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What is protein, and why should I care about it in the diet of my fur child?

What is protein, and why should I care about it in the diet of my fur child?
  • 16 October 2020
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  • ejohnson

I often get questions such as “how much protein should be in the diet of my pets?”, or I hear that pet owners are looking for a “high protein food” for their fur child(ren). To understand the answer, you need to first know what protein is.

What is Protein?

Proteins are large biomolecules that are made up of smaller molecules called amino acids. When amino acids get attached to each other, they form a chain, which is called “protein”. There are 20 amino acids that participate in the structure of proteins in the body of your pet. Your pet’s body can make some of these amino acids from scratch and some cannot be synthesized (made) at all in their bodies.  Those that can be made from scratch are referred to as “non-essential amino acids”; those that cannot are called “essential amino acids”. The sources of protein in your pet food can contain various levels of essential or non-essential amino acids. Food ingredients from an animal origin (ex: chicken-meal, fish-meal, chicken, lamb, animal, and avian by-products, etc.) have the highest amount of essential amino acids.

Why should we care about protein in the diet of our pets?

Proteins play a number of vital biological roles in the bodies of cats and dogs; from structural (ex: they form parts of the cell membrane, skeletal muscle, etc.), protective (ex: immune system proteins, such as antibodies), as an energy source (don’t forget your fur child is a carnivore) to regulatory roles (ex: enzymes and hormones). A protein deficiency will disrupt many of these normal biological functions in your pet. However, what you need to keep in mind as a pet owner is that we feed protein to our pets mainly to supply essential amino acids. Pets do not need to get non-essential amino acids from their diet. They can make them from simpler compounds, as long as these simpler compounds are available. However, they do need essential amino acids to be supplied through dietary protein. Thus, the main goal of feeding protein to pets is to supply essential amino acids. If the daily diet of your pet is deficient in one or more of the essential amino acids, the normal biological processes in body of your pet will be disrupted, and your pet will start to show signs and symptoms of an amino acid (or protein) deficiency – signs such as a rough coat, excess shedding, flaky skin and lots of dandruff, a lack of energy, anorexia, susceptibility to allergies and disease, loss of muscle mass, obesity, etc.  Of course, the severity of the symptoms depends on the severity of the deficiency.

Which one is more important? The quality of the protein in the food, or the quantity of protein?

The answer is “both”. Dietary protein should be supplied in the right amount, and as a correct mixture of digestible and available essential amino acids to meet the daily requirements of your pets.  ~ Dr. Anoosh

See Part 2 coming soon on how the quality of pet food protein is assessed.

Dr. Anoosh has a PhD in animal nutrition and has published numerous research articles on nutrition in animals, particularly during stress. He is an owner of Pet Wants Lubbock.  His weekly tips and advice about animal nutrition are not meant to replace medical recommendations from your pet’s veterinarian.