Can dogs digest Carbohydrates?
Dr Jacqueline Boyd
BSc (Hons), MSc, PhD, PGCHE, CHES, FHEA, MRSB
In-house Nutritional Consultant
Written by: Zoe Russell, BSc (Hons)
Graduate Nutrition Officer, Skinner’s Pet Foods
There is a great misconception that dogs cannot digest carbohydrates and have no use for them in their diet- incorrect. In fact, dogs are highly adapted to digesting carbohydrates, with a well evolved digestive system to support this. Carbohydrates can also be extremely beneficial in a dog’s diet, so much so that nutritionists refer to them as “functional” foods, as they provide health benefits beyond that of essential nutrients¹.
What are carbohydrates?
Carbohydrates are organic compounds that form the primary source of energy for cells in the body. They can be described as either simple (such as glucose), or complex (such as starch) depending on their structure². However, not all carbohydrates are used and metabolized in the same way, as each have unique compositions and structures³. Sources of carbohydrates you will see in foods include rice, wheat, barley, oats, peas and more.
Although dogs have no specific dietary requirements for carbohydrates, they make a very useful addition to their diet. For example, fibre is a good prebiotic and helps support healthy bacteria in the dog’s gut, while sugars such as glucose are highly palatable and can help encourage a fussy dog to eat its meals- just one of the reasons why our Field & Trial Muesli is so delicious! Not only this, but simple carbohydrates such as glucose can be extremely useful for dogs in gestation, as carbohydrates in the diet can help replace the energy lost through fetal development⁴.
How are carbohydrates digested?
In humans and many other mammals, food usually mixes in the mouth with an enzyme called ‘salivary amylase’ which breaks down carbohydrates in the food. However, dogs and cats do not produce this enzyme- instead the food is digested in an area of the intestine called the ‘duodenum’ and mixed with an enzyme from the pancreas called ‘pancreatic amylase’. This breaks down complex carbohydrates into lots of simple carbohydrates such as glucose and maltose. Enzymes in the lining of the intestine then break these simple carbohydrates down further so that they may be absorbed through the wall of the intestine and used in the body⁵.
Overall, carbohydrates have many beneficial properties when included in the diet, whether it be as a source of energy, or as a prebiotic for supporting gut health. Dogs have also evolved some suitable teeth and an efficient digestive system to cope with carbohydrate digestion, meaning they can make use of these benefits. However, as with human nutrition, it’s important to provide a balance in your dog’s diet, and include other key nutrients such as protein, fat, water, vitamins and minerals. Therefore, when included as part of a healthy, balanced diet, carbohydrates can have great nutritional properties and can help support a ‘complete’ diet for your dog.
1. Di Cerbo, A., Morales-Medina, J., Palmieri, B., Pezzuto, F., Cocco, R., Flores, G. and Iannitti, T. (2017). Functional foods in pet nutrition: Focus on dogs and cats. Research in Veterinary Science, 112, pp.161-166.
2. Hine, R. (2015). A Dictionary of Biology. 7th ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp.91.
3. Fortes, C., Carciofi, A., Sakomura, N., Kawauchi, I. and Vasconcellos, R. (2010). Digestibility and metabolizable energy of some carbohydrate sources for dogs. Animal Feed Science and Technology, 156(3-4), pp.121-125.
4. Case, L., Daristotle, L., Hayek, M. and Raasch, M. (2011). Canine and feline nutrition. 3rd ed. Maryland Heights: Mosby Elsevier, pp.75-79.
5. Lee Adair, W. (2007). Digestion and Absorption of Carbohydrates, Proteins and Lipids. xPharm: The Comprehensive Pharmacology Reference, pp.1-5.