Which Protein for Dogs Is Best? Deciding on the Best Ingredients for Your Dog's Food

BY | February 08 | COMMENTS PUBLISHED BY
Which Protein for Dogs Is Best?
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vet verified Dr. Joseph J. Wakshlag, DVM Associate Professor of Clinical Nutrition

Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine Ithaca, NY


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Everyone needs protein, including your dog, but as we now know, there are a number of different sources for this essential nutrient. What kind of protein is best for your dog?

Most of us know that dogs need a good source of protein in order to stay healthy and active and live a long, happy life. And yet, when comparing the different dog foods available, it can be hard to figure out which will give your pet the right amount and, more importantly, the right kinds of protein.

The fact is, not all proteins are made equally. Some protein sources are easier for your dog to digest and thus extract their nutrients. And just because one dog food has a higher protein content than another doesn’t mean it is necessarily the better one for your pet. If your dog food is an AAFCO-approved product, your dog will be getting the minimum amount needed to maintain adequate health, but the digestibility and quality of the protein can still vary.

The Question of Digestibility

Protein provides energy for dogs and is also the source of many essential amino acids, without which a dog cannot thrive. Dogs require 20 amino acids, 10 of which dogs can synthesize themselves and 10 of which must come from proteins in the diet.

In order to utilize these amino acids, however, dogs must be able to digest the protein. This is why a high protein content in dog food is no guarantee of quality. If that protein is difficult to digest, it isn’t going to supply the same benefit that a food with less protein but of a source that is more digestible can provide.

The amount of usable amino acids in a protein is called its biological value. Eggs have the highest biological value and are thus the benchmark for this measurement; they are given a value of 100 points. Fish meal comes next, with a value of around 92. Among the various types of meat, lamb and chicken provide the most digestible forms of protein for your dog, with beef coming in after that.

When looking at a dog food’s ingredients label, high-quality dog food will list these protein sources first—lamb, chicken, beef, and some of the by-products of these animals. Many people may flinch when they see the word “by-product,” but by-products made up of animal organs, and blood can actually be a good protein source for dogs. Commercial dog foods won’t use hides, hair, and hooves, which are very hard for a dog to digest.

Grain products such as corn, legumes, and soy are also relatively good sources of digestible protein but often are not as well balanced in necessary amino acids. They can, however, be used to balance amino acid profiles in commercial pet foods. Since dogs are omnivores, there is evidence that the addition of carb-containing grains to food is healthy for a dog, particularly since all grains except wheat are not high on the allergy list for dogs.

Types of Protein-Based Food For Your Dog

Single-source proteins 

Single-source proteins are the most common type of dog food. They consist of a single type of protein, such as chicken, beef, or duck. These foods may be more expensive than multi-source proteins (foods that contain more than one source of protein) but can be beneficial for your dog's health.

Single-source proteins are often made from a single source of meat like chicken or beef, which is usually cheaper than other meats. But these nutrients are important for keeping your dog's coat shiny and healthy, so they still need some amount added back into the diet through supplements like fish oil!

Limited ingredient dry dog food

Some dry dog foods have a good sense of keeping their ingredient lists short and sweet. If you see just a few words on the back of a bag, you're likely looking at limited ingredient dry dog food. Sometimes these foods are referred to as "hypoallergenic," but that's not necessarily true (more on that later).

There are some advantages to this type of food. It might be easier for your pet with allergies or other conditions like IBD and kidney disease to tolerate limited ingredient diet foods. Some experts say this is because these ingredients don't contain any proteins that could cause an allergic response in certain dogs, it doesn't matter if there is more than one kind of protein in the food. It only matters if there is enough protein overall for your dog's body weight, so he gets all his nutrients from it. If your pet has a specific condition where he needs less protein than an average adult dog does, choosing a limited ingredient diet could help him stay healthy while still getting what his body needs from each mealtime.

Wild-caught fish

Fish is a good source of protein, omega-3 fatty acids, selenium, and vitamin D. A good rule of thumb to keep in mind when choosing fish for your dog is that smaller and more delicate fish tend to have higher amounts of mercury than larger ones. When selecting fish for your dog, be sure that it's wild-caught rather than farm-raised. Farmed fish are fed genetically modified foods that can be harmful to your dog's health.

Duck-based foods

Duck is a good source of protein, vitamin A, and omega-3 fatty acids. It's also rich in iron, zinc, selenium, and phosphorus, as well as B vitamins. Duck provides calcium as well.

Lamb-based foods

Lamb is a good source of protein, but it's often not found in dog foods. Lamb is an excellent source of vitamin B12 and B2. If you're looking for a food that includes lamb as its primary protein source, the first thing to consider is whether your dog has ever had any kind of reaction to lamb or dairy products (including yogurt). If so, you may want to avoid this ingredient altogether.

Dehydrated dog food

Dehydrated dog food is often a good choice for dogs with sensitive stomachs and allergies. Dehydrated dog food contains very few ingredients that can help alleviate any digestive issues your pet may have. In addition to this, the ingredients are usually easy to digest and will not cause allergic reactions or other health problems in your dog. The first thing you should look for when choosing dehydrated food is an ingredient list that includes meat as the primary ingredient (as opposed to grains). 

Freeze-dried dog food (raw)

Freeze-dried dog food is ideal for dogs with allergies. Because freeze-dried raw diets are made from fresh foods and not cooked, they do not contain any of the ingredients that may cause allergic reactions.

Freeze-dried raw diets also come in handy if your pet has trouble digesting regular kibble because they are "prepared" at home rather than processed on an industrial scale.

Canned dog food

Canned dog food is also a good option for dogs with sensitive stomachs and allergies. Because canned food has a higher water content than dry, it can be easier on your dog’s tummy if he has an upset stomach or diarrhea. This is also helpful if you’re trying to transition your pup from one type of food to another without any issues. Also, if your little guy has been diagnosed with allergies, this could be a better choice than dry kibble as well. Some brands offer special formulas for dogs with sensitivities to wheat or chicken that can help ease their symptoms. And finally, if your pooch has any skin problems (including hot spots), canned dog food may be more beneficial since it contains fewer preservatives and chemicals that could irritate his skin even further!

Back to Your Dog Food Questions Answered

Previous: Is Fat Important in a Dog's Diet?

Next: Is Fish in Dog Food as Good as Meat-Based Dog Foods?

This information is for informational purposes only and is not meant as a substitute for the professional advice of, or diagnosis or treatment by, your veterinarian. It has however been reviewed for accuracy by Dr. Joe, a board certified veterinary nutritionist and graduate of Cornell University's program for Veterinary Medicine.

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