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Just like for people, protein is an important part of a dog’s diet. The right balance of protein is an essential part of everything from healthy skin to muscle repair.
But what is the right balance of protein for a dog? How much protein should be in your dog’s diet?
To answer these questions, we first have to unpack the role of protein in your dog’s body. Where does protein come from? What is it composed of? And how is it used by your dog? All these questions and more are covered below.
(By the way, you can also learn more about these issues in KetoNatural founder Dan Schulof’s podcast episode “How Much Protein Does My Dog Need?”.)
How Much Protein Do Dogs Actually Need?
There’s no question that dogs thrive on a high protein diet. Although dogs — just like their distant wolf ancestors — can absorb nutrients from vegetables and grains, dog diets should still prioritize high-quality protein.
According to the standards set by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), dog diets should contain at least 22.5% protein while a dog is growing and at least 18% for maintenance. However, research shows that dogs may thrive on diets much higher in protein. In a study where dogs were allowed to self-select their own macronutrients, dogs chose a diet that was approximately 52% fat and 44% protein by calories. (All of the dogs chose diets with minimal carbohydrates.)
When domestic dogs are allowed to choose their diet, they instinctively seek out diets high in protein and fat. This is similar to their ancestral diet — wolves tend to prefer diets that are 52% protein and 45% fat.
To avoid developing a nutritional deficiency and loss of muscle mass, dogs need at least 16% of their calories to come from protein. This number may be enough to allow dogs to survive, but this isn’t a biologically appropriate diet. When dogs are allowed to choose how to fuel their own bodies, they take in almost three times more protein than this threshold amount.
It’s important for dog owners to consider diets that go beyond the industry standards. A high-protein dog food that’s ketogenic (high in fat and low in carbohydrates) is more consistent with the dog’s own instincts and can lead to better health outcomes.
Why Protein Is Important in Dog Diets
Protein is responsible for maintaining parts of the body, including skin, hair, muscles, and bones. It can also support the immune system and regulate hormones.
However, some of its most essential functions are:
Building and maintaining muscle mass
Repairing and maintaining organs
Producing glucose without carbohydrates
Unlike other macronutrients, like carbohydrates, protein is essential for dogs to live a healthy and balanced life. Many dog foods contain 30% to 70% carbohydrates, like barley, oats, rice, wheat, corn, and potato. In these non keto kibbles, carbohydrates often act as fillers — providing calories with little nutritional value.
Taking away those carbohydrates wouldn't impact a dog's health. When on a low-carb, high protein and moderate fat diet, the body enters a state of ketosis, allowing it to function without the glucose produced by carbohydrates. If the source of protein were taken away, however, the dog would go into deficiency, losing muscle mass and developing serious health issues.
How Much Protein Is Too Much?
When considering the different dog foods, some owners want to know: Is there such a thing as too much protein for a dog?
The short answer is: It’s unlikely that any owner could feed their dog too much protein. In most commercial dog foods, 18% to 25% of the calories come from protein. With keto dog food, it’s typically higher. Ketona, for example, has 42% of the calories coming from protein. It would take an extremely high-protein diet — somewhere around 80% of the calories — to come close to a diet where your dog isn’t getting enough of the other nutrients that they need. That isn’t a number you’ll find in any source of dog food on the market today.
However, some dog owners are concerned about the health risk of “too much” protein. According to a long-standing myth, too much protein can damage a dog’s kidneys. However, this claim has no scientific basis. Studies show that even “excessive” protein consumption has no effect on kidney function.
What Does This Mean When Shopping for Dog Food?
Science backs the importance of protein in your dog’s diet. But what does that mean when shopping for dog food?
Whether you’re shopping online or going to the dog food aisle in a local store, it isn’t easy to determine which brands have the most protein. Some dog foods will have percentages on the label, but those numbers aren't always the same from brand to brand. There are also other factors to take into consideration, such as moisture & ash content.
For example, a can of wet food might state that the protein content is 15%. However, if 70% of the contents are water, leaving only 30% dry matter, the 15% isn’t representative of the actual protein in the food.
In order to find the actual protein content in dog food, you first need to take out the moisture content, which you can find on the label. While wet food has the highest moisture percentage, most dry foods will also have some moisture — usually around 10%. Then, you divide the protein percentage by the amount of dry matter in the can. Finally, you multiply by 100.
For the example above, you’re left with only 30% dry matter. So, you can divide 15% by 30% to get 0.5%. When you multiply that by 100, you’re left with the final percentage: 50%.
Using the right calculations, you can get to the bottom of the actual protein content in each product, whether it’s dry kibble or wet dog food. Knowing the numbers is the first step towards choosing the right low-carb diet for your dog.
High-Protein Dog Food: Putting Your Dog's Health First
While many leading dog food brands load their products with carbs, this can come at the cost of your dog’s health. Backed by years of research on canine nutrition, the bottom line is this: Dogs should be powered by protein and fat, not carbs.