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Protein is such an important subject for dog owners. People discussing dog food often wage battle about how much and what kind of protein dogs need. We generally like high protein diets for dogs, or at least higher protein than dog foods used to provide. And we like good meat sources for that protein instead of plant sources. But even after stating these preferences, there is a wide range of dog foods today that fall under the “high protein” label. Some are much better than others.

Why do dogs need protein?

Dogs need protein for their muscles, skin, coat, bones, and just about every body part and tissue. Every cell in the body contains protein. The amino acids found in protein form chains to create the protein molecules. There are 22 amino acids in the dog’s metabolism. Dogs can synthesize 12 of these amino acids but they have to acquire 10 of them from their diet. These are called essential amino acids because they have to come from outside the dog’s body but they are still necessary for life. Dogs can get these essential amino acids from different kinds of meat (and other proteins). Different meats have different amino acid profiles.

Your dog can get some protein from plant sources such as pea protein, corn, and other things you often see on dog food labels, but it is easier for dogs to digest nutrients from animals than from plants. Animal ingredients also have a more complete array of amino acids than grains and legumes.

So, all things considered, animal sources of protein are better for your dog than plant sources.

Are dogs carnivores?

No, they’re not. They’re really, really not.

Sure, dogs are descended from wolves. That’s true.  They have fangs (canine teeth). They have a short digestive tract. They have some carnivore qualities. But dogs diverged from wolves thousands of years ago. They have been living with humans for at least 15,000 years. And during that time they have been eating scraps and grains. They were likely scavenging human camps even before that for trash. Dogs have enzymes to digest starches and fats that wolves don’t have.

Dogs are omnivores. Your dog can eat (and will enjoy) some fruits, some steamed or pulverized vegetables, and other things in your kitchen. You probably already know that he will be happy to dine out of the trash can or grab something off the kitchen counter when your back is turned. Dogs are amazing opportunists when it comes to food. They certainly don’t limit themselves to eating meat and they are not obligate carnivores like cats who have to eat meat.

Why high protein?

You might be asking, “If dogs are omnivores, why should they eat a high protein diet?” That’s a fair question and opinions will differ.

The research organizations that make pronouncements about what your dog should eat (which determines how the pet food companies make their foods and how much they suggest you feed) give the following recommendations about protein:

As you can see, these protein percentages are a little different (and there have been some discussions to try to reconcile the recommendations). Basically, the lowest minimum is 18 percent protein for a maintenance adult dog food, with a recommended allowance of 25 percent. So a “high” protein dog food could probably be considered anything over 25 percent. When you look at most good quality “premium” or “super premium” dog foods that have one or two meat proteins in the first few ingredients, they should easily have 25 percent protein or higher, by dry matter basis.

Can Dog Foods have too much protein?

The meat protein ingredients are usually the most expensive ingredients in a dog food, so there is usually a limit on how much meat protein a dog food company will put in a food, simply for financial reasons. When dog food companies change formulas, they usually start cutting back on the meat ingredients, replacing them with other kinds of protein such as pea protein or other legumes/pulses, since corn is no longer welcome. Or you may see added eggs, whey or other dairy products which also add protein. The protein percentage will look the same or similar, but there is less meat protein. That can be okay if it’s okay with your dog – but you are usually paying the same price for less meat. The company will also tell you that the formula has been “improved.” Don’t believe it. It might be time to look for another dog food if you don’t like the changes.

As far as having too much protein, your dog can only use so much protein as calories, or store some as fat, before he excretes the excess as expensive urine.

You do not want to feed a dog food that is all meat, or nearly all meat for the simple reason that it won’t be a balanced food. Your dog needs other nutrients besides protein. He needs other things than meat. He needs fat and, yes, even some nutrients that are provided in carbs. Carbohydrates are another contentious dog food issue but they can have some benefits if not fed in excess or used as a substitute for good sources or protein in a dog food. They provide glucose for energy, dietary fiber, and they are a good way to provide calories that don’t cost as much as meat. Yes, there is an economic element to feeding carbs. They help your dog feel full.

Can all dogs eat high protein diets?

No. Dogs who have existing kidney disease (BUN over 75) should not eat a high protein diet. And, since high protein dog foods are often higher in fat, dogs who need to avoid high fat diets should be careful about eating these foods as well. If you have any questions about high protein diets, we suggest consulting with your veterinarian.

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