Guide to Low-Protein Dog Foods

Updated February 10, 2020
Owner giving dog low protein dog food

Low protein dog food is manufactured in both dry and canned varieties. The protein is lower than the protein in normal dog food and is often recommended by a veterinarian to address certain health issues. Many of these foods can only be obtained with a prescription because feeding your dog food that is too low in protein can be harmful to healthy dogs, so always speak to your veterinarian before switching your dog's food to a low protein diet. Depending on your dog's health, your veterinarian may opt for you to use an off-the-counter low protein diet with a higher level of protein compared to the lower prescription diets.

Protein Requirements for Dogs

The protein requirements for a dog will vary with the age and activity of the pet. The Association of American Feed Control Officials requires a diet of at least 18% crude protein for the average adult dog. However, most popular commercial food for dogs will have around 20 to 25% protein. Growing puppies, lactating mothers, or performance dogs require a higher protein level with a minimum of 22.5% though usually recipes will have amounts around 25% to 28%.

Low-Protein Diet Food Percentages

The amount of protein in a "low-protein" diet can vary but range around 13% to 18%, though they can be higher depending on the quality of the proteins used and the rest of the recipe. Many off-the-counter commercial diets will not have protein percentages as low as what you can find through a prescription brand, though they will tend to be in the low 20% range.

Low-Protein Foods for Puppies

It's rare that a puppy would need a diet that is low in protein. Puppies actually need higher levels of protein than a normal adult dog because they grow at a rapid rate. They need the extra level of proteins to support their development. In the event that a puppy is suffering from a liver or kidney condition, your veterinarian will advise you on the best diet that supports your puppy's system without compromising it. Never feed a low protein diet to a puppy without talking to your veterinarian.

Low-Protein Dog Food and Calories

Keep in mind that "low-protein" does not mean a food will be low in calories. Depending on the ingredients in the recipe, a low-protein food can be just as high in calories as a "normal" recipe, or even more. Recipes formulated for older dogs will tend to be lower in fat and calories and make use of lean proteins. Recipes for dogs with medical issues may be higher in calories because these dogs require more energy to support their body's systems as it contends with the disease. For example, Blue Buffalo Natural Veterinary Diet Kidney Support for Dogs has about 404 Kcals per cup whereas Diamond Naturals Dry Food for Senior Dogs has 318 Kcals per cup. If you're looking for a low-protein diet to keep weight off your dog, examine the calorie amounts on the label for each to make sure you're not getting a higher calorie brand and review with your veterinarian before feeding.

Prescription Low-Protein Brands

Prescription brands are usually recommended if your pet has serious liver or kidney disease. While you can probably find a low protein dog food on the shelf, these diets are not formulated to meet all the other needs of a patient with these diseases. If your pet refuses to eat any of the prescription diets, a home-cooked option can be created by a veterinary nutritionist.

  • Purina Proplan Veterinary Diets NF Kidney Function contains 12.5% protein, reduced sodium and low phosphorus and B-complex vitamins. It comes in both dry and canned preparations.
  • Hill's Prescription Diet l/d, designed for dogs with liver disease, has moderate levels of protein at 17.8%. It comes in dry and canned versions as well as bags of dry and soft-baked treats. It's also high in L-carnitine and L-arginine and low in copper, with additional antioxidants to improve health.
  • Hill's Prescription Diet k/d, designed for dogs with kidney disease, contains 16% protein in the canned version and 15.2 in the dry version. It is available canned in Chicken & Vegetable Stew and Lamb flavors. The Chicken & Vegetable Stew canned version also comes in a k/d + Mobility recipe with extra nutrients for joint health. The dry version is available in chicken and lamb flavors, as well as a chicken with mobility recipe. Omega-3 fatty acids, L-Carnitine and essential amino acids at appropriate levels are also ingredients.
  • Royal Canin Veterinary Diet Canine Renal Support comes in dry versions A (aromatic), F (flavorful) and S (savory) and for canned food D (delectable), E (enticing) and T (tasty). Protein percentages vary by flavor but run from a minimum of 2.5 to 7.5% for the canned versions and 10 to 15.5% for the dry versions. Royal Canin contains a guide for mixing the formulations to keep your dog happily eating. They also have a Multifunctional Renal Support and Hydrolyzed Protein dry dog food for dogs with food allergies.
  • Diamond Renal Formula for Adult Dogs is a dry dog food with a minimum protein level of 13%. It is specially formulated for dogs that show less interest in other diets due to palatability. It has low levels of phosphorus and sodium and contains beneficial antioxidants.
  • Blue Buffalo Natural Veterinary Diet KS has a protein level of 14%. This grain-free low-protein dry dog food is made with their trademarked "LifeSource Bits" process to improve the nutritional impact of the vitamins and minerals.

Non-Prescription Brands

While a prescription diet is preferred, off-the-shelf brands may be acceptable if your dog is in the very early stages of a medical condition. Since these diets are not prescription formulations, their protein ranges will be anywhere from 18% to 25%. Many of these brands are also designed for senior dogs and not necessarily dogs with a medical condition. Always consult with your veterinarian when making this feeding decision. Low-protein non-prescription brands include:

Dog sniffing raw food
  • Canidae All Life Stages Platinum - This food is made for dogs with lower activity levels, such as seniors. It has 22.5% protein and comes in a dry version made with chicken, turkey, lamb and fish and a canned version made with chicken, lamb and fish. There are two treat versions: one made with lamb, wild rice and sweet potato and one made with turkey, quinoa and butternut squash.
  • Eagle Pack Original Lamb Meal & Brown Rice - At 23% protein, this dry dog food is an "all-natural" brand with ingredients like oatmeal, brown rice, and antioxidants. It's designed for dogs with a normal level of activity.
  • Natural Balance Limited Ingredient Diets (L.I.D.) - Natural Balance's L.I.D. sweet potato & bison dry dog food uses bison as the protein source and has 20% minimum protein. The limited ingredients are grain-free and focus on high quality instead of artificial preservatives and fillers. They offer other dry food flavors with low protein percentages: fish (21%), duck (21%) and venison (20%). Canned versions are also available.
  • Diamond Naturals Light Real Meat Recipe Premium Dry Dog Food has only 18% protein. It's an Amazon's Choice product with a high average score of 4.6 out of 5 stars from users. The food is made with lamb as its main high quality protein. It's designed for dogs that are overweight or senior dogs who aren't as active.
  • Hill's Science Diet Dry Dog Food, Adult 7+ for Senior Dogs is designed for senior dogs who need lower protein because of their lower activity levels. It has 15.5% protein using high quality lean proteins like chicken. It's made with minerals and vitamins to promote kidney and heart function.

Why Low Protein May Be Needed

Healthy animals excrete uremic toxins in the urine, but these toxins can build up when a dog has kidneys that are not functioning properly. Digesting protein produces the toxins, so you can keep the toxins at lower levels by limiting the protein in your dog's food. This way his body will not have to work so hard.

Health Issues

Low protein food may be prescribed by your vet for a number of reasons. Although many people think that they should switch to a low protein food as their dog ages, this is not necessarily true. Low protein foods are indicated when there are serious health problems, generally those that affect the kidneys or liver. Relevant health issues include:

  • Chronic kidney disease
  • Glomerulonephritis
  • Lyme-disease associated nephritis
  • Other inflammatory kidney diseases
  • Portosystemic shunt (liver shunt)
  • Hepatic encephalopathy
  • Prevention of some types of urinary stones

For pets with liver disease, protein restriction is not always recommended. Make sure that you speak with your veterinarian about your dog's specific needs.

Look For Easily Digestible Protein

Besides just trying to find dog food that is low in protein, you should also look for food with high-quality, easily digestible protein. Generally, dairy, egg, chicken, and soy are great protein sources for pets that require low protein diets. All the prescription veterinary diets on the market contain proteins that are easily digestible. Diets for kidney disease will usually have low phosphorus levels, and are supplemented with potassium, B vitamins, buffering agents, antioxidants, and omega-3 fatty acids.

Dog with a bunch of carrots in mouth

Low-Protein Dog Food Palatability

One of the most important factors in feeding a low protein diet is palatability. A lot of the flavor of the food is in the protein, and dog food with limited protein can be tasteless. You may need to try dry or canned varieties, or a couple of different brands to find one that your dog likes. Whenever you change your dog's diet, try not to offer too many varieties at once and mix the new food together with the old food gradually over a week to prevent an upset stomach or diarrhea.

Low-Protein Dog Food Recipes

Some owners prefer to feed a homemade low-protein diet if their dog is having problems eating a store or veterinary-bought brand. This can be due to the palatability of the food or the dog may have specialized requirements that make creating his food a better option. Always discuss your recipes for homemade low-protein dog food with your veterinarian as you must be absolutely sure you're feeding protein, fiber, fat and other minerals, supplements and vitamins in the correct amounts.

Chicken, Eggs and Potato Recipe for Dogs

This is a simple low-protein diet that is appropriate for a dog with kidney disease. This should not be their complete overall diet, but can be used as one meal out of several prepared for your dog.

  1. Take one egg and hard-boil it. Remove the shell and cool. Chop up the cooled egg.
  2. Cook enough potatoes to make three cups chopped. You can bake, boil or broil them until soft.
  3. Combine the potatoes and egg into a bowl and add in the following:
    • 600 mg of calcium such as bone meal powder, eggshells grounded into powder, or a product such as Animal Essentials Seaweed Calcium
    • 1/2 of a multivitamin, such as Zesty Paws made for dogs, or a human multivitamin approved by your veterinarian
    • 1 teaspoon of chicken fat

Easy Low Protein Chicken Pattie Recipe for Dogs

This video illustrates a low protein diet good for senior dogs using quality ingredients like chicken, pumpkin, and kale.

Homemade Diet for a Dog With Kidney Disease

This video demonstrates how to make an affordable homemade diet for a dog with kidney disease. The recipe uses lean ground beef, egg whites, green beans, sweet potatoes, brown rice, pumpkin, parsley, apples and coconut oil.

Feeding a Prescription Diet

Dealing with a sick pet can be overwhelming, but low protein dog foods can actually increase the survival time and the quality of life in dogs with chronic kidney disease. Always follow your veterinarian's advice and continue to feed your dog the low protein diet as prescribed to keep your canine companion healthy for years to come.

Guide to Low-Protein Dog Foods