High protein dog foods are more regularly being pushed as the best nutrition in the ever-evolving and competitive world of dog food. Studies show that 28% of consumers pet food purchases are influenced by whether the recipe is high protein. Many brands have taken advantage of this growing trend and have produced their own range of high protein formulas.
But is a high protein diet for dogs beneficial or required? What are the health risks that dogs could face on such a high protein diet? Which dogs will benefit most from a high protein diet?
Finally, the most critical question of all, is a high protein dog food worth all the hype or is it just marketing spin, designed to make you shell out on more expensive products as many believe?
Let’s dig into the facts before we roll out the best high protein dog food formulas on offer.
Are Dogs Carnivores?
Contrary to popular belief, dogs are not obligate carnivores and are in fact omnivores just like humans. Being an omnivore contrasts heavily with cats who are obligate carnivores and ideally should only consume a diet of meat and fish.
Being omnivores means that dogs are capable of consuming plant material such as vegetables, fruits or grains. As a consequence, vegetables and fruits can and should make up a proportion of your dog’s diet and will not cause any adverse effects.
Sadly, there are some significant misconceptions about what is the most appropriate diet for dogs
Modern domesticated dogs are descendants of wolves. As a consequence of this ancestry, their natural diet closely mimics that of their wild cousins. A wolf’s diet would include high quantities of meat. The nutritional makeup of meat varies depending on the animal, but all meat is high in protein and fat and contains a negligible proportion of carbohydrates.
However, as modern dogs were domesticated, they adapted to be capable of eating a more extensive variety of food including more plant-based material such as vegetables and starches. This adaptation was necessary for dogs survival as meat and fish was often scarce, costly or only available in certain seasons. In some cases, some dogs would have to go weeks or months without any significant meat intake.
While dogs may now be more capable of digesting the plant-based material, they haven’t totally disconnected from their wolf cousins and therefore excel on a diet with a large proportion of meat and fish ingredients. A dog’s health is likely to noticeably decline if the proportion of meat in their diet is low.
The Advantages of High Protein Dog Food
Protein is required in a dogs diet for growth and maintenance purposes. Whether its a young dog growing at an alarming rate or an adult dog repairing their body after high levels of activity, protein and its amino acids are at the core. The more active a dog, the more protein is needed for this growth and maintenance.
Therefore the advantage of a high protein diet is that these needs and requirements can be quickly and adequately met. This protein will enable growth, quicken recovery and allow for an active lifestyle.
However, the advantages do not end there. A high protein diet can have a number of other minor effects such as improving a dogs skin and coat. It can also help build and maintain a strong and healthy immune system to fight off infection and disease. Dogs with a low-protein often experience illness far more often than dogs with a high protein diet.
There is also a common misconception that excess protein is wasted if it is not required. This is not true. Excess protein can be burned as calories to produce energy just like carbohydrates and fat. The only difference is that protein is less commonly stored by a dogs body which means it may be more effective to consume following exercise and exertion. A high proportion of protein will only be wasted if a dog does not participate in enough exercise to use their high protein intake.
The Dangers of High Protein Dog Food
Some may argue that a high protein diet comes with absolutely no risks or dangers. While we believe that high protein diets are not dangerous, there are some specific circumstances that dog owners should be aware and cautious of.
Dogs with underlying kidney issues need to be careful about their protein intake to avoid worsening or aggravating their problems. We do not believe that high protein diets cause kidney issues, but they will undoubtedly exacerbate existing issues. If your dog suffers from kidney issues, you should focus on the consumption of high-quality and digestible protein in smaller quantities rather than a high protein diet.
Also, diets high in animal protein can make regulating Calcium and Phosphorus levels more challenging. There are some who will say that high protein diets can cause problems with bone and joints such as them growing too fast. While there is no conclusive evidence of this, it is common practice to regulate mineral intake in large breed puppies. For more information on the appropriate nutrition for large breed puppies and balancing minerals, check out our Best Puppy Food article.
Besides, ensuring that your dog has a healthy balance of minerals and vitamins is just as important as their core nutrition of protein, fat, and carbohydrates.
The Decline of Animal Protein in Dog Food
Unfortunately, many dog food brands have taken advantage of modern dogs adaptations to include high levels of plant material like grains and vegetables. This has lead to the reduction of the overall level of protein to the legal minimums. These minimum legal levels for protein starkly contrast from a dogs natural and ancestral diet. In some extreme cases, low-quality and cheap dog food can include as much as 70% plant-based material.
The problem of declining levels of protein in dog food can be further compounded when high protein plant by-products like Pea Protein and Potato Protein are used to inflate overall protein levels misleadingly.
A study performed by the association of Pet Obesity Prevention found in 2018 that only 21.8% of dog owners would consider feeding their dog Pea Protein. However, a large portion of dog food recipes contain Pea Protein which shows that pet owners either misunderstanding food labels or simply not reading them.
Consumers without knowledge of the correct makeup of dog food can be tricked by these ingredients into believing that the formula they are providing to their dog is high protein and high in meat.
The core of a dogs protein intake should be animal protein, and unfortunately, as we have discussed above, this is often not the case. One of the reasons why animal protein is superior to plant-based protein is that dogs can digest it far more effectively. This allows them to make use of all the amino acids the protein contains to repair, maintain and grow their bodies. This will be discussed in more detail further in the article.
Also, plan material does not contain the full range of amino acids needed by dogs. While dogs can create some of the missing amino acids, it is far more effective if they can get them from their diet instead.
To learn more about Pea Protein and other Pea by-products check out our Peas, Pea Protein, Pea Flour and Pea Fiber in Dog Food article.
To learn more about Potatoes and Potato By-products check out our Potatoes, Potato Protein & Potato Starch in Dog Food article.
Lastly, if you are interested in learning about Ingredient Splitting which is a sinister technique used by dog food brands to mislead consumers, be sure to check out Ingredient Splitting in Pet Food- Exposed.
The Importance of Protein Bioavailability/Quality
As we discussed above, in ideal circumstances dog should be consuming the vast majority of their protein from animal and fish sources and not plant-based material. But isn’t all protein pretty similar? Many of us do not realize that the bioavailability (which is a fancy way of saying digestibility) of ingredients can vary tremendously. The American College of Veterinary Nutrition discusses the importance of protein quality in their FAQ.
The result of this is that far less protein may be actually digested or absorbed in comparison to the quality that is consumed.
Here are a couple of examples of protein bioavailability according to Liz Paplika in her 1996 book “The Consumers Guide to Dog Food”.
- Eggs – 100%
- Fish Meal – 92%
- Beef – 78%
- Milk – 78
- Wheat – 60%
- Corn – 54%
- Wheat Gluten – 40%
As you can see above, the ingredients from animals such as meat or eggs are far more bioavailable or digestible than plant-based material. What this means in real terms is that you would have to consume significantly more Wheat or Corn in order to digest the same quantity of protein as Beef or Fish.
This is one of the reasons that the % of protein listed on dog food’s guaranteed analysis can be misleading as 25% protein from plant-based material is far less digestible than 25% protein from mostly meat and fish ingredients.
What Kind Of Dogs Need A High Protein Dog Food?
The most common need for higher levels of protein in a dogs diet relates to activity. Dogs who are more active require additional protein to repair and maintain their bodies after rigorous exercise. This high protein requirement is especially true for younger dogs, especially larger breed puppies such as Great Danes, German Shepherds or Huskies.
However, there is no hard or definitive measurement when it comes to activity, so it is essential to use your experience and knowledge when judging your dog’s activity levels and the portion of protein they therefore require.
Working dogs need additional protein for the same reason more active none working dogs do. Working dogs often cover great distances or need to be stronger and healthier. Some examples of working dogs include Police or Military Dogs, Search and Rescue Dogs, Herding Dogs, and Sled Dogs.
However, there is still a significant difference between how much protein an extremely active sled dog and a less active drug-sniffing dog would need, so it’s important to approach each working dog as an individual. A good rule of thumb is to keep track of how long your dogs spend running a day as if this is significant; then their protein intake should also be substantial.
Dogs recovering from severe illness or surgery can benefit from increased protein levels. The higher levels of protein in their diet can help speed up the healing process and boost the immune system to fight off any further infection or illness.
Recovering dogs can also lose their appetite, so it’s essential to ensure that the food they do eat contains a plentiful supply of protein to ensure a speedy recovery. Examples of recovering dogs could include those who have undergone joint replacement surgery, those who have undergone cancer treatment or those who have suffered a severe infection or illness.
The reason puppies need higher levels of protein is probably the most obvious of all those in this breakdown. Fueling their rapid growth relies on plenty of protein to build their muscles and the surrounding tissues.
While humans spend up to twenty years developing to their full size, some dogs breed can reach their full size in as little as a year. This short period of explosive growth demands protein in much higher proportions.
Add to this, the fact that puppies are almost always extremely active as we have discussed previously. This combination of growth and activity equates to a very high demand for high-quality animal protein.
Once again, for an in-depth look at the appropriate nutrition for puppies check out our Best Puppy Food article.
Many people believe that older dogs need less protein in their diets but is a widespread misconception or misunderstanding. This is as the opposite can, in fact, be true. Older dogs are often less capable or able to absorb nutrients such as protein and as a consequence will need to consume higher levels of such nutrients to absorb the sufficient proportions for their needs.
This is backed up by Dr. Delmar Finco, who in the mid-1990s stated that “benefits from a reduced protein diet typical of existing canine geriatric products have never been proven, and the possibility exists that reduced protein diets are not in the best interest of the geriatric patient”.
However, it is also true that more senior dogs are less active and this may offset this lower absorption rate. As we mention in many of our articles, factors such as age can vary tremendously between dogs and some older dogs may maintain their active lifestyles while others may become very sedentary. Only you as the dog’s owner can be a competent judge of their lifestyle.
For an in-depth look at senior dog food, check out our Best Senior Dog Food article.
Last but not least is pregnant dogs. Just as puppies need protein to develop their bodies and muscles, pregnant dogs need plenty of protein to grow the puppies inside them throughout the course of the pregnancy. Excellent nutrition is crucial for a healthy pregnancy and to give the resulting puppies the best start in life.
A poor diet during pregnancy can lead to more sickly puppies or a higher rate of puppy mortality.
How Much Protein Does My Dog Need?
Below is the recommended minimum proportion of protein required by different types of dogs, some of which we have discussed above.
- Puppy – 28%
- Adult – 18%
- Performance – 25%
- Racing Sled – 35%
- Lactating – 28%
Remember that the above proportions are minimum recommendations and that as we discussed earlier in this article, additional protein beyond what is required is not wasted.
Instead, it can be utilized as a source of energy just like fat and carbohydrates are. Many of the formulas that we will suggest later in the article will contain enough protein for a Racing Sled dog so if you think that is overkill for your house dog, then that is a completely acceptable thought process.
Are High Protein Dog Foods Worth it?
This is a tough question, and its answer can be affected by a number of factors. There is no doubt that high protein dog foods, especially those high in high-quality animal protein, are significantly more expensive than their lower protein alternatives.
This is because meat ingredients are more costly as I am sure we all aware of when we do our weekly grocery shopping. Worldwide meat consumption is rising and pet food manufacturers are forced to compete with the human food industry for the limited supply of meat which many argue is unsustainable. The reality is that many of us can’t afford these premium ranges no matter how much we love our canine friends.
Activity levels also play a significant factor in whether high levels of protein can be best utilized. Working huskies who pull sleds need very high levels of protein to keep their muscles and bodies well maintained. However, docile or inactive dogs need far less protein for their growth and maintenance. Many busy dog owners only have time to walk their dog once a day or for longer on weekends and this kind of lifestyle may not require a high protein intake.
You need to judge how active your dog is and whether they will benefit from a higher level of protein. As mentioned earlier protein won’t always go to waste but if your dog is inactive and consuming a very high proportion of protein, some of it may be lost and excreted through urine.
Best High Protein Dog Foods
There an increasingly broad range of dog foods marketed as “high protein.” Ironically many of those ranges that are marketed as high protein aren’t that high in protein after all which is why it’s important to study a formulas ingredient list and Guaranteed Analysis carefully.
However, the following recipes are high in protein and are some of our favorites. They all include an abundance of protein that is derived from high-quality meat and fish ingredients which is an important distinction as we discussed earlier.
Best High Protein Adult Dog Foods
Victor is a very popular dog food brand and one which we discuss and recommend on a regular basis. This is in part thanks to the affordable price and large quantities that Victor dog food is sold in. This makes it a very viable option for dog owners with large breed dogs or multiple dogs.
Victor also produces some recipes that could be classified as high protein or very high protein. While not quite as cheap as their other recipes, they are still very affordable and probably the cheapest discussed in this article. The most prominent of these recipes is Ultra Pro which features working husky dogs on its packaging.
The proportion of protein in Ultra Pro is substantial and sufficient for dogs of all activity levels. In addition, the fat proportion is also extremely high, which would make this formula suitable for dogs with very high activity levels. However, with the fat proportion being so high, less active dogs would need to be careful to avoid weight gain.
Due to the protein and fat proportion being so high, the proportion of carbohydrates is extremely low and a very accurate depiction of a dog’s natural diet.
All this protein and fat is from a number of meat and fish ingredients. This includes Chicken Meal, Beef Meal, Menhaden Fish Meal, and Pork Meal. This combination of meat meals, that have already had their moisture removed, sums to an extremely high portion that forms the vast majority of the kibble. Peas and Sweet Potatoes provide the carbohydrates and act as the binding agent for the kibble.
Orijen is renowned for being one of the most popular players in the premium pet food industry and are often the first name that dog owners would think of when asked to name a super premium brand. Despite this, they are regularly at the center of controversy and there are many dog owners who are not fans.
While all of their formulas would be considered very high in protein, their Fit and Trim recipe is specifically designed to provide a higher ratio of protein to fat than any of their other formulas.
Orijen is known for its use of exceptionally high-quality ingredients, and the ingredients used in Fit and Trim maintain this standard. The formula contains over ten sources of poultry and fish including Chicken, Turkey, Whole Eggs, Flounder, Herring amongst a long list of other ingredients.
These meat and fish ingredients are combined with a huge variety of fruits and vegetables such as Beans, Peas, and Chickpeas. While it’s is likely that these vegetables contribute a notable portion of protein, the proportion is high already that is is not significant.
As we mentioned previously, Fit and Trim does have lower levels of fat than other Orijen formulas, but because this is deliberate, we do not heavily penalize them for this. In addition, the proportion of fat in the formula is still far more than is required for an active, and healthy dog and they will instead be able to utilize the excess protein or carbohydrates during peak activity.
Earthborn Holistic produces many different types of dog food including Limited Ingredient Dog Food, Wet Dog Food, and Grain Free Dog Food. While we have given some of their recipes mixed reviews, their Primitive Natural formula is by far their best and coincidently contains the highest proportion of protein by a significant margin.
The formula contains a considerable portion of meat and fish ingredients which provide high levels of protein and fat. Some of these ingredients include Chicken, Turkey, and Whitefish. Chicken Fat is also present which is being increasingly used as a source of additional animal fat and to enhance the flavour and taste of a recipe. Find out more about the use of Chicken Fat in our article Chicken Fat In Dog Food.
Potatoes and Peas are the other core ingredients and provide a small proportion of carbohydrates and fiber. The portion of both these ingredients is not significant enough to dilute the level of animal protein which is crucial. There is also a portion of Pea Starch which is a pea by-product. We imagine this is being used as a binding agent and not to provide nutrition.
The formula has a surprisingly high level of the Omega 3 Fatty Acid for a formula that doesn’t focus heavily on fish.
Nature’s Logic is a lesser known brand, but their recipes fill an essential niche in the premium and hypoallergenic dog food market. Even more impressive is that some of their formulas also fill the niche of high protein dog food without being directly marketed as such which has earned them a place within this article.
We do not generally suggest dog food recipes with grain ingredients. However, for those dogs who do not react well to other vegetable ingredients, then there is a place for them. An example of this could be with dogs with severe Pea and Legume allergies.
Nature’s Logic’s dry dog food recipes make use of the grain Millet. While we don’t consider Millet to be quite as advantageous as other grains like Brown Rice and Oats, it is still far superior to the worst grains such as Wheat and Corn.
The above mentioned Duck & Salmon Meal Formula contains a mix of Duck, Turkey, and Salmon ingredients along with Pork Liver. The Pork Liver can provide a number of minerals and vitamins that traditional meat cuts can not. The proportion of protein and fat is extremely satisfactory and suitable for dogs of all activity levels.
The Pork Formula is also worth mentioning for those dogs who do not react well to multiple meat and fish ingredients. It contains almost identical nutrition but only makes use of Pork Meal and Pork Liver alongside the everpresent Millet. Be sure to check out its review here.
Weruva is a brand that is best known for producing cat food but they have a smaller range of dog food. What makes Weruva unique is that they produce some of their products in Thailand. While this may be offputting for some consumers, the facility is said to be state of the art and enacts all of the required policies and safety measures.
All of Weruva’s dry dog food recipes are high in protein but some, in particular, have a very high protein content. Two members of the Harmony range, Chicken Dinner with Pumpkin and Chicken, Turkey and Salmon Dinner with Pumpkin are noteworthy examples of this.
These recipes use whole meat and fish ingredients such as Chicken, Turkey, and Salmon as well as Whole Eggs to provide high-quality protein. As we have mentioned throughout this article meat, fish and egg ingredients such as these are the ideal source of protein and are very easily digested and utilized.
The recipes also contain a range of whole legumes such as Peas and Lentils which are considered high-quality sources of carbohydrates. The portion is significant, but the protein they provide supplements already high levels and so is not worth being concerned about.
For those of you have read some of our other best of articles, you’ll know that Merrick’s Grain-Free range is one of our favorites. The majority of the formulas in this range provide excellent nutrition from a range of high-quality ingredients. While their formulas aren’t explicitly marketed as high protein like others in this article, the protein content is still very high.
The range includes formulas with common meat and fish ingredients such as Chicken or Beef but also includes others with less common ingredients such as Rabbit or Venison. While the protein level in this formulas does vary depending on the meat and fish ingredients, they are all at the very least satisfactory, with some such as the above Chicken and Sweet Potato, being very satisfactory.
Their Chicken formula includes a small mix of Chicken and Turkey ingredients. These poultry ingredients are combined with Sweet Potatoes, Potatoes and Peas. The advantage of Potatoes and Sweet Potatoes in this formula is that they do not provide a significant portion of protein. Therefore the vast majority of the protein in this formula is from animal sources. The downside of this is that these starch ingredients do provide a significant portion of carbohydrates. However, this still appears to be within the satisfactory limits.
Acana, the sister brand of Orijen, also has some formulas with a high proportion of protein. Until recently they did not have a specific high protein range or recipe like other competing brands. However, in April 2018 they released a formula with a high ratio of protein to fat, similar to Orijen’s formula – Fit and Trim. The recipe is known as Light and Fit and focuses on providing a very high proportion of protein and a lower proportion of fat.
As mentioned, this formula is very similar to Orijen’s and uses a mix of high protein poultry ingredients and high-quality vegetables. Sadly, Acana’s recipes do not have the vast range of ingredients that Orijen’s do, but nevertheless, they still provide fantastic nutrition and are void of any by-products or fillers.
However, unlike Fit and Trim, the Light and Fit recipe has a notably lower proportion of fat. This means it could be more suitable for dogs hoping to achieve weight loss without lowering their protein intake. Unfortunately, the consequence of a low-fat proportion is a higher proportion of carbohydrates which dogs do not require in large portions.
Solid Gold Barking At The Moon With Beef Review
Solid Gold’s High Protein range is also very blunt about its protein content. Their range used to be more extensive than Nature’s Variety Instinct.
However, Solid Gold Discontinued some of these products and now has two High Protein recipes which are Barking At The Moon With Beef and Barking At The Moon With Duck. While not quite as unique as previous recipes, these do differ from others by not focusing on Chicken.
Ingredients in Barking At The Moon With beef include Beef, Eggs, and Ocean Fish Meal. These combine to provide a very high protein proportion. Egg’s, in particular, are another noteworthy ingredient as they are one of the most complete sources of protein available for both humans and dogs alike.
Unfortunately, Solid Gold’s High Protein recipes do use a Potato-By product which is Potato Protein. This by-product contributes plant-based protein which is considered inferior to animal protein. Sadly, Potato Protein is the third listed ingredient so this portion is not small.
Find out more about Potato Protein in our article Potatoes, Potato Protein & Potato Starch in Dog Food.
Despite its use of Potato Protein, Solid Gold’s Barking At The Moon still contains a large portion of animal and fish-based protein and is viable for those dog owners on a tight budget who can not afford some of the more premium recipes listed above.
Best High Protein Puppy Foods
As was mentioned earlier in the article, puppies need a notably higher proportion of protein than their parents and there is a huge selection of puppy food products on the market that can meet this demand. Here are just a few of our top picks of high protein puppy food formulas.
Farmina N&D Chicken & Pomegranate Puppy Recipes
While Farmina’s adult formulas might not have quite the dazzling levels of protein as some of the formulas mentioned above, the proportion of protein in their puppy formulas is absurd. It is important to note that they have two puppy formulas within this specific range, one designed for mini and medium breed puppies and another designed for large breed puppies both of which we have listed above.
The primary focus of the puppy formulas is on two core meat and fish ingredients: Chicken and Herring. Both of these ingredients are ideal for a puppies diet and provide a plentiful supply of protein and fat. The Herring, in particular, supplies a very satisfactory level of the Omega Fatty Acids which can help improve the health of your puppies skin and coat.
In addition to Chicken and Herring, the formulas include Potatoes and a select number of fruit and vegetable ingredients. While we don’t believe Potatoes are the ideal source of carbohydrates, the portion of them in these formulas is low enough that is not of significant concern.
In addition, Potatoes are unlikely to provide a significant portion of plant-based protein which ensures the vast majority of the protein present is from meat and fish sources. Some examples of other fruits and vegetables present in small quantities are Pomegranate, Apples, Carrots, and Spinach.
We mentioned Orijen earlier in this article with their Fit & Trim formula as well as their lower cost sister brand – Acana so it will come as no surprise that they feature in the puppy section of this article. Orijen produces two puppy recipes, their standard Puppy Formula, and their Puppy Large Formula. For the most part, they are very similar but they do have some unique differences to ensure healthy growth in large breed puppies. We have provided links to both above if you want to fully investigate.
Orijen excels at two things, providing unprecedented nutrition and using a massive range of high-quality human grade ingredients. Their Puppy formula is a perfect example of this as it contains over fifteen different meat and fish ingredients. These ingredients provide a proportion of protein and fat that is significantly above average and is extremely bioavailable.
Examples of meat and fish ingredients present in the formulas include Chicken, Turkey, Mackerel, Herring and some Organ meats like Liver and Heart. The fish ingredients help boost the levels of the Omega Fatty Acids which can provide a range of health benefits. The organ meats can provide high levels of vitamins and minerals that aren’t as abundant in traditional meat cuts.
Orijen then combines these meat and fish ingredients with a large variety of legumes and other vegetables. While some would frown upon the large number of these legumes, their quantities are very small and even when they are summed the total portion is not excessive.
Best High Protein Canned/Wet Dog Foods
Crave is a relative newcomer to the pet food market and is owned by Mars Petcare which produces other recognizable brands such as Pedigree dog food and Whiskas cat food.
The brand was launched to cater to the consumers who demand higher-quality pet food at an affordable price. Crave is by far the most affordable dog food brand featured in this article and is sold at stores like Walmart and PetSmart. Check out our articles on Walmart Dog Food, PetSmart Dog Food, and Cheap Dog Food for more information.
However, wet dog food is still noticeably more expensive than dry food, but hopefully, Crave’s wet dog food products shouldn’t break the bank or make you flinch.
Crave’s Pate range offers a small variety of wet dog food formulas. Each formula contains both traditional meat cuts alongside organ meat. This organ meat provides beneficial Vitamins and Minerals that standard meat cuts lack. This combination of meat ingredients offers fantastic nutrition, extremely high in protein and fat. Despite being low-cost Crave’s wet dog food has more protein than the majority of premium brand recipes.
Finally, none of Craven’s Pate recipes contain a significant portion of vegetable ingredients let alone frowned upon vegetable by-products which are present in some of their dry food products. This ensures that almost all of the protein in the formula is highly digestible animal protein.
Canned recipes from Crave should appeal to dogs who do not enjoy or cope well with regular kibble and who can not afford a very costly diet of exclusively premium canned food.