Does My Dog Need a High-Protein Dog Food?

by Irene Hislop

16 January 2020



Most of us who are pet parents to both dogs and cats have noticed that our dogs have an intense interest in our cat’s food, but the cats have zero interest in the dog’s food – unless it is to bat pieces of kibble around the floor in play. Why is that? Protein. Cat food contains a much higher level of protein than dog food because cats need more protein than dogs. That’s why cats and dogs have different foods and shouldn’t eat each other’s feed.

cat and dog friends lying on grass

We think of both as being carnivores, but actually cats are obligate carnivores whose diet is almost exclusively meat and dogs are omnivores who need meat in their diet. The real question is how much protein does a dog need? The answer isn’t simple. Dogs’ nutritional needs vary significantly based on their breed type, age and lifestyle. A young husky doing intense sled work and a mature chihuahua taking a daily stroll around the cul de sac have different requirements for protein and other nutrients. The average pet dog is somewhere in the middle of those extremes. They need protein to fuel their muscles for walks and play time.

What Is Protein and Why Do Dogs Need It?

Protein is one of six types of nutrients all animals need. The others are water, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals. Protein builds muscles. Dogs also use protein as their main source of energy rather than carbohydrates. Essential for cell growth and repair, protein is found in meat, dairy, poultry, eggs, fish and legumes. Amino acids are the key component of protein, and dogs specifically need the amino acids found in animal-based proteins.

The question is not simply how much protein does a dog need, but which types of protein does a dog need. Quality is as important as quantity. Dog food labels can be confusing, but protein should come from a recognisable animal source such as chicken, lamb, fish or beef to give your dog the right amino acids for optimum health. Dog food should have meat as the main ingredient. Of course, not all chicken, lamb, fish and beef are equal. High-quality, locally sourced meat offers better nutrition.

How Much Protein Does a Dog Need at Different Life Stages?

A dog’s nutritional needs change over time as they grow and mature. It’s important to choose a dog food that matches your dog’s age, breed type/ size and activity level to provide them with the right amount of various nutrients to meet their needs and promote good health.

Connolly's Red Mills Go Native Puppy Salmon organic food with spinach and ginger

Puppies are growing constantly – and they are very active burning up calories as they romp, play and get into mischief. Their muscles are developing, and they need to fuel healthy growth with plenty of protein. That’s why puppy foods should have more protein than adult foods. Connolly’s Red Mills offer a range of puppy foods with 28% (Leader), 29% (Engage) and 33% (Go Native) to support your growing puppy’s muscle development.

Adult dogs have a wide range of needs. A working dog is going to need more protein than one who takes a short walk once a day. In general, adult dogs can thrive on foods that offer anywhere between 20 and 35% protein.

High Protein dog food Connolly's Red Mills leader natural dog nutrition senior food

Senior dogs still need protein, even if they are living a life of leisure. As dogs age, they lose muscle mass. Increasing the protein in their diet can help, as can regular exercise. Losing muscle tissue has a knock-on effect on a dog’s immune system and metabolism. How much more protein they need varies. In general, seniors need less protein than growing puppies. It’s also important that they have highly digestible sources of protein. If your dog has kidney problems, then it is important to talk to your vet about how much protein is healthy, but not all senior dogs have kidney problems.

Two Myths & One Key Fact about Protein for Dogs

Many of us have heard that senior dogs actually need less protein, but that myth is rooted in research done on rats. Rats have very different nutritional needs than dogs, and more recent research has confirmed that senior dogs do not generally need a low-protein diet.

Have you heard that a high-protein diet can make your dog hyper? That’s another myth. Yes, protein is a source of energy and builds muscle tissue. A lack of exercise makes dogs hyper. Our canine friends of all ages and sizes need exercise. Some dogs need a lot of exercise, and without it they get hyper, barking, chewing and generally causing mayhem.

The real risk of excess protein is obesity. Because protein is a source of energy for dogs, a high protein diet is a poor choice for a sedentary dog. The fuel that isn’t burned up with exercise can turn to fat. Of course, that can also happen to dogs on any type of food that provides more calories than they need, whether the calories come from protein or carbohydrates.

How much protein does a dog need? Most dogs don’t need a high-protein diet. They do, however, need a diet that is rich in healthy protein from quality sources. Dogs who are extremely active, such as working farm dogs, dogs who do canicross or train hard for agility and those who run daily with their owners, do need more protein. But quality matters as much as quantity. Your dog needs a food you can trust to use natural, wholesome ingredients.

Protein deficiency is extremely rare in pet dogs, although it is possible if a dog is eating a low quality food with lots of cheap filler ingredients. Most dogs can flourish on a food made of wholesome, high-quality ingredients with a minimum of 18% protein. When selecting a food for your dog, check the label for ingredients you can identify; real food such as chicken, beef, lamb or fish should be one of the first things listed.

Irene Hislop

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