Fat: it’s a big word these days.
Over the years, it has become synonymous and used interchangeably with obesity, unhealthiness, laziness - the list goes on. Scientific and popular thought in the second half of the 20th Century was that fat was the cause of all our health woes.
The explosion of the low-fat diet craze in the 1980’s and 1990’s was meant to herald a new healthier era of the Western diet.
Except it didn’t.
Fat was replaced with sugar and people continued to pile on the pounds. These new ‘low-fat’ foods were just as calorific (often more so) than what went previously. Gradually, we’ve come to realise that ‘low-fat’ diets are a false ideology. Calories consumed vs calories expended is the only reliable metric for the loss or gain of bodyweight.
So what does this have to do with dogs?
Like it or not, we still have a strong bias to assess our dog's nutritional requirements based on ours. So fat still lingers in the popular consciousness as something to be avoided.
And at a time when we’re putting much more thought and effort into what we feed our pets, this would be a precarious oversight.
Fat is an important macronutrient for dogs - even more so because dogs have no nutritional use for carbohydates. Like anything, it's important to understand how and when it's needed.
Here’s our rundown of why and when you shouldn’t be afraid of including (fresh) fat in your dog’s diet:
- Protein builds muscle + fat creates energy
- There are 3 basic building blocks to all food: protein, carbohydrates and fat.
- As most of us are aware, a high protein diet has been scientifically shown to improve overall wellbeing, condition and health in dogs - which is no surprise given this type of diet is evolutionarily and species-appropriate. Similar to us, dogs use protein as the building blocks for muscle, matter, hormones and a raft of other important cellular activities.
- That's just about where the similarities end though. While carbohydrates provide a good source of energy for us, our digestive system is also set up to help break down these complex molecules - we have longer digestive tracts and we secrete amylase via our salivary glands, which starts the breakdown of carbohydrates before they even hit our stomach. In contrast, metabolising carbohydrates places strain on dog's pancreas as it's only at this stage where the appropriate breakdown starts.
- Instead, dogs use fats as their main energy source. In fact, according to the National Research Council's Nutrient Requirements of Dogs and Cats, while minimum standards for fat, amino acids, vitamins and minerals are established, no minimum requirement for carbohydrates is.
- This is supported by their biological structure too though. Dogs' shorter digestive tracts, as well as the symbiotic relationship between bile and lipase all help digest fats much more efficiently than they're able to with carbohydrates.
- So, in amongst all of this it stands to reason that dogs with higher energy requirements (e.g. very active dogs), or dogs who need high caloric intakes will have a higher fat requirement than those who are less active, or require low energy diets.
- Don’t worry too much about ‘good’ fats and ‘bad fats’
- The notion that polyunsaturated fats are ‘good’ and saturated fats are ‘bad’ holds somewhat true for us humans. However, while cholestrol is a concern for us, it’s not so much for our four-legged friends. It turns out that they always have more good cholesterol (HDL) than bad cholesterol (LDL), regardless of the type of fat they consume. Therefore, they are much less vulnerable to coronary artery diseases than we are. In fact, Bauer, 2008 outlines how saturated fats play an important role in providing energy for the regulation of body temperature, growth and reproduction - without the elevation in cholesterols that would typically be found in humans. So there’s no need to overthink it - just stay away from putrified, rendered fats that show up in many commercial foods as these impact dog's bodies in completely different ways.
- Fat-soluble Vitamins
- One of the biggest risks of putting a pet on a 'low fat diet' to help them lose weight is vitamin deficiencies. Vitamins A, D, E & K are the fat-soluble vitamins that are essential for healthy growth and development and are found in animal fat and offal. A diet lacking in fat-soluble vitamins can have serious consequences - particularly when we consider that dogs cannot manufacture some of these on their own. They must get them through diet. Also remember that dog's brain matter (like ours) is made up of approximately 60% fat. Lack of replenishing fats in the diet can impair cognitive functioning - particularly for seniors.
- Omega Fatty Acids
- These essential fatty acids (EFA’s) are fat-carried nutrients that have a plethora of functions for the health maintenance of all mammals. They are critical for brain development and cognitive function. A deficiency in EFAs also carries a whole range of health concerns, including chronic skin and coat disorders, cardiovascular disease, digestive problems and allergies. Just as important as including EFAs in their diet is getting the balance right - check out our blog on this very subject if you’d like to know more!
So what does this all mean in terms of what you should be feeding your dog?
Well... it depends on their specific energy and nutritional requirements.
Here are tips to figuring this out:
If you have a high energy dog, one who needs to increase body fat or a large breed dog who needs a high calorie vs intake diet, then opt for proteins like Duck and Lamb, which are naturally slightly higher in fat content.
Beef is a great in-betweener as it provides an opportunity to get high quality protein, and is a great source of iron, selenium, zinc, B12 and phosphorus. It's also easier to digest than Kangaroo, which given its lower fat percentage (naturally ~2%) can cause digestive upset in some dogs.
However, if your dog has issues digesting fats or has had pancreatic issues then opt for meats that are naturally lower in fat: Chicken or Kangaroo hit the mark here.
If you're feeding raw and want to help them shed a bit of puppy fat, it's worth noting that portion size and adjusting exercise (where possible) should all be used to help moderate as well as rotating lower fat proteins.
The big note is that as with everything, moderation is the key. As you can end up causing completely different however similarly harmful nutritional deficiencies feeding a completely low-fat diet as you would feeding a high fat diet.