Low-Fat Dog Foods: The Definitive Guide and the Expert’s View

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It’s no secret that as Americans have gotten heavier in the 21st century, so have their pets. The epidemic of dog obesity in the U.S. has resulted in canine health concerns ranging from diabetes to joint issues. Owners are often advised to ensure that their dogs get enough exercise, which is always important. However, dogs also usually need to have their diets changed to lose weight or to keep it off. 

Many dog owners think that a low-fat dog food could be the best option to help their dog lose weight. For us humans, reducing fat in the diet can help us lose weight, but how does reducing the amount of fat in a dog’s food translate to a dog’s nutritional needs? There are some medical conditions that require a low-fat dog food, but for some dogs, a low-carbohydrate dog food is the best choice. In this article, we will examine the uses for low-fat dog food, and how to select one if it’s needed to help with weight management or with medical conditions. We will also hear from Dr. Susan Wynn, an Atlanta-based veterinarian and nationally recognized expert in pet nutrition. 

low fat dog food

First, the Basics: What Is Low-Fat Dog Food?

Typically, the average of dry matter fat (the amount of fat found in the food, sans the water) found in dog foods contain an average of 16 percent in dry food, 23 percent in wet/canned food, and 32 percent in raw food, according to Dog Food Advisor.com. See the chart below listing the dry matter fat content in typical commercial foods.

Dry matter fat content dog food

Dog foods can contain a variety of fats and oils as part of their fat component. There can be animal fats and fish oils, as well as vegetable-based fats like coconut oil, vegetable oil, etc. The healthiest animal fats for dogs are whole-food ingredients like chicken fat. If a dog food says it contains chicken fat, that’s a good sign of quality compared with a food that simply states that it contains “animal fats.” The latter is a vague term than can mean used restaurant oils, rendering plant discards, or worse.

Dogs also need fatty acids, including Omega-3s and Omega-6s, which are typically added to commercial dog foods. Fish and fish oil are easily accessible sources of Omega-3 fatty acids. 

It’s important to remember that if a manufacturer is reducing fat in its dog food formula, it’s replacing that fat with something else. If a formulation reduces fat, it’s also reducing the predominant source of fat, which is animal meat. Many manufacturers will add low-fat plant protein in order to keep up the protein level. Others are likely replacing those calories with carbohydrates and not protein content like meat or fish. This may be useful if a dog truly needs to avoid fats for a medical reason (more on this below) but it is unlikely helping your dog lose weight or to maintain optimal health. Dogs can adapt to eating a variety of foods, which has helped them survive over time, but consuming the right amount and type of fat is important for your dog’s health, a shiny coat, and energy.

What Types and Amounts of Fats Are Recommended for Dogs?

Fats are critical for a dog’s health and well-being. The amount of fat in different brands of dog food can vary widely, according to the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), the organization that set standards that almost every state in the U.S. adopts. Here are general guidelines for the percentage of dry matter fat in a dog’s diet according to age and health concerns:

  • Puppies and Growth: Puppies need a minimum of 8 percent fat, while the ideal amount is 17 percent.
  • Healthy Adult Dogs: Adult dogs need a minimum of 18 percent protein and 5 percent fat.
  • Extremely Active Adult Dogs and Working Dogs: More fat in their diet is a good idea because they will be burning more energy. This amount can be 10 percent or more.
  • Senior Dogs: Unless your dog has any of the health issues listed below, follow the recommendations for healthy adult dogs.

Health issues that can influence the appropriate amount of fat in a dog’s food include allergies, skin and coat issues, digestive or gastrointestinal issues, and pancreatitis. See below for more details.

Dr. Susan Wynn, a Veterinarian and Board Certified Clinical nutritionist based in Georgia, advises owners to take a holistic and higher-level view of their dog’s diet. In general, she says, “Formulated diets that are lower in fat may contain sources of carbohydrates such as corn, lentils, rice, sweet potato, etc. These are not just fillers – they contain important nutrients. We recommend that your pet’s diet be balanced in calories, protein and other nutrients to maintain your pet’s optimum condition, rather than conform to some standard that doesn’t apply to his or her lifestyle.”

Also, it’s important to remember that while we may love our dogs like children, that doesn’t mean dogs have the same nutritional needs as humans. Too much fat can indeed affect a dog’s weight, but that doesn’t mean dog food branded as low-fat dog is the answer.

“A veterinarian would not recommend searching for low fat food,” Dr. Wynn says. “A veterinarian would recommend searching for a weight management food, which has specific characteristics to support active weight loss. These foods include at least two characteristics. One is lower calorie density, which is measured in kcal per cup. The other characteristic of these lower-calorie foods is that they have enhanced levels of trace nutrients, to compensate for a lower food volume intake.”

Calorie levels in dog food may actually be more of a concern than fat content. Reduced calorie food may have reduced fat calories, reduced carb calories, or reduced protein calories, or a combination of all of these. Fat has more calories per ounce than do either protein or carbohydrates, so many low-calorie dog foods do in fact have reduced amounts of fats, but formulations can differ widely among brands. 

However, “natural,” whole foods like raw uses “pure,” unprocessed proteins which provide “natural” fat.  Most raw food (not food mixed with raw) with a high percentage of meat ratio (at least 60 percent) will naturally provide an appropriate level of fat and minerals for your pet. In many cases, serving a natural diet like raw – along with exercise – can help with weight loss more than low-fat foods can.

The Benefits of Low-Fat Foods for Dogs

A low-fat dog food can be beneficial to dogs with certain health conditions, or dogs who may need to lose a few pounds. Here are some benefits that low-fat dog food can provide:

  1. It helps prevent and treat pancreatitis.
  2. It helps counteract epic dog obesity issues.
  3. It addresses allergies for dogs who are sensitive to certain ingredients, as diagnosed by a veterinarian.

Just keep in mind that reducing fats may not be the right type of calorie reduction for your dog. Consult with a veterinarian to determine whether reducing carbs may be a better choice.

Health Issues Requiring a Low-Fat Dog Food

Pancreatitis is a serious, often fatal disease in dogs. The symptoms of pancreatitis in dogs can include one or more of the following: loss of appetite, lethargy, fever, abdominal pain, vomiting, and sensitivity to touch. The disease can be acute or chronic.

  • Acute: Acute pancreatitis is the inflammation of the pancreas that occurs abruptly and that can lead to issues like diabetes.
  • Chronic: Chronic pancreatitis is an ongoing inflammatory disease that often results in irreversible changes. Pancreatitis also can recur, so preventing recurrence is critical.

A low-fat food can help a dog with pancreatitis because consuming less fat allows the pancreas to “rest” and not have to work so hard. According to Dr. Wynn, not much is known about the cause of pancreatitis in dogs. “No one knows what causes it and the condition in people is different from that in dogs, and cats as well. We believe that many conditions are associated with, or could play a role in the disease,” she says. “These include hyperlipidemia, dietary indiscretion, obesity, diets that contain a high proportion of fat to protein, hypercalcemia, steroid therapy, some liver infections, and some drugs, like phenobarbital, potassium bromide, azathioprine, and L-asparaginase. The tendency to develop pancreatitis may also be inherited in miniature schnauzers.”

Dr. Wynn advocates for a low-fat diet for dogs to treat pancreatitis and prevent recurrences. “There are no over-the-counter diets that have fat contents restricted to the extent that are often needed for these patients. We would recommend prescription diets (homemade or commercial) for this purpose, so speak with your veterinarian. The prescription diets for pancreatitis, lymphangiectasis, and hyperlipidemia must be low in fat, but they do not necessarily need to be enhanced for the trace nutrients since these dogs are eating a normal number of calories, just from sources other than fats.”

Another critical dog health issue affected by fat intake is lymphangiectasis, or protein-losing enteropathy. The disease affects the lymph vessels in a dog’s intestines and causes serious conditions, including ongoing diarrhea and the loss of proteins like globulin and serum albumin. Dogs with this condition will need to be fed an ultra-low-fat diet as well.

Dr. Wynn is careful to draw the line between these low-fat dog foods and weight-loss dog foods. “Remember that for weight loss, we are reducing calories (which leads to a reduction in other nutrients), and we might not want to do that for pancreatitis patients. And more protein and carbohydrates may mean similar levels of calories, or sometimes more, in these low-fat formulations compared with regular dog food.”

Other than pancreatitis, there are other conditions that may call for low-fat dog food. These issues can involve certain allergies, but they mostly relate to the digestive system. Here are some of other conditions that may require low-fat dog food:

  • Dog Digestive Issues: This specifically refers to a dog’s inability to easily digest fats or proteins.
  • Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD): A dog that with chronic vomiting and diarrhea may be suffering from one of several types of IBD. The most common type of canine IBD is lymphocytic-plasmocytic IBD. If IBD is accompanied by lymphangiectasis, low-fat diets help because they reduce the pressure of fat that gets stuck in the intestinal tract
  • Exocrine Pancreatic Insufficiency (EPI): This issue also involves the pancreas but is less severe than pancreatitis. The pancreas secretes critical enzymes to support absorption of food, and if a dog has EPI, that absorption may be hindered, causing the dog to be be extremely underweight or even look starved.
  • Extreme Obesity: In cases of severe obesity, limiting fats, protein, and carbohydrates will reduce overall calories.

Common Sources of Fats in Dog Foods

In general, fat content in dog food should come from a meat source, like beef, bison, lamb, chicken, or fish. It’s not uncommon, however, to see plant-based oils in commercial dog foods. Many veterinarians suggest avoiding foods with too much canola, corn or soybean oil, as those oils can add too many Omega-6 fatty acids proportionally to a dog’s diet. 

What Are the Ingredients in Low-Fat Dog Food?

Ideally, a low-fat dog food should be higher in protein, not just in carbohydrates, to make up for the reduced amount of fat. The protein sources should come from meat. Medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) are found in vegetable sources like coconut oil, and advice varies on whether these fats are good for dogs, and in what dose. Dr. Wynn advises checking with your veterinarian or a canine nutrition expert.

Dr. Wynn also notes that pet owners should not be alarmed simply at the idea of inclusion of carbohydrates in the diet. “Dogs can benefit from carbohydrates, especially helpful are carbohydrate sources that contain other nutrients like protein, including lentils and peas. Those can be very healthy for your dog,” she explains.

Why Choose a Low-Fat Grain-free Dog Food? 

Some dog foods are not only lower in fat but are free of grain, which can be helpful for a dog that’s allergic to grains or needs low-fat food for a condition like pancreatitis or less serious health issues. It’s important to note that “grain-free” doesn’t mean “carb-free,” but means that the sources of carbohydrates are beans, legumes, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and other vegetables and fruits. If you have concerns about the latest FDA finding about grain food and it’s relation to DCM, you may consider replacing grains with healthy alternatives that are naturally found in raw foods.

What Are the Benefits of Low-Fat, Low-Protein Dog Food?

Some dogs may require a diet that is both low in fat and low in protein. Generally, these include dogs with a digestive issue that would benefit from lower fat intake, in addition to having kidney issues. Kidney disease or kidney failure is a progressive issue that can affect older dogs. Reducing protein intake can sometimes ease the burden on kidneys and help them recover some functionality, or slow their deterioration. These issues should always be treated and supervised by a veterinarian.

Does My Pet Need Low-Fat, High-Fiber Dog Food?

If your dog needs a low-fat dog food, but also needs an increase in fiber, you have a few options. There are some commercial and prescription dog foods that are low in fat and higher in fiber, but you may be able to simply supplement your dog’s low-fat food with either psyllium or plain canned pumpkin. That solution can often address fiber issues without having to opt for a special, high-fiber dog food.

What Should Not Be in a Low-Fat Dog Food?

As always, you’ll want to read your dog-food label. As mentioned earlier, watch to be sure that the calories aren’t just from added carbohydrates, unless your vet says your dog specifically needs more carbs compared to protein. A high percentage of grains isn’t ideal for your dog, either. Also, be sure your dog food doesn’t contain preservatives like BHA or BHT, which are known to irritate the pancreas. 

What Supplements Help a Dog on a Low-Fat Diet?

Dogs fed a very low-fat homemade diet may become deficient in vitamins A and E, so adding coconut oil to the diet can help. As mentioned earlier, fish oil (in particular, salmon oil) is also helpful in treating acute pancreatitis and should be given with vitamin E. Commercial supplements can serve this purpose, but always consult with your veterinarian first because dogs can become poisoned by too high a dose of almost any supplement or vitamin.

How to Transition Your Dog to a Low-Fat Diet

Be sure to consult with your vet before, during, and after transitioning your dog to a low-fat dog food diet. You’ll need to transition your dog over a few weeks, mixing the low-fat food in with his regular food and slowly increasing the low-fat food while reducing, and then eliminating, the original dog food. 

If your dog is suffering from pancreatitis, or has recovered, and you want to help prevent recurrence, feed him small meals more often during the day. Eating more frequent meals helps reduce stimulation, and irritation, of the pancreas.

In addition, cut out people food and treats, with a few exceptions. Nonfat dairy can be a healthy part of a low-fat canine diet, as dogs do need calcium in their diets. Check with your vet because it can be hard for dogs to get enough calcium just from dairy products; they may need a calcium supplement. If your dog has been eating peanut butter, which is high in fat, in a Kong chew toy or to take pills, try plain nonfat yogurt instead.

As for snacks, there are lots of low-fat options dogs love. These include pieces of carrot, apple, and banana; green beans, whole or cut up; and freeze-dried, 100-percent chicken breast snacks, which are carried in most pet stores. 

How to Make Your Own Low-Fat Food for Your Dog

You can make your own homemade low-fat recipes for your dog, either full time (with input from your vet) or just once in a while for a special treat. Good ingredients include boiled chicken with rice or potato, nonfat cottage cheese, and chicken or turkey organic baby food.

An easy diet to start with is overcooked white rice made with extra water, combined with a low-fat protein source, such as cooked skinless chicken breast, low-fat cottage cheese or hamburger that has been boiled to remove most of the fat. If using grains, overcook them to be more digestible. Remove all skin from meats.

Any dairy, including yogurt and cheese, should be nonfat. It’s also best to avoid certain organ meats such as thyroid glands, as some can be challenging for dogs to digest. However, there are benefits found in serving organ meat from the pancreas, spleen, and lungs. For a yummy, low-fat homemade treat, dehydrate strips of lean beef, lamb or chicken in a low-temperature oven. Take it a step further by sprinkling the meat with nonfat Parmesan before drying the treats in the oven.

Darwin’s Raw Dog Food Is a Good Choice for a Low-Fat Diet for Your dog 

At Darwin’s Pet Products, our number one goal is to help keep your pets healthy and active for as long as possible. Our dog foods are naturally lower in fat and don’t include grains or grain products. Just read our label and you’ll see we typically provide a whopping 48 percent of protein, a fat level of about 32 percent, and estimated carbohydrate content of about 12 percent. And that is healthy-sounding news for your dog.

We provide a library of articles in the hope of providing consumers with useful information to help their pets. And, primarily, we produce affordable, high-quality raw dog and cat meals which we ship directly to consumers, so they are as fresh and convenient as possible. Our meals are high in protein, gluten-free, wheat free, and are created to provide complete and balanced nutrition. We encourage you to learn more about our meals for dogs and meals for cats.

If you think you might want a trial of Darwin’s (at an introductory price), we would love to send you our meals and hear how much your dog or cat loves them.