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Pet parents sometimes ask, "Do dogs need carbs?" given the increasing focus on protein, grain free, and low carbohydrate diets in choosing dog food.
Let's talk about dietary carbohydrates in a balanced diet and answer the questions many dog owners are asking about what role carbohydrates actually play in your dog's body and how they can contribute to pet nutrition and helping us have healthy dogs when chosen with care.
In all honesty, when it comes to carbohydrates my typical response is, “it just depends.” It depends on the overall diet from a nutrient standpoint, the dog, any health issues, intolerances, etc. How carbohydrates contribute to your dog's diet overall also depends on how you can serve them to be digestible carbohydrates to make the nutrients easily available in your dog's digestive tract for maximum positive impact.
Consider this when thinking about carbohydrates for your dog
In my mind, when considering the role of carbohydrates for your dog, you need to consider two things:
- Digestibility of the carbohydrate and how it affects your dog
- What nutrients you are using from the carbohydrate
Let’s go over these considerations in the context of the questions you're asking about whether and how you should feed carbohydrates in your dog's diet...
Q. 1: Which carbohydrates are the "good carbs" for your dog?
Carbohydrate is a very controversial word in pet food and dog nutrition (human nutrition as well, actually), now more than ever. I personally take a bit of a middle-of-the-road stance when it comes to them.
That’s because I know certain complex carbohydrates like oatmeal, quinoa, barley, brown rice, and sweet potatoes have specific important nutrients that can have important health benefits for our dogs and can be an important energy source.
Aren't fruits considered primarily carbohydrate?
Of course, super healthful fruits are carbohydrates as well, but when most people talk about carbs, they tend to think more of refined grains, starches, etc. - all those things that act like simple sugars in the body and can wreak havoc on your dog's glycemic index - rather than fruits which are usually thought of simply as the amazing antioxidants they are.
For our look at carbohydrates, we'll focus on everyone's area of concern - grains and potentially starchy vegetables.
Key nutrients in the "good carbs"
There are very beneficial nutrients from specific carbohydrate sources like oatmeal, brown rice, quinoa, etc. For example, a lot of DIY raw fed dogs who are being fed by the 80/10/10 method (I do not recommend this method) are being fed diets deficient in manganese or magnesium.
Oatmeal provides a good source of manganese among other nutrients and quinoa supplies magnesium. These carbohydrate sources can also provide a good source of vitamins like the B-Vitamins for healthy pets.
Carbs that I feed my dogs from time to time include:
- brown rice
- sweet potato
- oatmeal (naturally gluten free)
Benefits of some carbohydrates' fiber to your pet's health
For dogs who are diabetic like my dog Mylah, there have been numerous studies about the benefits of soluble and insoluble fiber sources from certain carbohydrate sources and their ability to slowly ferment in the colon and therefore not spike blood sugar thanks to the presence of useful dietary fiber.
Even so, the main issue I see with carbs is that we just do not have enough information on how they can benefit or even harm our dogs. Excess anything can be harmful so it is best to avoid feeding excess carbs to your dog, just as excess protein can also be harmful.
Q. 2: Which carbs should I avoid in my dog's food?
Carbohydrates to avoid for dogs would be those in refined grains (vs whole grains, sometimes referred to as ancient grains) like breads and pastas (there are some exceptions to this with pasta).
Commercial pet foods - in the kibble/ dry dog food form - often include a disproportionate amount of the not-so-good carbs often accompanied by weight gain, inflammation, and the many health issues inflammation can exacerbate from food allergies/sensitivities to joint problems.
(For commercial dog foods, you'll want to keep a close eye on the pet food labels, as always, not just for the carbohydrate content but for exactly what those carbohydrates are.)
I don’t really prefer to feed white rice from the blood glucose levels and glycemic load standpoint but some dogs do well on it. White rice is a refined grain, and unlike whole grains not a good source of dietary fiber.
Q. 3: Which carbs are more readily digestible to help meet the nutritional requirement for balanced dog food for your dog?
As mentioned in an earlier guide when we talked about digestion, ME (Metabolizable Energy), and bioavailability, you’d take this into consideration as with any food you feed your dog. Essentially, how available are the nutrients in a particular carb for your dog's body to put to use?
I know you can't calculate the ME of brown rice with your specific dog, but you can see in your dog’s stool if the brown rice is coming out undigested or not. This indicator gives you an idea of whether that carb is agreeing with your dog or not. Brown rice is a pretty highly digestible carb for most dogs, but every dog is different.
While we are still somewhat in the dark when it comes to carbohydrates, I don’t agree with completely tossing them out the window. The right dietary carbohydrate has its benefits if prepared, fed, and used correctly for many dogs.
One tip when feeding carbohydrates such as barley, rice, oats, etc., is to make sure to overcook them so they can be better digested by your dog.
Next up in the Basic Nutrition Channel on Dogly
Now that you have a better understanding of pet nutrition and common carbohydrate sources, let's dive into the other essential nutrients for your dog and understand why and how to feed each. Jump to my next step-by-step guides on Fats, and Vitamins and Minerals or you can always go back to the intro on why essential nutrients are important for your dog or my guide on Protein here.
If you have questions about carbohydrates and your dog, hop over to the Basic Nutrition Channel to ask any nutrition questions in the Community discussion or start any of the other step-by-step guides.
If you ever need more personalized nutrition guidance, please reach out!