Proper Protein Sources for Dogs: What Meats They Can Eat

High-quality protein sources are critical to your dog's health and longevity.

Updated May 12, 2023
Dog waiting for food.

Protein is a staple part of your dog's diet. But what are the best protein sources for your dog? In a word, they are protein-rich foods that are the most digestible. Dogs may be omnivores, but some foods provide more usable protein for them than others. Learn the difference.

The Purpose of Protein for Dogs

Dogs may be omnivores, but they rely heavily on protein to help them survive and thrive. They need quite a bit more protein in their diets than we do.

Protein contains essential amino acids that are crucial to the process of cell production. Without enough protein in their diet, dogs can develop a host of health problems. They'll lose energy, their coats will become dull and lifeless, and their immune systems become less capable of fighting off disease.

Biological Value

"Biological value" is a term used to describe how easily dogs can render the available protein from a particular food source and absorb it into their systems. Foods that have a high biological value are the best protein sources for dogs because they are the easiest to digest. When the food is thoroughly digested, the dog gains as much of the available protein as possible. Foods that contain a lot of protein yet have a low biological value are not easily digested by dogs, and so they aren't a good source of protein.

Protein in Commercial Dog Food

Woman Pours Pet Food Into Bowl

There are hundreds of dog food formulas available on the market, including a number of high protein dog food options. The best brands use protein sources with a high biological value while the worst base their formulas on low biological value foods. There is also a range of foods in between that include both high and low biological value foods.

Why such a difference? High-value protein sources often cost more, while low-value proteins are cheaper, more cost effective and still meet pet food guidelines for minimum protein content even though a dog can't digest the food well enough to absorb the protein that is in it.

Best Protein Sources for Dogs

With this in mind, compare the following protein sources commonly found in a wide variety of commercial dog foods.


Eggs may not immediately come to mind when considering the best protein sources for dogs, but they are an excellent source of protein and are included in some dog food formulas and many homemade diets. You may even be surprised to learn that eggs are a better source of protein than meat, since a dog can render more protein from them as long as they are cooked.


When it comes to feeding fish to a pet, most people tend to think of cats. However, fish also provides an excellent source of protein for dogs. Many prominent dog food brands offer formulas that contain fish or fish meal, and salmon is usually the fish of choice since it is high in omega-3 fatty acids. You can also offer your dog fresh, raw sardines or anchovies.

Quick Tip

If you grab your dog anchovies or sardines in a can, they must be packed in water rather than oil.

Real Meat

Dog eating meat

You'll see numerous ingredients listed on a dog food label, and it's sometimes difficult to determine exactly what some of those terms really mean. However, there's no mistaking a real, named meat when you read it. Real meat is the most natural source of protein a dog can consume; it's what their digestive system was designed to eat, as evidenced by their wild ancestors.

If you feed your dog fresh meat, whether it's cooked or raw, make sure to cut it into bite-sized pieces. And never feed the bone unless it's an approved type by your canine nutritionist or veterinarian. Some of the most common meats included in dog diets and high-quality prepared foods are:

  • Beef
  • Lamb
  • Chicken
  • Turkey
  • Liver
  • Duck
  • Venison
Quick Tip

To be more species-specific, some choose to feed their dog raw diets.


Although you won't find an overwhelming number of dog food brands that include cheese in their formulas, it is a very viable source of protein for canines. While regular cheese and cottage cheese both contain protein, they contain different amounts of fat. If you have a dog that could use a lower fat diet, cottage cheese is the better choice.

Inferior Protein Sources

There are several inferior sources of protein that food manufacturers will use to cut costs.

Meat Meal

There seems to be a bit of confusion over whether meat meal is a good source of protein for dogs. To be clear, meat meal is not the same thing as a meat by-product.

Meat meal is real meat that has been dried and pulverized into a gritty powder. Removing both the water and fat from the meat leaves a very concentrated source of protein that is added to a dog food formula to boost the protein content. Meat meal is actually very digestible, and this means a dog can render more nutrition from it than from an inferior source of protein. The more efficiently a dog can digest their food, the less waste they produce.

Meat By-Products

Meat by-products are what's left of a carcass after the main meat has been stripped from an animal. Although these by-products can be healthy when fresh, they by-products found in dog food are often thrown in because they aren't suitable for human consumption. For example, a beef liver with a tumor would be thrown into the pile to be processed. Or, a spleen that's been sitting out too long would be added.

Some examples of meat by-products include:

  • Beaks
  • Feathers
  • Liver
  • Heads
  • Intestines
  • Horns
  • Lungs
Quick Tip

Uncooked, raw feathers, fur, and poultry feet are an excellent addition to raw bowls, as can organ meats.

Corn and Wheat

It's true that you can feed a dog corn or wheat and they will render a little protein from these foods, but the protein in these grains is very difficult for dogs to digest. This means brands that use corn, cornmeal, wheat, and wheat gluten as main protein sources technically meet industry standards for protein content. However, they cannot actually deliver all the protein promised because dogs can't digest these foods efficiently. A good deal of the protein passes right through the dog's system unused.

Protein Digestibility and Dogs

Some proteins are easier than others for dogs to digest. The sources with the highest digestibility are eggs (100%) and chicken, beef and lamb (92%), which are all meats taken from muscle. Proteins derived from organs, such as kidney, heart, and liver, are next with a digestibility of 90%. Fish, while still a good source of protein, has a digestibility of 75%. The lowest digestible protein sources are plant-based, ranging from 54 to 75%.

Daily Protein Needs of Adult Dogs

A dog needs about one gram of protein per pound of weight a day. However, when calculating this formula, the weight should be based on what their weight should be. Using an overweight dog's current weight will give you a result that is too high. For example, if you have a Pomeranian who should be seven pounds, they would need seven grams of protein per day.

If your Pomeranian is overweight at eleven pounds, they would still need seven grams as protein as you are using their "ideal" weight and not the weight they are at the time of your calculations. Keep in mind, too much protein won't hurt your dog, assuming they are healthy and have no medical conditions. According to PetMD, excess protein will be processed by the kidneys and will not harm a dog. However, dogs on a high protein diet should have their BUN (blood urea nitrogen) levels regularly checked to make sure they don't reach 75 or more.

Quick Tip

Gut health tests can aid in understanding your dog's health while consuming their current protein sources.

Daily Protein Needs of Puppies

The daily protein needs of puppies differ from an adult dog, as they require more protein to facilitate their rapid growth. If you compare a diet of a puppy and an adult dog, the adult dog should get about 18% protein and 9 to 15% fat, whereas a puppy should get approximately 28% protein and 17% fat.

However, in general, the more protein, the better. Dogs are designed to consume up to 60% protein. Higher protein diets may be a problem with larger/giant breed dogs, so it's best to discuss your food choices with your veterinarian to make sure your puppy is getting the correct amount of protein.

Best High Protein Dog Food Choices

Cute dog puppy eating chicken neck

If you're looking for a dog food that is high in protein, some good choices are:

Improving Your Dog's Diet

In addition to feeding a kibble derived from high-quality protein sources, you can add more protein to your dog's diet by supplementing their meals.

  • Add a raw or scrambled egg to their meals. If you scramble the eggs, add a very minimal amount of butter or cooking spray. You can also provide them soft or hard-boiled.
  • Canned fish such as sardines, salmon, and mackerel mixed in with your dog's kibble are also good sources of protein and an extra treat.
  • Fresh meat, such as some cooked chicken or low amounts of organ meats, is also an excellent protein source.

High Protein Diets and Medical Concerns

For some dogs, a high protein diet should be avoided as it will exacerbate a serious medical condition. Some dogs can be allergic to certain protein choices and may have to switch to a different protein source or a lower protein diet. Dogs with kidney and liver disorders should never be on a higher protein diet, as this will cause additional stress to their organs. Dogs with hyperactivity issues may do better on a lower protein diet as well.

FAQs About Protein for Dogs

The following are commonly asked questions about protein sources for dogs:

  • How much organ meat can be added to your dog's diet? Your dog shouldn't have more than 5% of their diet come from organ meat.
  • Can the same meat be put on top of the food every day? No, you should rotate protein sources to ensure variety in the diet and fill nutritional gaps.
  • Should senior dogs be fed less protein? No, senior dogs should not be fed less protein unless there are underlying medical issues.
  • Does heat affect protein in dog food? Yes, which is why toppers are recommended for those feeding kibble. Kibble has been heated as much as six times, causing proteins to fall apart, lessening the nutritional value in the food.

Now Check Your Dog's Food

With a clear understanding of just how digestible and, therefore, more nutritionally valuable a particular source of protein can be, check the ingredients label on your own dog's food. Those ingredients are listed by volume from highest to lowest, and those first five ingredients are often the most important because they list the type of protein used as the main component of the formula. Regardless of its reputation or marketing, does your current brand use high value or low-value protein sources? Depending on what you see, you can either continue to feed your dog that brand with confidence or decide it's time to look for a healthier brand.

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Proper Protein Sources for Dogs: What Meats They Can Eat