The Role of Carbohydrates within our Dog’s Diets.


My dogs eat MEAT… and bones and brains and fur and all of the other bits of animal I can squeeze into their diets in order to give them a balanced array of nutrition. It is needless to say then that my dogs get very little carbohydrates, although we do like to make them treats with blueberries and include small amounts of cruciferous vegetables or the very occasional slice of watermelon, howeverthese do not make up a significant portion of their diets. I feel that due to the type of demands we put on their bodies and the recruitment of their oxidative energy system, for us, fats are a better option.

Now I am no biologist, I have however taken the time to understand a little about my dogs’ physiology which I think should be standard when looking after another lifeforms needs. Just looking at a dog you wouldn’t jump straight to the conclusion that they are herbivores, take my terriers for example with their front-facing predatory eyes, mouths full of sharp teeth and high prey drive, delve a little deeper and you find that their ancestral heritage, shared with that of the grey wolf, means there are no enzymes produced in the saliva to start the breakdown of starch as you would see with a true omnivore and their digestive tracts are short and their stomachs highly acidic to deal with all of that meat and bone and the potential pathogens that come with it.

Nothing is so black and white, however, even wolves will eat whatever is available and this means some vegetation and the starches that come with it, made possible by the ability of canines to produce the enzyme amylase in the pancreas. It is worth noting that studies have shown that relative to that of the wolves diet, domesticated dogs are more adapted to digesting starches and this is due likely to generations by our side subsisting on table scraps. It is important to note again that these findings are relative to their wild counterparts diets and not to that of an omnivore’s diet. Because of this ability to handle some amount of carbohydrates we refer to our dogs as non-obligate carnivores.

I feel that whilst I am on the topic of diet it is relative to note that even squirrels are known to diverge from their herbivorous nature just as dogs can from their carnivorous nature and will scavenge meat and raid nests to snack on baby birds, so if squirrels are part of your dog’s diet then you should be aware of the possibility of trichinosis infection which has been reported.


Carbohydrates refer to a group of nutrients that are made up of sugars and starches, simple sugars are things such as glucose and fructose and we call these monosaccharides whereas starches such as cellulose are made up of multiple bonded sugars, these polysaccharides are what you may know as complex carbohydrates which take longer to break down in the body giving a slowly released source of energy.

Believe it or not, carbohydrates are the only non-essential macronutrient, this goes for ourselves as well as our dogs, removing these almost completely from the diet will induce a fat-burning metabolic state of ketosis where the body takes fats and converts them into a usable energy resource we call ketones. Studies are showing that being in such a state has benefits to those suffering from epilepsy, can starve certain cancers of their much-needed energy supply and its direct use of fat as energy can be very useful in the fight against obesity.

So why even talk about whether or not carbohydrates should play a role in the canine diet?  My aim for this post is to explore this much-debated issue, to learn the good sides and the bad sides for myself and hopefully share a little knowledge along the way.

The Bad!

With many of us no longer treating our dogs just as the family pet but more as a family member we are becoming more conscious of their biological needs, with a surge in the popularity of Raw and biologically appropriate feeding the market for commercially produced feeds are slowly following the ethics of the average dog owner and some high-quality dog foods and kibbles are making their way onto the shelves of our local pet stores and supermarkets. This, however, has not yet stopped the great amount of poor quality and mass-produced feeds that come from larger more established companies making up the bulk of what is on offer to the average consumer and it is unlikely that they will disappear any time soon.

Many of these poor quality dog foods are marketed in such a way to give the unknowing consumer the idea that what they are feeding their dog is the ‘healthy option’ but in reality, they contain a whole host of nasty ingredients, palatability enhancers, food colourings and preservatives and are of course are high in simple sugars and high GI carbohydrates.

These carbohydrate-rich ingredients are not in these feeds for the benefits of our companion’s health but instead, they exist as cheap fillers to increase the profits of the companies that produce them, these include maize or corn, the main culprit and the same from which high fructose corn syrup is produced, a toxic gloop of simple sugars that are not just prevalent in pet foods but in our own also. Likely responsible at least in part for the obesity epidemic in humans and their dogs it is likely that it also plays a role in many other inflammatory conditions and of course in the steep incline of diabetes.

Wheat, which is used in the form of wheat flour in kibbles is packed full of simple carbohydrates, in 100 grams of wheat flour you will find on average 72 grams of carbohydrates, it goes without saying that not feeding our non-obligate carnivores what is essentially refined ground-up grass seed full of sugars should be the easy conclusion.

White rice, another grain high in carbohydrates that should not have made its way into our dogs diets yet due to its cheap price is a common filler ingredient, not as high in carbs as wheat but still packed with around 34 grams per 100 grams, this is an ingredient we should be looking to avoid.  

On top of these inappropriate ingredients, it is not unusual to see refined sugar as an addition, white sugar just that, it is 100 per cent simple carbohydrate. Simple sugars such as this are absorbed instantly into the bloodstream causing spikes in blood sugar and insulin and trigger inflammatory responses which lead to many health issues including but are by no means limited to diabetes, obesity and cancer.

I wanted to get the bad side of carbohydrates out of the way because personally, I feel that the prevalence of simple carbs within these unhealthy but for so long standard dog foods and the lack thereof within the raw feeding but obviously healthy diet has created a demonisation of carbohydrates as a whole. The more I learn about how I can optimise their diets the more reason I can see for some complex carbohydrates having a place within a healthy domesticated canine diet and more importantly the phytonutrients that come with them.

The Good

In a previous post where I discussed the addition of creatine as a supplement to your dog’s diet and its potential performance-enhancing qualities, I spoke of one of your dog’s energy systems, the ATP-CP system, by looking at these systems we can gain an idea of how we can feed certain nutrients to help support and enhance athleticism all whilst keeping our dogs in top health.

I spoke of the ATP-CP system within which the body uses ATP as an energy currency during short intense bursts of exercise of no longer than around 20 seconds and how the addition of creatine phosphate can supply the phosphate molecule to recycle ADP back to ATP and therefore, increase your dogs power output which will accumulate to a greater increase in performance and muscle growth over time of sustained use.

After 20 seconds or less and for up to a couple of minutes, as there is a change in energy demand to more sustained but still moderate too high, the body will switch to the Glycolytic energy system in which glucose from carbohydrates is broken down to produce ATP in a process called glycolysis, beyond a couple of minutes the body once again changes up its energy system into a more moderate and sustainable oxidative energy system in which fats would be more beneficial, so for the purpose of this discussion I will focus on the Glycolytic energy system.

If we take a look into the glycolytic energy system we can see that dietary carbohydrates supply the body with glucose, this glucose is then converted into glycogen and stored within the muscles, during times where there is a demand on the body that recruits the glycolytic energy system this glycogen is then converted back into glucose which is in turn converted to glucose-6-phosphate, this phosphate is then used to recycle ADP back to ATP in the process we call glycolysis.

If your dog competes or takes part in activities that you know falls within this energy demand then it is reasonable to say that supporting glycogen levels via the addition of dietary carbohydrates will help their body to keep up with the demands the activity places on it and will produce an overall improvement in performance, one example of an activity where this knowledge might be useful is the weight pull, a sport in which a dog pulls a cart loaded with weight down a track of given distance where both the ATP-CP and Glycolytic energy systems will be recruited.

Sources of Healthy Carbohydrates for our Dogs

When looking to increase our dogs’ dietary intake of carbohydrates in order to promote health and athletic performance it is important to pick the right sources. There are health-promoting aspects to fruits and vegetables that simply cannot be found in a meat-only diet, I will personally feed small amounts of appropriate fruits, berries and vegetables for their abundant health-sustaining nutrients including prebiotic fibres, carotenoids and flavonoids which give them their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. These phytonutrients are known to protect from cancers and serve to enhance the immune system.

Of course, not all fruits and vegetables are created equal, some are higher in phytonutrients, some have the right kind of complex carbohydrates and of course, some should be avoided altogether, buying organic where possible means we can get those carbohydrates and nutrients into our dogs without the added agricultural chemicals.

How much to feed is a good question and a difficult one to answer, if you feed by the BARF method then it is likely that you already feed around 10 per cent of the diet in fruit and veg, I would think that this would be a good place to start but bear in mind that there are varying amounts of carbohydrates in different fruits and vegetables so 10 per cent of one might deliver a vastly larger amount of carbohydrates than 10 per cent of another, I would also not exchange 10 per cent of your dog’s diet but add an extra 10 per cent onto what you are already feeding as their demand for fats and proteins will not decrease, if they are working harder they will certainly increase.

If the time comes where I need to increase my dogs’ intake of carbohydrates and taking all of these things I have talked about into account, these will be some of the foods I will use and introduce into their diet to get the job done.

Cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli contain some but not a huge amount of complex carbohydrates making at least a small amount a nutritious addition to your dog’s diet regardless of its energy demands, this has around 6 grams of carbohydrates per 100 grams and contain the phytonutrient sulphurifane which has potent anti-inflammatory, anticancer and healthy microbiome promoting effects. Other cruciferous vegetables to include are Brussel sprouts, cabbage and cauliflower. Due to the difficulty, your dog’s body will have breaking down the plant cell walls in vegetables it is best to steam then run them through a food processor making all of those nutrients more available.

Appropriate leafy green vegetables such as Kale can provide a little more carbohydrates at around 9 grams per 100 grams, this is an absolute powerhouse of nutrition but it should be fed in moderation due to naturally occurring oxalates.

Berries such as blueberries with 14 grams per 100 grams and blackberries with 10 grams per 100 grams make great treats and are packed with antioxidants, although these contain simple sugars they are bound up in a great deal of fibre causing them to break down more slowly and preventing a sharp spike blood sugar.

Fresh fruits, I personally have no need to feed my dogs any fruit unless it is a small amount as treat, there are many fruits that are safe to feed your dog but some that are not, fruits usually contain a larger amount of carbohydrates in the form of simple sugars than their vegetable counterparts so be aware of this. I do from time to time give my dogs watermelon which is not too high at around 8 grams per 100 grams and contains the amino acid l-citrulline which is capable of increasing blood arginine levels which may help performance. I will also treat my dogs to pomegranate from time to time which is quite high at 19 grams per 100 grams so this is not a treat they get often, it is, however, a nutritional superfood and possesses many health-promoting qualities.

Sweet potato, the highest carb content on the list with around 20 grams per 100 grams, during competition if you need to keep your dog’s glycogen stores fuelled this might be a good option to try, full of complex carbs and phytonutrients I would reserve this one for special occasions, they can be cooked and dehydrated for simple on hand treats.

My Conclusion

This has been a long post and I have had the opportunity to learn some things about the canine diet that I was previously unaware of and I hope in reading this you have too, by looking at mammalian energy systems with a focus on our dogs we can see that carbohydrates do play a role in the maintenance of the glycolytic energy system.

It is very important however to distinguish between good or functional carbohydrates and simple sugars that will inevitably lead to a decline in our dog’s health, it is also important to look at the type of activities your dog takes part in and to determine which energy systems they use in order to tailor their diet toward those needs. 

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