Diverse information about dog food often creates confusion, and understanding the protein content of your dog's diet is vital for their health. An appropriate amount of protein supports muscle development and sustains overall vitality. However, knowing how much of each nutrient your pup needs is complex, and there’s no straightforward answer for any breed, size, or age.
I researched various dog food brands and canine nutrition journals and compiled the most reliable information here. My analysis focused on AAFCO guidelines and how they translate into dog food nutrition labels.
In addition to discussing dog food protein content, I shortlisted the 10 best dog food delivery services. After reading this, you'll have a list of services that offer balanced dog food with the correct protein levels tailored for your furry friend.
Ollie is my top recommendation for its high-quality, human-grade ingredients. It also offers flexible, budget-friendly options for those of you who want to improve your pup’s diet but don’t want a full plan. All dog foods on the list are AAFCO compliant and most are human-grade.
Nutritious dog food requires a balance of protein, carbs, healthy fats, vitamins, and minerals. While this sounds similar to the nutrient balance required for humans, the content, quality, and type of each nutrient, vitamin, and mineral are different for dogs. Understanding your dog’s protein needs is complex and is an entire specialty in vet school.
The best guidelines to follow are those of the American Association of Food Control Officials (AAFCO). High quality dog food that follows generally good, well-researched nutrient balance guidelines will be labeled as “AAFCO Approved Nutritionally Complete and Balanced”, or it will just say “Complete and Balanced”.
These guidelines dictate the minimum and maximum levels of nutrients, like protein, fats, vitamins, and minerals in dog food. By understanding these guidelines, you can more easily determine whether the dog food you’re considering meets the minimum standards for dog nutrition. This will help you weed out dog foods that might hurt more than help your dog’s diet.
The AAFCO only determines whether pet food brands follow its nutrition standards, and it doesn’t recommend food brands or diets for animals. There are 4 nutrient categories for dog foods:
Vitamins & Other
AAFCO nutrition guidelines promote growth, reproduction, and optimal maintenance. Nutrient guidelines are informed by research on how protein affects overall dog health.
The AAFCO only provides 2 categories with minimum protein requirements. Those categories are Growth and Reproduction and Adult Maintenance. Protein concentration requirements are measures of protein weight percentage in the Dry Matter of dog food mix. This measure is called the Dry Matter (DM) measurement.
Protein requirements are:
Growth and Reproduction: minimum 22.5% DM
Adult Maintenance: minimum 18% DM
Before going to market, dog food is a dry mixture that’s then mixed with water or broth when packaged. So, the DM measure is an accurate representation of the nutrient profile in your dog’s food. If you can’t find the DM percentage on the label, you can usually find it online.
Labels like senior or puppy are simply other words for the above 2 categories. For example, senior dog food is simply dog food that’s met the requirements for the AAFCO’s Adult Maintenance protein minimum, and puppy dog food fits into the Growth and Reproduction minimum.
While there’s a minimum protein requirement, protein amounts differ in each recipe. JustFoodForDogs recipes are classified to suit Puppies, Adult Dogs, and Senior Dogs, which all meet the minimum protein requirements in the AAFCO’s 2 categories, but protein percentages still differ for each recipe. So you’ll still want to check pet food labels to ensure the dog food you’re purchasing meets your pup’s requirements.
The FDA requires a Guaranteed Analysis (GA) of the following 4 ingredients:
Guaranteed Analysis (GA) percentages factor in moisture and water weight. This is also known as the “as-fed” percentage. The percentage of non-water ingredients will always be lower than they are for the DM measurement because adding water, say to fresh food or canned food, simply adds volume to the food mix and decreases the ratio of each ingredient.
The term Crude isn’t an indicator of quality but is the GA as-fed ingredient weight percentage. The only difference between the DM and GA is that the DM measure excludes water and doesn’t indicate a fiber percentage.
However, not all labels show the DM weight but typically show the GA weight instead. You’re more likely to see both measures listed for dog food subscription services. The Farmer’s Dog lists both the DM and GA percentages for each recipe on its website, which is great if you want to ensure your pup is getting a higher protein concentration in its food.
Decoding the nutrient labels on your dog's food can be quite a task. The wording on labels is very subtle and tricky, so you’ll need to pay close attention if your dog requires a specific diet and nutrient content. To simplify this process for you, let me break down the (AAFCO) label requirements for dog food nutrients.
The "95 Percent" Rule: AAFCO requires that 95% of a product, excluding water, be the ingredient listed in the title. For instance, if a dog food is named Beef for Dogs, at least 95% of the beef ingredient must be beef.
Including water content, this main ingredient should make up at least 70% of the total product. The remaining 5% of the ingredient covers essential nutrients, like vitamins and minerals, and any other additional ingredients.
The "25 Percent" Rule: This rule states that the main ingredients mentioned in the product name, such as Turkey and Rice Dinner for Dogs, must make up a combined percentage of at least 25% of the food, excluding water. Each named ingredient must make up at least 10% of the total product.
If the combined ingredient concentration is more than 25% of the total food weight but doesn’t reach 95%, the label must include a descriptive term such as dinner, entrée, or platter.
The "With" Rule: If a product name includes "With…" like "Dog Food With Chicken," it indicates that the mentioned ingredient constitutes at least 3% of the total product. The inclusion of the term "with" significantly reduces the required percentage of the specified ingredient.
The "Flavor" Rule: Per the FDA, a product labeled "Chicken Flavor Dog Food" doesn't have a defined minimum chicken content requirement. However, there must be enough of the ingredient to be detected. The term "flavor" should be as prominently displayed on the package as the ingredient it refers to such as chicken or beef.
Ingredients are also listed in order of their weight, so the first item listed on the label is the largest ingredient by weight. Protein is usually listed first since it usually makes up most of your dog’s food. You can see how the GA crude protein content in Nom Nom’s Pork Potluck recipe has the highest ingredient percentage and is listed first in the ingredient list.
You’ll also find byproducts in your dog’s food. Byproducts often encompass components like the liver, a powerhouse of vitamin A, and other sources like blood, brains, bones, stomach, and thoroughly cleaned intestines. Despite sounding unappetizing to us, your 4-legged friend may actually find them delicious.
Note that each US state has different pet food content requirements. So if you’ve recently moved, and you know your dog needs a specific nutrient balance, be sure to double-check the labels on any food you purchase.
Each dog requires a different amount of protein in its diet. The right amount of protein for your dog is based on several factors, including but not limited to:
Reproductive capacity (whether your pup is spayed, neutered, or neither)
If your dog has dietary or medical needs, speak to a vet about protein content. Any food nutrient consumed at an unbalanced level by your pup is potentially harmful, so check with a qualified professional to ensure your dog is getting the best balance of nutrients.
Younger and very active dogs typically require more protein to promote muscle growth. However, each dog is different, and if your pup has specific medical conditions, higher protein might not be best. Always consult a vet if you’re unsure of what’s best for your pup.
Some dog food delivery services offer customization quizzes designed by veterinarians to determine the right ingredient ratios and portion sizes for your pup. Ollie’s quiz asks several questions including your dog’s age, weight, activity level, and more.
While the AAFCO recommends a minimum amount of protein in dog food. The amount and quality differ greatly between brands. Some brands create human-grade dog food, which must be USDA-approved human-grade, while other brands create shelf-stable dog food with protein from who knows where.
Food for animals doesn’t require FDA pre-market approval, but it must follow the rules:
Safe to eat
Produced under sanitary conditions
Free of harmful substances
Most ingredients in dog food are considered safe. If you’d like to know your dog food’s protein source, you’ll have to contact the company and request where they source it. Some companies are committed to humane, sustainable sourcing and proudly post that information on their website.
However, protein sources don’t require pre-market approval by the FDA. This only applies to food additives like vitamins and minerals. So, your dog’s protein quality is unregulated.
Exceptions to this rule include qualifiers like organic or human-grade. Foods with these labels must meet USDA requirements for organic and human-grade food content:
No growth hormones or antibiotics in meat and meat by-products.
No artificial flavoring, coloring, or preservatives.
Little or no fillers.
Chicken and turkey are excellent sources of easily digestible protein for dogs. Look for dog foods that list these as the first ingredient. Chicken, turkey, beef, and pork are some of the most common protein sources for dog food and are easy to find. Spot & Tango’s Chicken and Brown Rice dry food recipe is a great high protein source.
Fish, such as salmon and whitefish, also make the list. They not only provide your dog with a protein punch of around 26% but also offer omega-3 fatty acids, which can support skin and coat health.
Next, consider beef and lamb. These meats contain around 18-25% protein and are a good source of iron and vitamin B12. Always remember that the best diet for your dog depends on their age, breed, size, and health status.
You’ll also find some brands that use “new protein” and no – they’re not new. These proteins are sourced from more atypical animals like duck, bison, venison, and kangaroo. These proteins entered the market to service dogs who have a harder time digesting chicken and beef. Check with your vet before you feed your pup any new proteins.
If you’ve checked with your vet and want to order raw food – check out We Feed Raw. Few raw dog food services exist with the same quality standards as We Feed Raw’s. Each formula was created by a PhD nutritionist and made with USDA human-grade meats.
As-Fed Crude Protein%
Grade and Meal Type
$4-$8 per day
1-week starter pack
Fresh: 8 – 10%
Human-grade: Fresh, Baked
Get 60% Off Your First Box! from Ollie
2-week starter pack
Fresh: 9 – 11%
Get 60% off on your first order! from The Farmer’s Dog
Raw: 12 – 14%
Save 30% off your first subscription box. Code: DR30 from We Feed Raw
2-week starter pack
Fresh: 7 – 10%
Take 60% Off Your First Order from Nom Nom
$7 per week
2-week starter pack
Fresh: 11.8 –14%
Dry: 25 – 27%
Human-grade: Fresh, Dry
50% Off Your First Order from Spot & Tango
$5.99 for dry food
No minimum order
Wet: 15 – 26%
Dehydrated: 22 – 26%
Wet: 8 – 10%
Human-grade: Dry, Dehydrated, Wet
$5.00, free on orders over $49.00
Up to 60% Off! Code: SUMMERSALE From The Honest Kitchen
$7/lb without auto-shipment
No minimum order
Wet: 8 – 9%
Freeze-Dried Raw: 40 – 42%
Human-grade: Fresh, Dry, Wet, Raw, Freeze-Dried Raw, Broths
Free to $5.99
Save 20% off your first Autoship with code: AUTOSHIPLIFE from Open Farm
7.8 lb bag
Fresh: 7 – 10%
Human-grade:Fresh, Treats, Supplements
$19.99 or free on dry or frozen orders over $99
Save 40% off your first order and 5% off recurring autoship orders! from JustFoodForDogs
Fresh: 16 – 23%
Human-grade: Fresh but delivered frozen
$9.99 of free if 16 or more ordered
20% Off Your First Box (16 Bags)from Raised Right
2lb bag for dry food, 3lb for fresh food
Fresh: 12.8 – 14%
Dry: 30 – 41%
Free to $15
$50 Off your 1st Order with code TRYNOW from A Pup Above
Dogs need a variety of vitamins, notably A, B, C, D, E, and K. All the services I’ve mentioned in my feature include differing balances of these essential vitamins to support your dog's overall health. Remember, each vitamin plays a unique role, from boosting immunity to aiding metabolism.
Minerals such as calcium, phosphorus, potassium, and magnesium are essential for dogs. The Farmer's Dog provides food rich in these minerals that contribute to strong bones, nerve function, and muscle health among other benefits. Our full review includes more details about The Farmer’s Dog ingredients and health benefits of its dog food.
Making fresh dog food at home is possible, but ensure it's nutritionally balanced. JustFoodForDogs offers DIY nutrient blends and recipes for home-cooked meals, helping you provide the necessary nutrients while ensuring the food is safe for your dog.
Wet and dry foods are great sources of protein for dogs. Dry dog foods will show a higher concentration of crude protein in the GA ingredient breakdown, but that doesn’t mean it has more protein than wet or fresh mixes. Wet and fresh dog foods include moisture in the percentage breakdown, which lowers the percentage of each nutrient.
You’ll have to check the DM percentage to know which food has more protein. Spot & Tango offer high-protein options in both wet and dry forms, allowing you to choose what suits your dog best. Factors like your dog's age, breed, and health condition influence your choice.
Raw dog food can be a good source of protein. Companies like We Feed Raw specialize in high-protein raw meals. However, consider potential risks such as bacterial contamination and ensure it fits your dog's specific dietary needs. While some results of feeding dogs raw animal proteins are promising, the benefits of raw dog food are highly debated in the vet community.
Human-grade dog foods use animal proteins that are USDA-approved safe for human consumption. This is a big step above the typical feed-grade food used in animal products. Feed-grade proteins do not require USDA inspection. Companies like The Honest Kitchen use high-quality human-grade proteins.
However, the term human-grade doesn't guarantee superior protein. It's the quality of the ingredients and the proper balance of nutrients that truly matter. Always scrutinize the ingredient list and nutritional profile.