Understanding Protein in Dog Food
By: Sara Burnside Menuck | Reviewed by Dr. Clayton Greenway, B.Sc., DVM | Jun 8, 2018
As a pet owner, if you’ve done any research into good nutrition, you’ve likely stumbled across the ongoing debate over protein in dog food. Companies are increasingly developing foods that claim to include only natural, whole or “human grade” sources of meat.
While it’s generally true that foods composed of mainly recognizable, less-processed ingredients are higher quality, with few ‘filler’ ingredients and whole meat such as chicken or beef listed first, it’s important to understand that not all animal meals and by-products in dog food are necessarily bad products.
Why is protein such a big deal?
Like humans, animals require a good amount of high-quality protein (as well as carbohydrates, and fats) to maintain optimal health. Understandably, most people equate the phrase “high-quality protein” with minimally processed, whole meat: chicken, beef, lamb, fish, etc.; the phrase “poultry meal” or “plant protein meal” or, worst of all, “by-product meal” sounds much less specific. Some pet owners avoid commercial pet food entirely, turning instead to raw-food diets, consisting of only fresh, raw meat.
However, the protein problem is a little more complicated than pure protein content: for optimal health, it’s crucial to pay attention to a protein source’s quality and digestibility, and for that, you have to know a bit about amino acids.
Protein content vs. quality
Increasing amounts of research are showing again and again that it’s much more about the amino-acid makeup of a protein source that matters, rather than how much protein it holds.
Here’s the thing: protein is not actually considered an essential nutrient. It’s the stuff protein is made of – the amino acids – that’s important. Like humans, your cat or dog requires 10 essential amino acids that must be obtained through their diet in order to manufacture all the other amino acids, which are crucial for good health. These amino acids are used in everything from the immune system to muscle building to cognitive function.
The 10 essential amino acids for dogs are: arginine, histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan and valine. If even one of these amino acids is missing from the formula, the protein-building chain shuts down, leading to severe health complications, even death.
This is why it’s critical that your protein in dog food contains the right type of protein – i.e., all 10 essential amino acids. And not all proteins are equal; different meats, and even different cuts of the same type of meat, contain different ratios of these amino acids, which makes feeding pure meat alone complicated. Feeding your dog a bowl of ground beef provides a good amount of protein… but does it provide the right amounts of essential amino acids for optimal health?
Research shows that high-quality animal meats – meat that has been rendered into a low-moisture, highly concentrated product – are not only extremely nutritious, they’re also highly digestible, meaning that those essential amino acids are easily absorbed and able to be efficiently utilized by your pet’s body. This is important: a food might have a high protein content, but if it’s not easily digestible, your pet isn’t getting the full nutritional benefit.
So, how do I make the right choices for my dog’s health?
Dog foods that contain high-quality meats provide the right blend of amino acids, in the right percentages, in an easily digestible form.
A high-quality kibble provides your pet with its protein needs – along with other important nutritional requirements — through using a variety of ingredients that include whole meat and meat meals. It’s this range of ingredients that is key to providing the correct balance of amino acids, along with a complex range of other ingredients to meet your pet’s dietary needs.
How can you determine whether a product is high-quality? The rule of thumb is the more specific an ingredient is, the better quality it is. “Chicken” is more specific than “animal meat.” Likewise, a generic “meat meal” may include lower quality components. Look for brands that list species-specific sources (“chicken meal”; “lamb meal”; etc) instead. These meat and meat-meal sources should be listed first on the ingredient list.
So, how do I choose the right dog food? Avoid foods that list high amounts of grains, which contain protein but are not easily digestible. While the modern domestic pet does require carbohydrates in its diet (e.g., not purely fat and protein from meat), these carbohydrates should come from starches such as potatoes or other plant sources (peas, corn, carrots, etc, are common ingredients).
Should I avoid by-products?
By-products in dog food have been given some very bad press in recent years; after all, they’re not fit for human consumption, so why should we feed them to our pets?
A by-product in dog food is simply any part of an animal left over after the meat is removed. While that can include less savoury components such as hooves, feet, brains and cartilage, it also includes organs and viscera that are actually quite nutritious, even if we humans wouldn’t eat them. Organ meats, by weight, are actually more nutritious than muscle meats, containing high levels of those much-needed amino acids for dogs.
Once again, the specificity rule applies: avoid generic ingredients (“animal by-products”) and look for individual species or parts.
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