Homemade Diet Series: Carbohydrates in the Canine Diet

Carbohydrates in the Canine Homemade Diet:

A controversial component of the canine diet is carbohydrates. Many people believe that carbohydrates are not needed by our carnivorous companions. Others say that carbohydrate rich foods provide many benefits. With so many differing opinions, it can be difficult to determine how much, or if any carbohydrate rich foods should be fed.

What are the Most Common Sources of Carbohydrates?

Usually, pet foods contain varying amounts of corn, wheat, rice, barley, potatoes, and peas, amongst other plant products, to provide carbohydrates and calories. In a homemade diet many of the same ingredients are also often used. Vegetables and fruits also provide carbohydrates, as do many dairy products, but these amounts are in much smaller quantities than what is provided from grains, potatoes, and legumes.

Are Carbohydrates necessary in a Dog’s Diet?

This is a difficult question to answer and the answer largely depends on who is answering the question. I have read many people who argue that dogs have no nutritional need for non-animal foods. Yet, others believe that the foods rich in carbohydrates provide many nutrients that dogs need.

It is interesting to note that while the book Nutrient Requirements of Dogs and Cats produced by the National Research Council (NRC) talks about carbohydrates and the many different types, it does not actually list minimum requirements necessary to feed to a dog. This could be because a minimum requirement has not been found, leading one to believe that dogs can live without carbs in their diet. This is the stance of the website www.whole-dog-journal.com. In an article titled “Carbohydrates and Your Dog’s Digestive System” the author writes that, “dogs have no nutritional requirement for dietary carbohydrates,” and she goes on to say that “There are two main reasons why we feed carbs to dogs. The first reason is because we can. Dogs can utilize just about anything we feed them… the second reason is economic; fat and protein sources are much more expensive than carbohydrates.”

Yes, dogs can utilize carbohydrates, but they could also live without them. So, the question is whether some carbohydrate rich foods can be beneficial, and how much, if any, should be fed.

Is there Benefit to Feeding Carbohydrates?

While dogs can live without carbohydrates, it seems that feeding non-animal foods that contain carbohydrates is beneficial. Our house pets are much more sedentary than their wild ancestors, and the fiber in plant products is often very beneficial to their digestive tract. Also consider that since our house pets are more sedentary, they don’t need as much fat as their wild cousins. When fat calories are reduced, something must take their place. Carbohydrate rich foods, when fed in moderation, do a good job of providing these calories along with other nutrients, such as vitamin A and manganese.

In her book Dr. Becker’s Real Food for Healthy Dogs and Cats, veterinarian Dr. Karen Becker recommends a diet that is quite low in carbohydrates when compared to many of the other homemade recipes for pets. The carbohydrates in her recipes come from fruits and vegetables. She doesn’t recommend any grains be fed to dogs, stating “You will not find rice, barley, oats, or high-carbohydrate foods in our program… For most animals, these foods contribute to poor gut health, slower healing, and the chronic inflammation that leads to general ill health.” She also states, “Dogs… are not designed to cope with large quantities of grains without long-term metabolic consequences.” While the diet she recommends is low carb, she does believe that the small amounts of fruits and veggies provide benefits, such as antioxidants and fiber, which would not be found in the animal products used.

Another veterinarian, Dr. Richard Pitcairn, has a much more amiable view of grains. “Whole grains are a very cost-effective and environmentally sensitive way to provide the mainstay of your pet’s diet,” he writes in his book Dr. Pitcairn’s Complete Guide to Natural Health for Dogs & Cats. He further says, “Not only do grains supply carbohydrates and an array of vitamins and minerals, they are inexpensive sources of protein as well.”

How much carbohydrate should be fed?

Carbohydrates can be a good component to a healthful diet, but it is extremely important to make sure your dog is getting good quality animal products, such as meat, poultry, organ meat, eggs, and fish in sufficient amounts. When designing a diet, I have seen recommendations as low as feeding 1/6 animal products in relation to other ingredients, but some recommend not feeding less than 80% animal products. So how much carbohydrate is appropriate in the diet?

A reasonable recommendation I like to follow is to prepare a diet that is no more than 50% plant products, which are the main source of carbohydrates. More animal products can be fed if desired but feeding this amount of plant based foods still allows for plenty of protein and fat in the diet without making such a dent in the owner’s wallet.

Remember that these are general guidelines for healthy dogs. Individual dogs may do better with more carbohydrates, and dogs with certain health conditions will also need more carbohydrates in certain situations.

What kinds of Carbohydrates are Best?

This depends on the dog and the owner. Some owners staunchly oppose grains for dogs, and prefer to feed diets that use legumes or potatoes. Personally, for most healthy animals, I don’t think grains are all that bad. While dogs with certain health conditions, such as arthritis, often do well with all starchy vegetables and grains being eliminated from their diet, many dogs do quite well with grains included in their daily meals. My one dog has a very finicky digestive system, and too little starch and grains makes her quite sick. My other dog gets bad tear stains that seem to go away when I don’t feed him grains, so he gets mostly grain free foods. Remember, all plant sourced foods, such as legumes, grains, and vegetables, need to be thoroughly cooked to be digestible by dogs (fruit can be fed raw).

Conclusion:

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A good diet is what works best for your dog.

Dogs can live without carbohydrates, but they can also do quite well with carbohydrates in their diet. Since dogs aren’t obligate carnivores, they are very adaptable to a wide range of foods. Grains, fruits, vegetables, and legumes have many nutrients that are very beneficial to dogs. In addition, they also provide cheaper calories than those found in fat or protein, making them economically friendly to a pet owner’s budget. For most dogs, carbohydrate rich foods can be an excellent component to a healthful diet.

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