I was pretty surprised when I learned in vet school that 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.
Potatoes, rice, many fruits, flour and sugar all have high carb content. Humans on low carb diets concentrate on eating protein and fat.
So if a dog’s diet doesn’t require carbs, are they better off without them?
Proponents of low carb dog food point out that a dog’s so-called ancestral diet probably had very low carbohydrate content. Low carb diets may help dogs lose weight while controlling appetite, lower inflammation levels and aid in controlling medication-resistant seizures.
Does a Low Carb Diet Work 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. Here are some of the benefits reported by humans following a carb-restricted diet…
Weight Loss with Less Hunger, Less Muscle Loss
One of the big draws of human low carb dieting is the possibility to lose weight without feeling hungry. Low carb diets may suppress appetite in humans.
There is also a possibility that people who lose weight with a low carb diet maintain more lean muscle mass than people on low calorie diets.
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).
Some research on human dieters has found that low carb diets may work as well for inducing weight loss as low calorie or low-fat diets. The concept hasn’t been substantiated in dogs.
Stabilized Blood Sugar
Human low carb diets are touted for stabilizing blood sugar and insulin levels. One of the goals of carb-restricted diets for humans is to stabilize blood glucose levels and lower insulin. Although controversial, low-carb diet enthusiasts believe the diet can help people overcome many diseases including metabolic syndrome, high blood pressure and diabetes.
This concept doesn’t translate well to dogs because they don’t have as much of a blood glucose spike after eating. For this reason, a low carb diet for dogs may not make a huge difference for a diabetic dog.
A small study done in 2020 found dogs who were fed every other day on a low carb, high fat diet with medium-chain triglycerides had lower blood insulin and blood glucose levels. Whether that has any health benefits for dogs remains to be determined.
Unfortunately, the same study found dogs fed a high fat diet every other day gained more weight than the group fed a low fat diet every other day (6).
There is some evidence that a very low carb, or ketogenic, diet may improve some health conditions. Very low carbohydrate diets may have anti-inflammatory effects by altering the fatty acid composition in dieter’s bodies (3).
Low carbohydrate diets have been shown to benefit both heart disease and diabetes in humans in at least some studies (7).
Weight Loss Diets
If you believe the hundreds of YouTube testimonials on the interwebs, a carb-restricted diet is a miraculous solution to human flab. While these claims are probably overblown, it seems to be a diet that works for many people–at least in the short term. With so many of our dogs having the same weight problems as their owners, it’s reasonable to wonder whether the same dietary approach might help dogs, too.
A 2004 study found that a high protein, low carb diet for dogs led to weight loss in overweight animals who had been eating a high carb diet without reducing the number of calories they were eating (2).
Hyperactivity and Fear Behaviors
One study fed dogs with epileptic seizures a ketogenic medium-chain triglyceride diet to determine if the food improved their hyperactivity, excitability, and distractibility behaviors. They found the dogs had a reduction in some of the unwanted behaviors and seemed to have less stranger-directed fear (Packer).
The popular “keto diet” is really just an extremely low carb diet that is purported to help with drug-resistant seizures in dogs.
Ketone bodies are molecules formed in the liver as the result of fat metabolism. This happens at a higher rate when dietary carbohydrates are very low. Most humans start producing significant ketones after a few days of eating 20-50 grams of carbohydrates. But dogs are naturally resistant to developing high blood levels of ketones.
Keto diets help control seizures in humans through the stabilization of nerve impulses brought on by high levels of blood ketones.
Studies looking at the same intervention in dogs failed to show significant decreases in seizure frequency. It could be because the dogs in the studies failed to create enough ketones to achieve a therapeutic effect (8).
There is some evidence that dogs with lymphoma have altered carbohydrate metabolism (11). These dogs may benefit from eating a low carb, moderate fat, moderate protein diet (10).
Mimicking Dog’s Ancestral Diet
Some people believe a high protein, low carb diet is closer to a dog’s “ancestral diet.” Dogs have been domesticated for so long, I’m not sure it’s fair to compare them to wolves or wild dogs. We know that canids living away from humans in the wild tend to consume a diet high in lean protein and low in carbohydrates. But domestic dogs have developed genetic adaptations to their diet in captivity that allow them to digest starch more readily than wolves (1).
Although lean protein was the largest part of ancient canine diets, modern wolves consume 0% to 50% of their diet from plants which contain mainly fiber and carbohydrates.
What Is Considered Low Carb Dog Food?
The NRC recommends a dog diet have a minimum of 8.8% metabolizable energy (ME) from protein and 12.4% ME from fat. That leaves the balance of 78.8% of calories/ME to come from carbohydrates (9). That’s a lot more carbohydrate than the average dog food contains.
The average dry dog food usually has somewhere around 50% of calories from carbohydrates. Here’s how the average dry dog food (like Purina Dog Chow) compares to a low carb dry dog food in terms of macronutrient ratios:
Most pet owners feed their dogs mainly dry dog food containing 30-55% of calories from carbohydrates. It’s reasonable to say anything less than 30% of calories from carbs could be considered a relatively low carbohydrate diet.
Why Do Dry Dog Foods Have So Many Carbs?
Almost all dry dog food is made with a process similar to making cookies. First, dough is formed then it’s heated and forced through a mold to form the kibbles. In order to form a firm chunk, the dough needs to contain a certain amount of starch. It’s difficult to make dry dog food without a high level of starch in the recipe.
Another reason for the high level of starch in dry dog food is that it is a relatively inexpensive energy source for dogs. Starches like grains and root veggies also have other vital nutrients that are beneficial to dogs.
Most canned food for dogs naturally has a lower carb content than dry foods because they don’t need to hold a kibble shape. Remember that most canned foods are high in fat-so go very slowly when introducing canned/wet dog food to your dog’s 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 (Leung). 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.
What Is the Ideal Macronutrient Ratio for Dogs?
Beyond the recommendation for a minimum of 8.8% protein and 12.2% fat, we have very little idea what the perfect macronutrient ratio is for dogs in general. Most dogs seem to do well on a wide range of macro ratios.
Dog owners influenced by popular culture are attracted to high protein low carbohydrate content food for their dogs. Most low carb dog food ends up being very high in fat because fat is cheaper than protein.
Many pet owners don’t realize that a very high fat menu is not in line with a wild dog’s diet which contains a large amount of lean meat. And too much fat in dog food can cause serious problems for some dogs including pancreatitis, diarrhea, poor appetite.
Which Dogs Should NOT Eat High Protein Low Carb Dog?
This diet could be a really bad idea for your dog in some situations. Please consult your vet before switching to this type of diet if your dog falls into one of the following groups:
- Pregnant and nursing dogs-they are the only dogs who actually require carbohydrates to meet energy needs.
- Dogs prone to pancreatitis-high fat and protein levels can set off an episode of pancreatic inflammation
- Dogs in the advanced stages of kidney disease
- Dogs who need to maintain a more alkaline urine pH-high protein levels lead to acidic urine pH.
- Growing dogs, generally under 12 months of age
- Dogs who have a hard time maintaining body weight
How to Calculate Carb Content of Dog Food
It’s not possible to know the carb content by reading the label of most commercial dog food. The “guaranteed analysis” label doesn’t list carbs and even if it did, the nutrients there are not reported in the familiar calorie basis.
But the good news is that there is a FREE calculator to convert the guaranteed analysis label into percentages of calories, like you’re used to seeing for human food. Here’s a link to the calculator at BalanceIT.com: Guaranteed Analysis Calculator.
Vet-Recommended Recommended Low Carb Dog Foods
- The criteria I used to choose these recommended low carb foods:
- Carbohydrate level 30% or less on a calorie basis (values are approximate-calculated from guaranteed analysis with the calculator at BalanceIT.com)
- Major national brands with a longstanding reputation for quality
- Products at a variety of price points
Editor’s Note: Links below go to Amazon.com or Chewy.com as a convenience to you, the reader. I may earn if you purchase after clicking one of these links.
High Protein, Low Carb Dog Food Recipe
It’s tough to find a high-quality, high protein, complete and balanced commercial dog food that is also from a very reputable manufacturer that maintains consistent, strict food safety standards. There are only a couple of raw food producers who might meet these criteria. And I think feeding raw dog food might not be the best idea for many dog owners for multiple reasons.
Why not cook your own high protein dog food? You’ll have control over the ingredients, production and storage of the pet food. You can make it to whatever macronutrient ratio you desire. And I can pretty much guarantee your dog will like it more than dry dog food kibble!
You can use BalanceIT.com’s free recipe generator to make your own homemade dog food recipe. VERY IMPORTANT: You must add the Balance IT® supplement to make the food complete and balanced.
Here’s a sample high protein low carb pet food recipe I made for my dogs. It’s modeled on a popular commercial high protein chicken-based dry dog food. You’ll be able to find each inexpensive everyday ingredient at your grocery store. The only thing you’ll have to order is the BalanceIT® supplement.
High Protein Low Carb Chicken Dog Food Recipe (7-Day Batch)
Calories: 8175 for the entire recipe, 584 calories per meal
Macronutrients: Protein 35%, Fat 39%, Carb. 26%
- 4 lb. 6.5 oz. ROASTED boneless, skinless chicken breast (weight of COOKED chicken, not raw)
- 10 3/4 cups COOKED Long-grain brown rice (measurement of COOKED rice, not dry/raw)
- 1 1/2 cups Corn oil
- 5 cups Frozen green beans, boiled without salt and drained (measurement of COOKED green beans, not frozen)
- 35 1/2 teaspoons (88.8 grams) Balance IT® Canine powder (OR 25 3/8 tsp=88.8 grams Balance IT® Canine Plus powder*)
- Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Bake chicken breasts. Place raw meat chicken breasts on a foil-covered baking sheet. Do not add any oil. Roast in oven at 400 degrees for 20-30 minutes until juices run clear and the internal temperature is at least 165 degrees F. Remove from oven, discard juices and allow to cool. Chop chicken into bite-sized pieces.
- Cook rice. While chicken is roasting, prepare and cook rice as directed on the label. You can use a slow cooker, a pot on the stove, a rice cooker or even cook it in the oven. Remember the amount called for in the recipe is the cooked amount which is approximately double the dry rice amount. For my recipe, I’ll be measuring Just under 5 1/2 cups of dry rice and 11 cups of water into my stovetop pot. Allow rice to cool after it’s fully cooked.
- Boil green beans. Cook without salt according to package directions, then drain and cool slightly.
- Measure and mix all ingredients (including Balance IT® powder) according to the recipe using a kitchen scale, measuring cups and spoons. Place all ingredients in a large bowl and stir well.*
- Portion equally into 7 sealable storage containers. Balance IT® recommends only storing food in the fridge for 3 days, so refrigerate 3 and freeze 4.
Feed ½ of each container for your dog’s meal twice a day.
Each day, move one container from the freezer to the fridge so it has a few days to thaw before feeding.
*If you want to reheat the food before serving, use Balance IT® Canine Plus powder which is made to withstand being reheated up to 165 degrees F one time. Regular Balance IT Canine powder should not be reheated so you need to serve the food without reheating it (most dogs don’t mind cool food at all).
Should you feed your dog a low carb or keto diet? It might be worth a try. I’ve been feeding my dogs a relatively low carb diet for years and they’re still going strong as seniors past their 13th birthdays!
Most healthy adult dogs can probably handle a lower carb diet and you may even see benefits like weight normalization and healthy skin. Make any diet changes gradually and slowly over a period of 7-14 days to avoid gastrointestinal upsets.
If your dog takes medication, has any diseases or is elderly you need to consult your veterinarian before starting your dog on a low carb food routine.
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- Leung, Y. B., Cave, N. J., Heiser, A., Edwards, P. J., Godfrey, A. J. R., & Wester, T. (2020). Metabolic and immunological effects of intermittent fasting on a ketogenic diet containing medium-chain triglycerides in healthy dogs. Frontiers in veterinary science, 6, 480.
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Last update on 2021-09-26 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API