How Much Protein

By Margaret H. Bonham

How Much Protein

Have you heard that too much protein is bad for your dog? Or have you heard that dog food doesn't have enough protein? When you look at the labels on various dog foods, some are high protein, while others are lower protein. Some say they have 30 percent protein, some 26 percent, 22 percent or 18 percent. How much protein does your dog really need?

Protein is a nutrient that provides four calories of energy per gram. It's a building block for muscles, organs, bones and connective tissue. It makes up blood cells, antibodies, hair and enzymes. The body that oversees pet nutrition, the American Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), requires that all dog foods have a minimum of 18 percent protein in adult dog food and 22 percent protein in puppy food when all water is removed from the food. But is this what your dog needs? The answer is, it depends.

Active dogs (sled dogs, police dogs, field or hunting dogs, herding dogs) need more protein. These super fit dogs are physically working for several hours each day.  They usually require 25 percent or more protein in their diet to build muscle and repair injuries. Puppies too, need higher protein because they're growing.

But isn't too much protein bad for a dog? Again, it depends. Thousands of sled dogs are routinely fed high-protein diets without a problem, but these dogs metabolize all that protein in their work. They're lean and healthy and lead long lives; sometimes 15 years and older. When considering your dog's protein needs, consider his physical condition and activity level.

If your dog isn't active and not getting much exercise, a food with 18 percent protein might just be fine. Another sign of inactivity is excess weight.  (If you have trouble feeling your pup's ribs through too much padding, then it is probably overweight.)  The important thing to remember is that age, activity level, fitness and health problems should all be taken into account. If you have a senior dog that doesn't run around much, then lower protein is right. If he's still hunting or pulling sleds, he can benefit from a higher protein diet.

While it was once believed that older dogs routinely needed lower protein diets to avoid stress to their kidneys, veterinary nutritionists have done an about-face on this. Older dogs with kidney problems do, indeed, need a low-protein food. But older dogs with healthy kidneys may actually need more protein as they age, because muscle mass tends to diminish with age and the seniors need the extra protein to maintain their muscles.

Protein is essential for your dog, but remember that how much depends largely on your dog's age, activity level and fitness. Talk to your veterinarian about what's right for your dog.

Margaret H. Bonham


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