: Choose proteins with the highest quality that produce fewer waste products, such as eggs, milk, meats, soybean, and grains.

When do dogs benefit from high-protein diets?

Dogs with insulin resistance or diabetes3 in particular can benefit from high-protein, low-carb foods, as well as senior dogs that need a little more help maintaining their ideal body conditions.

Other instances where a high-protein diet can prove especially beneficial: if Fido needs some help managing weight gain, if your pup is an athlete, or if your fur friend is gestating and lactating.

A high-protein diet is unlikely to be harmful to a healthy dog, but before making any adjustments to your dog’s food, be sure to consult your veterinarian.

What is protein bioavailability?

There are several types of prime protein sources out there, such as animal-sourced proteins, vegetable proteins, legume proteins, and grain proteins, but veterinarians will tell you that the source of any nutrition component isn’t as important as its quality and digestibility1.

A protein’s digestibility is often referred to as its bioavailability or its biological value. Though animal-based proteins are considered among the most naturally bioavailable to dogs, their digestibility can change based on how the food has been cooked or processed. The best quality proteins will have the highest amounts of essential amino acids — or building blocks of protein — that the animal body can’t create on its own.

When it comes to assessing bioavailability in protein formulas for pets, researchers take a few things into consideration3:

  • Is the protein source animal-based or plant-based? Animal-based proteins are generally the most naturally bioavailable to dogs, but with the appropriate supplements, some dogs can adapt to vegan or vegetarian diets. Always consult your vet if you’re trying to feed your dog such a diet as dogs are naturally omnivorous.
  • What is the source organism? For example, if it’s an animal-based protein, does it derive from a fish like salmon? Does it derive from beef or lamb? If it’s a plant-based protein source, does it derive from corn or something else? Some protein source organisms, such as whole eggs or salmon, may have higher bioavailability depending on their processing.
  • What parts of the organism will be included? Plant part or whole? Skeletal muscle or organ meat?
  • How will the protein be added? Will it be raw, frozen, fresh, or processed? The more highly processed at extreme temperatures3, for example, the lower its biological value.

All of the above may help researchers determine the nutrient composition, ingredient handling, manufacturing and ultimately, the quality of bioavailability of the protein.

9 types of proteins commonly found in dog food

Chicken. Chicken is one of the most common protein sources found in dog food—and the third most common dog food allergen after beef and dairy products, affecting approximately 15% of dogs. In general, chicken is a great source of protein, especially for pups with sensitive stomachs.

Turkey. Another protein source you might find in commercial dog food is turkey, but that doesn’t mean you should feed Fido scraps of your Thanksgiving dinner!

Beef. Although about 34% of dogs are allergic to beef and beef by-products, the protein source is wildly popular when it comes to commercial dog foods. Novel proteins like venison also fit into this category.

Fish. Fish is a healthy protein for pups and is often included in dog food as an alternative protein source for pets allergic to chicken and beef. High in omega-3 fatty acids, fish like salmon and tilapia, among others, can help decrease inflammation. Only about 2% of dogs are allergic to fish, but when trying out Fido’s tolerance to any particular fish, start with a small amount.

Rabbit. Naturally high in protein, rabbit is another novel protein source available in some pet foods that your doggie could love.

Lamb. For dogs with chicken and beef allergies, lamb is considered a recommended replacement protein source. It’s another great pick for pups with sensitive tummies or food allergies. Approximately 5% of dogs are allergic to lamb and lamb by-products.

Pork. Pork is often found in commercial dog food, and it contains more calories per pound4 than other common protein sources. Some veterinarians urge pet parents to be cautious about how much their pup is getting from this protein source, because the meat contains a type of fat they say is more difficult to digest compared to other meats. Thus, consumption can lead to indigestion and inflammation of the pancreas. Approximately 2% of dogs are allergic to pork.

Plant-based proteins. Dogs have evolved to be able to adapt to more complex diets than their carnivorous wolffian predecessors, and there are plenty of vet-approved plant-based options out there when it comes to commercial dog food, too. Without the proper supplements, however, it’s possible that a dog on such a diet can experience protein or vitamin deficiency.

Eggs. Egg protein has the highest biological value for dogs and is another ingredient you may find in some premium pet foods. On their own, eggs are high in protein, fatty acids and vitamins, though overconsumption can lead to obesity. Approximately 4% of dogs are allergic to eggs.

A good general rule of thumb1 when it comes to dog food: Consult your vet and seek out the highest-quality dog food you can comfortably afford. And when it comes to puppies, introduce them to a variety of protein sources to help reduce allergy risk.

High-quality foods tend to provide a full spectrum of essential amino acids. That means the protein makeup of your dog’s food will most likely be a combination of multiple protein sources. Foods considered lower-quality might contain highly-processed animal proteins. Through extensive processing such as cooking with extensive pressure or temperature, it’s likely the effectiveness of the amino acids in these protein sources have been altered.

Dog foods that contain wheat, corn or soy are generally good sources of carbohydrates, proteins, and other nutrients for the average dog, but if heavily processed, they, too, may contain fewer effective amino acids.

4 vet-approved foods with great proteins for dogs

For dogs who love fishChippin Pet Silver Carp is a nutritious, recommended food source with fresh silver carp spruced directly from fishermen in the United States.

For picky eaters that prefer chicken — The Purina Pro Plan with Probiotics Shredded Blend is made with a blend of essential nutrients and real chicken and is continuously backed by nutritionists and veterinarians.

For hypoallergenic dogs with a vegan diet — The Purina Pro Plan HA is one of our only recommended vegetarian blends, and it’s especially recommended for picky pups.

For hypoallergenic dogs that enjoy venisonHill’s Prescription Diet uses venison as its essential protein source and vets recommend this formula to help clear up stomach issues and skin/coat conditions in pups.

What about dog foods with “by-products”?

When dog food labels list “by-product” ingredients, it doesn’t necessarily mean the ingredients or parts of the animal used in the food are inferior in quality, safety, or nutrition.

How to read a dog food label 

Start with the product name

The name hints at the ingredients in the container and is actually more influential than you think. For example, if the product says “chicken for dogs,” the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) states the product must include at least 95% of chicken — and must be at least 70% of the total product when counting for added water. This is called the 95% rule.

The 25% rule refers to products named something like “beef dinner for dogs” and means that beef must comprise at least 25% but less than 95% of the product.

If your dog food label says dinner “with beef” or “with” another ingredient, that ingredient only needs to be at least 3% of the whole product. This is called the “with” rule.

And lastly, there’s the flavor rule. If your dog food product says “chicken flavor dog food” then there’s no specific percentage of the product required, but according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the product “must contain an amount sufficient to be able to be detected.”

In general, if your dog is eating food that has undergone feeding trials or is approved by AAFCO guidelines, it’s likely that your pet is getting enough protein. Your dog food label can be confusing to read, but understanding it can help you make the best choice for your pup. Here are some quick tips from the American Kennel Club:

See what the quantity tells you — Understanding how much food is actually in your container can help you do a cost comparison when shopping.

Pay attention to protein, fat, fiber and water amounts — You can find this under the guaranteed analysis. Here, dog food labels will display the percentage of crude protein, crude fat, crude fiber, and water.

Pet food ingredients are typically listed by order of weight — You can find your dog food’s primary sources of protein by looking for the first 6 ingredients listed on the package.

Look out for the fine print — Among the fine print on the side or back of your package, you’ll find the nutritional adequacy statement that tells you which life stage is most appropriate for the product. The AAFCO recognizes the following stages: gestation/lactation, growth, maintenance, and all life stages.

Don’t gloss over the feeding guidelines, but always consult your vet first — These aren’t hard or fast rules.

Frequently asked questions 

Can dogs eat a vegetarian diet?

Though dogs are naturally omnivores, they can thrive on a vegetarian diet of balanced nutrients. Without the proper supplements, however, it’s possible that a dog on a vegetarian diet can experience protein or vitamin deficiency.

What is the best protein for overweight dogs?

Not all dog foods and protein sources are created with bioavailability in mind, so it’s important to consult your vet before making major dietary changes to Fido’s nutrition plan, especially when it comes to weight loss. That being said, vets may recommend fresh, lean proteins such as chicken, turkey, fish, and eggs coupled with high fiber foods such as fresh brussels sprouts and broccoli.

What is the best protein for dogs with sensitive stomachs?

This actually depends on your dog as certain proteins may increase stomach sensitivity in your dogs. For example, your vet may recommend switching from a chicken-based diet to a diet with more beef or fish if your dog has a sensitive stomach. In general, you’ll want to look out for high-quality ingredients when shopping around for dog food.

Is meat better than meat-meal?

Actually, ingredients that list chicken meal refer to chicken with the water and fat removed, meaning it can actually contain a higher percentage of protein4 compared to just chicken as an ingredient. When you see chicken listed as an ingredient, it refers to unprocessed chicken with water.

What’s the healthiest meat for dogs?

To determine what’s healthiest, you need to understand how the meats have been processed, whether your dog has an allergy to a certain meat, and whether your pup enjoys the food to ensure they will even retain the nutrients! Protein sources like chicken, turkey and lean ground beef are all great options for animal-based protein diets.

Is chicken or salmon better for dogs?

Chicken and salmon both retain high biological value for dogs, but the quality of protein depends on how the meats have been processed and whether or not your dog has an allergy to a certain meat.

What’s the most easily digestible protein for dogs?

Whole eggs have high biological values and are a great source of protein for Fido, but there are many recommended options, including chicken, turkey, salmon, and lean ground beef.

How much protein should dog food have?

The minimum requirement of crude protein3 for adult dogs is 8%, but the average diet for an adult dog typically contains 25-30% crude protein on the food label. Exactly how much protein your dog needs varies depending on your dog’s breed, weight, health conditions, and activity level.

What fish is best for dogs?

Salmon and tilapia are highly recommended by vets! When trying out Fido’s tolerance to any particular fish, start with a small amount.

Are any meats bad for dogs?

Not generally, though pork is a fattier cut of meat and can increase risk of developing pancreatitis, so you’ll want to keep consumption to a minimum. If your dog is sensitive or allergic to a certain meat, you’ll also want to avoid this as a protein source and consult your vet for an alternate source.

Do dogs prefer beef or lamb?

It all depends on your dog’s allergies and pickiness! Many pups with allergies to chicken, fish or beef switch to lamb-based diets.