Animal Protein vs. Plant Protein

In the human world, it is fair to say we are currently clasped in the grips of a protein obsession. Where ‘sugar free’ and ‘low fat’ used to dominate the food-marketing scene, it is now hard to miss the ‘with added protein’ plastered on everything from breakfast cereals to pizza dough and even beer… the mania is real! However, despite our protein preoccupation, there is still widespread confusion when it comes to understanding what proteins are, why they are important and what dietary sources are best. This confusion also extends to our canine companions, with many owners asking what type is best to include in their doggie’s diet. So, I thought I would take the opportunity to provide some clarity on the topic.

Proteins are essential for a myriad of critical functions in our dogs’ bodies. They are fundamental in processes such as tissue growth and repair, immune health, oxygen transportation, hormone production, for energy and even facilitate the thousands of chemical reactions occurring daily in your pooch.

Proteins themselves are made up of different combinations of smaller units called amino acids and inside the body proteins are continuously being broken down into amino acids and then rebuilt for use. While dogs can make many of these amino acids in sufficient amounts to then form proteins, there are some that can only be obtained through nutrition and thus it’s crucial they are present in our pups’ diets. These are aptly named the 10 essential amino acids.

So how can you be sure you are meeting your dog’s essential amino acid requirements? Well simply put, if you are feeding a food that is formulated on the AAFCO guidelines then you can rest assured your furry friend will be getting sufficient amounts of all 10 essential amino acids. However, if you want to feed a diet to ensure your dog truly thrives then we need to consider the dietary sources of protein. For years, animal meat and the word protein have been used interchangeably in the English vernacular leading many to mistakenly believing animal products are the only source of dietary protein. However, it may surprise some of you to know that protein can be found in pretty much ALL living matter including plants. That’s right, even plants can pack a protein punch… just think about those giant herbivorous silverback gorillas and where they get their protein from! But does that mean animal source and plant source proteins are equal when it comes to feeding our canine companions? The short answer is no.

Animal source proteins are considered ‘complete’ proteins for dogs as they provide the essential amino acids in the correct ratios your hungry hounds need. When the source is from animal muscle or organ meat (offal), it is also highly digestible, meaning the protein they eat is actually being absorbed in the small intestine and used in the body and not just coming out the other end! In contrast, most plant proteins are not considered ‘complete’ as they either lack certain amino acids or don’t contain them in sufficient quantities. This can be circumvented in dog food by including two or more plant sources of protein that when fed together provide the full complement of essential amino acids. Soy is the exception to this as it contains the full compliment of essential amino acids, which is why it is a popular ingredient in many commercial dog foods. However, whilst studies have shown our omnivorous friends can digest these proteins, unless they are highly processed, plant source protein including soy is less digestible than its animal source counterpart.

So if animal source proteins are ‘complete’ why can’t your dogs’ diet just consist of meat from the butcher? The answer is simple: a ‘complete’ protein is not the same as a ‘complete diet’. Despite our current idolisation, protein is just a part of a complete diet whereby carbohydrates, fats, micronutrients, minerals and fibre also play important roles. So the best way to promote a healthy hound is by choosing an AAFCO approved dog food that is both nutritionally balanced AND uses high quality animal source protein.

Now full disclosure, I am personally powered by a plant based diet so I am certainly a proponent of plant source protein in humans. However, when it comes to dogs, both the evidence as well as evolution suggests that diets using high quality animal source protein are superior and importantly probably preferred by your pooch. Given the choice of beef or soy, I know what Albus would choose!

Written by Dr. Josie Gollan