Become a Pro at Protein: Understanding Protein for Dogs

Redbarn Team March 23, 2021
Dog with a bag of Redbarn Protein Puffs in his mouth

With so many different pet foods on the market, it can be hard to understand what nutrients your dog needs to live a healthy lifestyle. A dog’s diet should include fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, and protein in the correct ratios for your pup to have a balanced diet. While every piece of the nutritional puzzle is important, protein for dogs is essential.

To help you better understand the importance of protein for dogs and protein in dog foods, we’re breaking down amino acids, biological value, and good sources of protein. 

What is Protein and Is It Important for Dogs?

The simple answer is that protein is a compound made up of amino acids and is an essential part of all living organisms. A necessity for all aspects of development and growth, protein is critical to the immune system because it supports enzymes and antibodies.

To understand proteins, though, it’s important to know about its essential building blocks— amino acids.

Amino Acids

You might have heard of amino acids aka “the building block of protein” in your high school chemistry class. Don’t worry; there’s no quiz at the end of this, but understanding the function of amino acids will greatly help you in choosing a nutritious food for your dog.

Like a tower of Jenga pieces, there are 22 amino acids that make-up the protein in a dog’s diet. 12 of these amino acids a dog makes in their body, but the other 10 need to be supplied by the dog’s diet. These 10 amino acids are called essential amino acids because they are necessary for a dog’s survival. The essential amino acids must be supplied in your dog’s diet because they can’t make them internally. 

Meet the essentials:

  • Arginine
  • Histidine 
  • Isoleucine
  • Leucine
  • Lysine
  • Methionine
  • Phenylalanine
  • Threonine
  • Tryptophan
  • Valine

High-quality protein, also known as a “complete protein source” will have all 10 of these amino acids.

How Do I Choose a Good Source of Protein for Dogs?

Biological Value and Net Protein Utilization

“Biological value” (or BV) is a term used to describe how easy it is for dogs to digest the protein from a particular food and absorb it into their system. Foods with a high biological value are the best sources of protein for dogs because they are easiest to digest. When your dog digests food completely, they gain as much protein as possible. Foods that contain a lot of protein yet have little biological value are not easily digested, and so they aren’t a good source of protein for dogs.

“Net Protein Utilization” (or NPU) is another key to examining protein sources. NPU describes the protein actually used by the dog. NPU is important, because if something has a lot of protein (aka BV) but your dog can’t digest it, then it’s useless. Think of it as buying a big bag of candy and not being able to eat it— does it matter how much candy is in the bag, if you can’t eat any of it?

If you want more scientific explanation than bags of candy, NPU is calculated by multiplying the BV of the protein by the digestibility of the protein. In other words, NPU = BV x Digestibility.

For instance, corn has digestible protein but is not as usable as the protein from meat or eggs. This is because it has fewer essential amino acids. Corn has to be combined with other grains to supply the range of essential amino acids that meat or eggs supply by themselves. Dogs have to eat larger quantities of corn and other grains to get the same amount of usable protein in chicken.

When comparing dogs foods, consider the type and quality of protein instead of just the quantity. Choose foods with highly digestible, usable protein. Whole-foods, like real meat, fish, and eggs, for example, provide the highest levels of usable protein for dogs and allow you to feed smaller portions of food. More protein + less food = the best deal!

To get an idea of the quality of protein in your dog’s food, take a look at the ingredients.

Whole-Food Meat Sources

Since ingredients are listed in order of weight, having a whole-food like lamb or chicken is a good sign. These are highly digestible foods, so you can assume the food is a good quality protein source.

The most common whole-food meats in dog foods are:

  • Beef
  • Chicken
  • Lamb
  • Turkey
  • Duck
  • Venison

Cooked fish can also be a good source of protein for dogs. Many dog food brands use fish or fish meal and usually use salmon because it is high in omega-3 fatty acids.

Meat By-Products

By-products are generally parts of animals not intended for human consumption— like liver, lungs, or kidneys. Foods with chicken or other meat by-products as the first ingredient have a lower digestibility than whole-food meats but are an acceptable protein for dogs.

There is a misconception about by-products because they’re often discussed as things that might be high in protein but aren’t very digestible and certainly don’t sound appetizing— like feathers and hair. High-quality dog foods will never use beaks, feathers, claws, hair, horns, or hooves as meat by-products.

If you ever have any concerns about by-products in your dog food, contact that brand’s customer service and ask for more information. You can reach Redbarn customer service toll-free at 800-775-3849 or by email at [email protected].

Meat Meals

Meat meals provide better protein for dogs than sources like soy or grain (which are low ranking sources of digestible protein). They are made by rendering the meat similar to making a stew; however, it is heated to remove water and some fat. Then, it’s dried until it becomes a powder and you end up with a high protein powder or a meat meal.

Not all meals are created equal. The quality of meat meals depends on the quality of the meat started with. No meal will ever be better quality than the meat it was sourced from.

Better meals are made with meats from specific sources. e.g. chicken meal or beef meal versus poultry meal or meat meal. Low-quality meals can come from slaughterhouse waste, spoiled meat or diseased animals.

You can read more about meals here. Check out our guide to decoding the label for more information on understanding the label and what to look for in dog food ingredients.

Other Protein Sources


Eggs have an incredibly high level of biological value, making it an excellent source of protein for dogs. You will often find it listed in dog foods as “dried egg whites” or “egg product.” Dried egg whites are a natural source of highly digestible protein. Egg product is an egg that is free of shells and provides antioxidants along with high-quality digestible protein.


While you probably won’t find cheese as a primary ingredient in most dog foods, it can be great as an additional source of protein. If you’re feeding your dog cheese as a treat or an additive to their food, which kind of cheese to give them will depend on their needs. If you’re looking for lower fat, try cottage cheese.

Peanut Butter

Peanut Butter is often added to dog treats because dogs love the taste and because of the protein and fat content are very filling. If you are feeding your dog peanut butter, go for unsalted peanut butter without added fillers or sugars (ideally, the ingredients list should read ‘peanuts’ and nothing else). Avoid all “sugar-free” varieties of peanut butter, because xylitol is very toxic to dogs. Redbarn carries a variety of peanut butter flavored dog treats that your dog may be interested in

Can Dogs Have Too Much Protein?

Dogs are omnivores and should eat a balanced diet containing protein, carbohydrates, and fat. In most cases, if you are giving your dog the recommended amount of a quality dog food, you don’t need to worry about feeding your dog too much protein.

You wouldn’t want to feed your dog a 100% meat diet, but primarily this is because of the other vitamins and nutrients they would be missing. If there is excess protein in their diet, most dogs will safely excrete it in their urine, use it for calories or convert it to fat.

However, high protein diets are not recommended for dogs with kidney problems or other health concerns. It’s important to note that high protein diets don’t cause kidney disease, so feeding your dog less protein isn’t an effective method for preventing kidney problems. Always consult your veterinarian with concerns about your dog’s diet and health needs.

Which Redbarn Pet Products have Protein for Dogs?

Redbarn Dog Food is made with the highest quality ingredients and uses whole-food meats as the first ingredient. Whether you’re looking for a specially designed high protein dog food for an active dog or puppy, or just want to know your dog food has the optimal protein for dogs, Redbarn has options. 

Redbarn’s Beef Rolled Food is a great alternative to raw diets, and you can use it as food, a mixer, or a treat!

*All data and information provided on this site is for informational purposes only and reflect the views of the authors alone, and do not necessarily reflect those of the organization. makes no representations as to accuracy, completeness, timeliness, suitability, or validity of any information on this site and will not be liable for any errors, omissions, or delays in this information or any losses, injuries, or damages arising from its display or use. All information is provided on an as-is basis. Please note that each situation is different, and you should always consult your veterinarian should you have any questions about your pet’s health.