Can dogs eat carbohydrates and starches?
The short answer is yes - dogs have been eating carbohydrates and starches for thousands of years. Interestingly, a key driver in the domestication of dogs and their divergence from wolves was their ability to digest starches.
Plant-based foods have been included in commercial dog food since the inception of the industry, and the average companion dog is currently getting most of its energy from plant-based carbohydrates. The image of the wolf-like dog that must eat high quantities of meat and avoid grains has only become trendy in the last decade and is driven by human trends toward paleo and ancestral eating rather than nutritional science.
In 2013, a study conducted whole-genome sequencing of dogs and wolves to identify how DNA has diverged between the two species, and of the 36 regions of the genome that distinguish dogs from wolves, almost ⅓ of the genetic differences are related to dogs’ improved starch digestion and fat metabolism. (Nature, 2013).
AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials), the regulatory group for the pet food industry, establishes nutritional adequacy standards for pet foods in the U.S. For adult maintenance diets, AAFCO guidelines establish a minimum threshold of 18% protein and 5.5% fat content. While there is no specific minimum or required carbohydrate content in dog food, most dogs fed conventional diets consume most of the daily calories from carbohydrates.
As with human nutrition, complex carbohydrates provide more nutrients and come with additional health benefits to dogs, like soluble fiber or omega-3s. For example, Petaluma includes organic rolled oats in its formula, which is a low GI carbohydrate food that contains soluble fiber. Further, there is no evidence that low carbohydrate diets have health benefits for dogs, despite the rise in popularity of grain-free and raw diets for dogs.
The most significant diet-related health issue facing dogs is a calorie excess resulting in weight gain, with an estimated 40-60% of American overweight dogs. Carbohydrates are one source of total caloric intake, but are not uniquely responsible for dogs’ weight gain. Portion size is the biggest culprit, and managing caloric intake (i.e. food and treats) to meet a dogs’ energy demand is one of the most impactful things a dog owner can do to keep their dog healthy.
- “Carb Confusion Part 1: The Role of Carbohydrate in Pet Foods” (Tufts, Cummings Veterinary Medical Center, 2021)