How important is protein in a dog's diet?

Dog looking at food dish
How does protein fit in with your dog's development? See more dog pictures.
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You've probably heard a lot about the importance of protein in your own diet, but you might be curious about how this applies to man's best friend, the dog. It turns out that dogs need a balanced diet made up of six essential components, and one of the most important of these is protein. Dogs simply can't survive without it. The other components are carbohydrates, fat, vitamins, minerals and water.

Some old rumors are still floating around about the dangers of giving a dog too much protein. These say that a protein-rich diet can lead to joint problems or kidney damage. But modern research has pretty much dispelled these as myths. In fact, growing puppies need extra protein for proper development [source: Olson]. And the evidence suggests that excess protein won’t ever cause kidney damage. Actually, it’s the kidneys’ job to excrete excess protein from the body. So, extra protein shouldn’t hurt a dog with healthy kidneys. However, this means that if a dog does develop a kidney disease, the vet might recommend a diet low in protein -- or one with protein that's digested easier -- to avoid putting stress on the kidneys.


If you're a long-time cat-owner who recently decided to include a canine in your animal family, it's important to note that dogs and cats have different protein needs, since cats are carnivores. Biologically, dogs are omnivores, just like humans. But even though dogs can get by with plant-based protein, many experts say that they thrive best with a diet that provides a decent amount of animal-based protein. Because of their long ancestral history of hunting for prey, their digestive system is best suited for deriving protein from animal sources.

A dog's precise needs depend on a variety of factors, including breed, activity levels, age and metabolism. Learn more about the specific role of protein in a dog's diet on the next page.


Role of Protein in Dog Nutrition

Because amino acids are basically the building blocks of tissues, protein has several functions in a dog's body. It's the structural component of connective tissues, as well as hair, skin and nails. But it's also essential for the immune and musculoskeletal systems. Amino acids also provide carbon chains required for making glucose. Protein helps regulate a healthy acid-base balance while comprising enzymes and many hormones in the body.

The average adult dog will need to replace skin and hair constantly, as well as enzymes and other needs. A diet with plenty of protein will help maintain these replacements -- this minimum need for protein is known as a maintenance protein requirement. This also helps explain why growing puppies and pregnant or lactating females need more protein than the average dog -- they need it to grow new tissue or produce milk. Likewise, very active dogs and working dogs need more protein to maintain and build extra muscle.


To complicate the matter a little further, it's important to note that not all protein is created equal. Some protein sources are more digestible than others, and some sources are better at providing all the essential amino acids. Your dog can get by with low-quality protein, but will need to eat more of the food in order to meet its protein needs. The pricier, commercial dog foods usually come with high-quality protein, whereas cheaper dog foods often contain low-quality protein -- something to keep in mind when you're in the dog food aisle.

Protein's Effects on a Dog's Skin and Coat

Dog being fed by owner
Good sources of protein may improve your dog's coat.
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As we mentioned earlier, amino acids in proteins make up the building blocks of skin tissue and hair, among other things. Dogs' hair contains about 65 to up to 95 percent protein [source: Schenck]. So, it makes sense that dietary protein intake has a big effect on a dog’s skin and coat.

Proper dietary protein helps maintain a dog's healthy skin and a full coat. In particular, for hair to grow well, it needs sulfur-containing amino acids. Dry or brittle fur and patches of hair loss can be a sign that your dog needs more protein in his diet. Protein deficiency also causes skin darkening or depigmentation of hair. The damage to skin can itself be a danger to the dog, as it weakens the skin's ability to protect against infections and heal wounds.


It also stands to reason that a dog's protein needs can vary depending on whether the dog has long hair or short hair. Consider that a long-haired dog could use up about 30 percent of the protein it consumes just on hair growth alone. A short-haired dog might use about 10 percent of its dietary protein for hair [source: Schenck].

So, how much protein does a dog need? Average adult dogs need about 18 percent of their calories to be from protein. Puppies generally need about 22 percent protein. Active dogs, as well as pregnant and lactating females, also need extra protein in their diet. Many senior dog foods contain reduced protein. However, unless your vet recommends a low-protein diet, older dogs need just as much protein as ever. In fact, some experts say that they need even more protein as they age [source: National Academies].

Because of the various factors that go into determining how much protein your dog needs, be sure to talk to your vet about the best diet. And remember to alter that diet depending on life stages.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • Bonham, Margaret H. James M. Wingert. "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Dog Health and Nutrition." Penguin. 2003. (Oct. 27, 2011)
  • Brevitz, Betsy. "Healthy Dog Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Keeping Your Pet Happy, Healthy & Active." Workman Publishing. 2009. (Oct. 27, 2011)
  • Case, Linda P. "The Dog: It's Behavior, Nutrition, and Health." Wiley-Blackell. 2005. (Oct. 27, 2011)
  • National Academies. "Your Dog's Nutritional Needs: A Science-Based Guide for Pet Owners." National Research Council of the National Academies. (Oct. 27, 2011)
  • Olson, Lew. "Raw and Natural Nutrition for Dogs: The Definitive Guide to Homemade Meals." North Atlantic Books. 2010. (Oct. 27, 2011)
  • Schenck, Patricia. "Home Prepared Dog and Cat Diets." John Wiley and Sons. 2010. (Oct. 27, 2011)