Carbohydrates for Dogs – Requirements, Pros & Cons

Carbohydrates for Dogs – Requirements, Pros & Cons

Carbohydrates for dogs are used as a way to provide energy that would be burned while exercising. Dogs do not have a physiological need for carbs and can perfectly live without them. Yet, we find carbs for dogs in nearly all single commercial pet foods.

In fact, carbohydrates are cheap to grow, yield, and package. Grains such as barley, malt, corn, wheat, or rice, all cost very little to make for pet food manufacturers. It’s an easy filler when compared to quality chunks of meat or essential fatty acids. Consequently, dog food brands favor carbs for dogs without purely as a profitable move for the company. The dog’s health is not a priority – otherwise, they would use fewer carbs, and more fats and proteins!

With low-carb ketogenic catching on and us humans going off carbohydrates to be fit, is it advisable to continue giving your dog their daily dose of carbs?

What are carbohydrates for dogs?

Carbohydrates are nutrients that represent a long chain of glucosee.g. fibers, starches. They break down inside the body to convert into sugars or simple glucose. This stored glucose is expended as energy, to run many of a dog’s body’s functions. Put simply, carbohydrates work as fuel in dogs. While not essential for nutrition, carbs help dogs in a lot of ways. The dietary fibers and roughage in foods also aid healthy bowel movements in dogs.

Adding complex carbohydrates (e.g. sweet potatoes) provides dogs with carbs that take more time to be digested. Therefore, complex carbs are used throughout the day rather than spiked after the meal. Complex carbohydrates keep dog fuller for longer and prevent immediate storage of the unused glucose. Indeed, a healthy dose of complex carbohydrates creates an energy store for the dogs. For pregnant and lactating mothers, these energy stores can ease the birthing process and help raise a healthy litter of puppies.

Why are most dog foods high on carbohydrates?

For a nutrient that isn’t essential to nourish a dog, the carbohydrate content is pretty rampant in most commercial dog foods.

Mostly, carbs are cheaper to produce than other nutrients (i.e. proteins and fats). They make use of grains and their byproducts, which are easy to come by and very cost-effective. Carbs for dogs have a long shelf life and don’t rot easily. They also offer an easy to shape consistency – carbohydrates are needed to mold the dog food into the cute shapes (kibble, stars, and so on).

Finally, there isn’t a law against manufacturers who don’t list the nutritional content of dog food. So essentially you don’t know how many carbohydrates you are feeding your dog. There is no rule for how much carb to feed your dog. So manufacturers are free to add as much as they require. And, because the word carbohydrate is a vague term, they can decline it for marketing purposes.

Do dogs need carbohydrates in their diet?

Dogs do not require carbohydrates to live and healthy lives. The dog’s body has no use for carbohydrates because they don’t derive much nourishment from it.

However, carbs play an important role as a secondary fuel for the dog’s body so that their protein reserves don’t get used up. They keep deriving energy from carbs while the protein gets used for more important functions like strengthening the dog’s immune system, repairing cells, digesting foods, and producing amino acids.

carbs for dogs (pyramid)
The food pyramid for dogs. (credits:

Canine low-carb diets (e.g. keto diet, paleo diet) are ideal for dogs. Roughage and dietary fiber would be the prime sources of carbohydrates content. When feeding your dog starchy carbs or worse, refined carbs, take care of portion control. Make sure it is cooked and unprocessed. Just like you would cook your potatoes or rice, dogs too cannot have such uncooked carbs.

What are the differences between glucose and carbohydrates?

In simple words, carbohydrates are macronutrients that get broken down in the dog’s body. Then, carbs get converted into glucose. This glucose is used up as energy for daily activities. The remaining unused glucose gets stored in the dog’s body as adipose tissue (i.e. fat).

Now, glucose can also be derived from proteins and fats. That is how canines in the wild like wolves, coyotes, and jackals get their energy store from. Since they live on a diet of raw, hunted meat, they have no access to carbs. The digested protein and fat gets converted into glucose through a process called glycogenesis.

The only difference is that carbohydrates get broken down and converted into glucose faster than proteins and fats do. This also means that glucose gets stored as fat faster than lipids and proteins.

Are complex carbs healthier for dogs?

Carbohydrates, whether simple or complex, are eventually converted to glucose. Complex carbohydrates take time to break down. So they get converted into energy much later. They are generally packed with more essential nutrients like vitamins, fiber, and minerals, which adds to the body’s overall nutrition.

The main difference is that simple carbs are like instant energy, which if not used up immediately will get stored as fat in dogs. This poses a problem because it may lead to obesity and health issues in the dog, including diabetes.

For a super-active dog, who needs to stock up on energy right before they go play or run, a snack or treat with simple carbohydrates is ideal. However, if your dog’s playtime is a few hours later, a meal of made up of complex carbs is a much healthier idea.

Are grain-free dog foods good for dogs?

Grain-free dog foods are great for your dog, especially if you suspect that they are prone to food allergies. If your dog shows signs of indigestion, flatulence, ear infections, skin problems, or itching, it is probably time to go grain-free.

However, grain-free doesn’t necessarily mean carb-free. Most grain-free foods and kibbles contain potatoes, corn, and other starchy vegetables with high carb content. So if you’re planning on going grain-free to cut carbohydrates, be very careful of your food selection.

The reason many people are taking their dogs off grains is that a canine primitive diet does not demand grain. The canine digestive system hasn’t evolved much over time. So considering its ancestral canine diet of hunted, raw meat, there’s no room for grains at all.

Having said that, make the switch to grain-free foods gradually. That way if your dog shows signs of illness or malnutrition or loses their sheen, you’ll know that they are more comfortable on grains than without it.

Best Grain-Free Dog Foods
Read our article reviewing the top 5 best grain-free dog foods currently on the market!

Can dogs safely digest starches?

A digestive enzyme called amylase is required to breakdown and digest starches. While human saliva contains amylase, dogs excrete amylase from their pancreas. The digestion process for dogs begins in their small intestine.

Starchy foods, like bread, are calorie-dense because they contain carbohydrates in their concentrated form. However, a sufficient quantity of starchy foods provides the body with fiber, phytonutrients and some essential vitamins and minerals. This is why, in dogs, you must be careful about how much starch you are feeding. Take help from a vet to establish what quantity of starch is appropriate to feed your dog.

What are the healthiest carbohydrates for dogs?

Healthy carbs for dogs are those with a low GI, coming from foods containing antioxidants and lots of fiber. Carbohydrates for dogs must also be packed with nutrients that the dog will, otherwise, not derive from meats

Fresh fruits

Recommended fresh fruits for dogs include apples, bananas, and watermelons. All without seeds. Fruits tend to release sugar quickly in the bloodstream, thus keeping energy levels high during active sessions. They also contain enough fiber to fulfill their dietary fiber needs. Fresh fruits are great sources of vitamins and minerals so when looking for healthy carbs, they come highly recommended.


Recommended vegetables for dogs include cauliflower, broccoli, potatoes, green beans, sweet potatoes, and cabbage. Try to use organic veggies and make sure you serve these steamed to unlock their nutritional potential. Raw veggies might be harder to digest resulting in more harm than good.


Although cheeses have very little carb content, if your dog can tolerate lactose, a bit of hard cheese can be really good for them on a low-carb diet. Plus, you can easily dice up a block of cheese and use small chunks as super healthy single-ingredient training treats.

How to find hidden carbs in commercial dog food?

Check the Guaranteed Analysis table on your dog food packet. This table shows the minimum amount of nutrients the food contains. This means that the food may contain more nutrients, but definitely not less than what is mentioned on this table.

Note down the percentage of protein, fat, moisture and ash. Write these down and subtract it from 100. This will give you the carb content in the food.

Dog food is made up of the above components – deducting the rest of them gives you an approximate value of carbs, as manufacturers don’t mention carb content on their packaging.

Feeding your dog home-cooked meals is the best and most sure shot way of ensuring that the food in his system has no carbs at all.

However, if cooking at home every time isn’t possible, raw foods are also an option. BARF – biologically appropriate raw food is a practice which promotes feeding your pets raw muscle meats and edible bones alongside fruits and veggies.