Dogs are omnivores, gaining their essential nutrients from both animal and plant sources. Their wolf relations are opportunistic eaters, hunting and scavenging what is available to them. Our domestic dogs have altered in many ways from their lupine ancestors. But their digestive systems are still well adapted to eating a wide range of foods.
The aims of a good dog food are to optimise health and longevity, and to facilitate growth and performance. Poor nutrition can affect many areas of a dog’s health and wellbeing; from their coat condition to their immune system, their organ function to their behaviour.
Knowing some basics of dog nutrition can be very handy when trying to decide which of the myriad of dog foods to choose from. Fat is one of the macronutrients: a type of food required in large amounts in a dog’s diet. Its amount varies in different dog diets, and is needed in different quantities for different stages of a dog’s life.
What are fats?
Fats are nutritional compounds which are high in energy. They are part of the lipid family. Lipids which are solid at room temperature are called fats, those which are liquid are called oils. Fats and oils must be digested before being absorbed in the gut. Dogs are very efficient at digesting lipids, although high levels of saturated fats do reduce digestibility. Excess lipid in the diet is converted to fat and stored in special cells in the body.
Why do dogs need fats?
Fats are important in the diet for fulfilling energy needs, supplying essential fatty acids (EFAs) and are needed for the absorption of certain vitamins.
Fats are a very concentrated form of energy, supplying over twice as much metabolisable energy per gram as either protein or carbohydrate.
Fatty acids are essential for maintaining the structure of cells, they help manage inflammation and are needed for optimal functioning of various systems such as the eyes and brain. Dogs cannot make all of the essential fatty acids themselves, so are reliant on their diet to provide them. Linoleic acid is the parent to the omega-6 fatty acids, and alpha-linolenic acid is for the omega-3s.
Dogs need fats for absorption of the fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E and K) from the gut. The lipid content of food helps these vitamins be taken through the intestinal walls to be used in the body.
Most commercial dog foods will contain oils and fats from a mixture of animal and plant material.
Feeding for life stage
It is well accepted that different stages of growth and development in a dog’s life will have differing nutritional needs. Puppies may need a different balance of energy and protein for growth than an older dog, for example. And specific events such as pregnancy lead to altered nutritional needs.
According to The European Pet Food Industry Federation (FEDIAF) guidelines, the base minimum amount of fat for healthy young adult dogs is 5.5% (of the food’s dry matter). It is also specified that 1% of the food needs to be linoleic acid, one of the essential fatty acids. The recommended amount of fat for young, active adults is 8-20% of dry matter. Mature adults are more likely to gain excess weight, and so this should drop to 8-15%, with those with low activity levels or prone to obesity using the lower end at 8-10% dry matter.
A dog in pup should be fed a normal young adult diet for their first two-thirds of pregnancy. In the last few weeks, their energy requirements are much higher. And fat content can be increased up to around 20%, especially for giant-breed dogs and those with large litters. Increased maternal fat intake leads to more fat in the milk, which benefits puppies, who are born with large energy needs. Essential fatty acids are hugely important to puppy growth and development. It is therefore recommended to ensure the mother is fed adequate levels of fat and fatty acids. The FEDIAF recommend a minimum fat level of 8.5% for growth and reproduction.
From the age of weaning to adulthood, puppies still require good amounts of fat in their diet. They have high energy requirements due to rapid growth and development alongside frequent activity. Essential fatty acids are also required in higher levels for growth, including DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) which is needed for puppies’ brains, sight and hearing to develop normally. A fat level of 10-25% of dry matter is recommended to fulfil energy requirements from weaning to adulthood. If a diet is chosen that is lower in fat, care must be taken to ensure adequate levels of EFAs.
What happens if dogs get the wrong amount of fat?
Feeding a diet which is too high in fat can lead to obesity, heart disease and liver problems. Obesity is rising amongst pet dogs, and can potentiate chronic health issues such as diabetes, and exacerbate conditions such as arthritis.
However, fat is an important nutrient, and an important part of a balanced diet. Too little fat and corresponding fatty acids leads to dry, scaly skin and a poorly conditioned coat, reduces wound healing, and affects reproductive performance.
Dietary fat: summing up
Dietary fat is a macronutrient: needed in large quantities in a dog’s diet. Fat is needed for energy, to produce essential fatty acids and to carry fat-soluble vitamins through digestion. The amount of fat needed in a diet depends on your dog’s age, activity level and any specific needs such as pregnancy. Too much fat can lead to obesity, but too little can cause nutritional deficiencies. Feeding your dog a complete and balanced diet suitable for their life stage is a safe way to provide fat in the correct quantity.