Ask a vet: How much protein does my dog actually need?

By Ericka Carroll, VMD, Because Animals’ Veterinary Advisor 

With the seemingly endless aisles in pet food stores offering pet owners an overwhelming and diverse selection of foods, I understand how daunting it can be to decide what to feed our pets. 

As a small animal veterinarian, nutrition questions are among the most common I get from concerned pet parents. With that in mind, here are three common protein myths and some tips to remember the next time your dog asks, “What’s for dinner?” 

Dog seemingly asking what's for dinner

Myth #1: Dogs are carnivores

With so many high-protein and grain-free dog food options available, it is easy to forget that dogs are omnivores. This means they require a balance of proteins, fruits, vegetables, grains, and healthy fats in their diet to maintain optimal health. As omnivores, dogs also produce a variety of enzymes used in carbohydrate digestion and have lower protein requirements than carnivores.  

Myth #2: If some protein is good, more must always be better

Undoubtedly, dogs need protein as a part of a healthy, balanced diet. Protein provides the body and muscles with ten essential amino acids needed for growth and repair. While the exact amount of protein needed varies based on age and lifestyle, the average adult dog needs at least 18% protein (equal to 1 gram per pound of body weight) on a dry matter basis in their food to maintain health.  

When there is too much protein in a dog’s diet, it cannot be stored in the body for future use. Rather, the excess is broken down and stored as fat and that can lead to obesity and related health concerns. The waste products from this break down process need to be removed by the kidneys. Also, several medical conditions can be made worse with too much protein. 

Myth #3: The optimal nutrition for dogs can be traced to their ancestral roots as wolves

Although dogs may have descended from wolves, their nutritional needs are quite different.  In 2013, researchers compared the genes of dogs and wolves and published the results in a highly prestigious and reputable scientific journal. They found that the gene responsible for starch (carbohydrate) digestion in dogs had evolved, making dogs better able to digest and to use carbohydrates as energy than wolves. This change in their DNA was a key feature that helped with domestication.

As a veterinarian I know how good nutrition can enhance a dog’s quality of life. I also know how confusing choosing a pet food can be. In terms of protein, remember more is not always better and balancing protein with other nutrients is key. Asking a trusted veterinarian for advice is essential in making this important decision for both you and your pet.