Exploring Carbohydrates in Your Dog's Diet: Myths, Facts, and Tips

Amidst the vast array of perspectives and sometimes conflicting advice, gaining a clear understanding of the role of carbohydrates in your dog’s diet can be daunting. In this informative exploration, we navigate the complex terrain of carbohydrates in your dog’s nutrition, demystifying misconceptions and offering practical insights.

What are carbohydrates anyway?

Carbohydrates are an important macronutrient alongside protein and fat. 

Digestible carbohydrates such as starch are broken down into glucose in the body, while indigestible carbohydrates provide fibre, (read more on fibre for dogs here)

When discussing carbohydrate sources, we are referring to foods primarily composed of carbohydrates, although they may also contain other macronutrients like protein, fat, and dietary fibre. Common carbohydrate-rich foods include plant-based foods such as fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, and cereals. 

Do dogs need plant-based foods?

While the anatomy of dogs is akin to carnivores – short simple digestive tract, pointy teeth, lack of salivary amylase – carbohydrate-rich foods can play a crucial role in their diets. 

While there is no minimum carbohydrate requirement for dogs, except for certain life stages such as pregnancy and lactation, the addition of some carbohydrate-rich foods can provide energy, fibre and an extra dose of essential micronutrients dogs require.

Carbohydrates as a source of energy

Glucose is the main source of energy for cells. Dogs can obtain glucose from meat proteins through gluconeogenesis (the process by which glucose is formed from non-carbohydrate sources), but glucose from carbohydrates offer a more efficient energy source. 

By including carbohydrates in their diet, we not only provide an energy boost but also free up protein for other vital biological functions. See our blog exploring the role of protein in your dog’s diet.

Carbohydrate digestibility and Genetic Variability

Recent research has shed light on the diversity in dogs’ ability to digest carbohydrates.

Genes involved in starch digestion include AMY2B, MGAM and SLC5A1, which code for pancreatic amylase, maltase-glucoamylase and SGLT1 respectively. The more copy numbers of these genes dogs possess, the more efficient starch digestion.

Due to the lack of salivary amylase, digestion of carbohydrates in dogs begins in the small intestine. Firstly, starch is cleaved by amylase to produce maltose, maltose is then hydrolysed by maltase-glucoamylase to produce glucose, which is then transported across the mucosal brush borer by SGLT1 for absorption.

Genome sequencing research has highlighted substantial variation in gene copies related to starch digestion in dogs. For instance, in their study of 266 dogs, Arendt et al. (2014) found that AMY2B copy numbers ranged from 2 copies, identical to wolves, to as many as 21 copies. Implying that some dogs may experience greater difficulty in digesting starch than others.

What carbohydrate-rich foods are best for my dog?

Carbohydrate rich foods that are highly digestible will provide energy in the form of glucose and other macro and micro nutrients the food contains. 

Research has shown that dogs digest a higher proportion of macronutrients (protein, fat, carbohydrate) from whole cereals like maize, broken rice, sorghum, and millet compared with cereal by-products such as wheat bran, maize germ, and rice bran. So, if the purpose of the carbohydrate source is to provide energy and extra nutrition, it is best if a whole food, rather than a by-product, is used in their food. 

Complex carbohydrates take longer to digest, promoting satiety and glycaemic control. This is crucial for dogs with glucose intolerance due to obesity and diabetes.

Research indicates that foods which were best at delaying and lowering glycaemic and insulinemic responses included sorghum, barely, lentils and yellow field peas. 

It is important to note that just because a dog food may include the above ingredients doesn’t automatically make them healthy. All these foods need to be prepared correctly and balanced properly within the dog food recipe to ensure they provide optimal
nutrition for dogs.

Preparing plant-based foods correctly for dogs

To make plant-based foods like vegetables, cereals, legumes, or grains digestible for dogs, cooking is a necessary step. Cooking increases starch gelatinization and improves digestibility, particularly in legumes. It also helps in reducing antinutrients that can interfere with the absorption of crucial nutrients. Soaking some of these foods for several hours before cooking is also necessary to reduce antinutrients and increase digestibility of essential nutrients.

Additionally, the particle size of plant based foods can impact digestion; with the smaller particle size of pulped vegetables and ground grains enhancing nutrient absorption. Read more about the bioavailability of nutrients from meat and plant-based sources here.

The Grain-Free Hype

The surge in popularity of grain-free dog foods has sparked many debates. While some believe that these foods are healthier and hypoallergenic, this seems to have been encouraged by marketing hype.

Allergies and grain-free dog food

Interestingly, a survey revealed that dog owners who suspect their pets have food allergies are more likely to opt for grain-free diets, compared with owners who had their dog’s allergy diagnosed by a veterinarian. This is because, while allergies to foods are not very common in dogs (less than 1 in 10), if a food allergy does present, it is usually an allergy to animal protein rather than grains. In fact, the research we reviewed here indicates that grains are not merely cheap fillers; they can offer essential nutrients that are highly digestible when prepared and cooked correctly.


A significant concern surrounding grain-free dog foods is their potential link to dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) in dogs. Reports suggest that a diet heavy in peas, lentils and potatoes may be associated with DCM. The FDA even issued a warning and initiated an investigation into the matter in 2018, with investigations still ongoing.

Possible causes of diet related DCM in dogs

While the precise cause of the DCM-grain-free link remains unclear, several theories exist. It could involve impaired taurine metabolism, nutrient deficiencies, decreased bioavailability of amino acids, or unfavourable nutrient interactions.

Research has shown that many grain-free diets have a high fibre content which can reduce the absorption of taurine. Notably, low-protein, high-fibre diets have been demonstrated to diminish taurine synthesis, even when they meet the minimum requirements for sulphur-containing amino acids as specified by FEDIAF.

Proper Dog Food combines high protein in the form of sustainable grass-fed British meat, with specially selected carbohydrate-rich foods in the form of grains and berries. Click here to find out what else we add to our all natural, no synthetics recipe. You can start your feed real journey here.

Key Takeaways

  • A source of carbohydrates in your dog’s diet can play a significant role in their overall health and well-being, providing energy, extra essential nutrients and fibre.

  • Whole food, complex carbohydrates are best for nutrient digestibility, promoting satiety and glycaemic control.

  • Dog’s display a vast difference in genetics related to starch digestion, meaning some dogs find it easier to digest carbohydrate-rich foods than others.

  • Grain-free diets are not hypoallergenic as grain allergies in dogs are rare. Grain free diets are also not inherently healthier than dog foods containing grains. Grain-free diets are often very high in fibre which reduces nutrient absorption, which could be a potential reason for the link between grain free dog food and DCM.


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  2. Axelsson, E. et al. (2013) “The genomic signature of dog domestication reveals adaptation to a starch-rich diet,” Nature, 495(7441), pp. 360–364. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1038/nature11837.
  3. Banton, S. et al. (2021) ‘Grains on the brain: A survey of dog owner purchasing habits related to grain-free dry dog foods’, PLOS ONE, 16(5). doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0250806.
  4. Bosch, G., Hagen-Plantinga, E.A. and Hendriks, W.H. (2014) ‘Dietary nutrient profiles of wild wolves: Insights for optimal dog nutrition?’, British Journal of Nutrition, 113(S1). doi: 10.1017/s0007114514002311.
  5. Corsato Alvarenga, I., Aldrich, C.G., and Shi, Y.-C. (2021) ‘Factors affecting digestibility of Starches and their implications on Adult Dog Health’, Animal Feed Science and Technology, 282, p. 115134. doi: 10.1016/j.anifeedsci.2021.115134.
  6. FEDIAF (2021) ‘Nutritional guidelines: for complete and complementary pet food for cats and dogs’. The European Pet Food Industry: www.fediaf.org.
  7. FDA (2022) FDA investigates potential link between Diet & Heart Disease In Dogs, U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Available at: https://www.fda.gov/animal-veterinary/outbreaks-andadvisories/fda-investigation-potential-link-between-certain-diets-and-canine-dilatedcardiomyopathy (Accessed: 20 March 2023).
  8. Fortes, C.M.L.S. et al. (2010) ‘Digestibility and metabolizable energy of some carbohydrate sources for dogs’, Animal Feed Science and Technology, 156(3–4), pp. 121–125. doi: 10.1016/j.anifeedsci.2010.01.009.
  9. Kahraman, O. and İnal, F. (2021) ‘Comparison of digestibility parameters of commercial dry dog foods with different contents’, Arquivo Brasileiro de Medicina Veterinária e Zootecnia, 73(2), pp. 469–476. doi: 10.1590/1678-4162-12167.
  10. Kahraman, O. et al. (2022) ‘Comparison of digestibility, stool quality, preference and manufacturing cost of grain inclusive and grain-free dry dog foods’, Kafkas Universitesi Veteriner Fakultesi Dergisi, 28(4). doi: 10.9775/kvfd.2022.27681.
  11. Kaplan, J.L. et al. (2018) “Correction: Taurine deficiency and dilated cardiomyopathy in Golden Retrievers fed commercial diets,” PLOS ONE, 13(12). Available at: https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0210233.
  12. Pezzali, J.G. et al. (2020) ‘Effects of different carbohydrate sources on taurine status in healthy Beagle Dogs’, Journal of Animal Science, 98(2). doi: 10.1093/jas/skaa010.
  13. Quilliam, C. et al. (2021) “The effects of 7 days of feeding pulse-based diets on digestibility, glycemic response, and taurine levels in domestic dogs,” Frontiers in Veterinary Science, 8. Available at: https://doi.org/10.3389/fvets.2021.654223.
  14. Rokey, G.J., Plattner, B., and Souza, E.M. (2010) ‘Feed extrusion process description’, Revista Brasileira de Zootecnia, 39(suppl spe), pp. 510–518.
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  16. Sanderson, S.L. et al. (2001) ‘Effects of dietary fat and l-carnitine on plasma and whole blood taurine concentrations and cardiac function in healthy dogs fed protein-restricted diets’, American Journal of Veterinary Research, 62(10), pp. 1616–1623. doi: 10.2460/ajvr.2001.62.1616.

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