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    Dog Food Meat & Diet Guide

    Authored by Tractor Supply Company

    Dogs may be happy living off of street snacks, table scraps and treats, but a nutritious diet is the foundation for a happy and healthy pet. Protein is a key component of a dog’s dietary needs that's commonly provided by meat. 

    The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) recommends that adult dogs eat foods that are at least 18% protein on a dry-matter basis (the percentage of protein when all of the moisture is extracted). Puppies and pregnant dogs require foods that are at least 22.5% protein on a dry-matter basis.

    Considerations When Choosing Dog Food Meat

    Most high-quality dog foods meet—and often exceed—the requirements set by AAFCO.

    “I tell owners that when choosing a dog food, choose a well-known, highly reputable brand,” says Rachael L. Currao, DVM. “Unfortunately, there's currently no regulation on dog food. Anyone can make a dog food and claim to put anything in it without any regulations to confirm what they say is in there actually is. The well-known companies have the money to put into research and do testing to prove that what they claim is in the food is actually in there.” 

    Most dogs get enough protein from their dog food, but meats have different attributes. That's something to consider when deciding what type of meat to feed your four-legged friend. Consider these qualities when choosing your dog’s protein source:

    • Taste: Did you know a dog’s sense of smell is more developed than their sense of taste? It’s up to 40 times greater than a human’s, while a human’s sense of taste is about six times greater than a dog’s. Choosing a smellier food will entice your pup to eat up. For picky eaters, choose meat that appeals to them and encourages them to dig in.
    • Quality: Just like the free-range, grass-fed, pasture-raised, organic, wild-caught and cage-free options you see at the grocery store, dog food meat is also available in several different qualities. In general, human-grade, naturally raised and hormone- and chemical-free meats are higher quality. 
    • Expense: Of course you want to feed your dog a diet of high-quality meat and freshly caught fish, but that can get expensive. A tasty, high-grade, meat-based dog food is critical to your dog’s health. Finding one you can afford is important, too. Luckily, there are healthy meat-based dog foods that fit into almost any dog owner’s budget.

    Why Protein Is Important to Dogs

    Dogs flourish when they eat a healthy diet. They’re omnivores and can survive on a balanced diet of plants or animals, but they thrive when their diet includes animal protein. Protein provides energy and contains nutrients that help maintain muscle and keep their skin, coat, nails and immune system in tip-top shape. Your dog’s activity level should also be considered when choosing a diet and protein source.

    “Working dogs, agility dogs, and other very active dogs often have higher calorie and protein requirements then the average pet dog. There are performance and high-protein diets for these dogs. The biggest thing with lap and family dogs is that they are so prone to obesity, and that is a huge problem among our companion dogs,” says Dr. Currao. “For both groups of dogs, I still recommend a well-known, highly reputable brand as the choice of dog food.”

    Meat vs. Meal

    Dog food producers add meat to their foods in two ways: meat and meal. In general, whole meat or real meat is of higher quality and provides more digestible protein, vitamins and moisture. Real-meat dog food is also expensive, which is why many dog food producers use meat meals. 

    Meat meal is made by dehydrating the meat through a process called “rendering.” All types and qualities of dog food contain meat meal. The best dog food brands clearly label the source of their meal. Look for ingredients such as: 

    • Chicken meal
    • Beef meal
    • Venison meal
    • Lamb meal
    • Duck meal

    Lower-quality foods may use a vague description when listing their ingredients, such as: 

    • Animal meal
    • Meat meal
    • Meat and bone meal

    Meat meals—especially when you know what kind of meat is used—are full of nutrients. Many top-shelf dog foods use a combination of whole meat and meat meals in their food.

    Beef Dog Food

    Beef dog food is affordable and accessible, and its rich, flavorful taste leaves dogs howling for more. It’s a high-quality protein source that helps maintain muscle and provides energy for all-day fetch sessions or a romp through the woods. Beef dog food is also an excellent source of iron, which helps prevent anemia. 

    Beef is packed with B vitamins, including B1 (thiamine), B2 (riboflavin), B3 (niacin), B6 (pyridoxine), B9 (folic acid) and B12 (cobalamin). B vitamins play an important role in a dog’s:

    • Growth and development 
    • Energy production 
    • Muscle maintenance 
    • Coat and skin health 
    • Digestion 
    • Immune function 
    • Hormone regulation 

    Beef dog food is also a source of other key nutrients, such as:

    • Omega-3 fatty acids
    • Omega-6 fatty acids
    • Zinc
    • Selenium
    • Carnitine

    Beef is a common ingredient in dog food. For high-quality beef dog food, look for pasture-raised or grass-fed beef. The ingredient label is another indicator of its quality—top-shelf dog foods list beef and beef meal as their main ingredients, while lesser-quality foods use generic ingredients, like meat meal.

    Chicken Dog Food

    Chickens are the most widely farmed animal—there are more chickens globally than any other species of bird in the world. The wide availability of chicken meat has made it a common and affordable source of protein for dog food. Chicken is high in protein, low in fat and fairly easy to digest, making it a particularly good choice for dogs with sensitive stomachs or when transitioning your furry buddy to a new food. 

    If your canine is counting their calories, chicken has a relatively low caloric density than other meats used in dog food. Although chicken is the basis of many dogs’ diets, it’s also a common allergen and can lead to health issues in some poultry-adverse pups. 

    Chicken dog food is also a good source of glucosamine—a compound that helps dogs build strong, healthy bones—and is full of omega-6 fatty acids, which promote healthy skin and coats. Other important nutrients found in chicken dog food include: 

    • Vitamin B3 (niacin) for healthy skin and circulation 
    • Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine) to promote overall well-being 
    • Phosphorous for strong bones
    • Selenium to boost the immune system 

    Like beef, chicken is a common ingredient in many dog foods. When choosing your chicken-based dog food, look for brands that use cage-free chickens and lead with high-quality ingredients, like chicken and chicken meal. Lower-quality chicken dog foods will use broadly labeled “meat” meals as a protein source in their food.

    Pork Dog Food

    Pork is the most widely eaten meat in the world, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, but it’s rare to see it as the primary source of protein in dog food. In fact, many pet owners often wonder if dogs can eat pork.

    Yes, dogs can eat pork. It’s an excellent, easy-to-digest meat source that is considered a “novel” protein, making it an ideal option for canines with food allergies. However, its high fat content might cause problems for pups with sensitive stomachs. 

    In addition to a high fat content, pork is also calorically dense, making it well-suited for young and energetic dogs who burn a lot of calories. Conversely, a pork-heavy diet can lead to weight gain in older and less active dogs. In general, dogs love pork, and it is a good meat source for fussy eaters. 

    Pork is more than rich in fat and calories. It’s also loaded with valuable vitamins like: 

    • Vitamin B1 (thiamine) for brain and organ health 
    • Vitamin B2 (riboflavin) to help metabolize energy 
    • Vitamin B6 (niacin) for overall health 
    • Vitamin B12 (cobalamin) for a healthy nervous system and brain function 
    • Vitamin D for strong bones and muscles 

    Other nutrients provided by pork are: 

    • Iron 
    • Selenium 
    • Zinc 
    • Phosphorus 

    Pork is also an excellent source of linoleic acid, an omega-6 fatty acid. Dogs can’t produce linoleic acid on their own, making it a critical part of their diet. 

    Fun Fact: In Chinese medicine, pork is a “Yin”—or “cooling”—meat and can theoretically help bring “hot” (anxious and over-reactive) dogs in balance. Those who subscribe to this belief look for pork dog foods blended with “cooling” grains like millet, barley and wheat and “cooling” vegetables, such as celery, broccoli and spinach.

    Lamb Dog Food

    Can dogs eat lamb? In short—yes. Lamb is a dense and nutrient-rich meat that appeals to even the pickiest of pups. 

    Beef- and chicken-based dog foods can cause itchy skin, rashes and other health issues in dogs with food allergies. Lamb dog food is high in both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, which help keep skin healthy and coats shiny, making it an excellent dog food alternative. Other essential nutrients found in lamb include:

    • Zinc and selenium for strong immune systems 
    • Vitamin B12 (cobalamin) for a healthy nervous system, brain function and digestion  
    • Carnitine for heart health 

    Lamb dog food is also higher in iron than other meat sources, like chicken and salmon. Iron plays a key role in the formation of red blood cells and hemoglobin and aids in several enzyme functions. Iron from meat (heme) is more easily absorbed than iron from plants (non-heme), making lamb a top choice.

    Because lamb is lean and has a relatively low caloric density, it’s a great choice for pups who need to eat a lower-calorie diet. Active dogs love lamb, too—just be sure to serve up a bigger portion to make up for the calorie difference.

    Venison Dog Food

    Venison (deer meat) dog food is a good choice for dogs who suffer from chicken, beef or other meat allergies. Venison isn’t a common source of protein in dog food, and since most dogs have had minimal exposure to it, they haven’t had a chance to develop a sensitivity to it. 

    “Some dogs have allergies to chicken or beef, and in those dogs, what we call a novel protein is best,” says Dr. Currao. “The idea is if they are allergic to chicken or beef protein, you give them a different source of protein that their body hasn't been exposed to and hopefully doesn't have a reaction to.”

    Dogs drool over the gamey, treat-like taste of venison. It’s a great source of: 

    • Omega-3 fatty acids
    • Omega-6 fatty acids 
    • Vitamin B1 (thiamine)
    • Vitamin B2 (riboflavin)
    • Vitamin B3 (niacin)
    • Vitamin B12 (cobalamin)
    • Iron 
    • Selenium 
    • Zinc 

    Venison has gained favor in recent years as a good option for weight control in dogs. Venison dog food is loaded with protein and lower in fat and cholesterol compared to other popular protein sources. This combination of nutrients helps keep dogs fueled up for long walks and play dates at the park while keeping them at a healthy weight.

    Rabbit Dog Food

    Rabbit is one of the best sources of protein available to dogs. It contains more protein than beef, chicken, lamb, duck and pork, is richer in fat than chicken and turkey. Rabbit also has an enticing gamey flavor that will appeal to even the finickiest Fido.  

    The high protein content of rabbit dog food keeps high-energy pups fueled up for long walks and all-day romps at the park, but it’s also a great option for less active pets. Rabbit is all-white meat and has about half the calories of pork, lamb and beef, making it an ally for dogs battling weight gain. Rabbit is also extremely low in cholesterol, which can help prevent ailments like diabetes, Cushing’s disease and hypothyroidism.

    Rabbit meat is another “novel” protein source, making it a common choice for dogs suffering from allergies or stomach sensitivity. It’s a favored option for pet owners looking to include a variety of protein sources in their dog’s diet.  

    Although rabbit-based dog food is nutritionally dense, it doesn’t contain fatty acids to help keep your pup’s skin and coat healthy. A rabbit-heavy diet should include other foods high in omega fatty acids or supplements that provide these vital nutrients.

    Duck Dog Food

    Duck is another “novel” protein source for dogs with allergies to traditional meats, like chicken and beef. Picky eaters usually love the rich taste, greasy texture and aromatic scent of duck, and its high fat content will keep your high-energy dog flying after their Frisbee or ball. 

    Duck is often chosen because of its hypoallergenic properties. The best duck dog foods will commonly avoid grains—which many dogs are sensitive to—and pair duck meat with root vegetables, like potatoes and sweet potatoes. 

    Duck dog food is loaded with essential nutrients and vitamins, such as: 

    • Vitamin B3 (niacin) for turning protein, fat and carbs into energy 
    • Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine) to aid cardiovascular health
    • Phosphorus for strong bones and teeth 
    • Potassium to ensure the proper function of enzymes, muscles and nerves
    • Zinc and selenium to help boost the immune system 

    Duck dog food is full of fatty acids and ideal for picky pups who are not fans of fish-based foods.

    Salmon Dog Food

    Salmon dog food is a favorite of pet owners and pups. Pet parents love that salmon is packed with protein, omega-3 fatty acids, minerals and vitamins, and dogs find the smell and taste of salmon irresistible. Salmon is generally easy on sensitive stomachs and is a great choice for pups with food allergies. 

    “A lot of dogs can do really well on a fish-based diet, such as salmon,” says Dr. Currao.

    The omega-3 fatty acids found in salmon-based dog food offer an abundance of health benefits to dogs: 

    • Promote brain function, ideal for developing puppies and dogs who are cognitively declining as they enter their golden years
    • Reduce joint inflammation in dogs suffering from arthritis or getting stiff in old age
    • Improve skin and coat health by battling against rashes, dryness and fur loss
    • Boost immune systems
    • Enhance heart and kidney health  
    • Help fight and slow the spread of cancer 
    • Ease anxiety

    Salmon is also rich in magnesium, potassium, zinc, selenium, vitamin D and vitamin B12 and is considered a low-mercury fish—good news for canines who prefer surf to turf.

    Other Meats in Dog Food

    Bison, kangaroo, alligator and emu are all “novel” proteins that are finding their way into pet foods and becoming popular among dogs with allergies. Since many of these meats are niche, the quality is generally high, but nutritional information is scarce. 

    Remember, meat is just one ingredient in dog food—but it’s an essential one. “An important aside is that dogs should not be fed a vegetarian diet, as we have seen some negative side effects from doing so,” says Dr. Currao. 

    There are many other factors to consider when choosing the best dog food for your four-legged friend. When in doubt, work with your veterinarian to find the best meat and meal plan to ensure your dog lives a happy, healthy and well-fed life.