Protein in Homemade Dog Food

What is the best protein to use in homemade dog food recipes? And how much meat should I use? What proportions of meats to other ingredients? If you just started on your journey into cooking for your dog, these might be some of the questions you are asking yourself when putting together your first recipe.

However, these are actually the wrong questions.

Protein and nutritional needs are individual, and each different type of protein brings different positives or negatives to the table. Each protein source (or muscle meat) provides different proportions of amino acids, fats & fatty acids, along with vitamins and minerals.

Plant and Animal based protein sources.

The Purpose of Protein within Dog Food

Before we get too far into all the details of protein sources – you first need to understand the underlying purpose of protein or the amino acids within the diet.

Simply put – amino acids are small portions of large complex protein molecules that are absorbed into the body in the gastrointestinal tract. Dogs require 10 different essential amino acids. The remaining amino acids that are not “essential” can be manufactured in various ways from the essential amino acids if enough of the essential amino acids (along with other cofactors) are supplied.

The ten essential amino acids for dogs are:

  • Arginine
  • Histidine
  • Isoleucine
  • Leucine
  • Lysine
  • Methionine
  • Phenylalanine
  • Threonine
  • Tryptophan
  • Valine

Of these essential amino acids we have to pay special attention to Lysine and Methionine. These are called “limiting amino acids” which means that they are the most often deficient amino acids in diets lower in protein. However depending on the protein used within a recipe, and it’s proportion within the diet other amino acids can also be “low” or deficient as well.

A Note of Plant-Based Protein Sources in Homemade Dog Food

Generally speaking animal-based proteins tend to be more digestible than plant-based proteins. Since digestibility is lower (sometimes as low as 60-70%) for plant-based proteins, creating homemade vegan recipes or those that relay heavily on plant-based proteins is not recommended.

It is my opinion that all recipes using plant-based proteins in significant amounts (over 10% of the overall diet) should go through both feeding and digestibility trials to prove nutritional adequacy. This is especially true because often legumes and lentils contain specific fibers, anti-nutrient compounds and phytates that can inhibit the absorption of not just amino acids, but essential minerals as well.

Differences between chicken, beef, liver and salmon in homemade dog food recipes.

Your Dog’s Nutritional Needs and Protein Choice

Dog food needs to have adequate protein in order for your dog’s body to function properly. These essential amino acids are required and part of a variety of processes within the body.

  • Repairing and maintaining tissues and organs such as the skin & coat, muscle and bones.
  • Supporting the immune system
  • Producing hormones, enzymes and antibodies
AAFCO Minimum Adult Dog45g / 1000 kcals
NRC Minimum Adult Dog25g / 1000 kcals

Depending on your dog’s age, activity level, and body condition – protein and macronutrient needs will change. And though AAFCO and the NRC offer minimal protein requirements, it is generally recommended that most adult dogs get about 2-4g of protein per kg of body weight per day.

The Active Dog

For dog’s who do more than an hour of sustained activity each day we typically look to create diets that are moderately high in protein, high in fat, and calorically dense. For these dogs fattier cuts and grinds of meat may work well as they will require higher amounts of calories. We also often was to utilize fat as our main source of calories as it per gram consumed, provides the most energy.

These active dogs may benefit from an 85% grind of beef, chicken, turkey, lamb, (or a combination) etc – may be an excellent choice as it will provide adequate calories from fat to use as energy.

Typical macronutrient composition: 30% protein, 50% fat, 20% carbs on a caloric basis.

The Obese-Prone Dog

If you have a dog who tends to gain weight by just looking at food, or that is only lightly active. We often look to create recipes that are high in protein, lower in fat, higher in fiber, and lower in caloric density. These recipes are designed to help dogs feel fuller for longer, allow your pet to consume more food, and be nutrient dense (aka packing all the nutrients your dog needs into less calories).

For these dogs we like to choose lean cuts of meat, looking towards 95% or higher lean grinds, low fat cuts such as loin with fat removed, or poultry breast (chicken/turkey).

Typical macronutrient composition: 35% protein, 30% fat, 35% carbs on a caloric basis with additional fiber for satiety.

What is the best protein source to use in a homemade dog food recipe?

Micronutrients and Protein in Homemade Dog Food Recipes

Another aspect we need to consider when choosing proteins is micronutrient content. Yes – proteins do provide those essential amino acids. But they also provide vitamins and minerals to the diet.

Certain protein sources are higher in specific essential vitamins and minerals than others. This is where we may consider combining multiple protein sources in order to create more minimally supplemented recipes for dogs without food allergies/intolerances. It’s important to note though that even if you rotate, some of these nutrients still might not be met.


Though iron can be found in plant-based foods, its bioavailability is poor. So we like to rely on animal-based foods to provide this essential nutrient. In particular red meat such as beef, dark-meat poultry (chicken or turkey thigh), venison, goat, and organs such as heart as excellent sources of iron. Some of these may be too high in fat for some dogs, thus pairing these proteins with leaner options can often help us meet iron needs, without having excessive fat.


We can find higher amounts of zinc in beef and goat – typically unless we are creating an all meat, extremely high protein recipe, zinc will need to be supplemented in order to meet nutritional needs. This can be done by either adding in pacific oysters, or additional supplementation to recipes. Plant-based legumes and grains are poor dietary sources of zinc as they are not very bioavailable.

Pairing poultry-based recipes with red-meat or adding on pacific oysters can be a great way to either lower the amount of additional zinc supplementation needed, or omit the need for supplementation completely.


You can find choline in small amounts in a variety of meat-based ingredients, and larger amounts of choline in liver. However, the most commonly used food item to provide choline is the egg. Both chicken and duck eggs are excellent sources of choline. And though we can get choline from meats and liver – often we come short without pairing these ingredients with the humble egg.

Alternatively we can use b-vitamin supplements to cover this nutrient when a dog has severe allergies to whole food sources.


Another b-vitamin that we have to pay special attention to within our pet’s diet. Thiamine is typically the most limiting vitamin in most recipes, and is commonly deficient in many pre-made or commercial recipes as well. The reason for this is because thiamine is sensitive to heat, and is also sensitive to thiaminases found in certain foods (in particular raw fish).

Thiamine can be found in higher amounts within certain foods – in particular pork – along with whole grains. This is where using a combination of protein sources can again be useful so that additional supplementation is not needed. Especially in grain-free recipes.

Vitamin D

Just like how eggs provide an excellent whole food source of choline, certain oily fish are an excellent source of vitamin D. The only issue here is that vitamin D doesn’t just have a minimum requirement within pet food. But it also has a recommended maximum amount. This means that we cannot provide more than a certain amount of these proteins within the diet before they could potentially cause vitamin D toxicity.

But oily fish such as salmon, sardines, mackerel and herring are excellent sources of not just omega 3 fatty acids, but vitamin D! Pairing these oily fish with other protein sources such as beef, chicken, turkey, cod, goat, etc – are a great way to fulfill your dog’s vitamin D requirement without causing excess.

Linoleic Acid

The last nutrient of importance that we want to consider when choosing or pairing together different protein sources is Linoleic Acid. Linoleic Acid is an essential fatty acid for dogs, and is an omega 6 fat. It serves many different functions to helping with the skin barrier, to the immune system and even supporting organ function.

There are many different sources of linoleic acid – but one of those is from poultry skin and fat. Other sources are typically seed or plant based oils like Walnut, Sesame, Flaxseed, Corn, Soybean and Canola. If you’d like to keep your recipe simple, or keep fat content low, using poultry within your recipe would be one way to do so!

Protein Sources in Homemade Dog Food

Protein Sources in Homemade Dog Food

Certain protein sources will need to make up a higher proportion of the overall recipe in order to fill protein needs due to limiting amino acids. What this chart brings into perspective is why we may need to pair certain protein sources together in order to meet essential amino acid requirements. We may choose certain protein sources, or limit other protein sources to fill vitamin/mineral gaps rather than relying on them as a primary protein source within a recipe.

Protein SourceFat Content (low, moderate, high)Good Source Essential Amino Acids?Nutrient Dense?
Chicken Breastultra-leanGreatSource of Linoleic Acid
Chicken ThighleanGreatSource of Linoleic Acid
Chicken Eggshigher fatGood – best in high calorie diets or as an “addition”Source of Choline
Beef Round 0″ FatleanGreatGood Source of Iron & Zinc
Beef, ground 85% leanhigh fatPoor – best in high calorie dietsGood Source of Iron
GoatleanGreatGood Source of Iron & Zinc
Pork LoinleanGreatGood Source of Thiamine
Turkey Breastultra-leanGreatSource of Linoleic Acid
Turkey, ground 85% leanhigh fatPoor – best in high calorie dietsSource of Linoleic Acid
Lamb, chopleanGood / OkayPoor Source of Taurine
Venison, ground 92% leanleanGreatGood Source of Iron & Zinc
Codultra-leanGreatPoor Source of Minerals
OystersleanPoor – best as “addition”High in Zinc and Copper
Salmonhigh fatPoor – best as “addition”Source of Vitamin D
RabbitleanGreatPoor Source of Taurine
Kangaroo, rumpleanGreatPoor Source of Taurine
Quick Reference of different protein sources for homemade dog food recipes.

Creating a Minimally Supplemented Recipe

If you are looking to use a formulation software like to create a minimally supplemented recipe, what this means is you will need to pair your proteins to do so. Here are some examples that can be a good starting point or base to create a recipe around. Don’t forget to add-in your other essential fatty acids, vitamins, minerals, fruits, veggies and carbohydrates too!

  • Beef + Chicken + Salmon + Chicken Egg +/- Pacific Oysters
  • Goat + Turkey + Mackerel + Duck Egg +/- Pacific Oysters
  • Pork + Beef + Sardines + Chicken Egg +/- Pacific Oysters

But remember – you don’t have to create a minimally supplemented recipe. For dogs with severe allergies or that have very restrictive dietary needs providing this variety might not be advised. You can also use a multivitamin or individual supplementation to fill in nutrient gaps. Every dog is different, and ingredient choice is just as individual.

Guide to Creating Homemade Dog Food Recipes: What is the best protein in homemade dog food? Protein needs for dogs.

About the Author: Nikki is a Registered Veterinary Technician (Veterinary Nurse) and Dog Mom with over a decade of experience with dogs and cats. Since graduation from college (BS Biology, Dip. Animal Nutrition, AS Animal Science) she has adopted two mixed breed dogs – Ranger and Ash, and has focused her time learning about pet food and nutrition.

Nikki shares information on a range of dog nutrition topics: from how to create a homemade complete and balanced dog food recipes, to how to choose a dog food. Nikki strives to give dog parents the information they need in order to make the best nutrition decisions for their pup!

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