How Much Protein Do Pets Need?
Protein, along with fats and carbohydrates, is one of the three important macronutrients required by each cell of the human, canine, and feline body. This nutrient is required in different amounts depending on the species. In this article, we’ll be discussing why protein is important, reviewing requirements for dogs and cats, listing sources, and noting the ramifications of excesses and deficiencies.
What Is Protein and Why Is It Important?
Protein is one of the most important components in the body. It is required to build muscle, repair cells, support the immune system, and help us (and pets) feel satiated. Protein powers the body as it is processed. Additional benefits include boosting metabolism, helping to maintain weight loss, maintaining a healthy blood pressure, and supporting bone health.
Proteins composed of amino acids, which are organic compounds that consist of carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, and hydrogen. The body requires 22 amino acids. Of these, cats can produce 11 and dogs make 12.
The other 10 or 11 amino acids need to be supplemented in food, and therefore are called essential amino acids.
These essential amino acids are:
- Taurine (in cats only)
Besides the fact that cats require more protein, a cat’s need for taurine is an important reason that cats cannot eat dog food.
Requirements for Cats and Dogs
The amount of protein required varies with the species, exercise level, stress level, life stage, reproductive cycle, underlying medical condition, and overall body condition. Pets that burn more calories or expend extra energy demand more protein. For example, working dogs or dogs that exercise often need more protein to provide them with the components necessary for energy production. Pets at different life stages (puppy or kitten, adult, or senior) require different amounts of protein, with more needed during periods of growth. There are additional energy requirements during pregnancy or lactation and with sick or debilitated pets. On the contrary, some medical conditions, such as kidney disease, may require lower dietary protein amounts.
In addition to protein, dogs and cats require water, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals. A high-quality balanced diet is critical for good health. When buying pet food, choose a food certified by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). This organization works to ensure that dog and cat foods are complete and balanced. Learn more about the nutritional requirements of dogs here and cats here.
As a general rule, dogs need about half as much protein as cats. Cats are carnivores and require more protein than dogs, who are omnivores.
Protein requirement can be calculated a few different ways:
- Dogs – Dogs need approximately 1 gram of protein per pound of ideal body weight. For example, a 25-pound dog of an ideal weight would require 25 grams of protein per day. On the other hand, a 50-pound overweight dog that should be 40 pounds would require 40 grams of protein per day.
- Cats – Cats need approximately 2 grams per pound of ideal body weight. For example, a 10-pound cat of an ideal weight would require 20 grams of protein per day.
By Growth Needs
- Dogs – In general, most dogs need about 18 to 25% protein.
- Puppy – 28%
- Adult – 18% to 20%
- Senior – 18%
- Working dog – 25 to 35%
- Pregnant or nursing – 28%
- Cats – In general, most cats need 35 to 45% protein.
- Kitten – 40 to 50%
- Adult – 35 to 40%
- Senior – 35 to 38%
- Pregnant or nursing – 45 to 50%
To calculate protein needs, follow these steps:
- Weigh your pet. For this example, let’s pretend we are evaluating the protein needed for a 25-pound dog. Consider if your pet is overweight and what their ideal weight should be.
- Determine how much you are feeding. This is most often calculated in grams.
- One ounce of canned food contains about 30 grams. Therefore, a 5.5-ounce can would be about 165 grams and an 8-ounce can would be about 240 grams.
- Dry food is a little harder to convert to grams, because it is measured by volume rather than weight. If possible, weigh the daily portion of your dog’s food on a kitchen scale. One cup of dry food can vary from 80 to 120 grams.
- Read the pet food label to determine the minimum percentage of protein in the bag or can. You can also obtain this information from the pet food manufacturer’s website.
- Do the math. Multiply the grams of what you feed by the protein percentage in the food.
- For example, if you feed a total of one 8-oz can of dog food (240 grams) per day and the food says it contains 10% protein, multiply 240 grams x 10% (0.10) protein to get 24 grams of protein per day. For a 25-pound dog, that is just about right.
- As another example, if you are feeding 1 1/4 cups of dry food that contains 20% protein and each cup is 100 grams then 100 grams x 1 1/4 cups = 125 grams x 20% protein (0.20) = 25 grams of protein.
When Pets Get Too Much Protein
Excessive protein ingestion can lead to obesity. This is an uncommon problem because protein is one of the most expensive ingredients in pet foods and, therefore, most pet foods companies provide only what is required.
NOTE: Obesity is a common problem, but more often caused by overeating and lack of exercise. Learn more about Obesity in Dogs.
When Pets Get Too Little Protein
Protein deficiency can lead to problems such as poor muscling, vomiting, diarrhea, weight loss or weight gain, behavioral changes, and failure to grow or thrive. Cats require amino acids from animal proteins. Deficiency of taurine and arginine can cause severe eye problems, neurological abnormalities, and life-threatening heart disease.
Sources of Protein
There are many sources of protein and, most importantly, a difference in the quality of proteins. Some protein sources, such as plant-based protein sources, do not contain all the amino acids that are essential to cats. High-quality meats, such as chicken, beef, pork, rabbit, duck, and fish, are highly digestible and contain the essential amino acids.
Proteins are evaluated based on their biological value (ability of the protein to be broken down by the body). The better the body is able to break down a protein, the superior the biological value. For example, proteins with the highest biological value are beef, chicken, and lamb muscle meat. Lower on the list are fish meal and organ meats, followed by soybeans, corn gluten, wheat, and rice protein meals or concentrates.
Can Pets Be Allergic to Protein?
Dogs and cats can be allergic to various proteins. Food allergies can cause itchy skin, hair loss, scaling, ear infections, skin infections, vomiting, diarrhea, and weight loss. The most common sources that cause allergies are chicken, beef, fish, eggs, and milk. Learn more about food allergies in dogs and cats. If your pet has symptoms that you believe could be from an allergy, see your veterinarian for recommendations.
In cases of food allergies, a common recommendation is to feed a limited ingredient diet, also referred to as an “elimination diet,” that involves feeding without the ingredient you are trying to avoid for a duration of 2 to 3 months. The goal is to choose a protein source that your pet has not been exposed to and, therefore, doesn’t have an allergy to. There are many companies that make very exotic foods with ingredients such as lamb, rabbit, catfish, trout, goat, duck, venison, and even kangaroo.
Another option for dealing with a food allergies is a hydrolyzed protein diet. This means the protein, which can be from a common source such as chicken or beef, is altered in such a way that the body does not recognize it and provoke an allergic reaction.