Carbohydrates: Key to a Balanced Dog Food

By PetMD Editorial on Oct. 19, 2011

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.

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

5 Dos and Don'ts for Mixing Your Pet's Food

6 Nutrients in Pet Food that Can Harm Your Dog

Is GMO-Free Dog Food Safer than Regular Dog Food?

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

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