High Protein Dog Food – What It Really Means

The variety of dog food keeps growing every day. Many brands are now churning out ‘high protein’ dog food. This label is often seen on the packaging of dry food.

This article seeks to give a clearer definition of what ‘high protein’ means and what this type of dog food truly constitutes. Do dogs really need this type of dog food and is it worth paying a premium price for it?

We also discuss whether high protein dog food is good for weight loss or weight gain. Read on to know more.

High Protein Dog FoodImage by Stefan Glazer from Pixabay

What ‘high protein’ means

Before we can understand what high protein refers to, we need to know what a dog’s average protein needs are at different life stages, and the average percentage of protein content in dog food.

Assuming a dog does not have any health issues, these are the protein portions required in each meal (the balance would comprise moisture, fat, carbohydrate, fibre and micronutrients):

These ratios are also based on the average level of activity, and they are not specific to any breed.

The average percentage of protein content in dog food varies according to type: dry, canned, freshly cooked, raw, air dried. It is also dependent on whether other ingredients are included in the food.

Generally, dry food has a lower percentage of protein per serving compared with the rest. That is because wet food (canned, freshly cooked and raw) contains a lot of moisture which makes up a bulk of the content per serving.

Dry dog food has at least 18% crude protein. This is the minimum set by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) on a dry matter basis (meaning what's left after all of the moisture is extracted from dog food). Anything that is above this benchmark can technically be labelled as ‘high’.

What does crude protein mean?

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary for medical terms, the definition of crude protein is as follows:

The approximate amount of protein in foods that is calculated from the determined nitrogen content by multiplying by a factor (as 6.25 for many foods and 5.7 for wheat) derived from the average percentage of nitrogen in the food proteins and that may contain an appreciable error if the nitrogen is derived from nonprotein material or from a protein of unusual composition.

Where does crude protein come from?

From the definition, we can tell that crude protein is measured by nitrogen content. Nitrogen can be found in animal protein as well as non-protein material. ‘Non-protein’ could mean grains, plants and even the pure chemical form of Nitrogen.

What is the difference between crude protein and protein?

True protein is a measure of only the protein in a food source. Crude protein is a measure of all nitrogen, including non-protein nitrogen such as urea, in the food. Urea has no food value.

Is crude protein good?

Yes and no. If the ingredients put together to make it are purely animal and plant sources, it is relatively good. If the ingredients are purely animal source, it is even better. Allow us to explain.

Protein is one of the most important nutrients for dogs. It is made up of amino acids, which are essential for maintaining a dog’s muscles and repairing its body tissues.

A dog can only create half of the essential amino acids needed so the other half must come from its diet. Plant sources have protein but this type of protein is less digestible than animal protein. It also has lower levels of essential amino acids.

Although certain essential amino acids can be obtained from plant sources, some are only found in animal sources. That is why protein from animals is the best.

Crude protein becomes bad for a dog’s health when it contains Nitrogen from purely chemical sources. This is what gives crude protein a negative reputation.

High protein dog food problems

Problems arise in the definition of crude protein in different types of food.

Dry dog food high in animal protein

As mentioned earlier, crude protein only measures the amount of nitrogen in the food as an indicator of protein. However, nitrogen can also be derived from plant-based and non-food ingredients. This manner of protein measurement is commonly used for kibble.

It is nearly impossible to know exactly how many percent of the protein is from what source. Vegetable sources of protein are cheaper than animal sources but they are of inferior quality.

Crude protein in wet food – gently cooked and raw meat

The crude protein of these types refer to pure protein. They have the least likelihood of containing urea since protein is not measured by levels of nitrogen. The protein is clearly and visibly from real meat.

Crude protein in wet food – processed can food

There are two types of wet canned dog food. One has chunky real food that is cooked. Another type is in the form of a processed paste. It is easy to verify an estimated quantity of protein in the former but not the latter.

Is high protein dog food good for weight loss?

First of all, what makes a dog chubby? It is not specifically what the dog eats. Instead, it is how many calories.

Unutilised calories from its diet are turned into fat to be stored as energy reserves. What counts more for portly pups is the total caloric content.

Protein, animal fat and carbohydrate can all be synthesized by a dog’s digestive system into calories. Proteins and carbohydrates are each worth 4 calories per gram. Fat has 9 calories per gram.

Even though a food label may state that it has only 20% crude fat, this portion may actually provide more than 50% of calories. You can use this converter to help you compute these figures.

So, yes, a high protein diet can help an overweight dog lose a few pounds but not without caloric restriction. As such, high protein low fat dog food might be the answer if your dog is overweight.

High protein dog food for weight gain

For a healthy dog, getting them to gain weight may be as simple as giving them more of its current diet. For healthy weight gain, food with higher protein than fat content is the best.

Another way is to leave this type of food available for free feeding. Note that only kibble is suitable for this method. Any kind of wet or raw food can become rancid very quickly, and it is not advisable to leave this exposed for hours.

Another way to make your dog’s total daily diet high protein is by supplementing with high protein treats. Treats also contain calories. The best high protein treats are dried meat or animal parts such as cow tripe.

Go for digestibility instead of volume. The more highly digestible a food is, the more nutrients a dog can absorb.

Photo by Bianca Ackermann on Unsplash

Is too much protein bad for dogs?

There is some chatter in the pet community that too much protein can cause a dog to be sick but this is far from true. When a dog consumes too much protein to be utilized or stored as fat, its body will just excrete the excess protein through its kidneys as urine.

Issues arise when its diet is imbalanced, i.e. all meat without bone, organs, fat, carbohydrate or fibre. Such a diet makes it difficult for a dog’s body to maintain a proper calcium-phosphorus ratio. When this occurs, it causes disruptions in bone growth or kidney damage.

Veterinary doctor T.J. Dunn, Jr., mentioned in his article in PetMD that there is actually no agreement among pet nutritionists about what constitutes too much protein in a dog’s diet.

Research shows that dogs are able to digest and utilise kibble with over 30% protein content. There is no conclusive evidence of high protein food causing damage to kidneys in a normal, healthy dog.

His article also stated that there is some valid research indicating older dogs may need a higher percentage of protein in their diets. 


The take-away from here is that high protein dog food is not bad for dogs. What is bad in products labeled as such is the chemical content posing as protein, hidden in the term ‘crude protein’. The safest way to avoid this problem is by giving dogs food in its original and unprocessed form, be it cooked or raw.