Fat tends to get a lot of bad press but fats are an essential part of a balanced diet for dogs. Without fats, your dog can't survive.
Not every fat or oil is good for our pets, however. The source, quality, and quantity of fat needs to be carefully considered
Fat - the low down
Fat is made up of fatty acid molecules that are joined together, usually in groups of three (a triglyceride). When eaten and digested, it's broken down into single fatty acids, which are then absorbed into the blood and used in a variety of different bodily functions. These include:
- Acting as an energy source
- Vitamin absorption
- Energy store
Fats are also involved in the development and function of nerves, muscles and the brain, hormone production and help maintain a healthy skin and coat, and a strong immune system.
One word, many forms
While fat is one word, it's important to remember that there are different types of fat, which are found in different types of food. Dogs don't seem to have a list of 'bad' or 'good' fats. Instead, fats for dogs are classified as either facilitative or functional.
Fats contribute to the palatability and texture of your dog's food. Adding palatability demonstrates how fats can be facilitative because no food can be nutritious if it is not eaten. This is obviously a critical function.
Functional fats are usually essential fatty acids (EFAs). EFAs are fats that must be supplied in the diet because the dog's body can't produce them.
Saturated fats are normally solid at room temperature.
In humans, increased levels of saturated fats are associated with high cholesterol and heart disease. These are generally considered 'bad fats' because consuming too much of them can lead to health problems. However, this isn't the case for dogs.
Cholesterol comes in two forms - high density lipoprotein (HDL) also known as 'good' cholesterol and low density lipoprotein (LDL) or 'bad' cholesterol. Too much saturated fat raises the levels of LDL in the blood, which can lead to heart problems in humans.
However dogs naturally have more 'good' cholesterol (HDL) than 'bad' cholesterol (LDL), meaning the fat they consume in their diet doesn't affect their cholesterol levels.
Nonetheless, dog owners should still moderate the amount of saturated fat included in their dog's diet because too high levels can lead to obesity, diabetes and arthritis. This type of fat may also affect the progression of renal disease.
Unsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature.
Unsaturated fats are found in two forms - monounsaturated and polyunsaturated - unsaturated fats provide all of the benefits of fats and far fewer of the downsides. And they are the source of the EFAs we will discuss below.
Essential fatty acids (EFA):
These are fatty acids that dogs cannot make themselves so they need to be included in their diet.
All essential fatty acids are polyunsaturated.
There are two main groups of EFAs: Omega-3 fats and omega-6 fats.
Linoleic acid (LA), is the most important omega-6 fat for dogs, since it is used to produce other omega-6 fats. It is primarily found in poultry fat, egg yolks and plant oils such as primrose oil, olive oil and sunflower oil.
There are three types of Omega-3 fatty acids.
Alpha linolenic acid (ALA), primarily found in flaxseed oil.
Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), primarily found in oily fish such as anchovies, mackerel, herring, sardines and wild salmon.
EPA and DHA are the preferred form of omega-3 fats for dogs. This is because most of the healthy benefits linked to omega-3 fats are linked to EPA and DHA, not the plant based ALA.
Balance is key
There's no denying the importance of including fat in your dog's diet and the role it plays in keeping your dog healthy and happy.
But like most foods, when too much is consumed, the negative effects start to out-weight the positive.
This means dog owners need to be careful about the amount of fat they include in their dog's diet as well as the type and ratio of fat.
Most dogs consume far too many Omega-6 fats and too few Omega-3 fats.
Small changes - like not feeding fatty table scraps or that leftover sausage - can all make a big difference and help reduce the amount of 'bad' fats they eat.
It may be beneficial to supplement with high quality fish body oil. The National Research Council has established a safe upper limit of 100 - 150 mg of EPA and DHA combined per 5 kg of body weight daily as safe.
It's also important to keep your dog active to make sure they burn off any extra fat that they don't need.
Kristina is certified in Advanced Canine Nutrition.
She provides consultations on general canine nutrition and home prepared diets working closely with a wide variety of vets. Kristina also write articles on canine nutrition and care for many publications. You can visit her at: Elmoskitchen.com
She recently finished her first booklet; "How to Choose the Best Commercial Dog Food". This guide explains the latest facts and findings on a variety of ingredients and pet food marketing, as well as debunking some popular myths.