Obesity is a serious health risk for dogs and is completely preventable. Sadly, as much as 30% of the dogs in North America are obese, and 40% to 45% of dogs have a higher-than-normal weight. Too much body fat increases a dog’s risk for several health conditions, including diabetes, cancer, and heart disease. Beyond that, it can also put unnecessary stress on the dog’s joints.
If your dog is overweight, you may head to the store in search of dog food that claims to be formulated to help maintain a healthy weight. You'll notice that some of these foods are labeled as “low fat” — but does your dog need a low-fat diet? Or is there a better way to protect your dog from gaining too much weight?
In this guide, we'll discuss what low-fat labels really mean and how to determine whether or not your dog needs a low-fat diet. We'll also give you some helpful tips for choosing food that meets your pet’s unique nutritional needs.
Does Your Dog Need a Low-Fat Diet?
Food calories come from protein, fat, and carbohydrates. Protein and carbohydrates both have four calories per gram of food. Fat has nine calories per gram — so logically, the easiest way to reduce the caloric content of food is to change the amount of fat it contains. Right? This is why pet owners looking into weight management options for their dogs often consider making dietary changes, and begin dutifully searching for the best low-fat dog food on the market. There are many other ways to address weight management, and most of the time, a dog doesn't need low-fat dog food to maintain a healthy weight. In fact, dogs need fat in their diets (in moderation) to thrive.
According to the most recent AAFCO recommendations for adult dog food, dogs need at least 5.5% of their food’s dry matter to come from crude fat and 13.8% of their daily caloric intake from crude fat to maintain their weight. However, it's important to keep in mind that these numbers are based on averages and will vary somewhat between dogs of different breeds (particularly small breeds vs. large breeds), life stages, and health conditions.
Generally, commercial pet foods have fat contents within the recommended range, so unless your vet recommends switching to a low-fat recipe, it's not necessary. The exception is if a dog has pancreatitis or steatitis. Pancreatitis occurs when the pancreas becomes inflamed due to problems with pancreatic enzymes. Overly fatty foods can trigger pancreatitis, and dogs suffering from this condition should eat less fat. A pet food designed for digestive care with fewer calories can be part of your treatment plan for this condition.
Steatitis, more commonly known as "yellow fat disease," is inflammation of the body's fatty tissue. Again, limiting the amount of fat in the diet can help treat this condition. Otherwise, pets need a diet that has a balanced amount of fat based on current veterinary recommendations. Steatitis is not a digestive condition, but low-fat food can be part of its treatment.
For both pancreatitis and steatitis, make sure you work with your veterinarian to find an effective treatment plan. A reduced-fat food may be part of it, but do not attempt caring for this condition without a doctor’s oversight.
What Should I Do if My Dog Is Overweight?
Cutting fat seems like a logical choice if your dog is overweight. If a dog is obese, you need to cut calories to help them reduce their body mass. Since fat has a higher calorie content per gram than protein and carbohydrates, lowering fat can be a good option for weight control. However, proceed with caution as you take this step because dogs have complex nutritional needs.
Focusing on cutting fat and calories alone can be problematic. If you cut calories by restricting the amount of food your dog eats but continue to feed them the same type of food, your dog will lose weight — but it might be from muscle tissue, not fat. Your dog will also feel hungry and may end up nutrient deficient. Fat is also a source of important nutrients, like omega-3 fatty acids, and is a source of energy for your dog, so cutting too much fat can lead to bigger issues.
Instead, you will need to change your dog’s diet to one that encourages fat loss. While you should keep the total calorie count in mind, shift your focus to the source of the calories. Rather than reducing fat content in the kibble or wet food you buy, look to increase your dog's protein intake. Much like with humans, protein helps your pet feel full and provides essential amino acids that build and maintain muscle.
Carbs also play a role in your dog's weight, just as they do for people. Dogs do need carbohydrates, as they provide a source of energy for your pup. But here again, focus on choosing quality sources of carbohydrates. Rather than low-value grains like corn and white rice, choose dog food with healthier carbohydrate options like sweet potatoes, apples, lentils, or brown rice to provide the energy your dog needs.
Remember, even if your dog needs to lose weight, the emphasis should be on fat loss — not muscle loss — to reduce body mass.
What To Look for in a Low-Fat Diet
If your dog needs to lose weight due to obesity or has another health condition that requires attention to the fat content in their food, a weight-loss diet (under veterinary direction) may help. However, grabbing the first bag of dog food that you see at the store with a "low-fat recipe" label may not be the way to go.
When feeding a low-fat diet to your dog, choose a food that is high in protein and fiber and low in refined carbs and overall caloric intake. Healthy, fiber-rich carbs and high protein content will naturally have a lower fat content because of calorie distribution. Let's explore each of these elements in greater detail.
Why Choose High Protein?
Cutting calories without paying attention to macronutrients may result in nutrient deficiencies, and some dogs could lose muscle mass. This is because, without adequate fat reserves, the body will consume muscle tissue for energy instead. Choose a high-protein food for your dog to protect lean muscle mass.
As you look for high-protein food, be sure to consider the quality of the protein source. Many dog foods have meat by-products, like chicken meal — which technically is a protein source. However, they're not exactly the greatest quality sources. Opt for foods that contain high-quality muscle and organ meats. You can find more information about selecting the best protein sources for your dog in our resource, Healthy Meats for Dogs: Beef, Chicken, Duck, Turkey, Lamb, Fish, or Duck?
Why Choose High Fiber?
Unfortunately, many low-calorie and low-fat dry dog food options designed for weight loss have simple carbs to round out their calorie profiles. These can hinder your weight-loss efforts because these ingredients have minimal fiber. Instead, look for a food with high fiber content, which will help with your weight loss goals.
The best grains, fruits, and vegetables to add to your dog’s diet are those high in fiber. Insoluble fiber, found in peas, blueberries, oat bran, and many other fruits and vegetables, does not get absorbed as calories. A food high in insoluble fiber can help with weight management without adding too much fat to the diet because the body does not consume this type of fiber as a source of calories. It can also add bulk to fecal matter, which helps facilitate bowel movements and regularity, and can help your dog feel full with less food.
Choose High-Quality, Nutritionally Balanced Food
While low-fat dog food is not always the best solution, high-fat is not necessarily right, either. Remember, dogs need the right balance of protein, fat, and carbs to thrive. When looking for something to help your dog lose weight, look for something nutritionally balanced — even though your focus is reducing calorie intake.
Even though protein, carbs, and fat are the macronutrients your dog needs to survive, they need additional vitamins and minerals for digestive health, healthy skin, and overall well-being. A nutritionally balanced food will contain prebiotics and probiotics for gut health, vitamins, antioxidants for immune system health, and amino acids to promote strong muscles.
What Fat Content Is Considered Low Fat?
So, what does it mean if you're looking at a food with a “low fat” label, or one that claims to be a “healthy weight recipe”? Often, these terms get thrown around for marketing purposes with the goal of selling more products, regardless of the food's actual fat content. Unfortunately, AAFCO doesn't have any regulations about how the term “low fat” can be used on pet food labels, so there is no specific percentage associated with this term.
A general rule of thumb is if a dog's diet contains less than 10% fat, it's considered low fat. If your dog has pancreatitis or another fat-related health condition, aim for less than 8% of calories from fat. In these cases, you may need to work directly with a veterinary nutritionist to provide this low fat content without sacrificing other important nutrients.
Remember, this guide is simply to help you understand low-fat recipes and labels in dog food. Always check with your vet before changing your dog's food to ensure you provide the right food. A reduced-fat formula or weight-management formula may be the solution, but get your vet’s help choosing one that supports your dog's overall health.
Try Low-Fat Dog Food From The Honest Kitchen
Dog food labels can be confusing, and often the wording used is designed to sell, not provide important information about the food. As you shop, learn to read labels and choose wisely to support your dog's health.
Remember, most dogs don't need a low-fat diet, but some do. If yours is one of these, speak with your vet about The Honest Kitchen's low-fat recipes. All of our delicious pet food formulas are bursting with natural flavor and are made from human grade ingredients like deboned turkey, dehydrated fruits and vegetables, and nuts and seeds. They have minimal natural preservatives and no fillers, so your dog gets the most nutrients from every bite! Shop our low-fat dog food options today.
*Health Disclaimer: This post is educational in nature and doesn’t constitute health advice. Please consult your pet's veterinarian or other healthcare professional for specific guidance on this topic.