Does your dog get enough protein in his diet?
Chances are he does … but he can still suffer from protein deficiency.
Proteins are chains of little building blocks called amino acids. And your dog needs to get 10 of these essential amino acids in his food or his health will suffer. Many foods are high in protein, but don’t have the minimum amount of these critical amino acids your dog needs to thrive.
The resulting protein deficiency can cause skin issues, hormone imbalances, growth and soft tissue problems and even behavioral changes. So getting the proteins right is pretty important.
So let’s take a look at how even raw diets can be deficient in protein … and what you can do to make sure your dog gets enough. But before we do, you need to understand just a little more about amino acids …
What Are Amino Acids?
Protein is a molecule that’s made up of a chain of amino acids. These chains of amino acids fold into three dimensional shapes and their final shape depends on their job.
Proteins and amino acids are essential for all cells in every part of the body. So an amino acid or protein deficiency can affect all the organs in the body, the immune system, the skin and intestines.
There are 22 amino acids in total. All of these amino acids are important to your dog and his cells, but 10 of them are considered essential. Essential means your dog can’t make them in his body, so he must get them through his diet. The remaining 12 nonessential amino acids can all be made in your dog’s liver.
Sometimes nonessential amino acids can really be called essential … and I’ll give an example of that in a bit. But first, let’s look at what happens to your dog if he’s missing any of these essential amino acids.
Signs Of Protein Deficiency In Dogs
The most common signs of protein or amino acid deficiency include:
- Reduced growth rate and milk production
- Poor coat, skin and bristle hair
- Anorexia (weight loss) anemia
- Change in mood
But amino acids have a number of important functions in your dog, including:
- Hormone control
- Enzyme activity
- Immune function
- Tissue repair
- Brain chemicals and mood
- Produce some vitamins (B3)
- Brain, eye and heart function
Clearly, getting the amino acids in the proper amounts is critical to your dog’s health. So let’s talk about how you can make sure your dog’s diet contains enough of them.
Not All Proteins Are The Same
Not every protein your dog eats contains all of the amino acids he needs … in fact, most don’t. But if all of the essential amino acids (the ones your dog can’t make) are present in the protein – and in high enough amounts to be of value to your dog – then that protein would have what’s called a high biologic value.
If one or more of the essential amino acids was missing, or if they’re present in low amounts, then a protein would have a low biologic value. And the biologic value of any protein can only be as high as the amino acid that’s found in the smallest amount (this is called the limiting amino acid).
So, all foods are scored according to their biologic value and this is a number between 1 and 100. Let’s take a look at the biologic value of some common foods …
You probably noticed that proteins from animal sources are much more complete than those from plant sources. If you’re feeding your dog grains, these incomplete sources of protein can start to cause amino acid deficiency in your dog because they’re quite low in the essential amino acids. This is why most kibbles and commercial diets (which are at least 30% starch or grain), have to add amino acids to their foods to make up for the incomplete (cheap) source of protein. You’ll often see them on the ingredient panel with L- or DL- in front of them (L means fake, the amino acid was made in a lab and is not a real food).
[Related: What crappy proteins are hiding in your dog’s kibble? Find out here]
So now that you know that you should be watching your dog’s amino acid intake, let’s look at a few simple rules to make sure he’s not going to suffer any protein deficiency.
1. Feed A Raw Diet
Because the biologic value of animal-based proteins is generally quite high, your dog will do well on a raw diet in most cases. If he only eats hoofed animals however, he might be a little short on taurine, a nonessential amino acid. Also some breeds of dogs or those with yeast or Candida infections can need extra taurine in the diet so you’ll want to read to the end and learn a bit more about preventing taurine deficiency (or click here to skip ahead).
[Related: Want to make the move to raw food for your dog? Click here to get started]
2. Skip The Cooked Foods
Biologic value isn’t the whole story … it only measures the potential quality of a protein. The actual quality of protein depends on your dog’s ability to digest it.
Cooking foods denatures proteins … it changes their shape and structure and this can not only cause allergy symptoms in your dog, it can make the amino acids in his protein less accessible. Cooking foods essentially lowers their biologic value and could leave your dog lacking in some key amino acids … especially taurine and tryptophan.
Tryptophan is used to manufacture the hormone serotonin, which is a chemical messenger that can affect mood and heart function. Tryptophan deficiency is a common cause of aggression and anxiety in dogs.
3. Keep The Fat Low
Most of your dog’s food should be high quality meats. But while meat is high in protein, it can also be really high in fat … and that can cause protein deficiency in your dog.
This table compares the fat and protein content of different ground meats. You’ll see that as the percentage of fat goes up in meats, the amount of protein goes down. That’s because no food can be high in fat and high in protein. Here’s why …
Fat contains twice as many calories per ounce as protein (and carbohydrate). And your dog can only eat so many calories in a day. Here’s why this is a problem …
So now you can see that 70% lean ground beef contains nearly double the number of calories as 90% lean beef. So your dog can only eat half as much of it or he’ll start to get really fat.
Why is this a problem?
The 30% fat ground beef already contains less protein than the 10% fat ground beef … about 6% less.
But, you can only feed half as much of this food to your dog because it’s really high in calories. So now your dog will be getting only 1/3 the amount of protein as the dog eating a diet that’s 10% fat.
So a high fat diet will cause not only protein deficiency, but also a vitamin and mineral deficiency.
This is why even dogs fed a raw diet that’s high in animal protein can be deficient in key amino acids. Do you know how much fat is in your dog’s raw diet? You’d better!
Here’s a list of the fat content of some common raw foods to help you get started.
In general, you need to keep the fat content of your dog’s raw diet below 20% … especially in growing puppies who need the protein to build their bodies, not to mention the extra vitamins and minerals.
A Note About Taurine
While taurine isn’t an essential amino acid for dogs (note: it is essential for cats), taurine deficiency can be quite common.
Technically, taurine isn’t really an amino acid. But like amino acids, it plays a key role in most organs and helps with:
- Brain health
- Heart health
- Eye health
- Immune function
- Healthy blood
- Immune health
Taurine deficiency is important to avoid because it can cause a heart condition called dilated cardiomyopathy (and eye issues in cats). Both dogs and cats have developed taurine-deficient dilated cardiomyopathy from commercial pet foods in the past, so it’s important to know when to make sure your dog gets enough.
Here are some risk factors for taurine deficiency:
- Eating cooked or processed diets that are high in fiber
- Some breeds of dogs, including some spaniels, retrievers and Newfoundlands, are especially susceptible to taurine deficiency and can’t make enough of it if their diet contains smaller amounts
- Dogs suffering from candida or yeast infections can lose taurine through their urine
- MSG (found in most foods, supplements and vaccines) can cause taurine loss in your dog
If you suspect your dog might not be getting enough taurine, here are some key facts you should know:
- Taurine is relatively low in lamb, as well as other hoofed animals
- Taurine content is low in eggs and milk
- Poultry, fish, liver and heart are good sources of taurine
- Taurine is virtually absent in plant proteins so most vegetarian and certainly vegan diets will need to be supplemented with synthetic taurine supplements
- Cooking and processing foods reduces the taurine content
Protein is a crucial part of your dog’s diet, but as you can see, just giving him meat without thinking about essential amino acids, fats or vitamins and nutrients can cause problems. You need to make sure he’s getting enough protein, and protein that has the amino acids he needs. If he’s not getting enough, you need to work on his diet and find the right balance so he’s as healthy as he can be.