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Protein in Pet Food FAQs


Drs. Foster & Smith Educational Staff
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Does a high protein percentage (as shown on the package) mean that a pet food is automatically better than others with lower percentages?
No, a higher percentage of protein doesn't mean that a pet food is automatically better than others with a lower percentage. Similarly, a lower protein percentage isn't automatically bad, provided that the protein included in the food comes from a good source (such as real chicken or real lamb meat). Don't rely solely on the percentage of crude protein shown in the guaranteed analysis on the package. While it is tempting to assume that a high percentage of protein means that a food contains a lot of beneficial protein (and is therefore better than comparable foods), this is not always the case. Always evaluate the source of the protein - not just the amount - when considering/comparing pet foods.
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Why do dogs need protein?
Proteins are necessary for all aspects of growth and development and are very important in structural makeup and the immune system. In addition, they are burned as calories and can be converted to and stored as fat.

Dogs actually require 22 amino acids (the building blocks that make up proteins). Dogs can synthesize 12 of these amino acids; the remaining ones - essential amino acids - must be consumed. Essential amino acids for dogs include: arginine, histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine. A deficiency in any of the amino acids can cause health problems.
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Can I tell which proteins are better than others?
Not all proteins are created equal, and some are better for pets than others. Every protein source contains different levels of amino acids and each protein is different in its ability to be broken down into amino acids. The ability of a protein to be used by the body and its amount of usable amino acids is termed biological value. Egg has the highest biological value and sets the standard by which other proteins are judged. Egg has a biological value of 100. Fish meal and milk are close behind with a value of 92. Beef is around 78 and soybean meal is 67. Meat and bone meal and wheat are around 50 and corn is 45. Things like hair and feathers would be very high in protein but would be down at the bottom of the list for biological value.
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How much protein does my dog need?
Protein requirements vary from species to species and can vary greatly during the rapid growth stages and for elderly animals with compromised kidneys. As a general rule, the following levels apply.

Species and Growth Stage Recommended Protein Recommended Fat
Puppy 22-32% 10-25%
Adult Dog 15-30% 10-20%
Performance Dog 22-32% 15-40%
Racing Dog 28-34% Greater than 50%
Lactating Dog 25-35% Greater or equal to 20%

Pregnant and lactating dogs may need to be fed puppy food to give them higher levels of necessary protein. Sick, weak, and debilitated animals also need extra protein. Animals with kidney disease may need to be on a protein-restricted diet to lessen the effects of the kidney disease.
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Can I feed my dog too much protein?
If your dog eats too much protein, some will be excreted in the urine and the rest will be used as calories or converted to fat - causing your dog no harm. However, if your dog has a kidney problem, high protein diets are not recommended. Most pet food companies slightly exceed the minimum recommended protein requirements to ensure that dogs get adequate protein from their food.
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How can I tell if my food has enough protein?
Generally, purchasing a reputable, quality brand of dog food that fits your dog's activity level will be just fine. However if your dog has special protein needs, or you want to find the best possible food for your budget, then you must interpret the often-confusing label.

Keep in mind that the protein level shown on the bag or can does not indicate the percentage of digestible protein, just the overall protein content. In quality foods, digestibility is between 70 and 80%. In lesser-quality foods, the digestibility could drop to 60% or less. To roughly determine the amount of digestible protein, read the ingredients and note the order in which they appear. Ingredients are listed in order of weight. Chicken and lamb are very digestible, and if they are listed as the first ingredient on the label, you can assume the food is a good quality protein source. If the first ingredient is chicken by-product or other meat by-products (which are lower in digestibility), the food is an acceptable protein source. Poorly digestible sources include meat and bone meal.

Remember, grains are not as digestible sources of protein and contribute heavily toward the carbohydrate load. Some companies will list a meat source initially, then follow that meat by three different forms of corn - hiding the fact that the main ingredient is corn, just divided into three different products.

It is a good idea to follow this general rule: try to find a food in the upper to middle price range. And keep in mind the highest-priced foods are not necessarily the best foods, and the lowest-priced foods are not always of poor quality.
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Does high protein cause kidney disease?
No. This myth probably started because, in the past, patients with kidney disease were commonly placed on low-protein (and thus low-nitrogen) diets. Today, we often put them on a diet that is not necessarily very low in protein, but instead contains protein that is more digestible (therefore producing fewer nitrogen by-products). These diet changes are made merely because damaged kidneys may not be able to handle the excess nitrogen efficiently. In pets with existing kidney problems, nitrogen can become too high in the bloodstream which can harm other tissues.

Unless your veterinarian has told you your pet has a kidney problem that is severe enough to adjust the protein intake, you can feed your pet a normal amount of protein without worrying about "damaging" or "stressing" your pet's kidneys. Also, keep in mind the fact that you are not "saving" your pet's kidneys by feeding a low-protein diet.
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Is meat meal good for my pet?
In its simplest, purest form, meat meal is meat with the water and fat removed. The dried meat is then ground into small granules or powder for use in pet food. Pure meat meal, as opposed to meat and bone meal or meat by-product meal, is a good source of concentrated protein which is nutritionally excellent for your pet. Pure meat meal cannot contain blood, hair, hoof, horn, hide trimmings, manure, or stomach or rumen contents, except for amounts that may be unavoidably included during processing. It cannot contain any added extraneous materials, and may not contain any more than 14 percent indigestive materials. Also, no more than 11 percent of the crude protein in the meal can be ingredients the dog cannot digest.
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