Dogs may be best described as omnivores, but meat is critical for their health and well-being. You probably could concoct a vegetarian diet that’ll satisfy your dog’s protein needs, but this is probably too difficult a trick for the average dog owner to pull off.
Accordingly, one of the first things you want to think about when making a homemade food for your dog or picking out a commercial kibble is the protein used.
This is important because meats differ rather significantly, and some provide more nutritional value than others. Meats also differ in terms of cost, availability, and safety, and they also exhibit varying tastes, smells, and textures — factors which may influence your dog’s willingness to eat them.
We’ll try to help you pick out the best protein for your pooch below. We’ll talk about the different nutritional values of several common types of meat, explain any safety issues you need to consider, compare the basic differences in price, and discuss the availability of the different options. We’ll even touch briefly on a few exotic and game meats that you may want to consider.
(Incidentally, while fish, poultry, and meats like beef are often treated differently in culinary contexts, we’re grouping them all together here under the “meat” umbrella. Your dog doesn’t care which one pairs best with a nice merlot).
The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) produces a set of guidelines for pet foods at different stages of life. These guidelines address a number of different aspects of your pet’s food, including vitamins, minerals, and fat content, but we’ll be focusing on protein today.
The AAFCO recommends that adult dogs eat foods that are at least 18% protein, while puppies and pregnant or lactating females consume foods that are at least 22.5% protein.
Note that these percentages must be obtained on a dry-matter basis, meaning that the water content of the food is excluded from the calculation. We explain how to determine the dry-matter protein content of dog foods here.
Most high-quality commercial dog foods meet these requirements (and really good ones exceed these requirements), so unless your dog is extraordinarily active, you usually don’t have to worry about the amount of protein your dog is getting if you feed him a food that is appropriate for his life stage and complies with AAFCO guidelines.
Those who make homemade foods should ensure that their dog is getting a similar amount of protein – just make sure to perform your calculations using a dry-matter basis to obtain accurate results.
It can also be helpful to understand the amount of protein your dog needs, rather than the percentage of his food that should be made up of protein. As a rule of thumb, dogs need about 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight per day.
The following three types of meat are the ones most commonly incorporated into dog foods – including both homemade and commercial varieties.
For most owners, choosing a protein for their pet’s food will mean picking between these three.
Beef is one of the most common proteins used in commercial dog foods, and it is likely one of the most popular choices for owners who make their own dog foods too. It’s easy to see why; beef has a lot going for it. It is nutritious, relatively affordable, and most dogs seem to love the taste.
Note that there are a variety of different cuts of beef. They vary significantly in terms of cost, but only slightly in terms of nutritional value. Proteins are already the most expensive component of any dog food, so you’ll probably want to stick to the cheaper cuts from the cow.
This primarily means selecting cuts that come from the hip (round) or shoulder (chuck). Of course, you can also use ground beef, which is generally the cheapest form in which beef is sold. Ground beef also requires no cutting – you can just portion it out with a measuring cup.
The best way to cook a big cut of beef for your dog is to roast it, but ground beef is easier to cook on the stovetop. The USDA recommends cooking ground beef to an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit, but whole cuts only need to reach 145 (and then given a three-minute rest period).
If beef isn’t the most common protein fed to dogs, then chicken certainly is.
Like beef, chicken provides a great combination of nutrition and affordability, and it contains more protein and less fat than beef or pork. Most dogs love chicken too (my weirdo pup would rather have a chicken thigh than anything else in the world).
Chicken is usually cheaper than beef, but it presents greater risks than beef typically does, as it is frequently contaminated with Salmonella bacteria. This is likely a bigger threat to the humans living in your home than your dog, but dogs can get sick from these germs too.
So, be sure to cook the chicken thoroughly and use good food safety practices while preparing chicken. Wash your hands after handling raw chicken and disinfect any utensils or surfaces the chicken has touched. Don’t start handling the chicken and then grab the handle on your fridge — you may end up making your whole family sick.
You can roast chicken if you like, but it’s probably easier to boil it. Keep the remaining liquid to cook any rice or vegetables you’ll be adding to the food. No matter how you cook it, just make sure that it reaches an internal temperature of 165 degrees.
Pork is another common choice for commercial diets as well as homemade foods.
Pork is pretty affordable (it’s usually somewhere between the cost of chicken and beef), and most dogs appear to appreciate its density, texture, and flavor.
Pork has much more fat than beef or chicken, and it has about the same amount of protein as beef.
You can get a number of different cuts of pork for your dog, but leg and shoulder pieces are generally the most convenient, affordable, and practical options available.
You can also use ground pork, which some owners will find more convenient. Just note that we are talking about fresh pork in all cases – you don’t want to feed your dog cured pork products like ham or bacon.
Pork is also pretty easy to prepare. It should basically be cooked the same way you’d cook a similar cut of beef. Whole cuts are best roasted, while ground products are easier to cook on the stove. Make sure that whole cuts reach an internal temperature of 145 degrees; ground pork must be cooked to 165 degrees.
Note that whole cuts of pork are tougher to cut than beef or chicken. This is an important consideration for owners who don’t know their way around a cutting board.
While beef, chicken, and pork are likely the most common proteins owners and manufacturers use in their recipes, there are several other types of mass-produced meat that you can usually pick up at the grocery store.
Turkey is broadly similar to chicken from a nutritional standpoint, although it contains less fat. It also tastes different than chicken, but most dogs appear to enjoy it.
Because turkey is slightly more expensive than chicken (although this only amounts to about $0.10 per bird at the moment) and it’s generally more difficult to prepare, most owners probably default to chicken instead of turkey. That said, it is certainly a viable choice for your dog’s protein needs. If it works for you and your dog, then have at it.
There are plenty of turkey-based dog foods on the market, so if you want to go the commercial route, you have options.
Some people may be worried about turkey making their pet sleepy, but this is a myth based on the fact that turkey contains an amino acid called tryptophan. Tryptophan helps your brain produce serotonin. Some of the serotonin produced is eventually converted into melatonin which is a neurotransmitter that makes mammals sleepy.
But the problem is, turkey doesn’t have a particularly high amount of tryptophan. Chicken and pork both contain more tryptophan than turkey does. So, don’t worry that feeding your dog turkey will make him a couch potato.
Like all other poultry, turkey is often contaminated with Salmonella, so it is important to use good food-safety and hygiene practices when preparing it.
You can boil medium-sized cuts of turkey if you like, but it’s probably easier to roast it – just be sure that it is cooked to an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit.
Duck is another good protein for dogs, and many find it especially delicious. In fact, duck is often one of the best proteins for tempting picky pups.
This is likely due to the same reason some people find duck too rich for their tastes: It’s greasy, fatty meat. In fact, duck has more fat than any other poultry or fish. It also has a relatively low protein content, so it is certainly not a great food choice for portly pups.
Despite the fact that dogs often love the taste of duck, relatively few owners incorporate it into homemade foods.
This is primarily due to duck’s high cost and the fact that it is not as widely available in grocery stores. Some commercial diets use duck as a primary protein as they have access to more affordable markets than most consumers do.
Nevertheless, duck is a perfectly suitable protein for dogs, and it is a viable option for owners who can get their hands on it reliably and aren’t put off by the high cost. You’ll want to roast the duck for your dog and be sure that it reaches an internal temperature of at least 165 degrees.
Lamb is a common protein used in commercial dog foods, but relatively few owners incorporate it into homemade foods.
This is likely a reflection of its relative rarity in U.S. markets, as well as its high price. Nevertheless, lamb is a nutritious ingredient that can make a great choice for your dog. There are plenty of commercial dog foods that use lamb as the main protein source.
Lamb has a relatively low caloric density, so you’ll need more of it than you would beef or pork. It is, however, leaner than beef, pork, or duck, and it has more protein than any of these three foods too.
Lamb has a rich taste that many dogs find appealing (no mint sauce necessary), and it doesn’t require any type of special preparation – just roast it like you would beef or pork.
Also like beef or pork, you must make sure that it reaches an internal temperature of at least 145 degrees, and then let it rest for at least 3 minutes before cutting it up.
Salmon is one of the best proteins available for dogs, but you may not think so when looking at its nutritional content.
Salmon provides a relatively modest amount of protein, and it contains a hefty helping of fat. In fact, salmon contains more fat per ounce than duck meat does.
But these fats are actually part of the protein’s appeal, as many are comprised of omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids are very important for your dog’s health, and salmon is chock full of them. Omega-3s provide a number of benefits to canine, but they are likely most celebrated for reducing inflammation.
Note that while cooked salmon is a safe and healthy protein source for dogs, you must never feed your dog raw salmon. Salmon can be infested with a parasite that, while harmless to humans, can make dogs very sick (I just ruined sushi for you, didn’t I?).
Keep this in mind when cooking salmon – many people prefer salmon cooked in medium or medium-rare fashion, but you’ll want to make sure it is well-done when preparing it for your pet. The USDA recommends cooking all seafood to an internal temperature of at least 145 degrees.
The good news – there are plenty of commercial kibbles that rely on salmon at a primary protein, so you aren’t stuck cooking salmon yourself for your pooch!
You’ll find several different types of fish besides salmon at your local grocery store, and many of them can make suitable proteins for your pet. While we don’t have the space here to discuss them all, Tilapia is one of the most widely available and affordable options, so we’ll use it as a pseudo-representative example.
Tilapia isn’t often used in commercial recipes, but it may be a good choice for those who make their dog’s food at home.
Tilapia is a low-calorie protein (it actually contains fewer calories than any of the other meats we reviewed). This is partly because it is so extraordinarily lean – each ounce contains less than a single gram of fat. Despite its lack of fat, it has more protein than pork and just as much as beef.
The taste and texture of tilapia don’t appeal to all dogs, but many do seem to enjoy it. Just be sure to see if your dog likes it before filling your freezer with filets. Tilapia is easy to cook; just throw it on a pan and roast it until it reaches an internal temperature of 145.
While most owners will feed their dog a food featuring one of the proteins discussed above, exotic meats are occasionally necessary. For example, some owners need to feed their dog novel proteins to avoid triggering dog food allergies.
Other owners, such as hunters or farmers, may simply have ready access to unusual meats.
Accordingly, we will discuss some of the most “common uncommon” proteins fed to dogs below.
Venison isn’t often available commercially, but it may be a great choice for hunters.
Ground venison has a caloric density that is similar to chicken, although it has less protein and more fat than chicken does.
Many people find venison gamey, but this is unlikely to offend your pooch. There are a few commercial dog foods that are made with venison, and most dogs who try them seem to find the flavor appealing.
Kangaroo meat has become a relatively common protein used in foods marketed for dogs with food allergies (we even have a list of kangaroo-based dog foods you can check out here). However, few owners actually prepare raw kangaroo meat for their pets.
This is primarily due to the fact that most kangaroo meat comes from – wait for it – Australia, so it can be pretty expensive to purchase at the local butcher.
Price and availability concerns aside, kangaroo makes a lot of sense for dog foods. It is a very lean, low-calorie protein, but it provides as much protein as beef.
Bison has become increasingly common in the diets of Americans over the last decade or so. This is not to suggest that it’s as easy to find as chicken or beef, but a number of restaurants regularly offer buffalo burgers and buffalo steaks (the terms buffalo and bison are used interchangeably).
Some people prefer to feed their dog bison because it is leaner than beef or pork. On the other hand, it provides less protein than either. Nevertheless, most people contend that it generally resembles beef in terms of taste and texture, so most dogs should find it perfectly palatable.
If you are interested in feeding your dog bison meat or a bison-based commercial diet, check out our in-depth review of the bison protein for dogs here.
Like lamb, goat commonly appears in human diets around the world, but it’s rarely eaten by Americans or their dogs. This is a shame, as goat represents a pretty healthy protein source, and it doesn’t cause the environmental impact that cow, chicken, or beef production does.
Goat meat is rich in protein (it contains more protein than beef or pork), but it contains hardly any fat at all. The only commonly used protein that is leaner than goat meat is tilapia, and tilapia doesn’t have as much protein as goat meat does.
Be aware that goat has a strong flavor that may not appeal to all dogs. So, be sure to let your dog try a small amount of the meat before setting up your own goat-breeding ranch in the backyard.
Because of the rise of the commercial alligator farming industry, alligator meat has begun showing up in an increasing number of restaurants and grocery stores. Alligator is also used in a few commercial dog foods.
Nutritionally speaking, alligator meat is somewhat similar to duck, except that it provides fewer calories and less fat. It is typically described as having a taste that is similar to chicken, and most dogs appear to like it.
However, alligator meat isn’t available in all markets, and it isn’t particularly cheap, so it may not be a viable choice in practice.
We’ve written about alligator meat for dogs before, so be sure to check out this article if gator meat seems like a good choice for your dog.
Ostrich is not used in very many commercial dog foods that we’re aware of (let us know if you know of one that is), although it is becoming more and more common in specialty butchers and it may provide value for dogs suffering from food allergies.
Ostrich meat is packed with an impressive amount of protein (similar to that of beef or pork), but it is relatively lean, and it doesn’t provide your dog with a ton of calories. So, it may also be a good choice for dogs who are trying to lose weight.
Rabbit is likely one of the easiest of the game meats to find at your local butcher, and you can also find it at many farmers’ markets. You may even find it in your local grocery store from time to time.
Rabbit is also a popular quarry for hunters, who may find that it makes a good choice for their dog. Rabbit also appears in a few commercial kibbles.
Rabbit is one of the best proteins for dogs from a nutritional standpoint. It has as much protein as chicken and nearly as much as turkey. It’s a little richer in fat than either of these birds, but your dog’s taste buds will likely appreciate the way this improves the meat’s flavor.
Rabbit can be a bit gamey, so it is wise to let your dog sample a small amount before you buy a lot of it.
You can compare the calories, protein, fat, and water contained in each of the meats we’ve discussed in the chart below.
Note that different cuts, preparations, and cooking methods will yield slightly different results. We’ve taken all of the nutritional data below from Self Nutrition Data or Nutritionix– just click on any of the proteins to see more in-depth data.
|Chicken (meat only)||53.2||8.1||2.1||17.9|
|Turkey (meat only)||47.6||8.2||1.4||18.2|
|Duck (meat only)||56.3||6.6||3.1||18.0|
You can incorporate organ meats into your dog’s diet from time to time.
However, because many types of organ meat are exceptionally rich in Vitamin A and other substances that can be toxic in high doses, you must do so sparingly. Organ meats should really be used as an occasional treat – especially for small breeds.
Beef liver is probably the organ meat that is most commonly fed to dogs, but you can also feed your dog beef kidneys, as well as chicken livers or gizzards. Just be sure to avoid feeding your dog brains or spinal cords, as these may be able to transmit mad cow disease to dogs.
Just cook organs to the same internal temperature that you would if they were muscle meat (cook chicken organs to 165, but beef organs are likely safe at 145).
Note that some dogs may not find organ meats palatable – I once offered my dog a few gizzards on a lark, and she looked at me as though I were crazy.
Although many owners may be tempted to use the information provided above to select a protein for a homemade diet, it is wiser to use this information to pick out a commercial diet with a protein that makes sense for your dog.
If chicken seems perfect for your dog, pick a chicken-based commercial food; don’t try to make a food featuring chicken.
Simply put, homemade diets are a bad idea for the average owner.
We’ve discussed this issue about homemade dog food diets in detail before, so we won’t rehash everything here. However, the three primary reasons that we discourage owners from creating homemade foods include the following.
You can’t just mix up some rice and chicken and call it a day.
Among other things, you’ll have to make sure your dog is getting a full complement of amino acids, you have to be careful to balance the calcium-to-phosphorus ratio of the food, and you must analyze the vitamin and mineral content of each ingredient used.
You’ll have to make sure you employ very strict food-handling practices when making your dog’s food. Otherwise, you could end up making your pet (or, more likely, members of your family) sick.
It’s one thing to cook a couple of chicken breasts for dinner, but handling and preparing 10 pounds of raw chicken is an entirely different matter.
It doesn’t matter how frugal you are or how much time you spend comparing prices and searching the internet for coupons, you’ll likely spend much more making a healthy dog food than you will buying one.
By virtue of their buying power, dog food manufacturers can simply source their ingredients for a fraction of what they’ll cost you.
Commercial dog foods may not be perfect, but premium commercial products will provide your dog with better nutrition than most homemade diets will, and they’re also safer and more affordable too.
If you do decide to make your dog’s food, just be sure to do so with the help of your veterinarian (just note that he or she will probably try to discourage you from doing so).
There are certainly a variety of proteins that can work well for dogs, so owners have plenty of options available. Just be sure to review the information presented above and try to pick the best one for your pet.
I’m a pretty big fan of chicken from a nutritional standpoint, and my dog loves the taste, so I give her a chicken-based commercial food. She’s a healthy and happy pup, so it’s worked for us pretty well.
What is your protein of choice for your pooch? Let us know which one you like to feed your dog in the comments below!
Ben is a proud dog owner and lifelong environmental educator who writes about animals, outdoor recreation, science, and environmental issues. He lives with his beautiful wife and spoiled-rotten Rottweiler JB in Atlanta, Georgia. Read more by Ben at FootstepsInTheForest.com.