Choosing a healthy food for your dog can be time consuming, but first stop should be to consider the main component – meat. As discretionary carnivores dogs don’t strictly need meat to survive but they do thrive best on a high-meat diet. and not all meat protein sources are the same, they range in both nutritional content and digestibility – some protein sources being more healthy for your dog than others.
‘Biological value’ is a term used to describe how easily dogs can render the available protein from a particular food source and absorb it into their systems. Foods that have a high biological value are the best protein sources for dogs because they are the easiest to digest. When the food is thoroughly digested, the dog gains as much of the available protein as possible. Foods that contain a lot of protein yet have a low biological value are not easily digested by dogs, and so they aren’t a good source of protein.
So, the amount of usable amino acids in a protein is called its biological value. Eggs have the highest biological value and are thus the benchmark for this measurement. Fish comes next, then game meats and the various livestock meats – poultry, lamb then beef providing the most digestible forms of protein for your dog.
The Question of Digestibility
Protein provides energy for dogs and is also the source for many essential amino acids, which a dog needs to thrive. Dogs require 20 amino acids, 10 of which dogs can synthesise themselves and 10 which must come from proteins within their diet. In order to utilise these amino acids, dogs must be able to easily digest the protein. This is why high protein content in a dog food is no guarantee of quality. If that protein is difficult to digest, it isn’t going to supply the same benefits of a food source that is less protein, but more digestible. Dietary sources of essential amino acids are found within proteins, with the highest concentrations usually found in animal protein and lower concentrations in vegetable, legume, and grain proteins.
Importantly, meats and animal-sourced proteins (eggs) have full amino acid profiles in favourable ratios. This means that they contain all essential amino acids in proper concentrations, while most vegetarian sources need to be combined in order to provide the full spectrum of essential amino acids.
Altho some foods are more naturally bioavailable to dogs, such as animal-based proteins, the bioavailability changes with how a food is cooked. Cooking at extreme temperatures can decrease the amount of protein your pet is able to use.
Raw, freeze-dried, dehydrated, or frozen foods retain the most bioavailability, followed by slow-baked foods, and then by high-temperature processing, such as the extrusion process that most dry kibble undergoes. The extrusion process affects the amino acid structures, which causes heat-sensitive amino acid chains to reform, bond with carbohydrates, and become less usable or even unusable for certain important body functions.
However, meat meals are rendered, which means they are cooked at extreme temperatures. This decreases the biological value of the meats. While they are denser in protein than fresh meats, meat meals are not as high a quality protein. Some good quality pet foods are now adding dehydrated or freeze-dried ingredients to their kibble diets to enhance the bioavailability of that food.
Primary Protein Sources
All dog foods, even limited ingredient or single protein diets, contain multiple sources of protein. Since proteins can be found in vegetables, grains, seeds, and legumes, as well as meats, your pet food’s actual protein makeup is a combination of several protein sources.
Determining your dog food’s primary source(s) of protein can help you assess the food’s quality. While nutrition is more complex than a few quick rules or tips, this can give you a pretty good idea of how your dog food’s protein ranks. The simplest way to find your dog food’s primary source of protein is to look at the first 6 ingredients in your pet’s food. If your pet is on a limited ingredient or single protein diet, limit your assessment to the top 3 ingredients in your dog’s food for a more accurate result.
‘Limited ingredient’ is a bit of a misnomer, seeing as many LID diets still contain a fair amount of ingredients. The main difference between these diets and standard diets is that they contain usually one primary protein source and one primary carbohydrate source. The idea behind them was originally to support dogs with allergies. Generally, they include a novel protein (an unusual protein source that dogs are unlikely to have encountered, such as turkey), and carbohydrate (such as oats or rice). They generally stay away from common dog food proteins (and common allergy sources) such as chicken or beef.
These diets can be helpful for dogs who have developed allergies to common proteins. However, unless your dog is in this position, it’s not recommended to feed a limited ingredient diet, unless you plan on switching it up frequently or mixing foods. The reason is this: feeding few protein sources (or just one) can actually encourage allergies to develop. Scientific studies have found that puppies fed a variety of foods in their first year are less likely to develop food allergies later on. And, the more different proteins that your pet has in his food, the more biologically available the food becomes to your pet, So, if your dog does not have any allergies, feed a variety of proteins to your dog regularly.
Source Of Proteins
Meat-based proteins, also called animal proteins, have an amino acid profile that is considered to be a complete protein for dogs. On the flip side, plant proteins are considered to be incomplete as the amino acid profile does not fulfil the daily requirements a dog needs for optimal health. So not only are proteins important, but the proteins you feed your dog should largely be animal-based instead of plant-based. Many dog food companies use a large amount of plant-based protein which can create problems for your dog’s digestive system. Plant proteins also lack certain acids which are necessary for healthy growth and development. Most cheaper kibble contains large amounts of corn gluten, soybean meal, and other plant-based material which is harder for your dog to digest than animal-based proteins.
Digestibility Of Proteins
Plant matter takes longer to digest than meat-based proteins, which is why omnivores and herbivores have longer digestive tracts. Since dogs are carnivores, they have very short digestive tracts. Under most circumstances, dogs are not able to digest plant-based proteins efficiently and do not derive as much nutrition from them as they need.
A dogs’ digestive system also normally rely on an acidic environment to help kill nasty pathogens, digest their food including tougher materials like bone, and keep the development of diseases like bladder stones and urinary tract infections in check. Meat, particularly red meat, helps create a more acidic stomach whereas plants are generally alkalising.
With a range of protein sources from livestock to fish to game meats, it can be extremely difficult to decide which type of protein is actually the best for the health of your dog. So to help, here’s a list of the benefits and downsides of each protein source to make it easier to compare dog foods and pick the best ones for your dog.
Whole Eggs With the top biological value, eggs win for protein quality. They are very digestible and one of the best protein sources for dogs. They are also a relatively cheap ingredient for their concentrated goodness, hence you will find them in most dog and cat foods.
Fish is incredibly healthy source of protein for dogs, and has distinct benefits for dogs with sensitive or dry skin. It is loaded which essential omega-3 fatty acids, high in lean protein, low in fat and is easily digestible. Unfortunately though, fish does not provide all the nutrients a dog needs. In fact, if fed solely a fish diet, a dog can end up with a vitamin B1 deficiency. Also it is important to note that dogs digest freshwater fish like trout and salmon better than saltwater fish like tuna and mackerel. So even though fish should be included in your dog’s diet, be particular about which fish and don’t rely on it as the sole protein source. Instead treat fish as a supplemental source along with another source like turkey or game meats to have a truly balanced and healthy diet.
Chicken The most biologically available of the fresh meats, chicken and turkey are winners for your pet’s food. The only problem is that chicken is one of the more common allergies that dogs and cats can have, mostly because of its prevalence. To reduce the chances of your dog developing a chicken allergy, change the main protein source in your pet’s food every few months to other less-common poultry, such as turkey or duck.
Turkey is a protein source that is becoming popular in dog foods. Similar to chicken from a nutritional standpoint, although it contains less fat. Turkey is loaded with natural minerals like iron, zinc, potassium, and phosphorous, and B vitamins. Like lamb, turkey is not as intensely farmed as some other livestock meats so it is often featured in natural, holistic and organic foods.
Duck has more fat than any other poultry or fish. It also has a relatively low protein content, but duck is often one of the best proteins for tempting picky eaters.
Kangaroo Is a very lean, low-calorie protein, providing as much protein as beef and rich in B vitamins, Omega 3s, iron and zinc. Kangaroo meat is high in protein and is always free range. As a result their meat is often a healthy choice for pets who suffer from food allergies or intolerances.
Venison As game meats start to gain in popularity, venison is now being used by dog food manufacturers. It is an excellent choice for owners looking to manage food allergies, as it is an easily digestible protein source that is organically sourced. Venison also contains high levels of thiamin, riboflavin, vitamin B6 and B12, phosphorus, niacin, and zinc. So it is a very nutritionally dense protein source and great to feed to any dog.
Goat represents a pretty healthy protein source, and it doesn’t cause the environmental damage that cow, chicken or beef production does. Its meat is rich in protein (it contains more protein than beef or pork), but it contains hardly any fat at all.
Rabbit Another common game meat starting to appear in dog foods is rabbit. As rabbits are often eaten in the wild by dogs, they are a natural, healthy meat source for dogs. Unfortunately, rabbits are starting to be factory farmed, and much like chicken can be raised malnourished. So if you feed your dog rabbit, just make sure it comes from an organic, free-range source so that your dog is getting all the important vitamins and nutrients rabbit offers them.
Lamb Although it has gained popularity in many natural brands because it is not as highly processed as other livestock meats, lamb may contain too much copper and fat which can be unhealthy for your dog, however it may be great for active or working dogs or those looking to put on weight but less suitable for overweight or older dogs. Also since most lamb meat is very expensive, the lamb in dog foods is usually a lower quality mutton.
Beef is one of the most common meat ingredients in dog food today. Beef can be a good protein to feed your dog if it pasture-raised, organic, and uses whole cuts. Beef has a high protein, a great fat content, and is rich in iron and B vitamins, which are all very healthy for dogs, especially active dogs. However, beef is extremely expensive, so the beef most commonly found in dog food is not whole cuts of beef but beef meal or even beef byproducts. These two ingredients are heavily processed and can be very hard to digest. So even though beef is a great source of protein, unless the dog food uses whole cuts of beef, it should be avoided.
Pork is not a great protein source for dogs. Like both beef and chicken, it is highly processed and industrial farmed. Pork is also extremely high in fat, so unless it is fed to an active dog can lead to obesity and liver problems. It is also hard for dogs to digest and can cause some stomach issues. So even though dogs love the taste of ham and bacon, it is not the best source of protein for them.
So what’s the best meat for dogs?
Dogs thrive on high meat diets full of quality proteins that are the building blocks of life. All types of meat protein are great but generally leaner meats with greater nutrients like kangaroo and salmon are slightly preferable and a small proportion of organ meat is a great nutritional boost. Its important when picking a meat to feed to consider affordability, quality, the environment and ethics and of course your dog’s individual tastes and needs.
Protein is one of the most essential parts of your dog’s diet. For total system functioning, make sure that the protein sources in your pet’s food are high quality. High quality ingredients mean more nutrition and a healthier pet long-term.