Updated: Nov 4, 2022
Once upon a time, fats were considered the enemy of a healthy diet. Fortunately, the general dog-parent population is coming around to the necessity of healthy fats in their pup’s diet. But there can always be too much of a good thing, and sometimes the line is hard to find. So how much fat—and what kind of fat—should be included in your dog’s diet?
To start, fats are more than an internal insulation system or an essential source of energy for your pet; they also promote proper growth and development, provide organ protection, and facilitate vitamin absorption and hormone regulation. If that wasn’t enough, they’re also an integral part of what makes food taste so good! But seeing fat content listed on a pet food label isn’t enough to know if it's the right type or amount for your pet, so let’s talk about fatty qualifications this week!
Too Long, Didn't Read? (TL;DR?)
Fats can be separated into two categories: saturated and unsaturated. As a general rule, saturated fats stay solid at room temperature and unsaturated fats stay liquid.
Essential Fatty Acids are found in unsaturated fats and are, indeed, essential. They include omega-6s and omega-3s—don’t sleep on these!
Your dog’s ideal balance of omega-6 to omega-3 should be between 2:1 and 6:1.
Give your dog around 100g of oily fish (herring, salmon, sardines, etc.) at least once a week.
When adding fats, stick to a 1:1 ratio of 1 teaspoon of complementary fat to 1lb of lean meat. (eg. Feeding poultry? Add saturated fats. Feeding beef, venison, lamb? Add unsaturated fat.)
The optimal total amount of fat in a dog’s diet should be 50g per 1000kcal on the label.
What About Cats and Fats?
Before you accuse us of kitty discrimination, we’d like to preface this with a reminder that dogs and cats have very different dietary needs. While dogs and cats require similar nutrients from muscle meats, organs, bones, and vegetables, they need them in different doses. This article is meant for healthy, adult dogs. If your dog is overweight, on a restricted diet, or battling any variety of illnesses, you should be working closely with your vet before making any changes to their diet.
Should You Add Fats to Your Dog’s Diet?
Whether you’re making a homemade raw diet or going the commercial route, figuring out if you need to add fats to your dog’s diet can seem overwhelming at first—but we promise it’s not as complicated as it may seem. Start by asking yourself these 4 questions:
What is the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 in your protein of choice?
Do the fats you’re adding complement the fat already present in your pet’s main protein?
How much total fat is in your protein of choice? (This is best measured in grams/1000kcal)
How is the food/oil stored, and what has been done to prevent the fat’s degradation (oxidation)?
Don’t worry; this isn’t information anyone expects the average pet parent to know off the top of their head. You can usually rely on the company that produces your dog’s food and/or oil to analyze and accurately list their fat content—both the amount and type—on their labels. If they don’t list what type of fat is included, you can always contact the company and request that information. In the meantime, let’s break down some of the main concepts concerning fat content.
Types of Fats
Before we get into the nitty-gritty of fats, let’s cover some basics. When we talk about fats, we’re breaking them into two categories: saturated and polyunsaturated fats. The difference between the two is easy to remember: saturated fats have more hydrogen—think of them as becoming “saturated” with hydrogen (2,3).
And while that’s a fascinating fact (to some), it’s not exactly the most user-friendly method of differentiating fats. Instead, a handy (but loose) rule for telling the difference between saturated and polyunsaturated fats is how they behave at room temperature. Saturated fats remain solid at room temperature—like coconut oil or the thick white fat on a lamb hock. Conversely, fats that generally stay liquid at room temperature—like fish or some plant-based oils—are unsaturated (2,3).
If you’re doing a DIY raw diet for your pet, keep in mind that modern-day commercially-raised meats tend to have a significantly higher fat content than wild prey, so try and go for the leanest cuts of meat you can. This will make it easier to balance the fat content without overdoing it (3). It should also go without saying that if a portion of meat is high in saturated fats, it’ll be lower in unsaturated fat and vice versa. If you’re looking for more essential fatty acids (EFAs), know that it’s easiest to get those through unsaturated fats.
Let’s take a step back to address that last bit there: there are saturated and unsaturated fats, and now essential fats?
The Fatty Secret to a Happy Pet: EFA’s
Not all fats are created equal, but the ones we’re BFFs with are essential fatty acids. These are fats our pets can’t synthesize from other nutrients, so they need to be added to create a healthy and well-rounded diet (1,2,3,5,6). That means that if your protein of choice is high in saturated fats, you should be looking into adding the appropriate amount of EFA’s to your pet’s diet. EFA’s fall under two main categories: omega-6s and omega-3s.
Omega-6 fatty acids include Linoleic Acid (LA) and Arachidonic Acid (AA) (2,3). Here’s where a difference in fats between our feline and canine friends appears: unlike kitties, dogs can produce AA from LA (2,6), so that’s an added bonus. No idea what those are? No worries—it’s more important to know what they do for your dog!
Your dog needs omega-6 for:
Maintaining normal brain functions
On the other hand, an insufficient amount of omega-6 can cause:
Weight loss (and not in a good way)
Hair loss (bald IS beautiful, but only sometimes)
Impaired growth (especially in puppies and larger breeds)
Increased chances of infections (1,2,3)
Omega-3, the better-known sibling of fatty acids, includes Alpha-Linolenic Acid (ALA), Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA), and Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA) (2,3). We know that’s a mouthful, but you don’t worry about pronouncing them so much as keeping in mind what they’re for!
Omega-3s are essential for:
Vision and overall eye health
Fortifying their nervous system
Without enough omega-3s, your dog may experience:
Poor memory or learning (remember, old dogs CAN learn new tricks, but it’s easier with omega-3s!)
Declining sight and hearing (2,3)
While omega-3s are invaluable to your dog’s health, they’re also quite fragile. They require some care to ensure their quality doesn’t become compromised through processing, heating, storage, or air exposure (3,7). If you’re using oil instead of whole food options, aim for buying omega-3s in amber or solid coloured bottles rather than clear ones, and store them in a cool, dry place away from direct sunlight.
Omega-6 and Omega-3 Ratios
Omega-6 fatty acids (LA and AA) can, in simple terms, be thought of as “pro-inflammatory” fatty acids (4). Normal, basic body functions require some degree of inflammation to operate smoothly, so pro-inflammation isn’t necessarily bad, so long as it’s not occurring in excess—again, coming back to “too much of a good thing.”
The best dog-friendly sources of omega-6 fatty acids are generally found in
Leafy green vegetables
Some vegetable oils, like grapeseed oil (no, it’s not poisonous to dogs like grapes), sunflower, corn, and canola oils.
On the flip side of the same coin, omega-3 fatty acids (EPA, DHA, and ALA) are commonly known as “anti-inflammatory” fats (4). These fats help decrease inflammatory processes, especially when battling arthritis and skin conditions.
The best dog-friendly omega-3 fatty acids with high amounts of EPA and DHA can be found in
Oily fish, such as sardines, salmon, and herring.
On the other hand, your dog gets the most ALA from plant oils like algae or flaxseed oils.
The idea here is to balance anti-inflammatory fats with pro-inflammatory fats without going overboard on the pro-inflammatory side of things. Omega-3s are a bit more effective at dampening inflammation than omega-6 is at causing it, so holistic vets generally advise aiming for a ratio of anywhere between 2:1 to 6:1 of omega-6 to omega-3 (3).
The Balancing Act: Complimentary Fats
Despite how it might seem so far, simplicity is the name of the game when it comes to feeding your pet. After all, you don’t need a degree in nutrition to feed yourself (though it can help) and you certainly don’t need one to feed your pets. However, you should definitely consider consulting a professional for those particularly tricky cases. We prefer to stick to the simplest rule of balancing protein fats with a 1:1 ratio: for every 1lb (454g) of lean meat, add 1 teaspoon of the appropriate oil.
Meats that are high in unsaturated fats, including poultry like chicken, turkey, and duck, benefit from oils that are rich in ALA (3,5). This includes oils such as flaxseed oil, chia seed oil or coconut oil (3,5).
On the other end of the fatty spectrum, meats that are high in saturated fats include ruminants—the hooved grazers—like beef, buffalo, lamb, and goat, so you’ll want to add oils that will provide a good balance of both LA and ALA (3,5). Hempseed oil, walnut oil, and canola oil all fall into this category (3,5).
And what about EPA and DHA? A good quality fish oil is one of the best, most reliable sources of EPA and DHA, the two main drivers of anti-inflammation effects and boosting brain health, respectively. Technically, these acids can come from ALA, but the process isn’t exactly efficient. Since we’re all about efficiency, we recommend directly supplementing your dog’s food with fish oils at least once a week, no matter what kind of diet you’re giving them (3,4,6).
What Should the Pet Food Label Say?
While it’s all well and good to have information on a label telling you there’s a 2:1 omega ratio in your dog’s food, it’s useless information if the total amount of fat isn’t given—you’re looking for a number that gives you g/1000kcal. If there isn’t enough fat to provide the benefits of those omega fats, then that perfect 2:1 ratio doesn’t offer your dog any benefits.
The National Research Council (NRC) says that the minimum total fat requirement for a normal, healthy adult dog is 13.8g/1000kcal and a maximum of 82.5g/1000kcal (2). This means that the average 45lb (20kg) dog would consume 1000kcal per day, so they would need between 13.8g and 82.5g of total fat per day. Ideally, you’d aim for that perfect goldilocks number of 48.15g, but who has time to memorize such precise decimals? Most holistic vets who have analyzed the canine ancestral diet put this number around 48–50g (3), so aim for 50g to keep it simple.
The Bottom Line
Your dog food should have close to 50g of total fat per 1000kcal listed on the label to provide enough fat needed to promote optimal health; if it doesn’t—and not all of them do!—then look to supplement your dog’s diet.
Is It Fresh?
As it turns out, feeding rancid fats can be worse than not feeding balanced fats at all (3,4,7), so we recommend prioritizing quality when it comes to choosing oils for your pet—just like with everything in a raw diet! Here are some factors that can ensure the fats in your dog’s diet are top-notch:
Look for cold-pressed and organic oils.
Try and choose locally produced oils, or at least from reputable sources in Canada, the USA or Europe.
Examine the labels for testing data or purity certifications.
In whole foods, look for products that have been vacuum packed or from a company that uses flash freezing, as this slows the breakdown of fats (7).
Read the labels for any added antioxidants like tocopherols (vitamin E), ascorbate vitamin C), quercetin (from fruits and vegetables like blueberry, apples, or parsley), rosemary extract, or tea catechins (tea extracts). These help to slow the oxidation of the sensitive oils and preserve their shelf-life.
Too High or Too Low?
Even if you’ve got the right balance of fat in terms of type—saturated vs unsaturated, omega ratios—you still need to personalize it to your dog’s weight and activity levels. An extremely active dog, say a sled dog, can easily tolerate a diet with a higher fat dosage. However, a low-energy dog on the same diet can become susceptible to diseases like pancreatitis or obesity—and obesity, in particular, can lead to a whole host of other health issues.
On the flip side, if your dog’s diet doesn’t have enough fat for their lifestyle, they could experience symptoms that range from a dull, flakey coat to cognitive decline, arthritis, trouble reproducing, and a suppressed immune system. All of this is just to say that just because you found the perfect balance and quantity of fats for your border collie doesn’t mean you should be feeding that exact diet to your Boston terrier. You know your dog is a unique individual—so feed them like one!
Finding that sweet, sweet balance of fats in your dog’s diet might at first seem like a daunting task, but it’s an essential step towards creating an optimal diet that will give your dog a long, happy, and healthy life. Once you find a brand of food you can trust you’ll find that you’ll quickly get into a routine of supplementing healthy and tasty fats into your pet’s diet; with a little bit of practice, you’ll be a fatty expert before long!
Rishniw M. Essential Fatty Acids. Medical FAQ Veterinary Information Network Article May 17, 2007 (published) | January 6, 2020 (revised). www.vin.com
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Brown, S. Unlocking the Canine Ancestral Diet Healthier Dog Food the ABC Way. Wenatchee, Washington, USA. Dogwise Publishing 2010
Stoeckel K, Hojvang Nielson L, Fuhrmann H, Bachmann L. Fatty acid patterns of dog erythrocyte membranes after feeding of a fish-oil based DHA-rich supplement with a base diet low in n-3 fatty acids versus a diet containing added n-3 fatty acids. Acta Veterinaria Scandinavica, P 53-57 2011
Henriques, J (ed.) Balancing Fats For A Healthier Dog. Online article. June 17, 2016
Bauer JJE. Essential Fatty acid metabolism in dogs and cats. Revista Brasileira de Zootecnia, v.37, suplemento especial p.20-27, 2008
Dawson P, Al-Jeddawi W, Remington N. Review Article: Effects of Freezing on Shelf Life of Salmon. Hindawi International Journal of Food Science. Vol 2018, Article ID 1686121 p.1-12, 2018
Habib R (ed.) Want to know why the low-cost, nutrient-packed “sardine” is a must add to your pet’s diet plan? Planet Paws Online article. https://www.planetpaws.ca/2015/10/14/sardines-for-dogs/