Dog Nutrition and Carbohydrates: The Essential Non-Essentials

Should our dogs have carbohydrates in their diet or not? If according to the American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) no carbohydrates are essential to dogs, why do they represent such a large portion of dog food products and recipes? Is it a cost issue or is there another reason?

Why the AAFCO deems carbohydrates as non-essential to dogs? 

Poppy & Potato The primary role of carbohydrates is to serve as an energy source. Through digestive process carbohydrates get broken down into glucose that serves as fuel for dog's body. Glucose that is not immediately needed for energy is converted into glycogen and stored away. Think of glucose as an active and glycogen as a passive form of energy.

Your dog's body has controls in place that work to maintain ideal levels of glucose in the blood. When glucose levels drop glycogen is converted back to glucose and returned into the blood stream. If you want to find out more about this process, check out Medical Jargon Explained: Hypo- versus Hyperglycemia.

So far this doesn't explain why carbohydrates are considered non-essential though, does it?

Dogs can produce glucose without carbohydrates as the source. In other words, dogs can use fats and proteins for fulfill their energy needs. This process is called gluconeogenesis.

Is it better for the dog to get their energy from fats and proteins than from carbohydrates?

Proteins serve as structural elements and perform a number of other vital functions in the body, however, they are used as a source of energy first. Only after energy requirements have been fulfilled can the remaining amino acids be utilized for their specific functions. Check out Dog Nutrition and Proteins article to find out more about the role of proteins in dog nutrition.

Producing glucose from carbohydrates is easier on the dog's system.

Metabolizing proteins for energy is less efficient than carbohydrates and fats. The metabolic by-products of converting proteins into energy generate extra stress on the system, particularly kidneys. Fats are a potent source of energy, but diet too high in fat can also lead to problems, such as pancreatitis.

That makes carbohydrates a good source of energy for dogs.

Would carbohydrates be a part of dog's natural diet in the wild? Yes. Wild canines eat the stomach of their prey, including its content. Their prey are herbivores, animals that feed on plant matter.

How many carbohydrates should your dog's diet contain? I'd say that would depend on your dog's individual needs depending on their age, health and lifestyle. High performance dogs have higher energy requirements.

If your dog has a medical condition that would also affect the structure of the diet. For example, many experts believe that dogs with kidney disease benefit from low protein diet, low fat diet is needed for dogs with pancreatitis, while diet low in carbohydrates is recommended for cancer diets.

The nutritional requirements would be different when you want your dog to lose some weight than when you want him to gain some. It seems that a diet containing about 30%  - 50% carbohydrates is generally recommended.

The benefit of carbohydrates in dog nutrition goes beyond energy requirements: fiber for healthy intestine.

Non-digestible carbohydrates play an important role in maintaining your dogs health by maintaining proper balance of intestinal flora. A healthy dog's intestine is home to a large number of useful microorganisms, most of which are bacteria. These bacteria aid digestion and they also protect your dog from harmful organisms such as Candida, E.coli and Salmonella. Non-digestible carbohydrates nourish the friendly bacteria. You can read more about that in Unsung Heroes: Probiotics.

Dietary fiber also helps prevent both diarrhea and constipation and has the same benefits for dogs as it does for humans.

Not convinced?

Check out Dr. Huston's article on The Role of Carbohydrates as Nutrients in the Diet of Dogs & Cats.

It is beneficial to our dogs to have carbohydrates included in their diet.

While balancing carbohydrates in a dog's diet isn't a complicated task, considerations should be made regarding your dog's energy requirements and health status to determine which type and in what amount will be best for your dog.

Further reading:
The Role of Carbohydrates as Nutrients in the Diet of Dogs & Cats

Related articles:
Unsung Heroes: Probiotics
Dog Nutrition and Proteins
Feeding Your Dog: Commercial or Home-cooked?


  1. Great article, Jana. You made some great points about the role of carbohydrates in the diet and the benefits they can provide.

    Thank you also for including the link to my article.

  2. Thank you Lorie. It was something I also wanted to understand for myself :-)


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