Just like humans, dogs require a well-balanced diet to keep them healthy and active. Imagine how susceptible to illness you could be if you cut natural vitamins out of your diet, or how little energy you’d have if you cut out power-boosting foods that are high in protein.
Protein in particular is a crucial part of your dog’s diet, just like it is yours. “We literally can’t survive without it,” says Dr. Gary Richter, author of The Ultimate Pet Health Guide: Breakthrough Nutrition and Integrative Care for Dogs and Cats, and veterinarian at Montclair Veterinary Hospital in Oakland, California.
Protein—which is essentially a combination of amino acids—is necessary as a source of dietary energy and to maintain a healthy immune system in your dog. Dogs are built to make some proteins themselves, but others (called “essential amino acids”) can only come from their diet.
Finding a Quality Source of Protein for Pets
Pet owners often think there are big differences between specific sources of protein, but ultimately, the main difference is in the amino acid breakdown, says Dr. Richter. “The truth is, most dogs will do just fine on almost any protein.” But this general rule comes with some caveats.
For dogs, the best protein sources will always be meat-based. Dogs are genetically designed to use meat as their protein source—not vegetable-based proteins. “While it is technically possible to make a dog a vegetarian, it’s not optimal,” says Dr. Richter. “Although everything in a dog food does not need to be meat-based, their protein sources should be.”
However, even meat-based proteins are not all created equal. Whole meat proteins are far better for your dog than animal by-products (sometimes also called animal meal or animal digest) or meat meal, says Dr. Richter. Animal by-products are whatever is left over from other meat-based ingredients, and it’s impossible to tell what exactly is in them. Even among the same batch or brand of dog food, the contents of these animal by-products can change, which means the spectrum and quality of nutrients changes as well, says Dr. Richter.
Provided your dog doesn’t have a specific food sensitivity (more on that below), Dr. Richter recommends rotating her through different protein sources over time. This does two things: First, it gives her a spectrum of different amino acids, which helps her stay healthy over time. Second, “when pets eat the same protein for very long periods of time, over years, they can develop dietary sensitivities because of the chronic exposure,” says Dr. Richter. Rotating protein sources helps dogs avoid developing a sensitivity to one source.
Protein and Food Sensitivities in Dogs
According to Dr. Richter, 70% of a dog’s immune system lives in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. “If there’s inflammation in the GI tract, then you can pretty much count on there being some global issues from it.” These issues include the usual gastrointestinal issues such as upset stomachs, vomiting and diarrhea. But they can also manifest as skin infections or irritations, ear infections, general itchiness, or any other type of inflammation within your dog’s body, says Dr. Richter.
Unfortunately, just like humans, a dog can develop a sensitivity to a specific protein source over time. The best way to avoid a pet developing a sensitivity to a protein source is to rotate through different animal sources.
But owners should note that the protein source is not the only thing that could cause issues in your dog. Dogs can also develop a sensitivity to some of the protein components in a certain food—for example, the protein components in wheat, rice or corn, says Dr. Richter. He notes that issues could arise from how the food is prepared or processed. “We may see a dog that has all kinds of trouble with a dry dog food with chicken as a protein source. But if you put her on a fresh or raw food diet with chicken, she may do just fine.”
What should you do if you suspect your dog has a protein sensitivity? Step one is to try a different protein, says Dr. Richter. This is one major benefit to foods that have a single source of protein instead of multiple meat sources. Although most dogs are able to digest proteins from multiple sources, if your dog has a dietary sensitivity, foods with a single protein source, called limited ingredient diets, will help you rule out some other variables when figuring out which food is best for her, says Dr. Richter.
Comparing Different Protein Sources
Common sources of protein for pets include chicken, beef, turkey, lamb, fish, rabbit and eggs. Some foods feature one protein source prominently, while others may contain a variety of proteins in the same food. As long as your dog doesn’t have a specific food sensitivity, try to feed your pet a variety of different sources.
Try these pet food options that feature wholesome protein sources for your pet:
- Chicken is a healthy source of protein for pets and people. For pet owners who want to feed their dogs a raw source of chicken, Instinct Ultimate Protein Cage-Free Chicken recipe is grain-free dog food made without grains, potatoes, corn, soy, animal by-products, meat meal, or artificial colors or preservatives.
- Naturally high in protein, rabbit is a unique protein source that mixes up your pet’s diet. Stella & Chewy’s Absolutely Rabbit Dinner Patties are made with raw, farm-raised rabbit and contain no grains, gluten, fillers, or artificial colors or preservatives.
- Beef is a common source of protein for dogs, but not all beef-based dog foods are high quality. If you’re looking for a human-grade food that’s made with wholesome ingredients, consider Tylee’s Beef Human-Grade Dog Food. The food is made with minimally processed ingredients without grains or fillers.
- Turkey—another common protein source—can be a healthy way to mix up your dog’s diet. The Honest Kitchen Whole Grain Turkey Recipe Dehydrated Dog Food features cage-free turkey along with organic whole oats, carrots, cabbage, apples and other wholesome ingredients, with no animal by-products. It’s dehydrated, which means you just add some warm water and stir before serving to your dog.
- Lamb is a novel protein source that’s great for dogs that might be sensitive to a particular protein source. The Canine Caviar Lamb Canned Dog Food Supplement is made with 97% lamb and no grains, fillers, added sugar, added salt, or artificial colors and preservatives. Pet owners can use this meat supplement as a topper for their dog’s usual food or serve it alone as a treat.
- Dogs are genetically designed to eat diets filled with a variety of protein sources. If your dog doesn’t have a specific protein sensitivity, consider food that contains a mix of animal protein sources such as chicken, eggs and fish. Fish, in particular is not only a good source of protein for pets, but also contains healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Try The Honest Kitchen Zeal Grain-Free Dehydrated Dog Food.
Ultimately, one protein source is not necessarily better than another, says Dr. Richter. He suggests feeding a fresh, whole-food diet. Your choice will depend on your individual dog and your own personal preferences.