Fats for Dogs

Jennifer Coates, DVM
Written by:
Published: November 17, 2022
Fats for Dogs

Fat usually gets a bad rap, but it’s actually an important nutrient for dogs. Pet parents need to ensure their dogs get the right amounts and the right types of fat in their diets. This is made easier because, unlike with people, too much “bad fat” in a dog’s diet doesn’t have much of an effect on their cholesterol levels and their risk of heart attack or stroke.

Here’s what you should know about the type and amount of fat dogs need.

Do Dogs Need Fats in Their Diet?

Fats are an important part of a dog’s diet, but it’s helpful to divide fats into two types to understand their different functions.

Triglycerides

The fats most commonly found in the body and the diet are triglycerides, which are composed of three fatty acids attached to a glycerol molecule.

In the diet, triglycerides:

  • Are a great source of energy

  • Make food taste good

  • Help the body absorb fat-soluble vitamins

In the body, triglycerides:

  • Store energy

  • Store essential fatty acids

  • Provide cushioning

  • Reduce heat loss

  • Transport molecules

  • Are structural elements in cell membranes

  • Help conduct nerve impulses

Fatty acids

Individual fatty acids play many roles in cell structure and function. Only small amounts of fatty acids are needed in the diet, but they are vitally important. Here are a few of their most noteworthy roles:

  • Omega-6 fatty acids like linoleic acid and arachidonic acid promote skin and coat health.

  • Omega-3 fatty acids like eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) reduce inflammation.

  • Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), an omega-3 fatty acid, encourages healthy development of the nervous system and eyes.

Fatty acids can be divided into two categories: essential and nonessential.

  • Essential fatty acids (linoleic acid and alpha-linolenic acid for dogs) must be supplied by the diet because the body can’t make enough of them on its own.

  • Nonessential fatty acids can be made by the body, but higher levels may be necessary at certain times of life. For example, DHA is added to high-quality puppy diets to promote brain and eye development.

Sources of Fats for Dogs

Triglycerides and fatty acids are part of a variety of ingredients that are commonly found in dog foods. Animal sources like chicken fat or beef fat provide a lot of triglycerides and arachidonic acid. Ingredients like fish oil, purified algal oil, and flaxseed oil add omega-3 fatty acids, while corn oil, soybean oil, sunflower oil, and canola oil contain primarily omega-6 fatty acids.

All of these (and other) ingredients can be healthy sources of fats and fatty acids when used in combination. What’s most important is that a dog’s diet provides an appropriate level of overall fat (triglycerides), all essential fatty acids, and a good balance between omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids.

How Much Fat Does My Dog Need?

For a dog food to be labeled nutritionally complete and balanced, the manufacturer must follow guidelines from the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). The AAFCO minimum crude fat level for dogs is 5% for adults and 8% for puppies. The term “crude fat” is used on nutrition labels to note how much total fat is included in the product. The word “crude” says nothing about the types of fats or their quality; it simply refers to the method used to test the product’s fat level.

The ideal fat content of a dog’s diet will depend on many factors. Growing puppies, dogs that are pregnant or nursing, very active dogs, and dogs who need to gain weight generally need higher fat levels. Dogs that are overweight, inactive, or suffer from certain types of health conditions like pancreatitis or hyperlipidemia can benefit from low-fat diets.

Talk to your veterinarian if you have concerns about the amount or types of fat in your dog’s diet.

How to Calculate How Much Fat Is in Your Dog’s Food

AAFCO’s nutrient guidelines are reported on a dry matter basis—that is, the percentage of the nutrients if all the water were taken out.

Dry diets contain so little water that you can look at the crude fat level on the guaranteed analysis panel on the package to get a general idea of how much fat the food contains.

But if you feed wet food, you’ll need to do some math:

  1. Find the percent moisture listed in the guaranteed analysis and subtract that number from 100. This is the percent dry matter for the food.

  2. Divide the fat percentage on the label by the percent dry matter for the food and multiply by 100. The resulting number is the fat percentage on a dry matter basis.

For example, a canned food label might list its moisture content as 82% and its crude fat as 3%. To calculate the food’s fat level on a dry matter basis, your calculations would be 100-82=18 and then 3/18 x 100 = 16.7% fat

Should You Supplement Your Dog’s Diet With Certain Fats?

As long as you’re feeding foods that meet AAFCO guidelines, you do not need to worry about adding extra triglycerides to your dog’s diet. In fact, doing so can be dangerous.

Feeding dogs high-fat foods, including fatty human foods like meat trimmings, can lead to a potentially life-threatening condition called pancreatitis. And because fats contain almost three times as many calories as proteins and carbohydrates, adding extra fat to a dog’s diet can lead to obesity.

On the other hand, supplementing your dog’s diet with omega-3 or omega-6 fatty acids can be beneficial. Veterinarians often recommend omega-3 fatty acid supplements as part of the treatment for inflammatory diseases like osteoarthritis or allergic skin disease. Omega-3 fatty acids can also play a role in the treatment of heart disease and cancer.

Salmon oil, other cold-water fish oils, algal oils, and to a lesser extent, flaxseed oil, are excellent sources of omega-3 fatty acids for dogs. Dogs with skin problems may also benefit from omega-6 fatty acid supplementation.

Talk to your veterinarian if you have concerns about the amount or types of fat in your dog’s diet.

Featured Image: iStock/O_Lypa


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