When picking out a dog food, pet parents tend to focus on protein, and with good reason! Protein plays many vital roles in the body including:
- the growth and maintenance of muscle, hair, and nails
- transporting nutrients around the body
- immune system function
- the production of hormones
By looking at a pet food’s guaranteed analysis, you can get a pretty good idea of how much protein the food contains. The current Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFC0) standards state that a food designed of adult maintenance should contain at least 18% protein on a dry matter basis while the minimum for growth and reproduction or all life stages is 22.5%. The term “dry matter basis” refers to a calculation that takes into account how much water is present in the food.
What the guaranteed analysis can’t tell you, however, is whether or not the protein that is present supplies all the amino acids that your dog needs.
But why be concerned about amino acids? Isn’t the total amount of protein in the diet all that is important? No, it isn’t. Let’s look at the reason why.
Dogs don’t directly use the proteins that they eat. In other words, a dog may eat muscle meat, but those proteins don’t get absorbed and used in the dog’s muscles. What actually happens is far more elegant, and complex.
In a basic sense, protein molecules are chains made up of 20 common amino acids. Think of proteins as amino acid “beads” on a string. The strings come in varying lengths, and the beads can be laid down in almost any order. Then, the strings are folded in truly amazing ways that determine how the resulting protein interacts in the body.
But when dogs eat protein, the digestive system undoes all these folds and links. The body disassembles dietary proteins back down into their amino acid building blocks. Then, it reassembles them into the proteins that are needed in the moment. Cool, eh?
Half of the 20 common amino acids are not of much nutritional concern. Dogs can make them on their own as long as their diets contain enough nitrogen (nitrogen is a major component of all amino acids). The other 10 are crucial, however, because the canine body cannot manufacture them—they must be supplied by food. If the diet is deficient in any of these essential amino acids, dogs will not be able to make all of different types of protein that their bodies need.
The essential amino acids for dogs are:
You won’t find mention of essential amino acids on most dog food labels. So, how can you know that a particular diet provides them all?
AAFCO standards provide guidance as to the levels of all ten essential amino acids that a dog food must contain to keep dogs healthy. Make sure that you can find an AAFCO nutritional adequacy statement on the label of any food you offer your dog. Finally, look at the food’s ingredient list. High quality protein sources, like Koji, contain all 10 essential amino acids for dogs.