Popularly known as the “building blocks” in animal nutrition, protein makes for an important nutrient in your pets’ diet. There are very few pet food ingredients are more important than protein, but is also the most widely debated, since it’s one of the more difficult ingredients to evaluate on a pet food label.
However, it is very important to first understand the reason your pet needs dietary protein before you make a decision on what the best diet for your pet’s health is. The protein levels provided on pet food labels don’t really give you all the information that you need.
Proteins And Amino Acids
- Dogs and cats need 22 amino acids to grow into healthy animals. A dog’s body can only synthesize 12 of these amino acids, while cats can synthesize only 11. The rest must be acquired from their diet, and are hence, called essential amino acids.
- These essential amino acids can only be received from protein, and they need to be in the appropriate quantities for the animal to remain healthy.
- Protein also supplies the body with dispensable amino acids that can be synthesized provided the appropriate carbon and nitrogen are provided. These come from the dispensable amino acids from dietary protein.
Why Protein Is Vital For Your Pets’ Health
Your pets’ body is literally made of protein. Their bones, muscles, veins and arteries, skin, fur, and nails as well the tissues of all the vital organs are built from proteins. Not only does protein pump the blood with oxygen, it also transports cholesterol and fat throughout your pets’ bodies. They are involved in producing hormones and even in the constitution of the chromosomes that will be passed onto your pets’ offsprings.
It is, therefore, not impossible to imagine the importance of this nutrient and that it is vital for the body to have a regular supply of this on a daily basis. Now think about the fact that this nutrient cannot be stored by the body. Thus, the only way for your pets’ bodies to acquire this protein each day is from the food they eat.
Are Some Proteins Better Than Others?
Nearly all pet food manufacturers rely on either plants or animals (or sometimes, even both) as protein sources. Beef, lamb, chicken, and fish are common animal sources of protein while corn and soy make for common plant protein sources.
However, some proteins are far better than others when it comes to providing your pet with essential amino acids. Usually, animal sources of protein provide a much better balance of essential amino acids for dogs and cats as compared to plant sources. If however, the protein source is not digestible, the diet won’t be as effective. Therefore, the highest quality of protein sources will not just always contain the right proportions of essential amino acids for your pets but will be easily digestible by their bodies.
It is important to remember that even the best-quality proteins can be rendered ineffective by improper cooking methods during the pet food manufacturing process. This is why it’s best to do your research and fix an established, reputed pet food brand that is well experienced in a healthy food production.
How Much Protein Is Enough?
The amount of protein your pets need depends on a number of factors, like the species, life stage, and activity level, including the quality and the level of digestibility of the protein in their diet. The rate of protein metabolism differs in dogs and cats; cats need a significantly much higher amount of protein than dogs do.
Pregnant or nursing pets, puppies and kittens need more protein than adults. Performance dogs that are involved in hunting, police squads, agility, and other high-energy activities also need much more protein than a dog who spends all his day on the couch.
While a protein-restricted diet may be advised for older cats and dogs with severe kidney and liver disease, veterinary nutritionists now believe that healthy older pets need just as much protein as healthy middle-aged ones.
Are Proteins Involved in Food Allergies?
Sometimes, pets do develop allergies to food proteins. Symptoms may include skin and ear infections, itching, hair loss, and hot spots. Vomiting or diarrhea are the less common symptoms. Unlike a few allergies that are usually seasonal, food allergies and their associated symptoms tend to stay all year around.
To help resolve food allergy-associated symptoms, pets are usually given a specially designed diet containing a protein their bodies haven’t been exposed to before, such as venison, rabbit, turkey, salmon, duck or even kangaroo. Sometimes, the diet may even have hydrolyzed (broken down) protein molecules to such small sizes that your pet’s immune system is unable to recognize it. If your pets are on such special diets, refrain from feeding them other treats including pigs ears or rawhides for these could contain allergy-triggering proteins.
Can I Feed My Pets Too Much Protein?
Yes and no. Theoretically, if a healthy animal eats a little too much protein, the body gets rid of some of this through the passing of urine and the remaining either gets used up as calories or is converted to fat.
Protein is the most expensive ingredient in pet foods and it’s a waste of money if you’re paying for more than what your pet needs. Today, most pet food companies meet the minimum recommended protein requirements and some of them even add a little extra just to be safe.
Interpreting Pet Food Labels
Pet owners have two choices here.
The first is to buy a popular well-reputed quality brand of dog or cat food matching the activity levels of your pets and hope that it’s meeting your pets’ protein requirements. Most pet owners do this and the average pets usually do just fine. If, however, you have a pet with special protein requirements or want to be sure that the pet food you’re buying is worth your money, then it’s essential that you learn to interpret pet food labels.
You already know that not all proteins are created equal. Note that the listing of protein level on the pet food container or bag is just a listing of the percent of protein, not a listing of the percent of digestible protein. This is why it becomes important to learn how to interpret the pet food label.
In quality foods, digestibility is usually between 70 and 80%. In the lesser quality foods, the level of digestibility could drop to 60% or sometimes even less. The following method of determining protein digestibility is not too scientific but it is the best you can do until the pet food industry begins to make it a rule to list digestibility.
Reading the ingredients and noting down the order that they appear in can help you get a rough estimate of protein digestibility. The ingredients are always listed in order of weight. If your first ingredient is lamb or chicken or any other meat, it is fairly safe to assume that it is a good quality protein source.
However, if you note something that reads “lamb meals” or “bone meal”, know that these are less desirable ingredients, even though they also provide quality protein. If there are grains listed, you can be sure that they are not as digestible sources of protein and will, therefore, contribute heavily towards increasing the carbohydrate load. Some companies might list a meat source and then proceed to list out three different forms of corn, to try and hide the fact that the main ingredient in the pet food is corn. So be sure to be especially wary of such pet food brands.
It is also important to remember that if the dried food contains a high ash content it’s most likely to contain a good percentage of bone. This means it will contain fewer amino acids each unit of protein, which will only serve to limit the level of amino acids that your pet could derive from the food.