What are carbohydrates?
There are six categories of nutrients. Fats, proteins, vitamins, minerals, water and, the subject of this article, carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are themselves a group of macronutrients which can be further subdivided into two distinct groups. Simple carbohydrates and complex carbohydrates. The question is, do dogs need carbohydrates in dog food?
Simple carbohydrates are the simplest of the two carbohydrate forms. They are essentially sugars and are found in the likes of cheap and highly refined grains such as white rice and refined flours. They are also found in fruits. Simple carbohydrates can be further broken down into monosaccharides and disaccharides. Quickly and easily metabolized, these simple carbohydrates are better known as glucose and sucrose. They are an ideal source of short-term energy.
Complex carbohydrates meanwhile are made up of larger, more complex molecules. These are called polysaccharides. Digested more slowly, these are further subcategorized as starches and fibres.
Starches are broken down by digestive enzymes in the pancreas before becoming available for your dog’s needs. Starches are found in the likes of grains, vegetables and legumes.
Fibres, both soluble and insoluble, are found only in unprocessed whole foods (plant food) such as vegetables. These are not broken down by digestive enzymes in the digestive tract but pass through your dog’s digestive system relatively intact. These ensure good digestive health.
Complex carbohydrates provide slow-release energy. They aid digestion, help maintain the immune and nervous systems and help regulate the metabolism. Unprocessed, complex carbs such as fresh fruit and vegetables, brown (and some white) rice, quinoa, oats and sweet potatoes are all excellent for dogs.
Why carbohydrates benefit dogs
Research suggests that approximiately 14% of the ancestral dog’s diet would have been made up of carbohydrates. That said, dogs do not actually need carbs in the same way that they need the other two macronutrients. Fats and proteins.
But that doesn’t mean that dogs should not be fed carbohydrates. Those who suggest that dogs should not be fed carbs overlook one simple fact. That is that any source of complex carbohydrate, sweet potato for example, provides beneficial nutrients, minerals and natural fibre. And that is in addition to being a valuable, readily available and highly digestable source of slow release energy. They also overlook the fact that without carbohydrates and without fats, a dog would use protein as its main source of energy. Protein which is best reserved for maintaining and repairing your dog’s body.
Good carbs, bad carbs
What gives carbohydrates in dog food a bad rep is that large commercial dog food manufacturers substitute expensive, high quality protein with inexpensive, low quality carbohydrates. Particularly in the form of grains, which they use to bulk up their food and bolster their bottom lines. Some dry dog biscuit is said to contain up to 75% carbohydrates. While there is no such thing as an ideal percentage, 75% is simply outrageous. Every dog is different. Because every dog is an individual, there is no hard and fast carbohydrate percentage rule. But come on!
It’s no secret that I’m a great believer in homemade dog food. I make homemade food for my dogs and they absolutely thrive on it. When I make food for my dogs, I tend to work on a 10% carbohydrate principle. Those carbohydrates mainly come in the form of sweet potatoes and legumes. So they’re good quality carbohydrates. That percentage works just fine for my dogs, and that’s the figure I generally recommend as a starting point for anyone home cooking for their dog.
There is nothing wrong with adding carbohydrates to dog food providing they are complex carbohydrates as provided by fresh, good quality fruit and vegetables. Because these provide a dog not only with energy, but valuable nutrients besides. Thus the natural order is maintained. Fats – first call energy supply. Complex carbohydrates – slow release energy supply. Proteins – short and long term body maintenance and repair. Simples!
Strictly speaking, dogs have no nutritional need for carbohydrates. That said, I believe it’s wrong to completely dismiss a major macronutrient from the diet of man’s best friend.
It is my belief that dogs always ate carbs. In the wild they would have digested carbs along with the other stomach contents of their omnivorous prey. They would also have been fed or scavenged carbohydrates by and from their human companions during the 15,000 years or so of man’s domestication.
In particularly agrarian parts of the world, carbs would even have formed a major part of the canine diet. This was certainly the case with the Incas and their favourite dog, the Chihuahua. Meat was in such limited supply, they and their human companions relied heavily on carbs in their diets.
While I recommend adding some carbs, these should be strictly controlled. And they should be ‘functional carbs’. Carbs that fulfil a purpose such as providing valuable nutrients.