Health & Nutrition

How “Carbs” Work in Your Dog’s Body

Measuring cups filled with rice

The Carbohydrate Debate

It’s easy to find conflicting opinions about carbohydrates in dog food. Animal nutritionists promote the many benefits of carbohydrates, yet other voices seem to disparage them. While it’s true that your dog’s ancestors, wolves, consumed high-protein diets, it’s false to conclude that carbohydrates can’t provide value in your dog’s diet today.

We want to help you make an informed choice for your dog. Let’s go beyond the “grain vs. grain free dog food” arguments and dig into the science behind carbohydrates and protein-heavy diets.

Understanding Carbohydrates

Let’s talk about carbs. “Carbohydrate” is one of the three macronutrients that provide the body energy and help it function (the other two energy-providing macronutrients are fat and protein). Sources of carbohydrates for dogs include starch, sugar, and fiber.

  • Starches and sugars: Digestible carbohydrates that provide your dog's body with the energy they need to run.
  • Fiber: Can be soluble or insoluble. Although fiber isn’t considered an energy source for dogs (more on that later), fiber plays a crucial role in helping your dog's digestive system run smoothly.

Can Dogs Digest Carbohydrates in Dog Food?

Absolutely. Let’s take a look at the (simplified) chemical structure of carbohydrates and understand how they work in the body before diving into some of the more hotly-debated questions.

Starches and sugars are made out of bonded, hexagon-shaped simple sugar molecules (monosaccharides). Your dog’s body can’t utilize the energy from carbohydrates until the monosaccharides have been separated.

Monosaccharide diagramMonosaccharide diagram

The enzymes that allow your dog to break down sugars and starches into usable parts are produced in the pancreas and small intestine. When sources of dietary complex carbs for dogs like grains are consumed, the enzymes are released and begin breaking down starches and sugars into monosaccharides. Once the carbohydrate is “clipped” apart, your dog’s body absorbs glucose into the intestines, blood and liver, where they are then transformed into a readily-available and efficient energy source.

Enzymes breaking apart monosaccharidesEnzymes breaking apart monosaccharides

Now let’s talk about fiber. Fiber is a carbohydrate and consists of the same simple sugar building blocks as starches and sugars described above. But the difference is how the blocks are joined together. Dogs don’t produce the enzymes necessary to break the bonds in fiber, so they can’t convert fiber into a readily available energy source. Fiber does, however, benefit your dog’s body by keeping the digestive processes in working order in two ways:

  • Soluble/fermentable fiber, found in many whole grains, is the food for “good” gut bacteria which, in turn, produce free-fatty acids to feed your dog’s colon cells and keep their digestive system healthy.
  • Insoluble/nonfermentable fiber helps by absorbing water in the intestines and promoting gut motility (moving things down the digestive tract).

Long story short, dogs can digest carbohydrates in dog food, and they can digest it well. In fact, dogs are able to convert certain carbohydrate sources into simple sugars that are easily absorbed. [1] Their bodies are elegantly designed to process carbohydrates and reap the benefits from it.

Carbs vs. Protein & Fat for Energy

When fed a complete and balanced diet, the role of carbohydrates for dogs can help them not only survive, but thrive.

A dog’s body (and yours) can break down protein, fat and carbohydrates for energy. But there is a difference between the energy provided by carbohydrates and the energy found in fat and protein. Carbohydrates are relatively simple and direct to break down and extract energy. Your dog’s body breaks down carbohydrates first, and only breaks down the other nutrients when there are no carbohydrates left.

When your dog’s body processes protein for energy, it must first break it down into small chains of proteins called peptides, then break those down into amino acids, then use even more energy to break those amino acids into glucose (a process called gluconeogenesis) for energy the body can use. It’s a longer, more effort-intensive process.

Though many dog owners love the idea of feeding their dog a diet higher in protein, its primary benefit is in providing amino acids to build your dog’s body. Carbohydrates are the most effective source of energy. [2]

Feeding a Complete & Balanced Diet

We all want to approach our dogs' nutrition the way they would naturally eat, but today's dogs have come a long way from their carnivorous ancestors. Domestic dogs are omnivores and they can and should be fed as such, with carbohydrates in dog food doing their part in helping your dog live a long, happy, healthy life.

Just Right offers personalized, complete, and balanced dog food – tailored for your dog's nutritional needs – with your choice of a grain or grain-free blend.

Start your dog’s personalized dog food blend today!