4 min read

Carbs for Dogs


By Aurus Sy

Published: 08/30/2023, edited: 09/06/2023

Reviewed by a licensed veterinary professional: Dr. Linda Simon, MVB MRCVS

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Peruse the aisles of any pet supply store and you’ll see low-carb or grain-free dog foods on the shelves. The popularity of these diets in recent years has led some pet parents to believe that dogs don’t need carbs or that carbs are potentially harmful to dogs. But what exactly are carbohydrates, and should carbs really be excluded from your pup’s diet? 

In this guide, we’ll answer common questions about carbs such as: How much is too much? Can dogs digest carbs? What benefits do carbs offer for dogs? Let’s take a closer look at this macronutrient and find out!

dog nose sniffing a banana on a cutting board - carbs for dogs

What are carbohydrates?

Carbohydrates are one of three macronutrients that supply energy in the form of calories, along with protein and fat. Carbs can be split into two groups: simple carbohydrates and complex carbohydrates.

Simple carbohydrates are basically sugars that don’t need to be broken down by the body. They’re readily absorbed from the small intestine, serving as a source of short-term energy. Glucose, sucrose, and fructose are examples of simple carbohydrates; they’re found in table sugar, honey, fruits, white rice, and refined flours.

Complex carbohydrates, which are digested more slowly and provide slow-release energy, are further categorized as starches and fibers. Starches are broken down by digestive enzymes produced by the pancreas before they’re absorbed by the body. They’re found in grains, vegetables, and legumes. Fibers aren’t broken down by digestive enzymes and pass through the digestive system relatively intact. Found only in plant foods, dietary fiber can nourish gut bacteria and improve stool quality.

Do dogs need carbs?

Generally, dogs don’t have a specific requirement for carbohydrates in their diet, except when they’re pregnant or lactating. During pregnancy and lactation, diets that contain carbs can result in lower mortality rates in puppies and prevent hypoglycemia in mother dogs. Most dogs, however, don’t need carbs in the same way that they need protein or fat, but that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be fed carbs. 

In addition to being a readily available and highly digestible source of slow-release energy, complex carbohydrates provide nutrients, minerals, and fiber which helps maintain a healthy digestive system. Without carbs (and fats), a dog’s body will start to rely on protein as its main source of energy. Not only is protein a less efficient source of energy than carbs, but it’s also best reserved for other functions such as growth and repair. 

brown Labrador Retriever licking their lips

How many carbs can dogs have in a day?

The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) and National Research Council (NRC) don’t have a requirement for carbs in dog food, and carbohydrates typically aren’t listed in a Guaranteed Analysis either. But dry commercial dog foods usually contain 30-60% carbohydrates. 

According to experts, dogs generally have a high tolerance for carbohydrates and can obtain up to about 75% of their daily calories from carbs, especially if they have a medical condition that limits the amount of protein or fat that they can safely consume. Dogs with diabetes shouldn't eat too many simple sugars, and high-energy dogs may benefit from additional carbs in their diet. 

There is no commonly accepted ideal percentage of carbs in the canine diet as it all depends on the dog. Be sure to consult your vet if you have any questions about your pup’s carb intake. 

Are carbs bad for dogs?

No studies have found carbohydrates to be harmful to dogs. There’s also no evidence of a link between dietary carbohydrates and any health issues in dogs, including diabetes and obesity. Weight gain is caused by eating too many calories, regardless of whether they come from protein, fat, or carbs. 

But how well do dogs digest carbs? Quite well, according to decades of research. Your pup’s body produces pancreatic amylase and brush border enzymes to digest carbohydrates, with most of the process happening in the first part of the small intestine.  

Research also suggests that your dog’s ancestors would have eaten carbs as part of their diets, including corn, wheat, rice, sweet potato, and white potato. This may explain why modern dogs have more copies of the gene necessary for producing pancreatic amylase than wolves.

Bulldog eating food out of food dish

Benefits of carbs for dogs

Carbs have many health benefits for dogs. 

Provides energy and nutrients

Highly digestible carbohydrates provide the same amount of energy per gram as protein, around 3.5 to 4 calories per gram. Aside from energy, complex carbohydrates also provide an array of nutrients including vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, fiber, and essential fatty acids. 

Helps with weight management

Carbohydrates have fewer calories than fat but contain fiber which is satiating. Increasing carbs in the diet can allow for less fat while keeping a dog feeling full, which aids in weight loss or weight maintenance.  

Promotes digestive health

Fiber feeds the good bacteria in the gut, normalizes gastrointestinal motility, delays gastric emptying, binds toxins and bile acids, and improves poop quality. 

Adds texture to dog food  

Carbohydrates, particularly starches, provide structure and texture to dry dog food. Carbs are also used in wet food to achieve a desired texture.

Yorkshire Terrier eating a treat

Healthy sources of carbs for dogs

Healthy sources of carbohydrates for dogs include:

Carbs for dogs

  • Carbohydrates are a macronutrient that can be divided into two groups: simple and complex. Simple carbohydrates are readily absorbed and provide short-term energy, while complex carbohydrates are digested more slowly and provide slow-release energy.
  • Dogs don’t actually need carbs in their diet, but carbs provide a host of health benefits that shouldn’t be overlooked. 
  • The ideal percentage of carbohydrates in the diet depends on the dog. 
  • There are no studies that have found carbohydrates to be bad for dogs. Research has also found that dogs digest carbs well. 
  • Consult your vet if you have questions about your dog’s carb intake. 

Got more questions about carbs for dogs? Chat with a veterinary professional to get answers any time of day or night!

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