Protein is a very important part of a healthy, balanced canine diet. Protein has several roles in the body, such as building and repairing muscles and other body tissues. It is needed to form new skin cells, grow hair, build muscle tissue, and more. It also assists in creating body chemicals like hormones and enzymes that are needed for normal function. It provides energy (like carbohydrates do) and keeps the immune system strong.
Proteins are made up of amino acids, and dogs require 22 amino acids to make necessary proteins. A dog’s body is able to make about half of these needed amino acids, but the rest must come from the food your pet eats every day. Because these amino acids are so important, they are called essential amino acids. Deficiencies of any of the essential amino acids over time can lead to health problems.
Protein is found in meats, eggs, and dairy products, as well as some grains and legumes. The dog’s body can’t store up protein like it can fat and other nutrients, so this nutrient has to be supplied in the daily diet. Depending on the age and activity level of your pet, protein needs will vary. Those animals that work very hard (i.e., hunting dogs, sled dogs, search and rescue dogs, etc.) every day require a much greater amount of protein than a dog who doesn’t get much exercise.
Pregnant and lactating animals also need a much higher level of protein to meet their bodies’ needs. When animals are sick or injured, they will have a greater need for protein to recover. Larger breeds of dogs will need to be fed a larger amount of protein as adults to keep their muscles and bodies at optimal condition. As animals get older, the need for protein decreases, but is still necessary.
If protein levels are higher than the animal’s body needs, the excess will be removed from the body in the urine. If very high levels of protein are fed for a long period, the protein not needed for energy can be stored as fat. If you feed a diet with too little protein, over time the animal may show symptoms of weakness, weight loss, and a rough and dull-looking coat.
Picking a Quality Food
Looking at the guaranteed analysis on the back of the dog food bag will tell you the minimum percentage of protein in the finished product. A higher percentage of protein does not necessarily mean your dog is getting a better food, as not all the protein in the product may be completely digestible.
To get a better idea of the quality of the protein in the food, look for the protein source listed in the first few ingredients on the bag. Quality protein sources to look for include chicken, beef, eggs, lamb, fish, and meat meals. Meat meals are highly nutritious forms of dehydrated meats (water and fat removed) that are concentrated sources of protein. Look for meals with a specific name (such as chicken meal) when examining ingredients.
If your pet has particular protein requirements, ask your veterinarian for suggestions on foods. Otherwise, a good-quality dog food will list one or two sources of quality protein in the first few ingredients and will have a percentage that is about 20-25 percent crude protein. Your dog’s appearance and activity is the best indication as to how well his food is providing him with adequate levels of protein, vitamins, minerals, etc. If he has a healthy appetite; his coat is shiny and healthy; he has bright eyes; and is active and always ready to play, then his food is doing its job.