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Protein is an essential part of any diet—including 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 set to launch in April 2020—for insights on low protein dog food (and included some of our picks of the best options available in 2020).
First things first—before we jump into all things low protein diet, let’s first cover how, exactly, this particular kind of dog food is categorized.
“Normal dog food usually has at least 25% 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% dietary protein on a dry matter (DM) basis,” says Brooks.
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% DM dietary protein,” says Brooks. “Dogs with liver disease should be fed foods with 15-20% 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% DM dietary protein.”
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.”
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 necessary to effectively treat their condition and support their overall health. “Prescription veterinary diets intended for the health condition 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.”
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 in 2020.
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 Now on Chewy
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 Now on Chewy
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 Now on Chewy
At 21% 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 Now on Chewy
Low in both protein and fat, the Veterinary Select Neo Diet Dry Dog Food is formulated without any artificial colors and flavors.Shop Now on Chewy
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 their 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.