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essential nutrition advice for your pet.

Carbohydrates: Key to a Balanced Dog Food



When you are comparing the hundreds of dog food options available to feed your dog, there are many ideas to keep in mind. Reading the label carefully will tell you which ingredients and how much of them make up the food (see Demystifying the Dog Food Label). There are many ingredients that go into a quality dog food, and here we will focus on just one category: the carbohydrates.


Carbohydrates typically make up anywhere from 30-70 percent of a dry dog food. They come mainly from plants and grains, and provide energy in the form of sugars. Carbohydrates have several important functions in a dog food.


VIEW SLIDESHOW: Carbohydrates: Key to a Balanced Dog Food


Provide Energy


The most important function of carbohydrates is to provide adequate energy to the animal. Dogs are able to convert certain carbohydrate sources into simple sugars that are easily absorbed. More complex carbohydrates must be broken down further by the body before they are able to be absorbed.


Carbohydrates are broken down in the small intestine into glucose molecules. Glucose is the common energy source that can be used by the majority of body cells. Glucose is required by the body to provide quick energy, and is also needed by the brain and nervous system for normal function. Glucose can be stored in the body for release later in the form of glycogen. If the animal eats too much and exercises too little, this stored glycogen will convert into fatty deposits in the body and cause obesity.


Create Structure and Texture


Carbohydrates provide the dry kibble with its structure and texture, allowing the food to be shelf stable and easy to eat. Starchy carbohydrates create a product that not only keeps the animal from being hungry, but also serves to help abrade the surface of the teeth, which helps keep down tartar build-up.


Beneficial Fiber


Certain plant materials that aren’t readily digestible by the dog provide necessary fiber to the diet. Fiber comes from grains and plants, such as oat bran, the hulls of brown rice, beet pulp, pectin, and peanut hulls. Fiber resists breakdown by the enzymes in the small intestine, but some fiber is fermented in the large intestine, helping regulate bacteria in the colon.


Fiber is not a required nutrient for dogs, but it is included in most dog foods because it helps keep your dog full (thus preventing obesity and helping with weight loss), maintains colon health, aids digestion, and even helps control blood sugar levels in diabetic dogs.


Where do Carbs Come From?


The most common types of carbohydrates used in dog foods are cereal grains. These grains must be ground up or cooked just enough to allow for the animal’s intestine to absorb it easily (digestibility). This also helps improve the taste of the raw ingredients (palatability).


Common carbohydrate sources will usually be listed in the first few ingredients on the bag of dog food. Some of these may include:


  • Barley (pearled)
  • Oats (or whole oats)
  • Brown rice
  • Whole wheat
  • Whole corn
  • Potato (or sweet potato)
  • Millet


Good quality ingredients will usually include the word "whole" in the name of the item, letting you know that the product provides important nutrients and fiber to keep your dog energized and satisfied every day.


More to Explore

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Why Grain-Free Dog Food May Not Always Be the Best Choice

Comments  2

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  • Carbs in Dog Food
    10/29/2014 10:19am

    This article seems rather strange to me. The National Research Council, comprised of veterinarians and scientists, has clearly indicated dogs and cats have NO dietary requirement for carbs in their diet. Dogs and cats are able to make all the glucose they need from fat and protein via a process called gluconeogenesis (making of glucose) assuming their diet is rich in protein and fat ingredients which most pet foods are not. It was established in the 60's that fat, NOT carbs, is the appropriate source of energy for dogs - see refs below. When one considers that over 50% of dogs are overweight (see below) or obese, most pet foods are over 40% sugar (carbs) and that dogs are carnivores why are pet foods more sugar then meat? Even if you mistakenly believe they are omnivores they should eat mostly meat, not 40+% sugar. Would you ever recommend a meat eating animal eat mostly sugar and then expect them to be healthy?
    This article does not make sense scientifically or practically. There is a line of entirely Starch-Free dog and cat foods. Sugar (carbs) are killing our pets!

    Reynolds A.J., Taylor, C.R., Hoppler, H., Weibel, E., Weyand, P., Roberts, R., Reinhart, G.A., The effect of diet on sled dog performance, oxidative capacity, skeletal muscle microstructure, and muscle glycogen metabolism. In: Carey, D.P., Norton, S.A., Bosler, S.M., eds. Recent Advances in Canine Feline Nutritional Research: Proceedings of the 1996 Iams International Nutritional Symposium. Wilmington, OH: Orange Frazer Press, 1996; 181-198.
    Hincliff, K.W., Reinhart, G.A., et. al., Metabolizable energy intake and sustained energy expenditure in Alaskan sled dogs during heavy exertion in the cold. Am. J. Vet Res 1997; 58: 1457-1462.
    McNamara, J.H., Nutrition for working military dogs under stress. Vet Med Sm Anim Clin 1972; 67:615-623.
    Bergstom, J., Hermanson, L., et al., Diet, muscle glycogen, and physical performance. Acta. Physiol Scand 1967; 71: 140-150.
    Theriault, D.G., Beller, G.A., et. al., Metabolic responses to exhaustive exercise in racing sled dogs fed diets containing medium, low, or zero carbohydrate. J Lipid Res 1973; 14:54-61.
    Reynolds, A.J., Fuherer, L., Dunlap, H.L., et. al., Effect of diet and training on muscle glycogen storage and utilization in sled dogs. J Appl Physiol 1995; 79: 1601-1607.
    Downey, R.L., Kronfield, D.S., et. al., Diet of beagles affects stamina. J Am Hosp Assoc 1980; 16: 273-277.
    Reynolds, A., Hoppler, H., Reinhart, G., et. al., Sled dog endurance: A result of high fat diet or selective breeding? FASB J 1995; 9:A996.
    Kronfield, D.S., Diet and performance of racing sled dogs. J Am Vet Assoc 1973; 162:470-473.

    Petfood Industry, 06/2014, pg 6.

  • 02/11/2015 04:34pm

    Quackery that's what the article is all about.
    Dogs do not need carbohydrates!
    1. National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences, “Nutrient Requirements of Dogs and Cats”, 2006 Edition, National Academies Press, Washington, DC ↩
    2. Brown S., Taylor B., “See Spot Live Longer”, 2007 Creekobear Press, Eugene, OR USA, page 51 ↩
    3. National Research Council, National Academy of Science, “Nutrient Requirements of Dogs and Cats”, 2006 Edition, National Academies Press, Washington, DC, p 317 ↩
    4.Waltham Book of Dog and Cat Nutrition (2nd edition, 1988),