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

Which Protein for Dogs Is Best?
expert or vet photo
vet verified Dr. Joseph J. Wakshlag, DVM Associate Professor of Clinical Nutrition

Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine Ithaca, NY

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?

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 to stay healthy, 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. High-protein dog food is often marketed as the best option, but it’s essential to understand the details.

The fact is, not all proteins are made equally. Some protein sources are easier for your dog to digest and thus extract their nutrients. Just because one dog food has a higher protein content than another doesn't mean it is necessarily better. 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. Understanding how much protein your dog needs is crucial for their overall health.

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. A balanced diet is key, even in high-protein dog foods.

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. Choosing the right protein sources for dogs ensures they get a complete and balanced diet.

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. For dogs with food allergies or food sensitivities, selecting the right ingredients is essential.

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. They help in muscle growth and maintaining a healthy immune system.

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. Limited-ingredient diets can be beneficial for dogs with food sensitivities or allergies. 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. Wild-caught fish help maintain a healthy immune system and support muscle growth.

Duck-based food

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. Lamb-based foods are excellent for adult dogs needing a complete and balanced diet.

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). Dehydrated dog food ensures that your dog feels satisfied longer and supports a complete and balanced diet.

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. Freeze-dried dog food supports muscle growth and a healthy immune system.

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! Canned dog food is an excellent choice for senior dogs and helps maintain a balanced diet.

By considering these factors and protein sources, you can ensure your dog gets the right nutrients for a complete and balanced diet, supporting their health, energy levels, and overall well-being.

What is the easiest protein for a dog to digest?

It's true that your dog can digest some proteins more easily than others. The digestibility of eggs is the highest at 100%. Dr. Laurie Coger, DVM, says that protein's rating, known as Biological Value (BV), measures essential amino acids' amount and number. The higher the BV, the more nutritionally valuable the protein.

Egg is considered a 'perfect' protein with a BV of 100. Egg whites are highly digestible and rich in amino acids, while the yolk provides B vitamins. Whole eggs are acceptable to feed, with the option to include the shell for calcium if necessary. However, eggs alone cannot fulfill a dog's dietary requirements, and it's usually not advisable to feed your dog more than one egg a day. Chicken, beef, and lamb meat are next at 92%, while organs like liver and kidney are at 90%.

Fish is an excellent source of protein and Omega fatty acids, but its digestibility is at 75%. Dr. Judy Morgan, DVM, says that beef and pork have the lowest sodium content. Pork has the highest potassium levels, while chicken has the lowest. This information can be crucial while choosing protein sources for pets with heart or kidney disease, according to Morgan. Low-sodium meats are suitable for dogs with specific heart conditions, while meats with lower potassium levels are preferable for certain kidney patients.

Beef, lamb, chicken, and pork are suitable options for dogs prone to bladder stones. Each of these meats is low in calcium and moderately low in magnesium, as explained by Morgan. The least digestible proteins for dogs are those derived from plant sources, which range between 54-75%. An article in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association (JAVMA) states that plant protein sources typically have lower digestibility than animal protein sources. However, studies on dogs have found equal total digestibility for soy-based protein when adequately processed.

What is the healthiest meat for dogs?

Dr. Cailin R. Heinze, a certified veterinary nutritionist, explains that amino acids serve as the building blocks of protein. When an animal consumes protein, its body breaks it down into these amino acids. These amino acids can be used to construct new proteins or utilized for energy. Not all proteins are equal in terms of amino acid types and quantities. The highest quality proteins contain ample essential amino acids and are easiest for the pet to digest. 

Beef, fish, lamb, and chicken are the healthiest sources of protein for dogs. Fish has the highest percentage of protein (29.91 %), while the rest are around 26 grams of protein per 100 grams of meat. Beef is considered the best for growing dogs. Pork is another great choice of protein for growing dogs since they contains the same amount of protein as beef or chicken, and they have more fat. Animal fat contains good fatty acids that are essential for a dog's growth. Chicken or turkey breasts are a great source of lean protein, and they contain a lot of water.

What is the best protein for dogs with sensitive stomachs?

Dr. Brandon Stapleton, DVM, says that many dogs can be sensitive to specific proteins, so it's necessary to find dog food containing a single high-quality protein source. A single protein source can make digestion easier for dogs, and identifying dietary problems becomes simpler with a single protein source. Dr. Anne, Earthborn Holistic's Director of Nutrition Services, says that Lamb can be a preferred protein for dogs with sensitive stomachs due to its lower prevalence in dog diets.

Due to its uncommon usage, lamb is less likely to cause allergies in dogs. Boiled lean turkey or chicken breasts are the best sources of proteins for a dog with a sensitive stomach. The meat contains an adequate amount of proteins, is easily digestible, and does not contain a lot of fiber or fat. Canned salmon or tuna can also be a good option if it has been canned in water without salt or any other seasoning. Both fishes are high in protein and easily digestible. You can also add some boiled pumpkin or rice to a protein of your choice to make it easily digestible.

What 3 meats should dogs avoid?

Even though dogs can consume almost any meat, there are a few variations that should be excluded from their diet. It is ok for dogs to consume cooked pork. However, you should not feed your dog raw pork, as it contains a parasite called trichinella spiralis. The infection can cause severe stomach distress, fever, and lethargy. The infection can also be completely asymptomatic. So, if your dog has eaten a lot of raw pork, it's best to rush to the vet.

Also, you should avoid any processed meats, such as Salami, Prosciutto, Soppressata, Pepperoni, Chorizo, Turkey cuts, etc. Processed meat products contain nitrates, a lot of salt, and other seasonings that are harmful to your dog. Also, it's best not to give your dog raw eggs. Feeding raw meat is still controversial, so you may or may not feed that to your dog. However, raw eggs are a definite no-no, as they can contain parasites and trigger allergic reactions.

What's better for dogs, beef or fish?

Both beef and fish are excellent sources of protein for your dog. Fish has a marginally higher percentage of protein to meat ratio (about 3% more), but beef is more digestible when compared to fish. Fish is also leaner than beef but contains omega-3 and 6 fatty acids that are crucial for dogs. That makes fish an ideal choice of protein for dogs that are training or trying to lose weight.

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.

Was this article helpful?
Wheat Allergy

You May Also Like

Image for Is Fish in Dog Food Better than Meat?
Is Fish in Dog Food Better than Meat?

Comparing Your Protein Choices in Dog Foods

Read More
Image for Is Fat Important in a Dog's Diet?
Is Fat Important in a Dog's Diet?

Finding the Balance in Dog Food Ingredients

Read More