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Nutrition: Understanding Protein in Pet Food


Drs. Foster & Smith Educational Staff
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Many people make the mistake of judging the quality of a pet food simply by looking at the percentage of protein shown on the label. This is not the best way to judge overall quality for several reasons:

  • Not all protein is created equal.
  • Higher protein percentages do not automatically mean higher quality food - the right level of protein for your particular pet is what matters.
  • Other nutrients levels are necessary for overall health and the proper use of protein by the body.

Let's take a closer look…

Not all protein is created equal

What would you rather feed your pet - four ounces of real chicken meat or four ounces of ground chicken feathers and corn? All three ingredients contain protein, but they are definitely not equal. Ounce for ounce, the real chicken provides more protein, and the protein is highly digestible and usable, allowing pets to eat smaller quantities to receive the optimal level of protein.

In contrast, the ground feathers contain protein, but in a nondigestible form. Digestibility is key to evaluating a protein's nutritional value. Real meat offers highly digestible protein - protein that is easily broken down by your pet's body. Your pet cannot digest and cannot live on the protein contained in feathers. It simply passes through the digestive system unused.

Utilization is another key to evaluating protein sources. Corn has digestible protein that is absorbed, but it is not as usable by the body as the protein from meat or eggs. Corn must be combined with another grain to supply the range of essential amino acids that meat or eggs supply by themselves. Pets will need to eat larger quantities of corn and other grains to obtain the same amount of usable protein that is in chicken.

When comparing pet foods, be sure to consider the type and quality of protein used - not just the quantity. Look for foods with highly digestible, usable protein. Real meat, fish, and eggs, for example, provide your pet with the highest levels of usable protein, while allowing you to feed lesser quantities of food.

Different pets have different protein needs

Many people wrongly assume that a pet food with a high protein level is automatically better for their pet. This is incorrect for two reasons. First, as described above, the quality of the protein is a critical factor - it doesn't matter if a food has a high percentage of protein if the protein comes from a less-digestible or less-usable source. Secondly, optimal protein levels for different life stages and activity levels vary. Senior pets generally require less protein than active adult pets; and active adult pets need less protein than puppies and kittens. Look for a food that provides the optimum level of protein for your pet's particular life stage and activity. Otherwise, you'll feed your pet excess protein that will simply be converted into fat.

A diet must be balanced

Protein is important, but so are the many other essential nutrients in food. Pets cannot live on protein alone. Calories, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals must all be present in the proper levels and ratios for your pet to have a balanced diet and properly use the protein in the food.

Choose your proteins with care

Be a critical thinker when it comes to evaluating the protein in your pet's food - first determine whether the protein is derived from a high-quality source that will give your pet the maximum amount of usable, digestible protein. Then, look at the protein percentage to see how much protein the food includes. Remember, a high protein percentage does not guarantee a healthy, beneficial pet food, especially if it merely shows a high percentage of a lesser-quality protein. Finally, don't forget to look at the other nutrients. Your pet may not be able to use the protein as well if other nutrients are lacking.

In creating their line of healthy pet foods, Dr. Race Foster and Dr. Marty Smith performed extensive research and consulted nutritionists to formulate pet foods with the right amount of highly digestible, usable protein for each life stage. The doctors' formulas were designed to provide the proper level of protein and other nutrients for puppies and kittens, adult pets, and senior pets, respectively.

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