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How much protein do dogs actually need in their diet?


Animal nutrition is a hugely topical (often controversial!) subject and the literature discussing pet nutritional requirements is vast. Unfortunately, there is no ‘one diet fits all’ scenario and this would definitely make everyone’s lives easier if this was the case! You may already be aware that protein is an important component of your dog’s diet, but how much protein is required to ensure optimum health? This article will discuss the importance of dietary protein and aims to explore how much protein dogs actually need in their diet.

What is dietary protein?

Proteins are compounds made from one or more chains of amino acids – the chain being termed a “polypeptide”. Proteins are often referred to as the ‘building blocks of life’ because proteins help to create structures including organs, tissues, muscles and enzymes. Furthermore, proteins constantly lay the foundations for enzymatic reactions, hormones and immune responses. Therefore, they are over time consumed and used up. This is the reason that proteins need to be replaced. And this is where diet plays such an important role in replenishing the body’s protein level!

Why is dietary protein essential?

Proteins are essential in the diet of all pets, including humans! Diets that are deficient in protein or diets that contain an incorrect amount of protein (low vs high) could be detrimental to your pet’s health. For example, protein deficiencies can lead to reduced growth rates in younger patients, weight loss, reproductive failures and weak immune systems. Therefore, it is important to understand how much protein your dog is receiving each day. 

According to the pet food manufacturer’s association (PFMA), it is a legal requirement for pet foods to state on their packaging the protein percentage of the food (as well as the other ingredients of course). I won’t dive too much into the complexity of calculating your dog’s protein intake today, but it is important to understand that protein % cannot be simply compared between diets because it also depends on the amount actually consumed, the digestibility, and the exact ratio of essential amino acids (the “quality”). 

So, how much protein does my dog actually need?

To answer this question simply is an impossible task. The protein and amino acid requirement for every individual varies depending on their species, life stage, phase of development, health/disease status, activity levels, and there can even be breed variation. Protein is sourced from both animal and plant origins and most commercial dog foods contain a combination of both sources.  However, there are some useful general rules of thumb:

Firstly, all nutritional requirements including the protein % are higher during a dog’s development or growing phase to encourage maximum growth (Anton, 2014). Whereas, an adult dog’s nutritional requirements including protein % are lower because they have reached their maintenance phase where growth does not need to be encouraged. This highlights the importance of ensuring that puppies are on a specific puppy diet for young, developing dogs and that they only transition onto an adult diet once they reach optimum growth and enter the maintenance phase.

Furthermore, certain health conditions such as chronic kidney disease (CKD) in both dogs and cats require protein restriction to reduce the amount of circulating kidney toxins (urea) in the bloodstream. Prescription renal diets therefore have a lower protein content to help to maintain and retard the progression of CKD (Brunetto et al, 2021).

But what about specific numbers?!

OK, well as a general rule of thumb, a growing puppy or breeding female dog needs about 22-25% protein (depending on the protein source, the amino acid availability). An adolescent dog needs about 20%. And an adult needs about 18% (and up to 21% if they are couch potatoes eating a smaller quantity of food!). 

HOWEVER – and it’s a big however – it all depends on the protein present! Feeding 22% protein, if that source is deficient in a key amino acid, won’t cut it… Conversely, a dog being fed an exceptionally well balanced protein source may need a little less. And that’s why there are so many different formulations out there.

Conclusion

To conclude, dietary protein is essential for your canine friend as protein is responsible for the successful health of many biological processes. There are many scenarios when your dog’s protein requirement may need to be adjusted to optimise their health. Speak to your Vet and the Nursing team to discuss your dog’s nutritional requirement and to seek dietary advice.

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