Do Dogs Need Carbohydrates?

If I had to choose the most misunderstood word in the dog nutrition vernacular, it would be “carbohydrate.” Mention feeding a dog “carbs” and you are likely to be met with a shocked retort such as, “But carbs are bad for dogs!” With the popularity of the “keto” diet (more on that trend in a future article), the poor carb has fallen even further from grace.

Dog and Carbs
Photography ©alexei_tm | Getty Images

Carbs have been blamed for everything from canine obesity to cancer. This is not only a shame but potentially harmful because the healthiest foods on the planet and the bulk of anti-cancer foods contain — get ready for it — carbs.

In this article, I speak up for the carb and talk about why your dog needs to be eating the right kind for optimum health.

What are carbohydrates?

Carbohydrates are molecules made up of smaller glucose (sugar) units called monosaccharides that are linked together into varying length chains. Carbs are known as macronutrients because along with proteins and fats, they supply energy (calories) for the body to sustain its metabolic and physical activity needs.

Carbohydrates are further classified by the number of glucose units that make up the carbohydrate molecule, determining its chain length:

✤ Monosaccharides (one sugar unit per molecule — “mono”): Glucose, fructose, galactose

✤ Disaccharides (two sugar units per molecule — “di”): Sucrose (table sugar), lactose (milk sugar), maltose

✤ Oligosaccharides (3 to 9 sugar units per molecule): Fructo-oligosaccharides (FOS), mannan-oligosaccharides (MOS), galacto-oligosaccharides (GOS)

✤ Starch polysaccharides (non-fiber “complex carbs” — 10-plus sugar units per molecule): Amylose,
amylopectin, maltodextrins

✤ Non-starch polysaccharides (fibrous complex carbs” — 10-plus sugar units): Cellulose, pectins, hemicelluloses, gums, inulin

We talked about the benefits of fiber (non-starch polysaccharides) in the previous column, so let’s focus on non-
fibrous carbohydrates, the type the body can break down.

Photography © Getty Images

Do dogs “need” carbs?

The answer to this question is where things get really interesting. If we ask, “Do dogs have a metabolic need for carbs to supply energy?” the answer is typically no (although some dogs might for specific health reasons).

Like people, dogs require glucose for energy because glucose is the primary form of fuel used by the body. Unlike people, dogs can make glucose in two ways — either by eating dietary carbohydrates or by synthesizing it themselves in the liver and kidneys (providing they also get enough dietary fat and protein).

But, viewing carbohydrates as merely an energy-producing nutrient is like viewing dogs as merely four-legged creatures with fur. There is so much more to them than that!

Photography © Getty Images

Why feed carbs to dogs?

Understanding the true health benefits of carbs for dogs involves looking at the types of foods that fall within this dietary classification. Yes, sugar, white flour and other non-nutritious “junk foods” are carbs, but so are some of the healthiest foods on the planet.

Healthy carbs are packed with vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients (plant nutrients) that promote optimum health at the cellular level, including destroying tumor cells. These are known as “functional” carbohydrates, and we don’t want our canine companions to miss out on their benefits.

Photography © Getty Images

A key to healthy carbs

Phytonutrients, also called phytochemicals, are a large group of compounds that occur naturally in plants (“phyto” means plant in Greek) and convey important health benefits for those who eat them.

Thousands of different phytochemicals are found in unprocessed fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes. Carrots, winter squash and apricots, for example, get their bright orange color from a class of phytochemical called carotenoids, while the deep blue, red and purple pigments of berries, cherries and eggplant come from anthocyanins, phytochemicals in the flavonoid class.

Phytochemicals provide some pretty amazing benefits, including:

✤ Act as antioxidants (substances that help protect cells from oxidative damage caused by free radicals)

✤ Block tumor activity

✤ Cause cancer cell death (apoptosis)

✤ Enhance the body’s immune system to fight disease

✤ Protect against heart disease

✤ Prevent and repair damage to the DNA

✤ Reduce inflammation

✤ Regulate hormone metabolism (including estrogen, to prevent excesses that can increase the risk of cancer)

✤ Repair DNA damage caused by exposure to environmental toxins

I hope you can see why the recommendation to “eat all the colors of the rainbow” applies to dogs as well as people. We want to be sure our canine companions also reap the benefits of these health-promoting, disease-busting phytonutrients!

Carbs to avoid

While you want to fill your dog’s bowl with vitamin, mineral and phytonutrient-rich whole plant-based foods, you of course want to avoid unhealthy “junk carbohydrates.” These are the low-nutrient or no-nutrient carbs that give this food group a bad name.

The key is identifying which carbs are healthy and which are bad, which is easy to do. For healthy carbs, think unprocessed foods like whole fruits and vegetables, whole grains and legumes. Processed carbohydrates such as white sugar and white flour fall into the unhealthy category. These are carbohydrates that have had their nutrients stripped away, contain empty calories and quickly raise blood sugar levels after eating them.

Note that while fruits contain the simple sugars fructose and glucose, whole fruits also contain lots of healthy fiber, which insulates the sugar. Because it takes the digestive tract longer to break down the fiber, sugar from fruit is absorbed into the bloodstream slowly, avoiding any sharp rises in blood sugar. Fiber in fresh fruit also helps promote optimal GI functioning and weight loss. Avoid giving your dog fruit juice, which without the fiber is a sugary fiasco!

I hope this article has shown that just because some carbohydrate foods are unhealthy doesn’t mean we should avoid the ones that are nutritional powerhouses. After all, you wouldn’t avoid giving your dog healthy fats like coconut oil and flaxseeds because hydrogenated oils and restaurant grease are also fats, would you? There’s some food for thought!

Carbs to try

Try these healthy carbohydrates as inspiration to boost your dog’s intake of vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients:

Cruciferous vegetables

Bok choy, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, collard greens (avoid for hypothyroid dogs or cook
to lower these foods’ goitrogens)

Whole fruits

Apples, bananas, blackberries, blueberries, cantaloupe, pear, raspberries, watermelon (avoid grapes and
raisins, which are toxic)

Gluten-free grains

Amaranth, buckwheat, millet, quinoa, sorghum, teff, gluten-free oats

Leafy greens

Lettuce, parsley, spinach


Black-eyed peas, garbanzo beans, kidney beans, lentils, lima beans, pinto beans

Red/orange vegetables

Carrots, pumpkin, sweet potato, winter squash

❤ Feel free to experiment with your own healthy carbs, as long as they are dog friendly!

Editor’s note: This article first appeared in Dogster magazine. Have you seen the new Dogster print magazine in stores? Or in the waiting room of your vet’s office? Subscribe now to get Dogster magazine delivered straight to you!

Tell us: What supplements or superfoods for dogs are you a fan of?

Thumbnail: Photography ©chendongshan | Thinkstock.

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24 thoughts on “Do Dogs Need Carbohydrates?”

  1. I saw the video Yes You can try custom keto diet plan

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  11. Please address the ‘legumes’ being a healthy carbs for dogs. Legumes are hard on their hearts and should be avoided.

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  14. Dogs, as a carnivore, don’t ‘need’ carbohydrates, but they can utilize them in hard times. Definitely not grains, though. Humans also don’t need carbohydrates because they are not essential such as essential fatty acids and essential amino acids. There is no such thing as an essential carbohydrate. Our body can make glucose from protein and fat. I feed my three Rotties a 100% raw diet completely void of any plant matter except what is found in the intestines of the rabbit and steers that I raise for them.

    1. Dogs are NOT carnivores – they are omnivores like we are. They just have carnivore teeth and we have vegetarian teeth. Otherwise most of our nutritional requirements are the same. Balance in all things.

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  16. Isn’t it amazing how humans and dogs need the same nutrients? And people wonder why dogs look up at them when they are eating meals. Of course, dogs are also like us in that they will also eat stuff that is not great in terms of nutrient density.

    1. I was wandering where I can get some good dog recipe’s. I do give me do
      give my dog most of the fruit and vegetables you mention, thank you

    2. Excellent point . Being that there mans best friend or companion wouldn’t it make sense that God would make for them to eat much like humans . There was no dog food before a certain point in time and people had domesticated dogs they ate what the people ate plain and simple . Grains are very good for dogs as the secret to the truth concerning nutrition the bible tells us Matt 15 : 27 Niv bible .

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