Protein and Senior Dogs: Does My Dog Need a High, Moderate, or Low Protein Dog Food?

What is the best dog for senior dogs? While there are many factors to consider, do consider the protein content of the dog food.

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I just used WDJ’s new searchable dry dog food database to look for potential new foods to feed my 14-year-old dog, Otto. One goal when feeding most senior dogs is to find a food with a moderate amount of high-quality protein. I used the “minimum protein content” column to help me zero in on the foods that contain the amount of protein I want to feed Otto, and then looked at the ingredients of each of the candidate foods. All of that information, organized for you (and me!) in one handy place!

But allow me to explain those italicized terms a bit.

Protein levels in Dog Food: Low, high, moderate

The minimum requirement for crude protein in an adult dog maintenance diet is 18% on a dry matter basis, which (assuming an average moisture content of 10%) is 16.2% “as fed” (as it is in the package). The minimum requirement for crude protein for dogs in a “growth/reproduction” phase (or “all life stages,” which includes puppies and moms) is 22.5% dry matter, which is 20.25% “as fed” (assuming 10% moisture).

The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) does not state a maximum level for protein.

We’d define “moderate” as something near the midpoint between the legal minimum and the highest amount of protein you can find in any dry dog food on the market.

Using the WDJ searchable database of approved dry dog foods, you can click on the top of the “minimum % protein content” column to make all the 1,100-plus foods appear in order by protein content. When ordered so that the foods with the lowest amount of protein appear at the top, you’ll see just a few products with just 17% and 18% protein – and these are mostly “weight control” foods. (However, a few of them are labeled as being appropriate for senior dogs, which, in our opinion, is sad. Senior dogs definitely need more protein than the minimum allowed.)

By clicking on the top of that column again, so that the foods with the highest amount of protein appear at the top, we can find products with very high amounts of protein in them, with numbers in the low 40s (43%, 42%, 41%).

The exact midpoint, in this case, is 30%. We think this is a good, moderate amount of protein for most senior dogs.

Note that there are more opinions about protein levels in dog food than there are veterinary nutritionists. This shouldn’t be a surprise; there is little consensus among experts in human nutrition about ideal protein levels, too.

Older veterinarians tend to regard foods with even moderate protein levels as potentially dangerous, or, at a minimum, a waste of money. When you feed a lower-protein diet to a dog, you decrease the amount of nitrogenous waste delivered to the kidneys for excretion in the urine; it was speculated that one could preserve the dwindling kidney function of dogs with chronic kidney disease by giving their kidneys less work to do (by feeding a lower-protein food to the dog).

However, according to veterinary nutritionists Andrea Fascetti and Sean Delaney, “the effect of protein restriction on the progression of renal damage in dogs and cats remains controversial and no definitive study exists on this matter.” (Quoted from “Nutritional Management of Chronic Renal Disease” on the website for the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine.)

While it’s been demonstrated that some dogs with chronic kidney disease improve when their dietary protein is moderately restricted, this has frequently (and tragically, in our opinion) been extended to all older dogs, whether or not they have any kidney problems at all. Today, it’s well-accepted that most older dogs actually benefit from diets that contain more protein – as long as it’s a high-quality protein – than young adult dogs.

However, there is newer evidence, based on newer criteria, very high protein dog food diets is potentially harmful for dogs to eat. (See this post by Linda Case, MS, Canine/Feline Nutrition, for details.) This give us even more confidence in our advice to look for foods with moderate protein levels.

SUBSCRIBERS ONLY: Whole Dog Journal’s 2022 Approved Dry Dog Foods

What constitutes a high-quality protein?

Broadly speaking, the quality of a protein depends on its digestibility and its amino acid profile – that is, whether it contains adequate amounts of the amino acids that dogs require. In general, animal-sourced proteins contain more of the amino acids that are essential to dogs (and they are supplied in proper ratios for benefitting dogs) than do plant-sourced proteins.

The digestibility of ingredients depends on a number of factors, too numerous to explain here. (If you’re especially curious, read Linda Case’s 2017 piece for WDJ about digestibility here.) The bottom line: Pet food companies typically conduct digestibility studies on their finished products; they should know how digestible their products are, and they should be able to furnish consumers with that information. We should all be asking for this information!

A final thing to keep in mind

The amount of protein listed on a dog food label is the guaranteed minimum present in the food. It may contain much more! To be certain, ask the company for the amount of protein in their products – a number from an actual nutrient analysis.

15 COMMENTS

  1. My 15 yo mixed breed was diagnosed last spring with kidney disease, so I researched dog foods with lower protein. Dr. Harvey’s Canine Health is a dry food that is mixed with water and Omega 3 oil and a choice of protein with very precise amounts. My dog has had other digestive issues and done very well on this diet. I only wish I would have found it earlier in his life.

  2. Please offer an article on feeding raw food as this option is growing in popularity. My 95lb former rescue has been on raw for five years and is in excellent health confirmed by her annual physical with bloodwork at the Vet. I purchase raw food in blends that follow the 80-10-10 model (muscle meat – bone – organ, although some of the blends in my rotation have a 12% organ blend as well). To this raw, I rotate fruits and vegetables such as broccoli, blueberries, etc.
    I strongly am committed to feeding raw as I have seen the difference it makes.
    I suggest WDJ add an article on raw food blends and sources with a list of reputable retailers.
    Us dedicated raw feeders are left out from your annual food recommendation lists and when it comes to what we feed.
    And kibble is the worst we can feed our canine companions, in my opinion.
    As champions of dog health and overall well-being, WDJ should offer articles on the alternative ways to feed our beloved dogs.

  3. I totally agree with Anna – I recently switched to a raw diet (Steve’s Real Food, not an endorsement, just what I’ve been using after my own research into raw foods) for my 11 year old RR and am considering it also for my 3 year old RR. I feed raw 3 days a week and kibble on the other 4 days. I too want to get away from total dependence on kibble based diets, but ONLY if it’s a great option for my dogs. I think Anna hit the nail on the head with her request for a WDJ article on raw diets and reputable sources. Thanks Anna for your comment and I know many of us are looking forward hopefully to a WDJ article on the subject.

  4. My six year old spaniel had severe gastro issues when he was a year old and had an operation for telescoping intestines.He does not do well on dry food and until recently he was on Blue Buffalo GI canned prescription but I got a few cases with a gloppy sticky texture and poor response from them so I have been trying to find a substitute.Canned tripe has always been my standby for him many brands are no longer available and in the past 6 months he has changed brands several times due to this.I currently am feeding him the Natural Balance “Easy Digest”canned food combined with the canned tripe ( Tripett).I add a little hard boiled egg or sometimes a bit of baked bison burger or occasionally boiled organic chicken as a topper.I tried a few dry foods but they always give him diarrhea even if they are targeted for digestive problems.Tripe isn’t complete on its own and since I can’t combine with dry food this combo has worked.I also add a little Rx clay to his dinner.I may try dry tripe dog food in the future but only as an addition.I can’t do raw food for him but the canned tripe at least has some of the nutrients found in raw food and he adores it .I once read that a spaniel breeder back in the 1940’s fed his dogs dogs tripe and biscuit .One reason to follow this diet is that it reflects the lower protein and fat ratios that are in all he prescription foods but it also has more nutrients and since he is 6 now it is a nice balance and isn’t shockingly high in protein as some “premium

    • Check out the Raw Dog Food Co in Colorado. They sell raw frozen green tripe in 2 lb chubs. It’s pure raw tripe. They also sell great raw blends. My dogs fav is Wolf Run (beef meat, tripe, organs, trachea and bone).

  5. Unfortunately too many of the dog food companies say they don’t know their digestibility percentage when you ask them, or they give a you ridiculous number that they obviously made up, like 95%.

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