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Protein is an essential part of any diet, especially for dogs. But not all dogs can handle a diet high in protein—and for those dogs, low protein dog food is a must.
But what qualifies as a “low protein” dog food? What dogs would benefit most from a diet low in protein (and what dogs wouldn’t)? And what should pet parents be looking for when shopping for this particular kind of dog food?
We asked Leslie Brooks, DVM and veterinary advisor at betterpet, an online resource promoting responsible pet ownership, for insights on low protein dog food (and included some of our picks for the best options available).
What Is Low Protein Dog Food?
First, let’s cover how this particular kind of dog food is categorized.
“Normal dog food usually has at least 25 percent dietary protein on a dry matter basis,” Brooks says. “‘Low protein dog food’ is basically dog food that has lower protein content in it than standard adult dog food.”
How much lower? “Usually less than 20 percent dietary protein on a dry matter (DM) basis,” says Brooks.
When evaluating the protein content of dog food, it’s important to know the difference between the “as fed” value you see listed on the guaranteed analysis and the dry matter basis mentioned by Brooks. If you want to make a direct comparison between two different products, the most accurate way to do it is to use the dry matter protein content.
The guaranteed analysis on a dog food label lists the values for crude protein, crude fat, and crude fiber on an “as fed” basis, which includes the moisture in the product. To determine the dry matter value for these nutrients, you have to remove the moisture—the simplest way to do it is to use a dry matter calculator like this one from PawDiet.
Which Dogs Will Benefit Most from Low Protein Diets?
A low protein diet isn’t for every dog; in fact, it’s not for most dogs. “Normal, healthy adult dogs do not need to be fed a low protein dog food,” says Brooks. “There are certain medical conditions, however, that need to be addressed with a low protein diet.”
So, what medical conditions would warrant a low protein diet?
“Dogs with chronic kidney disease and liver disease will benefit the most from a low protein diet,” says Brooks. “Additionally, there are some bladder stones that can form, usually secondary to dogs with underlying liver disease. Dogs that develop these bladder stones, called purine urolithiasis, whether or not they have underlying liver dysfunction, can benefit from a low protein diet to help the stones dissolve and prevent them from recurring.”
Different medical conditions also require different levels of protein in a dog food. “Dogs with chronic kidney disease usually need to be fed foods with 14-20 percent DM dietary protein,” says Brooks. “Dogs with liver disease should be fed foods with 15-20 percent DM dietary protein. If they are suffering from hepatic encephalopathy (neurologic toxicity from the inability of the liver to metabolize and break down proteins), then they should be fed even lower protein foods with 10-15 percent DM dietary protein.”
Are There Any Dogs That Should Avoid a Low Protein Diet?
Clearly, a low protein diet is a good fit for dogs with certain medical conditions. But there are dogs with other conditions who should avoid a low protein diet at all costs.
“Growing puppies and pregnant or nursing dogs should not be fed a low protein diet,” says Brooks. “This is because their nutrient requirements, especially for proteins, is in high demand during growth and reproduction—and limiting their protein intake could cause growth impairments and malnutrition.”
In fact, if your dog doesn’t have one of the medical conditions that requires a low protein diet, it’s best to stay away. “Generally speaking, low protein foods should be reserved for those dogs with medical requirements for low protein,” says Brooks. “There really isn’t a reason a healthy adult dog should be fed a low protein food, and it could affect their nutrient balance.”
What Should Consumers Look for in a Low Protein Dog Food?
If your dog has a chronic medical condition, it’s important to talk to your vet before introducing any new food into their diet. Often times, a prescription dog food is recommended to effectively treat their condition and support their overall health. “Prescription veterinary diets intended for the health condition for which the low protein food is needed are the best options available,” says Brooks.
But if your vet gives you the green light to shop for dog food that’s low in protein on your own, it’s important to know what to look for on the label.
“Low protein dog food, as it is typically needed for management of kidney and liver disease, should also have added omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants, Vitamin E, and Vitamin C in it,” says Brooks. “These help decrease the amount of free radicals and inflammation within the body and affected organs, and can improve quality of life.”
Aside from these characteristics, you should look for a dog food made with high-quality, whole-food ingredients. The more natural your dog’s food, the more digestible it will be and the more nutrients his body will absorb. A dog food loaded with fillers and artificial additives simply won’t provide the quality nutrition your dog deserves.
Best Low Protein Dog Food
Has your vet approved a low protein diet for your pet? If so, here are a few of our top picks of some of the best options available for purchase.
The Prescription Diet k/d Kidney Care line from Hill’s is often recommended by vets and is formulated to support both kidney and heart function. (Just keep in mind that you’ll need a prescription in order to get this food for your pet.)Shop on Chewy Shop on Amazon
Made with controlled levels of protein and enhanced with antioxidants, L-carnitine, and omega-3 fatty acids, this prescription canned food formula from Blue Buffalo is ideal for kidney support.Shop on Chewy Shop on Amazon
Dogs with kidney issues often struggle with appetite. The Royal Canin Renal Support S is not only low protein and packed with the necessary nutrients to support your dog’s kidney health, it’s also got a strong, savory flavor meant to encourage your pup’s appetite and get them eating. (Again, this food will need a prescription from your vet.)Shop on Chewy Shop on Amazon
At 21 percent crude protein, the Skipper’s Choice dry food from Beaverdam Pet Food is definitely on the higher end of low protein—but it’s packed with a variety of nutrients (including vitamin E and omega-3 and 6 fatty acids) to support your dog’s health.Shop on Chewy Shop on Amazon
Dog not a fan of dry food? No problem! The Royal Canin Renal Support Line also comes canned—perfect for the pups who prefer wet food.Shop on Chewy Shop on Amazon
Packed with antioxidants and formulated with a restricted amount of protein, this dry food formula offers a great taste dogs love. It is available by prescription only.Shop on Chewy
Talk to Your Vet Before Introducing Low Protein Dog Food into Your Dog’s Diet
We’ve featured some great low protein options on this list. But again, low protein dog foods are typically meant for dogs that are struggling with chronic health conditions. So while you always want to talk to your vet before you introduce a new food into your dog’s diet, it’s especially important with low protein dog food. Your dog may need a prescription diet to manage his condition, so make sure to talk to your vet to figure out which low protein dog food is best for your pet.
For more information about specific dog diets and variety of dog food and treats available, check out one of the articles below.