Protein is a hot topic in pet food, and pet parents often have questions surrounding this nutrient.
“How much protein is enough for my dog? Should this amount change as they age? What happens if my dog eats too much protein? How will I know if it was too much? Are there any downsides to having too much protein?“
So, let’s dive into the ins and outs of protein content in dog food, why dogs need protein, plus what happens when they get too much.
What is protein and what does it do for dogs?
Protein is one of three macronutrients, which make up all foods, and can be found in meats, poultry, fish, legumes and even eggs. Regardless of the source though, every protein is made up of amino acids, which are the building blocks for the growth and maintenance of almost all the body’s tissues.
In total, there are 22 amino acids which dogs require; Of these, dog can synthesize 12 on their own, which is why they are called non-essential amino acids. The other 10 must be supplied from their diet and are referred to as essential amino acids.
When a dog eats protein, amino acids are released, allowing them to be absorbed and used for functions like muscle growth and maintenance. These are known as ‘protein-only’ functions since no other nutrient can do these tasks, making protein a vital part of your dog’s diet. In addition to these functions, protein can be used as an energy source, however it’s not the bodies preferred choice since breaking down amino acids into a suitable source is not an efficient process for the body.
In addition to these vital functions, protein also plays another important role in your dog’s meal: adding flavor. Protein source and quality can lend a huge hand in making your dog’s meal more appetizing to them, but deciding on the best protein source for your dog can be tricky. We recommend looking for foods made with fresh meats and fish ingredients to ensure maximum flavor and digestibility.
So, exactly how much protein does a dog need per pound of body weight??
According to the American Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), which is the primary organization that provides recommendations for pet food in North America, adult dogs need a minimum of 18% protein on a dry matter basis. "Dry matter basis" is the term for referring to the amount of protein in a food if all the moisture was removed. This method allows for an easy apples-to-apples comparison of nutrient levels across different types of food and formats.
To put this into context, consider a moderately active 45lb dog. This dog would require approximately 56g of protein per day, which can be supplied by a diet containing about 20% crude protein. Crude protein is the technical term used to assess a nutrient, and this is the term that is referred to on the back of most pet food bags. In this example, this 45lb moderately active dog requires about 1.2 grams of protein per pound of body weight, however this is not a set rule or formula to calculate how much protein your dog needs.
Each dog’s needs can vary greatly, and looking at protein per pound of body weight can be misleading if, for example, your dog is overweight and living a sedentary life, or if your dog is more active than the average dog.
It could also be confusing to approach your decision this way because most pet foods won’t state the grams of protein per serving on the bag like human foods do. The most useful number to consider is the crude protein percent.
What other factors affect how much protein a dog needs?
Of course, there are many factors which can change your dog's protein needs, including your dog's age and activity level and the quality and source of protein.
For example, a puppy who is still growing and developing would require more protein than the average adult dog, while a highly active adult dog would require more protein for repairing muscle that was damaged during exercise than an inactive senior dog who may be content to laze on the couch all day.
Ingredient choice can affect the total protein and amino acid content in a food, too. Recent research published in the journal, Animals (Montegiove et al, 2022) showed that kibble using only fresh meats was higher in amino acid content as compared to those using only meat meals or a combination of the two. The authors found that dry pet food using only fresh chicken meat was the highest in essential amino acids, branched-chain amino acids and taurine. The research also concluded that fresh meat only kibble had a higher amount of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids, and its digestibility was the highest of all foods tested. These findings make the fresh-meat-only based formulation a preferable choice as dry pet food, similar to how we craft our Now Fresh recipes.
The other factor to consider is the protein source itself. If a protein has a high biological value, meaning it contains the 10 essential amino acids that dogs require, they may not need as much to meet their needs. For example, eggs are considered the ‘perfect protein’ as they contain every essential amino acid a dog needs, whereas soy meal contains some amino acids, but not all of them, making this source a poorer quality.
Now Fresh Dry Food Recipes for Dogs
Now Fresh recipes are tailored to your dog’s age & size using quality ingredients like easy-to-digest fresh turkey, salmon & duck, and immune supporting fruits & veggies — all in the perfect proportions to provide complete & balanced nutrition to your dog.
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When it comes to evaluating your pet’s food, adult diets containing 20-27% crude protein will supply more than enough essential amino acids to meet your dog’s needs. Puppy foods will contain more, usually around 26-28% protein. But there’s more to it than just the numbers. Remember quantity does not equal quality, so make sure to check the ingredient panel on your dog’s food and look for minimally processed meats and ingredients that you can easily understand.
What happens with excess protein?
Excess protein that your dog consumes cannot be stored by their body. In fact, anything that’s not used for tissue maintenance or energy production will either be stored as fat, or, broken down and excreted in their urine. This creates nitrogen rich urine which can be difficult for aging kidneys to filter and contributes to environmental ammonia levels, causing yellow patches on the lawn.
What about high protein diets?
There is no defined number for a diet to be considered ‘high protein’, but generally, these are dog food diets greater than 30% crude protein. High protein diets may not be necessary for the majority of dogs, but there is no one-size fits all approach for feeding pets. Certain dogs, like working dogs or highly muscular dogs, may require higher levels of protein than inactive, smaller dogs.
For most dogs, though, high protein diets are not nutritionally beneficial, and moderate protein diets are recommended.
What are the side effects of too much unused protein?
If your dog is consuming more protein than what their body requires, you might notice a few things happening. Too much protein in your dog’s diet can lead to increased protein fermentation in the gut, which can create metabolites that may be harmful to the body and can increase the amount and smell of gas (Hughes et al, 2000). These metabolites have also been associated with colorectal cancer in humans (Hughes et al, 2000) and may be a contributing factor to reduced stool quality, including diarrhea, due to a disruption in the ‘good bacteria’ in the gut (Nery et al, 2010) (Zentek, J., 1995).
Quality over quantity
The amount of protein needed by an individual dog can vary through their lives, and even season to season. Protein quality is a key consideration, as this can affect the amount required to meet a dogs’ needs; but remember, protein in excess of a dog’s requirements does not provide a nutritional benefit. This is why we’ve crafted Now Fresh recipes with balanced protein and fats using highly nutritious ingredients that support the complete health of your dog, tailored to their life stage and breed size. Overall, choosing a high-quality diet that’s complete and balanced with protein, fats and essential nutrients in appropriate amounts is important to support long-term health in of our pets.
1. Montegiove, N., Calzoni, E., Cesaretti, A., Pellegrino, RM., Emiliani, C., Pellegrino, A., & Leonardi, L.2022. The Hard Choice about Dry Pet Food: Comparison of Protein and Lipid Nutritional Qualities and Digestibility of Three Different Chicken-Based Formulations. Animals. Vol 12(12).
2. Hughes., R, Magee., EA,& Bingham., S. 2000. Protein degradation in the large intestine: relevance to colorectal cancer. Current issues in Intestinal Microbiology. Vol 1(2)
3. Nery., J, Biourge., V, Tournier C., Leray, V., Martin, L., Dumon, H., & Ngyuen, P. 2010. Influence of dietary protein content and source on fecal quality, electrolyte concentrations, and osmolarity, and digestibility in dogs differing in body size. Journal of Animal Science. Vol 88(1).
4. Zentek, J. 1995. Influence of diet composition on the microbial activity in the gastrointestinal tract of dogs.I. Effects of varying protein intake on the composition of the ileum chyme and the faeces. Journal of Animal Physiology and Animal Nutrition. Vol 74(1-5).