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Do Dogs Need Carbohydrates?

A dog’s diet must provide all of the nutrients it needs to stay active and healthy. The main components in a dog’s diet are protein, fats, minerals, vitamins, and water. 

Dogs derive energy from protein and fat.  

I researched this subject as it was an assignment in my Canine Nutrition certification course and I provide the information to you if you are interested in learning more about dog nutrition. I am not a vet. I’m a dog parent that wants to know the details about food so that I can feed my dogs a diet that allows them to thrive.


Dogs do not, as a rule, require carbohydrates. However, it’s added to food to provide a secondary energy source.  


Carbohydrates help provide secondary energy in the form of glucose. 

It also spares the body from using the protein to be utilized for tissue repair and growth.

Carbohydrates (after they have been metabolized) are a source of heat for your dog’s body.  

Additionally, certain products from carbohydrates can be used as building blocks for other nutrients such as nonessential amino acids, glycoproteins, glycolipids, lactose, vitamin C and more.

Lastly, excess carbohydrates are stored as body fat.

Do Dogs Need Carbohydrates and How Do They Digest Them?


Carbohydrates are essential to how kibble is made because the starches in carbohydrates give kibble structure and texture.  

Remember, kibble is the more advanced and smaller form of a dog biscuit. Without carbohydrates at all in kibble, we’d have burnt protein and burnt fat.   

It also makes kibble affordable. If more protein was used, it would drive the price of dog food up. 

And we know that using more fat isn’t ideal because too much fat in kibble (to be used as an energy source) can lead to other health problems. 


The most common types of carbohydrates used in dog food are cereal grains. Some of these may include: 

  • Barley (pearled)
  • Oats (or whole oats)
  • Brown rice
  • Whole wheat
  • Whole corn
  • Potato (or sweet potato)
  • Millet

Carbohydrates can be divided into simple and complex.    

Simple carbohydrates, such as fructose, sucrose, and lactose, require little or no digestive breakdown and are readily absorbed from the small intestine and converted into glucose. Sources would be table sugar, honey, and fruits, as just a few examples.

Complex carbohydrates are further categorized as starches or fibers and are digested more slowly than simple carbohydrates. Enzymes produced by the pancreas and intestinal wall are required to break down starches. Only then can they be absorbed and utilized by your dog. Starches are contained in grains, vegetables such as potatoes and peas, and beans.

Fiber is resistant to enzymatic digestion; some fibers are fermented by intestinal microbes. Dietary fiber is found only in plant foods: fruits, vegetables, nuts, and grains and comes from the portion of plants that is not digested by enzymes in the intestinal tract.


The pancreas secretes enzymes to digest the majority of the starches and sugars in the lumen of the small intestine.  

Do Dogs Need Carbohydrates and How Do They Digest Them?


Ground, cooked and extruded starches are found to be 100% digestible by dogs. Examples of these starches are cassava flour, brewer’s rice, corn, sorghum, peas or lentils

But raw and uncooked forms like raw potato or raw tapioca and cornstarches were between 40 and 70% digested.  


Dogs lack salivary amylase, and digestion begins in the small intestine.  

Absorption occurs across the small intestinal mucosa through villi. The enterocytes covering the villi contain the carbohydrate-digesting enzymes, transport proteins and other enzymes used to synthesize triglycerides and chylomicrons.  

Lack of sufficient enzymes results in malabsorption or carbohydrate intolerance.  

Unabsorbed carbohydrates create gas and diarrhea in some cases.  

Carbohydrate intolerance may be diagnosed by finding increased concentrations of hydrogen in the breath as a result of bacterial fermentation.  

Do Dogs Need Carbohydrates and How Do They Digest Them?


Glucose and other sugars from food arrive at the liver via the portal blood. The liver plays a central role in synthesizing, storing, converting and releasing glucose for use by other organs.  

Glucose that isn’t used is stored as glycogen, and it’s stored in the liver and muscle tissue.


When the sugars and starches from carbohydrates are not absorbed, there is increased intestinal fermentation.  

Maldigestion and malabsorption of dietary starch are believed to be a feature of inflammatory bowel disease.

Do Dogs Need Carbohydrates and How Do They Digest Them?


My personal opinion is that carbohydrates on their own are not inherently bad.  It’s the fact that is ultra-processed and refined carbohydrates that’s in kibble that gives me pause.

Refined carbohydrates provide a quick form of sugar.  It enters the bloodstream and is consumed fast. The challenge is when your dog consumes too much of it and current formulations show more carbohydrates than I am comfortable with.  

Excess insulin is produced from high glycemic carbohydrates. This condition is called hyperinsulinemia and is associated with canine cognitive decline, obesity, and cancer.

Cancer thrives on glucose for fuel, and so feeding dogs carbohydrates lays the groundwork for cancer growth. Tumors need glucose to live so providing your dog with carbohydrates sets the stage for cancer to thrive and robs energy from your dog.  

If your dog has been diagnosed with cancer, consider feeding your dog a low carbohydrate, unprocessed, whole food fresh diet where fat is fed as the energy source?


Because cancer cells have a hard time using fat as the energy source.  

I’m also concerned about how kibble companies ultra-process dog food.  Ultra-processed foods contain substances that are not naturally occurring such as additives and preservatives which we already know are not healthy.


The NRC and AAFCO have guidelines as to what nutrients should be included in dog food.  

Admittedly carbohydrates are not essential for a dog to survive. 

However it’s considered as a secondary energy source to give pet manufacturers a way to provide dog owners a more affordable food.  

Remember “the best diet” is handled on a case by case basis. What might work for your neighbor’s senior Shih-Tzu may not work for your young Boston Terrier.  

It’s important to know what your dog’s nutrient needs are, to monitor their health, read labels and understand what it is you are feeding.  

No matter what it is you feed, monitor their:

  • Skin
  • Coat
  • Eyes
  • Stool
  • Energy
  • Behavior
  • Negative reactions like regurgitation, vomiting, or diarrhea
  • And have your veterinarian conduct routine urinalysis and bloodwork 

These health markers will provide you the data to know if what you are feeding is improving your dog’s health and allowing them to thrive. 

At the end of the day, let your dog and their health determine what’s best for them.  

Thank you for reading this far, dear friends. To your own dog’s health and happiness. Best of luck in your information-seeking journey.

Stay steadfast and curious as you gather your own information and form your own opinions on what’s best for YOUR dog.  


Dog Digestion Time: What You Should Know About Your Dog’s Digestive System


Evaluation of selected high-starch flours as ingredients in canine diets


Effects of six carbohydrate sources on dog diet digestibility and post-prandial glucose and insulin response


Digestibility of Carbohydrates


Feeding Dogs – Carbohydrates / By Dr. Conor Brady 

Page 65-72



Dietary carbohydrates: role of quality and quantity in chronic disease


Feeding Your Dog During Cancer Treatment


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