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The Role of Carbohydrates in a Dog's Diet

Updated on September 1, 2010

Understanding dog nutrition is not easy. This is why there are nutritionists out there. However, it does not take rocket science to understand some basics. Do not let the technical lingo found on a dog food label confuse you. Deciphering such labels is much easier once you understand your dog's nutritional needs. This guide should help you understand the role of carbohydrates in a dog's diet and what happens if your dog's diet lacks carbs or is over supplemented with it.

Understanding Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are simply molecules composed by carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. In other words, they can be referred to as ''hydrates of carbon'' hence their name. Carbohydrates in a dog's diet serve many purposes and one of the most fundamental is the fact that carbs are sources of energy. However, carbohydrates may be also a source of problems if not fed correctly.

The topic of carbohydrates seems to be cause for debate. Like them or not, carbohydrates are almost always present in a dog's diet. Generally, carbohydrates make up 40 to 70% of a commercial dog diet, according to Peteducation, a website offering veterinary information. This amount may grandly exceed the amount of carbs a dog would consume in the wild. Sources of carbohydrates in the wild are berries and the stomach contents of their prey. These typically would not be more than 10% to 30%. Dogs today therefore consume four times  more carbs than the amount a dog in the wild would consume! So the debate on whether feeding dogs so many carbs today is open....

But why are commercial dog foods so rich in carbohydrates? The answer is that carbs make producing kibble less expensive. While this may sound like a selfish way for dog food manufacturers to cut corners, it benefits dog owners as well since they will have to pay less for a bag of dog food. This is why carbs are also referred to with the infamous name of ''fillers''. The presence of starchy carbs in dog kibble also makes dry dog food easier and more convenient to feed. Indeed, dog kibble could not be structured as it is without the presence of carbs.

Dog foods composed by a higher percentage of protein over carbs are considerably more expensive some may even be prohibitive to feed cost wise for owners of large breeds. However, the health benefits may certainly pay off in the long run.

Sources and Quantity of Carbohydrates

There are carbs and carbs. Some are of better quality than others. Common carbohydrates used in dog foods are corn, rice, wheat, sorghum, millet, barley and oats. In the cheapest dog foods grains and grain byproducts are mainly used. It is best to stay away from dog foods which use cheap sources of carbs such as hulls, and peanut shells.

Other carbs of little nutritional value include corn and wheat gluten, inexpensive by-products of human food processing and brewers rice, a processed rice product missing nutrients, according to the Dog Food Project.

Do not feel surprised if upon looking on a dog food label you will notice that the word ''carbohydrates'' does not appear. Pet food regulations indeed do not allow the word carbohydrate on the dog food label. So determining the amount of carbs in a dog food is up to the owner.

How to Determine Percentage of Carbs in a Bag of Dry Dog Food

How is this done? Simply subtract the totalcrude protein, total fat, moisture, and ash from the total weight of the dog food. Let's say you have 100 grams of dog food. Add the following:

crude protein 26 percent +

crude fat 15 percent +

crude fiber 4 percent +

moisture 10 percent +

Total = 57

100 GRAMS - 57= 43% of carbohydrates

Benefits of Carbs

As already mentioned carbs are sources of energy. Another plus side of carbs is that they can be readily digested if they are cooked and processed properly. Raw cereal grains on the other hand are digested slowly in the intestine, whereas, raw potatoes and bananas are completely resistant to digestion.

Limitation of Carbs

Carbs however, as mentioned earlier may cause problems. All it takes at times is to look at the dog's conformation. A dog's teeth were primarily made to tear meat apart. While human teeth are featured to grind. Unlike humans, dogs also do not have the special enzymes in the mouth to break down food. This means that carbs are not that relevant in a dog's diet as dog food companies may want us to think

According to the Waltham Book of Dog and Cat Nutrition (2nd edition, 1988)

''Based on investigations in the dog and with other species it is likely that dogs and cats can be maintained without carbohydrates if the diet supplies enough fat or protein from which the metabolic requirement for glucose is derived."

So are carbohydrates needed in a dog's diet? No, but what really counts for a dog's health is glucose which can be obtained from both fat and protein through a process known as gluconeogenesis. Glucose is fundamental in order for the nervous system to function properly.

One thing to consider though is that providing carbs can facilitate the dog in meeting its nutritional needs for glucose. In other words, by consuming carbs tthere is no need to use protein as an energy source. This allows the dog to keep the protein for more important functions, such as repairing body tissues.

* Carbohydrates are also known to cause allergic reactions in some dogs.

Effects of Excessive Carbohydrates in a Dog's Diet

Upon being assimilated, carbohydrates are stored in the liver and muscles under the form of glycogen and if too many carbs are consumed in the body as fat. Too many carbohydrates therefore may cause obesity. Carbohydrates are known to be the primary cause of obesity in a dog's diet when given excessively. Some dogs may also have trouble digesting carbs.

Different amount of carbs between one food and another may cause trouble when switching from one dog food to another. For this reason, it helps to always switch foods gradually.


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    • jcales profile image


      9 years ago

      good hub. but I am worried with the obesity crisis in effect that you see more fat dogs due to corners being cut.


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