Why is Protein Important for our Pets?
The importance of protein
For both cats and dogs, protein is an essential nutrient, along with fat, vitamins, minerals and water. Carbohydrates are not considered by nutritional experts to be essential for either cats or dogs.
Dietary protein is used by an animal’s body to build hair, skin, muscles (including the heart), cartilage, tendons and ligaments, as well as the enzymes that support all metabolic reactions within the body, the hormones that act as the body’s chemical messengers and antibodies vital to the body’s immune system. Cats and dogs are also well adapted to use protein as a source of energy.
Cats are obligate carnivores and dogs are omnivorous carnivores. The Cambridge dictionary defines a carnivore as ‘an animal that eats meat’. Cats, being obligate carnivores must consume meat to survive as they require nutrients, including proteins, found only in animal tissues in order to survive. The addition of ‘omnivorous’ before carnivore for dogs means that they have evolved to eat a meat and plant-based diet. Whilst dogs can survive on a vegetarian diet, for them to truly thrive, the balance of their diet is ideally mainly comprised of animal-based proteins, with a small proportion of fruits and vegetables included.
Tip: Protein forms the most crucial part of your pet’s building blocks for a healthy body.
What makes a good source of protein for cats and dogs?
Protein can be found in both animal and plant-based foods. For dogs and cats, as carnivores, the best sources of protein to meet their body’s needs are animal-based.
Proteins are made up of building blocks called ‘amino acids’, all joined together to make a long protein chain. After protein has been consumed, the body breaks it down into the amino acid components and remakes it into new proteins for the body. The new protein will have a different amino acid sequence from the original protein the animal ate, depending on what the body is using that new protein for: hair (or fur) would have quite a different amino acid composition compared with a hormone such as insulin for example.
There are twenty amino acids in total, with ten amino acids regarded as ‘essential’ in dogs and eleven in cats. ‘Essential’ means they must be provided in the diet because the body cannot make them. Animal-based proteins contain a far better balance and quantity of these essential amino acids than plant-based proteins to fulfil the requirements of a dog or cat’s body to be able to make the muscles, skin, enzymes etc. that they need to remain healthy.
Tip: select a recipe with an animal-based protein over plant-based where you can.
How can you tell if a diet is a good source of protein for a cat or dog?
Reading the pack carefully can provide a wealth of information to indicate if the food is a good source of protein. Start with checking the ingredient listing. The items in an ingredient list are written in order of the proportional weight in the raw recipe (before cooking). A highly nutritious diet for a dog or cat should have named animal proteins high in the ingredient listing. Look for the first ingredient to be a named animal protein, ideally with additional animal protein(s) in the top three to five ingredients.
The best diets will feature fresh meat (or fish) listed as their first ingredient. This will form the base of a high animal-protein diet. In dry foods, this should be supported by a concentrated named meat meal(s) as the second ingredient. In some cases, a third named meat meal may even appear in the top five ingredients – this is an excellent sign of a good quality animal-based protein-rich diet. Fresh meat alone can be over 70% water, much of which evaporates when cooked, so alone, it may not provide the ideal amount of protein. The addition of a high quality named meat meal, (meat combined with a percentage of bone, which is ‘rendered’ [essentially dried]) ensures that the diet will contain a high proportion of animal protein as well as the important minerals calcium and phosphorus that the cat or dog requires to keep its own bones strong.
Many diets on the market are created using meat meals alone without fresh meat. The limitation usually faced when using meals alone is that due to their calcium and phosphorus content, there is a threshold to the amount of animal-based protein they are able to provide in the diet without providing too high a mineral level. This means these diets often have the overall amount of protein supplemented with plant-based proteins to reach the desired levels. As noted earlier, plant-based proteins provide less optimal nutrition for cats and dogs than animal-based proteins.
Vague or unnamed ‘mystery meats’ in diets are best avoided, as these recipes can be inconsistent from one batch to another and the protein sources and quality can change, as can the nutritional value they provide your pet.
Tip: Meat meals are not all created equal.
Checking the protein level in foods
After checking the ingredient listing, read the guaranteed analysis to confirm the protein percentage of the recipe. These are reported on pet food labels on an ‘as fed’ basis. However, recommendations for the minimum percentage of protein for complete and balanced foods are stated on a dry matter basis, i.e., with the water component removed. Dry foods generally contain less than 10% moisture, so the percentage of ‘crude’ protein you read on the back of the pack will be very close to the dry matter percentage, probably just 1-2% higher, so the pack will provide an excellent indicator (wet food is a little more difficult to interpret, as this is typically 70-80% moisture, but that is a discussion for another blog).
The minimum proportion of protein required for a food to be able to claim it is completed and balanced for a dog is 18% for adults or 22% for pups; whilst for cats, it is 26% for adults and 30% for kittens on a dry matter basis. Merely meeting minimums does not lead to optimal health and wellbeing though. A good food should far exceed the minimum level: you should aim for a protein percentage on the pack of at least high 20s for dogs and high 30s for cats (and higher again for pups and kittens) to promote optimal wellbeing.
Tip: look to understand the ingredient listing on the packaging. Order of ingredients and percentage of protein matters.
What are the benefits of a high protein diet?
A complete and balanced diet with high quality & high proportion of animal protein content will help your pet truly thrive. Wellness dry diets for cats and dogs have been thoroughly tested and demonstrated to promote the 5 Signs of Wellbeing™ in pets:
1. Full of energy
2. Strong immunity
3. Healthy eyes, teeth and gums
4. Nourished skin and a shiny coat
5. Active digestive system
Of course, it’s not enough for pet food to have just high levels of protein. All Wellness dry recipes, for both cats and dogs, ensure that the high animal-based protein levels are perfectly balanced with a moderate level of fat and a controlled amount of carbohydrates to optimise a pet’s energy levels. Additionally, fresh fruits and veggies are included as natural sources of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants to aid immunity and probiotics, prebiotics and fibre are included to promote digestive health.
Tip: Aim for a complete and balanced recipe for your pet’s main daily meal.