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The word "fat" for dogs is often linked to negative connotations, but the right fats & fatty acids are essential to your dog's health.
As dog parents, when we hear the word fat, it often comes with a bad reputation when this isn’t typically the case when you listen to nutritionist or veterinary advice.
Dogs require dietary fat for many reasons to maintain health
Also, when we hear the word fatty acids, fish oil comes to mind most often but there are multiple fatty acids that are beneficial (and required) in our dogs' diets.
That’s what we will mainly explore in this guide:
- Why fat is not necessarily bad, and
- What fatty acids are required in a dog’s diet
Let's talk about which fats are the good ones and where to find them in foods.
Why fat isn't bad and actually can be important for dogs
Fat is one of the three main macronutrients that make up a dog’s diet - protein, fat, and carbohydrates - and is a necessary nutrient in a dog's body and useful part of dog foods. Fat provides a great source of energy and insulation, transports nutrients throughout the body like fat soluble vitamins, and is highly digestible.
Healthy fats in proper balance provide energy, fuel normal development, support optimizing a dog's weight and weight loss, and can help replace itchy skin with healthy skin and keep your dog's coat shiny.
Keep an eye out for too much fat or too little for your individual dog
Diets that provide too much or too little fat for a dog can be harmful so it’s important to meet the needs of your dog’s fat requirements. Most dogs who are not prone to conditions like pancreatitis can also go over their requirement as long as they’re not going over the safe upper limit.
Which dogs need less fat and which need more
For dogs with conditions like pancreatitis, fat restriction is critical -- too much fat can have various adverse reactions in a dog with pancreatitis. Otherwise, dogs tolerate (and love) fat content in their food. In fact, dogs who are very athletic need additional fat in their diet (most famously, sled dogs on a high fat diet). Fat is the quickest form of energy. Fat also plays a role when it comes to treating cancer in dogs.
Which fats & fatty acids are needed by your dog & where to find them
Dogs require both omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6 fatty acids in their diet. Omega-3 contains docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and Alpha Linoleic Acid (ALA) while omega-6 contains Linoleic Acid (LA).
There is quite a bit of extensive information that goes into each of these fatty-acids so please feel free to ask any specific questions in the Community discussion in the Basic Nutrition Channel here on Dogly. I'm not going to get super technical yet but just as an example - LA produces gamma-linoleic acid (GLA) and arachidonic acid (AA), both of which are also important to a dog’s diet. Sometimes in itchy dogs we will supplement with GLA if their bodies cannot produce enough from LA.
Essential fatty acids if you feed kibble/dry dog food...
If we take a look at healthy fat and where to find certain fatty acids in foods, Omega-3 fatty acids are usually underrepresented in commercial dog food (with exceptions in higher quality dog foods), while less good fats can be overrepresented as ways to try to make dog foods taste good. The good news is Omega-3 fatty acids can be found in fish (oily fish like salmon, sardines are richest) and easily supplemented on top of kibble if you're feeding dry dog food.
Essential fatty acids if you feed raw food, fresh food, or a cooked homemade diet...
Or, if you feed a raw food diet or a homemade diet, it's worth incorporating these "good fats" foods into your meals since Omega-3 fatty acids support your dog's immune system, reduce inflammation, support healthy joints, all while increasing nutrient absorption to give your dog access to the many other good things in his/her bowl.
Sources of these fats & essential fatty acids:
LA - vegetable oils, safflower oil, sunflower oils, poultry, pork
ALA - flaxseed, canola oil, chia seeds
EPA/DHA - fish and fish oils
How to balance the fats for your dog's health
“Balancing the fats” is a term often discussed in raw or homemade feeding. Balancing refers to a specifically balanced ratio that ensures that the fat requirements are being met but also that you aren’t feeding too much of omega-6 fats or omega-3 fatty acids.
Unfortunately there is not a defined ratio for omega-6 to omega-3 balance but many follow a 6:1 or in the range of a 5:1 - 10:1 ratio for healthy dogs. And many will go further to lower the fatty acid balance to a 2:1 or 1:1 ratio for diets focused on anti-inflammation or anti-cancer.
Okay, but tell me more...
Achieving this ratio can be done in a few ways but often requires feeding fish oils or other supplements to achieve the desired ratio if you're feeding kibble. However, if you feed a homemade or raw diet, you can more easily manipulate the ingredients to achieve the right balance of fats for your dog.
As a general overview, here are some foods & their omega-6 to omega-3 ratios:
- Poultry 3:1
- Beef 5:1
- Lamb 5:1
- Eggs (chicken) 2:1
- Safflower oil 13:1
- Sunflower oil 7:1
- Flaxseed oil 1:3
- Fish Oils (salmon) 1:2.5
Give me an example
For example, if you're using chicken as your protein source, adding in some fish oil or flaxseed will help increase the omega-3 content.
Or, if you're using beef as your protein source, adding in some vegetable oil or flaxseed will help increase the omega-3 content.
It's important to note that you don't want to go overboard with any one particular ingredient - so even though flaxseed is a good source of omega-3, you don't want to use all flaxseed in your dog's diet as that would throw off the ratio of other essential nutrients.
The same goes for fish oil - even though it's a good source of omega-3, you don't want to use too much as it can cause loose stools.
If you're ever in doubt, consult with a holistic veterinarian or a canine nutritionist like myself to get a professional opinion on what's best for your dog.
Next up in the Basic Nutrition Channel on Dogly
Now that you have a better understanding of fat for dogs in dog food, let's dive into needed vitamins for your dog and understand why and how to feed each. Or you can always go back to the intro on why essential nutrients are important for your dog or my guides on Protein and Carbohydrates here.
If you have questions about fats and fatty acids and your dog, hop over to the Basic Nutrition Channel to ask any nutrition questions in the Community discussion or start any of the other step-by-step guides. If you ever need more personalized nutrition guidance, please reach out!
Vet Nutrition at Tufts
Raw Fed & Nerdy