Why Protein Matters and Good High Protein Foods for Dogs
Step 15 of 18 in the Dogly Basic Nutrition Channel
with Alicia Boemi of HolisticPetWellness, Wellness Advocate

Dog parents often ask about protein and their dog's diet: How much protein is right for a balanced diet, can you underfeed or overfeed it, what about plant proteins vs animal protein, what are the best protein sources for high quality protein, and why is it so vital to helping our dogs stay healthy?

In this step-by-step guide, I'll be sharing information on some macronutrients and micronutrients that make up your dog’s food - starting with protein. Each segment could be more than extensive, so I'll highlight the functions of each macro/micronutrient.

And if you have questions along the way, just ask! You can always ask me nutrition questions in the Community discussion in the Basic Nutrition Channel here on Dogly and I'll try my best to answer.

Or if you ever want to jump to any of the other essential nutrients guides they can be found here: Carbs, Fats & fatty acids, Vitamins & Minerals

Here are 7 key questions and their answers on what you need to know about protein and your dog's health


Q.1: What are proteins, actually, in our dogs' bodies and a healthy pet's diet?

Simply put, protein is made up of amino acids and when it comes to our dogs, amino acids are classified as essential or non-essential. This means that if the amino acids are essential the dog needs that amino acid in a certain amount in order to survive, live, and thrive and it is not made within dogs' bodies. 

Below is the list of essential amino acids dogs need:

  • Arginine
  • Histidine
  • Isoleucine
  • Leucine
  • Lysine
  • Methionine
  • Phenylalanine
  • Threonine
  • Tryptophan
  • Valine

Why are these amino acids essential for dogs?

They're essential because dogs need them but cannot create them within their own bodies. So in order for dog's bodies to maintain muscle, a healthy metabolism, overall cellular function, etc., dogs need to get these necessary amino acids from food to continue living and thriving.

Dogs are naturally shedding their fur, growing fur, growing nails, going to the bathroom, moving… basically, they’re always secreting protein-containing compounds naturally whether through growth, movement, peeing, pooping, etc. Replenishing these amino acids within their body is critical to stay healthy and survive.

Q.2: What foods are a healthy source for these essential amino acids?

Protein-dense foods such as meat, eggs, and dairy are a natural source of essential amino acids. The source of digestible protein, type, and the process by which it is fed are all things to take into consideration.

For example, cooking vs. raw foods changes the amount or types of amino acids in the protein. So you can’t just feed raw ground beef one day and cooked the next and think the nutrients and amino acids will be the same in both. They will vary. Also, the source of the protein can create these factors such as grass-fed meat vs. not.

When food allergies/sensitivities appear in protein sources

Some protein sources have become known as frequent suspects in food allergies or sensitivities. Chicken is the usual suspect as well as being possibly the most used meat protein in pet food and treats.

That's when dog parents begin searching for other meat proteins and often look at a novel protein source as an option to test something new in their pet foods that they know can't possibly be the problem.

"Novel protein" means a protein you haven't given your dog before such as rabbit or another less everyday meat protein. (If you are struggling with potential food allergies or sensitivities, a canine nutritionist can help you test options while maintaining a healthy, balanced diet.)

Fail-safe assurance for necessary amino acids for your dog

Going back to my previous guide regarding AAFCO or the NRC and nutrient requirements - all these essential amino acids are part of those nutrient requirements for a complete and balanced diet. So if you’re working with a nutritionist, the amino acid requirements will be covered in the dog food recipes and your dog's diet, or if you’re feeding an AAFCO approved dog food, these essential nutrients will also be covered in the diet.


Q.3: Is the protein and its nutritional benefits more accessible to my dog in some foods vs others?

Definitely yes. Remember how we've also talked about bioavailability? That is something to consider as well. The bioavailability of the necessary amino acids in raw eggs or a freshly cooked whole food diet will likely be more available to your dog from a digestion standpoint than a kibble diet.

Now, again, we can all only do what we can at any given moment and if you're feeding kibble that's fine, just make sure it is from a reputable company so you know your dog is getting the most high quality dog foods as possible and accessing as much of the protein as possible.

Q. 4: Should I be feeding more protein to my senior dog than my more active adult dog, or less protein?

We typically need higher protein for a senior dog, including making sure there are ample amounts of amino acids being fed to that senior dog - and from easily digestible sources to get high biological value for a senior for overall health and to avoid loss of muscle mass. We want to think about high quality meats and eggs as a primary protein source, including protein-rich options like beef liver for optimal nutrition.

Whole food protein added as a kibble/dry food topper is a great way to give your senior bioavailable protein if you're feeding a commercial dry dog food and not a whole foods/homemade diets.

Also, you may want to take a look at my "Feeding for Life Stage" guide here for more on seniors and the differences in protein consumption for many dogs at different life stages - for example, between a 5-year-old dog and a 12-year-old dog.


Q. 5: Is protein important for anything else?

Yes! Protein is important for the transfer of certain vitamins and minerals throughout your dog’s body. Additionally, collagen, cartilage, and iron are all major necessities of life that protein helps to continue to replenish, rebuild, and maintain.

You’ve probably seen the uptick in human collagen products with a list of amino acids as the ingredients. While that’s great for those who need an extra boost, for most dogs, you’re more likely to receive those amino acids by eating meat, eggs, and dairy in a well balanced diet.

However, if your dog's individual health profile includes a special condition as is the case with our Mylah, you might want to consider supplements as an option. I have used Vital Proteins for Mylah as an addition to her already high protein diet food. That's because she loses more protein in her urine because of Protein Losing Nephropathy combined with her diabetes. I don’t want to overfeed her protein for many reasons so that product is a good solution. Every dog is different and some medical conditions warrant certain necessities.

Q. 6: Can you overfeed or underfeed protein?

Yes! Frankly, you can over or underfeed any type of nutrient.

Why you don't want to overfeed protein to your dog

Overfeeding protein won’t do much for a dog if you’re providing it in excess other than potentially causing adverse reactions. Simply put - there's no benefit to feeding tons of excess protein. Kidney damage and kidney disease from excess protein is something that is controversial as we don't 100% know if eating too much protein can cause this damage.

What we do know with kidney issues is it's best to feed a low protein diet. Lastly, excess protein is typically stored as fat (sometimes converted to glucose too) and the extra amino acids are excreted out of the body. This could lead to weight gain over time if the dog is not actively burning off the additional calories from excess protein consumption. 

What about underfeeding protein to your dog?

Underfeeding protein can cause protein deficiency in a dog which can have hair, nail, and even skeletal issues manifest. Protein is life-giving so a deficiency can cause major problems. A nutritionally complete diet is important for all essential nutrients and certainly when it comes to protein.


Q. 7: What about plant protein for dogs vs animal protein?

Dogs best absorb nutrients from heme-iron or heme-protein that have a higher biological value (BV). BV is the measure of absorbed protein from food which is utilized throughout a dog’s body. There is significant difference in BV from animal proteins vs. plant protein as a protein source. You can search for BV of foods easily on Google but as an example, a whole egg has a BV of 100 whereas pea protein has a 64 to give you an idea of what's the best protein.

Plant protein, while beneficial (and I use it in my dogs' and clients' dogs' diets to an extent), is also not as bioavailable to dogs given their digestive system. Plant matter must be steamed or pureed for a dog to digest it properly. Briefly circling back to heme, heme is a molecule that contains iron and is essential to building life. Heme is most commonly associated with hemoglobin, the red pigment found in blood, and is found in abundance in animal muscle.

Next up in the Basic Nutrition Channel on Dogly

Now that you've gotten an in-depth understanding of protein, 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 Carbs, Fats & fatty acids, Vitamins & Minerals or you can always go back to the intro on why essential nutrients are important for your dog here.

If you have questions about protein 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!

Alicia Boemi of HolisticPetWellness

Wellness Advocate
Dogly loves Alicia because she gives dog parents tools to be proactive and feel reassured in their dog's health journey.

Alicia guides you

Basic Nutrition - Home Cooking - Joint Support - Life Stage Feeding - Aromatherapy - Herbs

Alicia is certified

Canine Nutrition & Massage Therapy - Canine & Equine Aromatherapy - Canine Herbalism