Is High-Protein Dog Food Healthy for Your Pup?

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As a pet parent, you want to give your dog the best of everything — including nutrition. However, choosing the right food isn't always straightforward. For example, you might have heard that high-protein dog food is best for pups. But while protein is an essential nutrient, like most things, too much of a good thing can be harmful. Too much protein in dog food — or too little — can cause health problems.

Here's what you should know about protein in dog food to help you make the best choice for your canine companion.

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What Does Balanced Nutrition Mean?

It's easy to focus on one nutrient at a time, but it's important to look at dog food as a whole. You've probably heard advertisements stating that a particular food is "complete" or "balanced," and that's because those qualities are essential to good nutrition. But what exactly does that mean?

In addition to protein, dogs need carbohydrates, healthy fats, vitamins and minerals. According to the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, these vitamins and minerals include calcium, phosphorus, potassium, and vitamins A, D and E, among others. Many of these nutrients interact with each other. For instance, your dog needs fat to absorb certain vitamins, and carbohydrates help the body use protein more efficiently.

Dogs aren't carnivores but omnivores. This means their systems evolved to consume meat and plants. While meat is great for protein, as well as key vitamins and minerals, plants supply many other vitamins and minerals plus carbohydrates and fiber. Fat can come from both sources.


A key feature of a nutrient is "bioavailability," which indicates how well the nutrient is absorbed and utilized by the body. This is one of the most important features of a dog food since nutrients won't do much good if they're left behind as waste. This is also why the crude protein level on your dog food label doesn't provide an accurate indication of the amount of protein your dog will absorb. Absorption is calculated by testing the food for nitrogen, which is then plugged into a formula and converted to a protein amount. It's not a reliable indication of the protein source's quality or how much your pup will actually digest.

Can Too Much Protein Harm Your Dog?

Kidney disease often goes undiagnosed in dogs who don't show any clinical signs. If your dog has underlying kidney disease, the high phosphorus levels associated with high-protein dog food can exacerbate and accelerate the disease process.

Excess protein can also lead to bone disease, which is typically seen in dogs who are only fed meat (e.g., your neighbor's super picky Pomeranian who only eats rotisserie chicken). Because meat is high in phosphorus and basically devoid of calcium, calcium levels fall and phosphorus rises over time. To correct this imbalance, the body pulls calcium from the bones.

Which Protein Source Is Best?

When most people think of protein, they think of meat. Poultry, beef, pork and fish are all excellent sources of protein that are common in dog foods. But, as any of your vegetarian friends will tell you, there are many other ways to get protein, including eggs, wheat, corn and legumes.

A complete, balanced dog food does all the work for you. Check the food bag's small print to find out whether it's been formulated and/or tested to be "complete and balanced," which means it meets the nutritional requirements for your dog's life stage as established by the Association of American Feed Control Officials. Whatever the protein source, this tells you it's the right amount to meet your pet's needs.

How Much Protein Does Your Dog Need?

Now you know that too much protein in dog food isn't recommended. But is a high-protein dog food ever warranted? If your dog is an athlete, meaning they complete field trials on a regular basis or run in agility, a high-protein dog food might be beneficial. If your dog is older, however, you'll want to back off on the protein since old kidneys aren't as forgiving as young ones. Likewise, if your dog has been diagnosed with kidney failure, your veterinarian will likely recommend controlled protein foods, among other nutrients.

Age, breed size, activity level and lifestyle are all important factors to consider when choosing your pup's food. Your dog is unique, so ask your vet which dog food they suggest. Rather than focusing on just one nutrient, aim to feed your dog a high-quality food that's complete and balanced with all the nutrients they need to thrive.

Contributor Bio

Dr. Karen Louis

Dr. Karen Louis

Dr. Karen Louis owns a small animal clinic near St. Louis, MO. When not helping pets in her low stress clinic, she is walking her rescue dogs or taking nature photos.