3 Good Wet & Dry Low-Carb Dog Foods (According to a Vet)

I was pretty surprised when I learned in vet school that average dogs have no dietary requirements for carbohydrates. They have very specific needs for certain amino and fatty acids. And dogs develop major problems if their mineral and vitamin balance is off. 

But carbs? Nope. Dogs don’t need ‘em at all except during pregnancy and while nursing puppies. (14) They can convert protein and fat into energy, so carbs are just an added luxury when they’re available. 

Low-carb and ketogenic diets have been super popular amongst humans for the last decade or more. In case you’ve been living under a rock, most of these diets limit dietary carbohydrate content to 20-100 grams per day.

So if a dog’s diet doesn’t require carbs, are they better off without them?  Maybe.

A low-carb diet may help dogs attain a healthy weight without feeling hungry, lower inflammation levels and aid in controlling medication-resistant seizures. But more research is needed before veterinarians can make a widespread recommendation for low-carb dog food to treat any health issue.

Expertise and Criteria

Credentials

I’m a licensed veterinarian and have been in private practice treating dogs for over 20 years. I’ve studied canine nutrition, conferred with dog food manufacturers and consulted veterinary nutritionists to provide thousands of clients with dog food recommendations.

Criteria Used

  • Carbohydrate content 30% or lower on a calorie basis
  • Widely available major national brands with a longstanding reputation for producing quality products 
  • Non-prescription foods in various forms: dry, wet and fresh/refrigerated

Please note I’m not recommending or endorsing a low-carb dog diet. I’m only pointing out a few products I’ve identified as having a relatively low carbohydrate content. You need to consult your dog’s veterinarian before making any dietary changes for health reasons.

Without further ado, here are the low-carb dog foods…

Low-Carb Dry Dog Food

Instinct Original Grain-Free Recipe with Real Salmon

Pros

  • 22% of calories from carbs
  • Food developed with pHD level animal nutritionists
  • Widely available in pet food stores
  • Omega-3 fatty acids from salmon
  • Raw component of food is high-pressure pasteurized to increase safety

Cons

  • “Raw” coating controversial
  • High fat level may bother dogs with sensitive stomachs
  • Higher cost than average dry food
  • Not sold in grocery stores

Low-Carb Wet Dog Food

Purina ONE SmartBlend Canned Wet Dog Food

Pros

  • 13% of calories from carbs
  • Widely available in grocery stores
  • Company employs veterinary nutritionists and has long record of meeting safety and quality standards

Cons

  • High fat level may bother dogs with sensitive stomachs
  • Higher cost than average wet dog food

Low-Carb Refrigerated Dog Food

Freshpet Dog Food, Slice and Serve Roll, Tender Chicken Recipe

Pros

  • 8% of calories from carbs
  • Widely available in many grocery stores
  • Many dogs love fresh style food

Cons

  • High fat level may bother dogs with sensitive stomachs
  • Higher cost than average dog food
  • Perishable–requires refrigeration at all times

See the products on the Start Here/Resources page

What Is Low Carb Dog Food?

The National Research Council recommends dogs consume a minimum of 8.8% metabolizable energy (ME) from protein and 12.4% ME from fat. (9) They don’t specify how much carbs a healthy adult dog should eat.

Average dry dog food derives around 50% of its total calories from carbohydrates. These pie charts compare the macronutrient ratios of an average dry dog food (Purina Dog Chow) to a low carb dry dog food:

regular vs. low carb dog food pie charts

Most pet owners feed their dogs mainly dry dog food that provide 40-55% of calories from carbohydrates. It’s reasonable to say any dog food deriving less than 30% of calories from carbs could be considered a low carbohydrate diet. 

How Do I Know If My Dog’s Food Is Low Carb?

You’ll have to do some simple calculations to estimate the carb content of your dog’s food. Fortunately, there is a free calculator you can use online. 

Look at the dog food label and find the Guaranteed Analysis panel. Plug those values into the guaranteed analysis converter at BalanceIT.com. It will give you the percentage of carbohydrates on a caloric basis. You’re looking for 30% or lower for a low-carb food. 

Keep in mind that most dry dog food has a high carbohydrate level. That’s because starch is necessary to properly form kibble that will hold together. Wet food–whether it’s fresh, canned or raw–is more likely to have a lower carbohydrate level.

Happy Golden Retriever
Golden Retrievers have several health problems that might benefit from eating less carbs.

Is Low Carb Dog Food GOOD for Dogs?

There are many claims of health benefits in humans following a low carbohydrate diet. Some of these claims are supported by scientific evidence, but most of these concepts remain highly controversial. We have even less evidence to support the use of low-carb diets in dogs. 

That doesn’t mean there aren’t benefits. It just means we need more research before vets will make a confident recommendation for low-carb dog food. 

Whether low-carb diets are actually superior to other ways of eating is very controversial. Some scientists say these diets are no better than low-calorie diets for weight loss (15).

There are many claims of benefits for humans following a low-carb diet. Researchers have done some work on whether the same concepts apply to dogs but supporting data is sparse. 

Some of the theoretical benefits of low-carb food for dogs include 

  • Better weight loss with less hunger (2)
  • Preserve muscle while dieting
  • Stabilized blood sugar
  • Lower insulin (6)
  • Anti-inflammatory effects (3,7)
  • Reduction of hyperactivity and fear behaviors (12)
  • Seizure control (8)
  • Anti-cancer effects (10,11)
  • Mimics ancestral diet (1)

Is Low Carb/High Protein Dog Food SAFE for Dogs?

A low-carb diet could cause problems in some dogs. By nature, it is high in fat and protein and provides more calories per cup than average dog food. It could make some dogs gain a lot of weight while causing others lose too much weight.

Pet owners must consult their vet before switching to this type of diet if their dog falls into one of the following groups:

  • Pregnant and nursing dogs
  • Dogs with a very sensitive stomach or who are prone to pancreatitis due to high fat and protein levels
  • Dogs in the advanced stages of kidney disease 
  • Dogs who need to maintain a more alkaline urine pH
  • Growing dogs, generally under 12 months of age
  • Dogs who have a hard time maintaining enough body weight 
pregnant and nursing dogs should avoid low carb dog food
Neither this busy mom nor these puppies should eat a low carb diet!

Can Dogs Do the Keto Diet?

A keto diet is an extreme form of a low carbohydrate diet. Dogs are much more resistant to ketosis than humans and may not produce ketones even while eating a very low carbohydrate diet.(6) The carb level needs to be very low to force the liver to metabolize fat and produce ketones for energy.

Since the chances of nutritional deficiency are high while feeding dogs an extremely carb-restricted diet, I don’t recommend you try this without being under the close supervision of a veterinary nutritionist.  

Summary

Veterinary researchers have not found definitive evidence that low-carb or ketogenic diets provide health benefits for dogs. If you want to experiment with this sort of dog diet, please discuss it with your veterinarian first. 

Some dogs may benefit from eating a diet with a lower carbohydrate level than standard dog food. Look for food with 30% (or less) of the calories from carbohydrates. You will find more options in canned, fresh and raw food products than in dry food.

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References

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