Low Protein Dog Foods


Low protein dog foods can be controversial. Even though many veterinarians advise against feeding higher protein diets, recent research appears to support their safety — even for senior dogs with minor kidney issues.

Prescribing Low Protein Dog FoodIn one study of dogs with kidney disease, researchers concluded…

“Results do not support the hypothesis that feeding a high protein diet had a significant adverse effect on renal function”.1

In another study, older dogs were divided into two groups.

One group was fed a low protein diet and the other a high protein diet for the next four years.

“Results of this study indicated there were no adverse effects from the high protein diet and mortality (death rate) was actually higher in the low protein group”.2

Does a High Protein Diet
Cause Kidney Disease?

The Veterinary and Aquatic Services Department of Drs. Foster and Smith addresses what it refers to as a false rumor regarding high protein diets:3

“High protein pet foods are NOT harmful to a normal animal’s kidneys. As an animal’s body digests and metabolizes protein, nitrogen is released as a by-product.

“The excess nitrogen is excreted by the kidneys. A high protein diet produces more nitrogen by-products and the kidneys simply excrete the nitrogen in the urine.

“While you may think this would ‘overwork’ the kidneys and lead to possible kidney damage, this is not true. The kidney’s filtering capabilities are so great that even one kidney is sufficient to sustain a normal life.”

Better Quality Protein
Fewer Nitrogen By-Products

So, then, why do so many veterinarians still believe a high protein diet is dangerous to older dogs and kidney health?

“The myth that high protein diets are harmful to kidneys probably started because, in the past, patients with kidney disease were commonly placed on low protein (and thus low nitrogen) diets.

“Now, we often put them on a diet that is not necessarily very low in protein, but contains protein that is more digestible so there are fewer nitrogen by-products.”

Restrict Phosphorus
Not Protein

Animals with impaired kidney function are reported to do better by restricting phosphorus intake. However, limiting phosphorus on a preventive basis is not likely to delay the onset of kidney disease or benefit healthy older dogs.4

Drs. Foster and Smith conclude:5

“Unless your veterinarian has told you your pet has a kidney problem and it is severe enough to adjust the protein intake, you can feed your pet a high protein diet without worrying about ‘damaging’ or ‘stressing’ your pet’s kidneys.”

Apparently, one of the few justifications for a restricted protein diet is very high urinary nitrogen and elevated urinary protein.6

Or certain types of liver disease, such as hepatic encephalopathy.

The Bottom Line

Due to our respect for a dog’s natural carnivorous bias, we tend to favor dog foods rich in quality meat protein.

However, we also recognize there are medical conditions where a high protein diet can have a negative impact on kidney health.

For this reason, if your dog has been diagnosed with active kidney disease, please be sure to consult with your veterinarian before feeding any food to your pet.


  1. Bovee, KC, Influence of Dietary Protein on Renal Function in Dogs, Waltham International Symposium on Nutrition of Small Companion Animals, University of California, Davis, CA 95616, on September 4–8, 1990
  2. Finco DR, Brown SA, Crowell WA, et al, Effects of aging and dietary protein intake on uninephrectomized geriatric dogs, Am J Vet Res 1994; 55:1282
  3. Drs. Foster and Smith, “Are High Protein Diets Harmful to a Dog’s Kidneys?
  4. Thorpe-Vargas S, Cargill JC, Fortify the Food Bowl for the Aging Canine
  5. Drs. Foster and Smith, Ibid
  6. Straus, Mary, Is a Low-Protein Diet Desirable or Necessary for Dogs with Kidney Disease?
  • longlivethealamo

    Thank you. I am thinking about doing Honest Kitchen in the morning and Ziwipeak canned in the evening. Gotta get as much water into him as we can.

  • Lana Martin

    Turkey. Vets tend to recommend
    the commercial ‘kidney diet’ food, but I just can’t feed my dog what is in them. I also have found they recommend Purina, which is the worst. My vet has admitted that they don’t go to vet school for nutrition, but for medicine. Your best friend is the internet. Try the honest kitchen. One I also love is ZiwiPeak. Go to ziwipeak.com and do some reading. It is very digestible and actually recommended as a diet for dogs with renal disease, IBS, pancreatitis, etc. I bought the canned and air dried. Tripe has been really good for her too. Leptospirosis sounds horrible. Good luck.

  • longlivethealamo

    Hi Lana, which Honest Kitchen are you feeding? My dog is recovering from leptospirosis and my vet wants him on a “kidney friendly” diet but she has prescribed the Royal Canin Kidney stuff and the ingredients worry me a bit. Once his doxycycline treatment is over I’d like to switch him to a mid-range protein food with lots of water.

  • Bobby dog
  • Rebecca Steil-Lambert

    My Beagle is over 12 years old, and has been allergy tested and is allergic to corn, wheat, all poultry (chicken, turkey etc), and all fish as well as a bunch of pollen and leaves and grasses. Everything was going fine feeding him expensive limited ingredient dog food free of these allergens. (He can have lamb, beef, peas, rice, bison, barley, oats, eggs, green beans, beets, kale, apples, flax, sweet potatoes, potato, peanuts). However, my vet says he has renal failure and he needs to be on low protein rx dog food. ALL of it seems to have something in it that he can’t have b/c of allergies. Does anyone have any ideas for us? He can’t even do chicken fat as he has a dermatitis that is severe if he eats any of the above and will chew his feet til they bleed and develop sores on his legs. I currently make his food with a recipe I found online using only a little bit of Wellness wet lamb and mixing it with his homemade veggies and rice. Vet says he is still spilling too much protein in his urine. Tried Hills low protein lamb but it had chicken fat in it and he could not tolerate how itchy he was. Is there anywhere I can order dog food and specify what ingredients can be used? I will do anything for this dog. He was a lab animal. Still has his ear tattoo, (and was de-barked-awful!) YET all he offers is love and cuddles and tail wags. What can I feed my sweet elder fur baby!?

  • marcys mom

    My almost 7 yr old dog recently diagnosed with addisons disease. dr put on prescription kidney dog food, purina.
    It seems to have meat byproducts and corn grits as first few ingredients. Always was told to do grain free, by product free?

  • Dishka

    I have a 1.5 year old Morkie with Liver MV dysplasia, he’s been eating Wellness Adult Toy Breed for a few months and has not shown any negative effects and seems very healthy and energetic. The vet suggested we put him on a lower protein diet, but he’s pretty skinny and I don’t want him losing weight… should he stay on the same food or should he switch to something with less protein?

  • Dori

    Senior dogs need a higher protein but one would never know that by listening to their dog’s vets. They know little about vaccines, how can we think they know anything about nutrition.

  • theBCnut

    For a dog with kidney disease, quality of protein is very important. I would stay away from kibble, in this instance. It’s too processed.

  • steph

    That’s interesting thanks for the info! I’ll have to do some more research. There’s just so much it’s overwhelming.

  • Demi Bruno

    After I sent you this message I did a bit of research and found some interesting facts. A lot of research has been done in the past 15 years that proves low protein diets serve do benefits in older dogs. In fact studies showed that the mortality rate was higher in dogs that were on a low protein diet. I’m sticking to my brand. These vets say they are in it for the love of animals but they have no problem taking advantage of people that love their dogs like a family member.

  • steph

    Tell me about it. I wonder if the vets actually even read the labels on that stuff.most vets know virtually nothing about nutrition. Their information comes from the food company representatives mostly.It’s ridiculous

  • Demi Bruno

    My vet recently suggested the same. I asked to look at the ingredients and couldn’t believe it was the same low grade ingredients found in the lowest priced dog foods only this bag of c rap was $85.

  • steph

    I have a 12 year old diabetic dachshund. Vet proscribed royal canin,naturally..I’m a pet food novice so I didn’t realize what junk it was. I’ve been thinking of switching him to orijin senior as it has a low glycemic rating. But I heard high protein diets should be avoided if the dog also has kidney disease, anyone know if that’s true?I also have a dog with chronic pancreatitis and am trying to find a low fat dry food. (She loves weruva canned) I’m at a loss on what to feed them.my dog with chronic pancreatitis is currently on wellness healthy weight.

  • Denise Givens

    Oh, how I miss the English language. I am certain that excellent thoughts abound in this discussion. Unfortunately, I cannot decipher them.

  • Christina Sheree Harris

    Thank you so so much for your response and all the information, I will be implementing these immediately

  • Janet Garraffa

    It’s not the protien food -it’s the thought prosses- had Akita could not give small toys would want to eat as food put bulls love but not for me if animal is DOG give protien these new pretty dogs r differant

  • Melanie Thomas

    I often use ignatia drops with rescue dogs too.

  • Melanie Thomas

    Yes I totally agree Pitlove. I work with rescue bull terriers, so we deal with all kinds of temperaments and upbringing. I tend to feed a raw diet, but was interested in others views.

  • Pitlove

    Unsure who the ‘your’ is directed at, but we did somewhat discuss this a little further down the thread. My only thing I can tell you is, I have a pitbull which is stereotyped as being dog aggressive (untrue when socialized properly). He’s been fed a range of different protein levels ranging from 40%+ on a dry matter basis to 23%. Haven’t seen his temperment change at all.

    I haven’t researched it enough to know why some feel there is a connection with protein and aggression, but I think the best way I’ve seen to prevent it is early and proper socialzation with humans and other dogs.

  • Melanie Thomas

    I am interested to know your thoughts on high protein diets and temperament please?

  • Janet Garraffa

    Only lit lid
    Stay away from ther other food

  • Pitlove

    oh treats ok thank you. I had not seen it termed that before. yes I’m quite familiar with Natural Balance.

  • susan coyle

    Thank you for getting back. Teddy went home 3 weeks ago on I/d low fat science diet – canned. He was having normal stools. Protein content is 25.1% and fat is 8.5. I called about the dry science diet, vet said to try. Low fat kibbles listed dry as Protein 20% and fat 6%. As soon as he started on the kibbles, diarrhea again. My research got me to Natural Balance low fat canned with a protein of 8.0% and fat content of 5.0%. He has normal stools. I am looking for a kibble with low readings, esp. protein but so far nothing. I’m not having luck. Teddy is a rescue dog and will be adopted out. I have to get this food problem settled before then. May be I didn’t give the science dry a chance. Would like to get over the counter foods for him – makes it easer to adopt out.

  • Janet Garraffa

    Natural balance(nb) has fantastic LID- limited ingredient dog food-LIT-limited ingredient treats/there is a new fantastic company Candenisa? But (nb) hi quality testing ect-can’t recommend (nb) enough

  • Pitlove

    Hi, may I ask what LIT is?

  • Janet Garraffa

    Please feed LIT or LID Natural Balance – only LIT LID u will b or ur pet will b a happy person- I no my pet is a best person to me

  • Crazy4dogs

    My 1st fear aggressive dog has gone on to the rainbow bridge over 3 years ago. He lived for almost 15 years and we turned him around on almost everything (except vet visits) into a wonderful dog that everyone loved. I have dealt with many fosters with issues and one that is still a work in progress. Thanks for asking! :)

  • Crazy4dogs

    Hi Susan,

    What food are you feeding? I can’t find Natures balance. Are you feeding Natural Balance? Depending on what canned food you are feeding and it’s moisture content, that is actually a pretty high fat dog food since it’s probably around 32% protein and 20% fat on a dry matter basis. I think you might have your numbers mixed up. Are you looking for a food under 15% fat? What food are you feeding him from the vet?

  • susan coyle

    I have a rescue puppy mill dog – 6 months old. chronic diarrhea and mega tests later, vet puts him on a low fat/calorie diet (rx). Can’t find an over the counter dry food with low cal, only low fat. Natures balance has stopped diarrhea but it is canned. Got to find a low cal dry, and really, how low must I go so the diarrhea doesn’t come back?
    The can food has 8% cal and 5% fat. I think I should look for under 15% cal or even lower. I am switching from RX. to over the counter. His DX is a sensitive stomach.

  • el doctor

    Hi C4d

    Thanks for all that info!

    It looks like 5-HTP, the first metabolite of tryptophan might be a better choice for fear aggressive and anxious dogs.

    I edited my reply to Tamara to incorporate the info you supplied 😉

    I hope you’ve been successful in treating your fear aggressive and anxious dog(s) 😉

  • Crazy4dogs

    Hi el doctor,

    I’ve dealt with fear agressive and anxious/nervous (anxiety) dogs and been through many nutraceuticals over the years along with counter conditioning and desensitization (which is the crucial part in dealing with it successfully). Some work, some don’t.

    I did look into tryptophan a while back, and the dosage for dogs is much lower than the nutraceutical you’re suggesting. There can be some adverse side effects, but they are mostly GI isssues.

    Here are some interesting links to the diet to change behavior issue. Some agree, some don’t.





  • el doctor

    Hi Tamara

    I’m very sorry to hear of your troubles with your dog. :(

    Whatever food you settle on I have a suggestion for tryptophan supplementation. This supplement has 500 mg of L-tryptophan per capsule, it is very concentrated and it might be worth a try.

    You would have to feed your dog about 50 Grams of dried spirulina to get the same amount of tryptophan that is in one capsule.


    I wish you and your pooch the best of luck!

  • Shawna

    Sorry, another thought.

    Per Nutrition Data, the supplement spirulina is high in tryptophan. I wonder if supplementing with spirulina (which has other wonderful health benefits) would be helpful? http://nutritiondata.self.com/foods-000079000000000000000.html

  • Shawna

    Please do let us know if you find any improvement on the lower protein diet!!! There’s been a lot of discussion about the validity of this research you quoted.

    Aggression has also been linked to the rabies vaccine and lymes disease. Most vets will rule out lymes disease but I think only holistically minded vets look at rabies vaccs as a potential cause. On the “Rabies Challenge Fund” website they state (bolded emphasis mine) “Research has demonstrated that overvaccination can cause harmful adverse
    effects in dogs. Immunologically, the rabies vaccine is the most potent
    of the veterinary vaccines and associated with significant adverse
    reactions such as polyneuropathy resulting in muscular atrophy,
    inhibition or interruption of neuronal control of tissue and organ
    function, incoordination, and weakness, auto-immune hemolytic anemia,
    autoimmune diseases affecting the thyroid, joints, blood, eyes, skin,
    kidney, liver, bowel and central nervous system; anaphylactic shock;
    aggression; seizures; epilepsy; and fibrosarcomas at injection sites are
    all linked to the rabies vaccine.” http://www.rabieschallengefund.org/about-the-rcf/about-the-rabies-challenge-fund

    Symptoms can present months after the vaccine is given.

  • Shawna

    Unfortunately you won’t find a 5 star low protein food. The star rating is partially based on the amounts and quality of protein in the food.

    With liver shunts the kind of protein is every bit as important as the overall amount as well. When protein is digested it breaks down to amino acids. The amino acids that aren’t absorbed in the small intestine are then converted to ammonia by the bacteria in the colon. The liver takes the ammonia and makes urea from it. The urea is then filtered out of the body through the kidneys. With a liver shunt that ammonia bypasses the liver and is not converted to urea. The ammonia ends up in the blood which then causes toxic effects.

    White fish proteins generate less ammonia so larger amounts of protein can be fed to help keep the body healthy. It can be problematic to the entire body if protein amounts are too low. The brochure I’m quoting below is from University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine. They brochure states on page 12 (bolded emphasis mine) “Most of the toxins that cause problems in dogs with congenital PSS come from proteins broken down by bacteria in the colon. Therefore, the most important treatment of dogs with congenital PSS is an appropriate diet. Commercial liver diets such as Hill’s Prescription Diet l/d Canine Hepatic Health and Royal Canin Veterinary Diet Hepatic Formula provide quality proteins that are readily digestible in the small intestine so that minimal amounts reach the colonic bacteria. These diets have protein concentrations that are higher than those in many of the kidney diets; in fact, they are considered “protein restricted” instead of “low protein”. This is important, because animals with liver disease that receive too little protein will break down their own muscle tissue to make more.” http://www.vet.utk.edu/clinical/sacs/shunt/MVD-Brochure-FINAL2013-04-10.pdf

    It’s could also be important to give quality probiotics and a food for those probiotics called lactulose. Below also quoted from above linked brochure, same page
    Some dogs may benefit from the addition of yogurt with active cultures to their diet. For example, 2.2 ounces of Activa vanilla yogurt can be added to each 1000 kcals of food. That is roughly 1-2 tsp of yogurt once or twice a day for a small Yorkie. This type of “probiotic” has been shown to reduce signs of hepatic encephalopathy in people, and the yogurt also provides another source of high quality, readily digestible protein.

    Lactulose syrup is a double sugar that is broken down by bacteria in the colon to two simple sugars. This reaction is beneficial in several ways. First, the reaction produces an acidic environment that may be unattractive to troublesome bacteria and that reduces ammonia absorption. Second, the resulting sugars cause absorption of fluid into the feces, which makes them move out faster.”

    I’m not at all one to suggest prescription diets but my exception to that stance is when dealing with a dog with a inoperable liver shunt. (If the shunt is operable I personally would highly consider going through with the operation if having to make that choice for one of my crew.) That said, prescription diets are not the only option. If you are willing to make a homemade diet that is. Nutritionist Monica Segal modified Dr. Jean Dodds original liver cleansing diet making it appropriate (complete and balanced) for long term feeding. The diet can be found here http://www.monicasegal.com/liver-friendly-diet.html

    You could also work with a veterinary nutritionist to formulate a diet specifically for your baby. Dr. Susan Wynn would be a good example.

    I hope my post has been helpful to you and that you find that just right happy medium to keep your puppy healthy and feeling well!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Christina Sheree Harris

    I need a 5 star low protein dog food reccomendation (canned) for my 5 month old puppy who has a liver shunt

  • aquariangt

    not to mention its an inconclusive study :)

  • Pitlove

    Yeah, I find that just seeing one study done on something is really not enough emprical evidence to completely avoid all other treatments or better yet getting to the root of the anxiety. Just like with human anxiety. Masking the problem with meds or in this case a diet, is not really figuring out what is causing the anxiety and fixing it.

    I’ll be interested in hearing about this expo and what was said when you go.

  • aquariangt

    While classical conditioning is the best option here, I would use certain remedies and medications over a low protein diet

  • aquariangt

    I actually know a vet behaviorist that suggests under 21%. I don’t agree. There is 1 study that is used in these recommendations, and it was linked. Very little has been done on the subject, and it’s frustrating that they all hold to this. Not vet behaviorist, but myself and other trainers around here do not agree with this sentiment, and maybe in the next few years a new study will come out about this very subject 😉 However, at clicker expo this year there is a diet and behavior link class. I’ll be front and center at that one

  • Pitlove

    This is certainly interesting, especially the part about aggression. My dog eats a variety of levels of protein. He’s eaten very high (over 40% on a DMB) and is currently eating a food that I consider to be low (about 25% on a DMB). He’s a pitbull that is intact, and while he exhibits dominant behavior, he has never been aggressive on high protein. In fact he’s never been aggressive at all dispite living with 2 other intact male dogs and meeting a variety of dogs, intact and not. He also has no anxiety at all.

    Regardless, best of luck. I do hope that lowering the protein does make a difference for your dog. Science Diet has some of the lowest protein foods I’ve seen. Not a fan of Science Diet, but it could work for your purpose.

  • Crazy4cats

    I have a cat on anxiety meds and I have read about tryptophan helping with the issue. Royal Canin makes a “calm” formula with this ingredient for both cats and dogs. I hope you find something that works.

  • Tamara Marks

    It was recommended to me by my vet behaviorist who said that another famous vet (I’d have to ask her the name) did a study linking high protein diets to aggression and anxiety.

    of dietary protein content and tryptophan supplementation on dominance
    aggression, territorial aggression, and hyperactivity in dogs
    L-tryptophan is a biosynthetic precursor for the neurotransmitter
    serotonin. It has been hypothesized that decreased concentrations of
    this amino acid would lead to reduced formation of serotonin and
    possibly more aggressive responses to stimuli in dogs. Three groups of
    dogs with dominance aggression, territorial aggression, and
    hyperactivity respectively were fed diets differing in protein and
    tryptophan levels. It was found that, for dogs with dominance
    aggression, adding tryptophan to a high-protein diet or changing to a
    low-protein diet may reduce aggression. For dogs with territorial
    aggression, a low-protein diet with added tryptophan may be helpful in
    reducing aggression. The behavior of hyperactive dogs was not influenced
    by dietary protein content or addition of tryptophan.

    View article (PDF, 110 KB)

    Jean S. DeNapoli, Nicholas H. Dodman, Louis Shuster, William M. Rand, Kathy L. Gross

    J Am Vet Med Assoc 2000;217:504-508. August 15, 2000.

  • Pitlove

    I’m also confused, but interested in understanding why you were recommended a low protein food for anxiety. If you want to take another route so that you can continue feeding a more species appropriate amount of animal protein, I’ve used a product called Rescue Remedy for Pets. I used it on a 31 hour car ride down to Louisiana when I moved last year with my 6 year old cat. It was recommended by his old vet, as it was herbal and not a seditive which it was I was most concerned about. It worked very well with no adverse effects. You can find it online or at Whole Foods.