Fat in Homemade Dog Food

When we consider which fats to add to our dog’s food and how much of those fats are needed it’s important to first understand four main things. 1) The Purpose of Fat in Homemade Diets, 2) How much fat our dogs need, 3) The benefits or drawbacks of different types of fats added into the diet, and finally 4) What ingredients supply essential fatty acids to our dog’s diet.

The Purpose of Fat in a Homemade Dog Food

There are four main purposes of fat within our dog’s diet, and when we create our homemade recipes we have to consider all of these in both the fat sources we use, and how much of those ingredients we add into the diet.

1. Provide Essential Omega 3 and Omega 6 Fatty Acids

You may be surprised, but it’s really not all about omega 3 fatty acids when it comes to canine nutrition. Dogs have a requirement for the essential fatty acid linoleic acid – which is an omega 6 fatty acid. Because of this requirement, most low-fat, or non-poultry based recipes will required an oil that is a concentrated source of linoleic acid added to the diet.

Our other essential nutrient is our omega 3 fatty acids EPA and DHA. These are not to be confused with ALA which it found in seed oils such as flaxseed oil. The combination of EPA and DHA should be in 1 : 4 ratio with our omega 6 fatty acids (though a 1 : 1 to 1 : 10 is still fine for most healthy dogs). The reason why we want to aim for this ratio to be lower is because both our omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids work careful balance to regulate the immune system and inflammation within the body. Too much of either omega 3s or omega 6s within the diet can cause an inflammatory response.

2. Provide Energy

Fat provides almost two and a half times the amount of energy to that of either carbohydrates or protein, making it the densest form of energy for dogs. Because of this we may use more fat in diets for dogs who need to gain weight or are highly active than dogs who need to lose weight or are prone to weight gain.

Typically for dogs undergoing weight loss or that are obese protein we want to aim for diets less than < 35g fat per 1000 kcals. Whereas for dogs who are more active we want to increase our fat to 50+g per 1000 kcals. Dogs who are prone to pancreatitis or have fat sensitivity may need diets lower in fat, with between 20-30g per 1000 kcals. As we increase the amount of fat within the diet, we can use less concentrated sources of essential fatty acids, however as fat is lower we will need more concentrated sources of essential fatty acids such as linoleic acid and EPA/DHA.

For more information on fat requirements for dogs, you can learn about that here.

3. Help with Transport of Fat Soluble Vitamins/Minerals

Certain vitamins alike vitamin D require fat for transportation, and other vitamins such as vitamin E are used as stabilizing agents and help with the metabolism of polyunsaturated fatty acids. Generally speaking, AAFCO and the NRC recommend that for every 1g of Polyunsaturated fatty acids in a diet we have an additional 0.60 IU of vitamin E to assist with metabolism. Meeting minimum fat needs is essential for allowing for basic metabolism and transport of fat-soluble vitamins.

4. Increase Palatability

Another important use of fats within the diet is taste – fattier cuts of meats tend to be tastier than less fatty cuts of meat. Which can be useful for dogs who need to gain weight, or are prone to weight loss. However it should be noted that excessive amounts of added oils can tend to be less tasty for dogs (and cats!). So several tsp or tbsp of added oils can actually decrease the palatability of the diet. For a moderately sized dog keeping added oils under about 1-2 tbsp (10-20g) is usually a good idea. For medical conditions where we might want to augment the diet with higher amounts of oil we might consider using a combination of whole food and oils to meet needs.

If you are looking for certain dosing of say, EPA & DHA for a certain medical condition using a whole food source such as Sardines, Mackerel or Salmon for part of that dosing might be better than the oil alone due to palatability. This is similar to needing higher amounts of linoleic acid to help support the skin barrier – using a combination of skin-on poultry or fattier grinds of poultry with seed oils would likely lead to a more palatable diet.

Fatty Acids & Fat Sources in Homemade Dog Food

Sources of Linoleic Acid in Dog Food

Linoleic Acid (C18 n2-6) is an essential fatty acid for dogs and must be in adequate amounts within the diet as the body is unable to manufacture it in sufficient amounts. The minimum amount of linoleic acid that your dog needs in their diet will depend on both their age, activity level and medical conditions.

According to the NRC Puppies require more Linoleic Acid (3.3g / 1000 kcals) than Adult Dogs (2.8g / 1000 kcals). We also know that dogs that have skin conditions can benefit from higher amounts of linoleic acid (along with EPA & DHA) because it can help maintain the skin barrier.

Adult Dog NRC Linoleic Acid: 0.36*((wt in kg)^(0.75))
Puppy NRC Linoleic Acid: 0.8*((wt in kg)^(0.75))
Source of Linoleic Acidg Linoleic Acid /10g “as fed”g Linoleic Acid / 100 kcals
Corn Oil5.2g / 10g fed5.7g / 100 kcals
Walnut Oil5.29g / 10g fed5.9g / 100 kcals
Canola Oil1.86g / 10g fed2.1g / 100 kcals
Soybean Oil5.09g / 10g fed5.75g / 100 kcals
Sunflower Seed Oil (65% linoleic)6.57g / 10g fed7.43g / 100 kcals
Sesame Seed Oil4.13g / 10g fed4.76g / 100 kcals
Flaxseed Oil1.42g / 10g fed1.6g / 100 kcals
Safflower Oil1.27g / 10g fed1.43g / 100 kcals
Chicken Skin0.622g / 10g fed0.7g / 100 kcals
Chicken Thigh without Skin0.143g / 10g0.8g / 100 kcals
85% Lean Ground Turkey0.405g / 10g fed1.57g / 100 kcals
Olive Oil0.976g / 10g fed1.1g / 100 kcals
85% Lean Ground Beef0.036g / 10g fed0.14g / 100 kcals
Coconut Oil0g / 10g fed0g / 100 kcals

As you can see from the chart above – not all meats or oils have the same amount of linoleic acid. Generally speaking poultry-based diets (which already contain some linoleic acid) may need less nutrient-dense sources of linoleic acid added to meet minimum requirements if creating a moderate to high-fat recipe. Whereas if using beef, which is low in linoleic acid, it may need to be paired with an oil high in linoleic acid in order to meet minimum requirements even in a moderate-fat recipe.

Since oils all contain different amounts of linoleic acid – you cannot automatically assume you can substitute oils within a recipe with another.

A common mistake I see made is choosing a oil low in linoleic acid, then not giving enough of it. A 50 lb dog needs 3.75g of linoleic acid as a minimum. This means if you were choosing a low linoleic acid meat with olive oil you’d need to give 7-8 tsp in order to meet minimum needs. This is 280-320 calories in just added oil to the recipe, which if your dog ate 1000 kcals per day, would make up about 30% of calories – not accounting for the fat already present within the meat.

Why not use Nuts and Seeds?

You might wonder why you would use the oil rather than the nut or seed counterpart? Nuts and seeds are highly nutritious, and they contain other nutrients other than just fats. Why not use Flaxseeds rather than Flaxseed Oil?

The main reasons or considerations as to using nuts or seeds within a homemade diet for key nutrients come down to: 1) concentration of nutrients (fats), 2) stability & storage, 3) lack of data and 4) bioavailability of nutrients.

Nutrient Density

Generally speaking when we look at fat content of these nuts and seeds, both as fed and per calorie fed in comparison to their corresponding oil, we see that our seed oils, generally speaking are a more concentrated form of fat than that of the whole food. This might not be an issue for a healthy dog, but for dogs with fat intolerance or that are obese – having fats that are nutrient dense so less total fat and less calories is needed in order to meet nutrient needs may be beneficial.

g Linoleic Acid /10g “as fed”g Linoleic Acid / 100 kcals
Flaxseeds, raw0.59g / 10g fed1.10 / 100 kcals
Flaxseeds, oil1.42g / 10g fed1.6g / 100 kcals
Sunflower Seeds, raw2.3g / 10g fed3.9g / 100 kcals
Sunflower Seed Oil6.57g / 10g fed7.43g / 100 kcals
Sesame seeds, raw2.14g / 10g fed3.73g / 100 kcals
Sesame Seed Oil4.13g / 10g fed4.76g / 100 kcals
Walnuts (English), raw3.81g / 10g fed5.83g / 100 kcals
Walnut Oil5.29g / 10g fed5.9g / 100 kcals
Stability & Storage

Due to both the high moisture and fat content of most nuts and seeds, oxidation starts to occur much faster than in purified oils (with <1% moisture) which have stabilizing agents to prevent oxidation (like added vitamin E). This means that most nuts and seeds go bad quickly. In a research study looking at rancidity of chia seeds over 60 days (2 months), they found a 35% reduction in linoleic acid over a 60 day period. This is compared to research looking at rancidity of seed oils over 12 months which showed a 30% decline over the entire year. It’s possible that nuts and seeds will be several months old by the time that you, the consumer, purchase them (especially those purchased in bulk). Meaning that storage may already be a factor that is reducing/manipulating nutrients within these items. Mold contamination of nuts and seeds can also be higher – again due to storage conditions and moisture content.

Generally speaking to prevent oxidation or rancidity you needs to: lower moisture content, add antioxidants (vitamin E), keep in a cool and dry place without exposure to air.

Bioavailability & Lack of Data

Whole nuts and seeds not only contain additional vitamins and minerals, but also contain fiber and anti-nutrient compounds. Why am I saying this? Well – on paper nuts and seeds look like an excellent source of things like magnesium, zinc, selenium, etc – but the reality is that though they may contain these nutrients, they may not be extremely bioavailable.

Research looking at human subjects given either ground chia seeds vs. chia oil found a 10% difference in blood levels of ALA after ingestion. Even with similar amount of ALA originally consumed. The oils are just more bioavailable because the don’t contain the additional fiber and anti nutrient compounds that the seeds do.

And though some people will state that soaking seeds or grinding them will increase bioavailability of nutrients – research actually doesn’t not support this. Even research looking at mineral bioavailability in flaxseeds did not find that sprouting made a significant difference to bioavailability of nutrients (even with anti-nutrient factors reduced).

The truth is most research on nutrient bioavailability of these nuts/seeds has not been done in dogs and cats – so we really just don’t know, thus are unable to account for or properly estimate when formulating a homemade diet.

All this said – it doesn’t mean that nuts and seeds are bad. There are certain nuts like Black Walnuts, and Macadamia Nuts which are toxic to dogs – but all others are not. Our concern isn’t giving these nuts and seeds as treats, but including them or relying on them to provide key nutrients for our complete and balanced homemade diet may not be ideal. At least we might not want to do so without doing “spot checks” of a typical analysis for key nutrients (due to variability & oxidation), and a feeding trial to evaluate nutrient bioavailability/digestibility in dogs. Pet food companies with larger budgets may be able to do this additional testing, but as pet owners I believe it’s unlikely most have the budget for this additional data that isn’t readily available in the research.

Sources of EPA & DHA in Dog Food

Though there is no requirement for EPA and DHA for adult dogs according to AAFCO nutrient requirements, the NRC does have recommended amounts of ratio of EPA and DHA (omega 3 fatty acids) to that of omega 6 fatty acids. Generally speaking we are looking for diets that have ratios of omega 3 fatty acids (in the form of EPA & DHA) at 1 : 1 to 1 : 10 to that of omega 6 fatty acids. Though we don’t have an established “ideal” ratio for EPA and DHA, it is generally accepted that a 1 : 4 ratio is a good place to aim for.

Adult Dog NRC Linoleic Acid: 0.03*((wt in kgs)^(0.75))
Puppy NRC Linoleic Acid: 0.036*((wt in kg)^(0.75))
Source of EPA & DHAg EPA & DHA / 100g “as fed”g EPA & DHA / 100 kcals
Nordic Naturals Omega 3 Pet2.7g / 10g as fed3g / 100 kcals
Nordic Naturals Algae Oil0.585g / 2 capsules5.85g / 100 kcals
Carlson’s Cod Liver Oil*1.7g / 10g as fed1.9g / 100 kcals
Salmon Oil (USDA database)*3.1g / 10g as fed3.4g / 100 kcals
Sardine Oil (USDA database)2.07g / 10g as fed2.3g / 100 kcals
Salmon, Atlantic, farmed, cooked*0.21g / 10g as fed1.04g / 100 kcals
Salmon, Atlantic, wild-caught*0.11g / 10g as fed0.76g / 100 kcals
Pink Salmon, canned*0.09g / 10g as fed0.67g / 100 kcals
Mackerel, Pacific Canned*0.12g / 10g as fed0.79g / 100 kcals
Sardines, Canned in Water0.14g / 10g as fed0.75g / 100 kcals
Sardines, Canned in Olive Oil0.1g / 10g as fed0.47g / 100 kcals
Cod0.02g / 10g as fed0.18g / 100 kcals
Tilapia*0.02g / 10g as fed0.14g / 100 kcals
* Cod Liver Oil, Salmon Oil, Mackerel, Tilapia and Salmon are all also concentrated sources of vitamin D. Too much of these foods can cause vitamin D toxicity.

Beyond minimum requirements, certain dogs may benefit from additional amount of EPA and DHA within their diet. There is substantial research to show that the additional of EPA and DHA into the diet can be useful for a variety of different diseases and conditions. With a homemade diet, this dosing can be included in the recipe, and then balanced with other fat sources, which is more ideal than adding the fat onto an already “complete and balanced food” as it could unbalance the recipe. Always discuss dosing of fish oil with your veterinarian prior to including this within your recipe, additional EPA + DHA may not be recommended in all causes.

More about dosing fish oil for different diseases and conditions can be found here.

Generally speaking when we go beyond dosing of EPA and DHA for healthy dogs, we typically have to look towards more concentrated sources, such as fish oils in order to meet needs rather than relying on whole foods. This is just because we would not be able to meet other key nutritional for a balanced diet otherwise.

50lb dog has joint disease, which requires a dosing of 147 mg EPA + DHA / kg per day. This amounts for 3.34g / day EPA + DHA.
>> If we were to use “Sardines Canned in Water” we’d need to feed 234g per day, which is 516 calories. This amounts to about 50% of your dog’s total calories per day.
>> Whereas if we used “Sardine Oil” we’d need 16g per day, which is 144 calories, which would be about 14% of total calories per day.

By using the concentrated oil, rather than the whole food we are able to potentially use more of other ingredients within our recipe to supply more nutrients to the diet to hit AAFCO minimum nutrient requirements rather than having to rely on supplementation.

Sources of Medium Chain Triglycerides

The addition on medium-chain triglycerides to the diet is something that should be considered after we hit our dog’s needs for their essential fatty acids. Dogs have no nutritional need for Medium-Chain Triglycerides, however we do have some research looking at it’s use for cognitive disease, epilepsy and heart disease.

Both the brain and the heart can use MCTs as alternative energy sources to regular fatty acids since MCTs are smaller in size. This allows them to travel more easily to this area to provide energy.

Source of MCTsg MCTs / 10g as fedg MCTs / 100 kcals
Coconut Oil (USDA)5.4g / 10g as fed6.05g / 100 kcals
CocoTherapy MCT Oil8.8g / 10g as fed10.23g / 100 kcals

Dosing of MCTs for dogs with this conditions has only been evaluated once as an supplement, where MCT oil was given at 9% of total caloric intake.

For a 50 lb Dog Dose of MCT Oil or Coconut Oil:

>> 1 3/4 tsp to 3 tsp MCT oil per day (8.75 – 15g)
>> 2 1/2 tsp to 6 1/4 tsp Coconut Oil per day (12.5 – 31.25g)

In order to hit effective dosing without the source of MCT oil taking up a majority of calories within the diet, a purified MCT oil will need to be used rather than Coconut Oil.

It should be noted however that neither research study used MCTs alone – dosing for MCTs was combined with other fats (EPA + DHA), antioxidants and amino acids to achieve results. Also, it’s important to understand that within the study on MCT Oil use for dogs with Cognitive Decline, the dogs fed a diet containing more MCT oil than described above, did not show improvement to cognitive dysfunction. Meaning that more MCT oil is not better.

Other Considerations when Choosing Oils

Quality Control

When choosing an oil for inclusion within a homemade diet, it’s important to choose a brand with high quality control that produces a consistent product. Most seed oils are fairly consistent as far as composition, however fish oils are highly variable based on species or subspecies of fish included (there are several species of Salmon, some have higher EPA/DHA compositions than others). Thus choosing a fish oil that has declared amounts of EPA/DHA and third-party testing is ideal. For pet supplements looking for the NASC (National Animal Supplement Council) Seal is a great place to start as they require certain good manufacturing practices.

For recommended supplement brands you can head over to my supplements page.

Storing Oils to Prevent /Slow Oxidation:

  • Store all oils in your fridge. Keeping oils cool slows down the oxidation process.
  • Store all oils in original package – the original packaging often has additional technology that helps extend shelf life (colored glass, special valves or tops to prevent air from entering, etc).
  • Choose oils that close to be air-tight rather than that have spouts that can let air in. This will slow oxidation.
  • Choose oils stored in glass containers rather than plastic or metal as plastics are porous and can absorb some fat and and less able to prevent oxidation.
  • Aim to use oils within 60 days as this is peak freshness with the lowest loss of nutritional value to the oxidative process.

When to add Oils to your Recipe

Most people are used to using oils to cook with when they are cooking their own food, however when we are using oils in our diets for our dogs – it’s not to cook with. Most oils are heat-sensitive to some degree – often described as a “smoke point”. Thus instead of cooking with these oils, we want to think of them as a”dressing”, and add them to food either right before feeding, or into batches of food that are already cooled that won’t be reheated.

The Bottom Line

  • Different oils have different purposes within a diet – you cannot switch out oils without adjusting for nutrient differences.
  • The amount and type of oil/s included in your recipe will be dictated by the other ingredients in your recipe and your dog’s nutritional needs.
  • Using whole-food sources of these fats may not be ideal in all cases – oils tend to be more concentrated & bioavailable.
  • Always choose quality oils and store them properly.
  • Add oils after cooking, not during the cooking process.

About the Author: Nikki is a Registered Veterinary Technician (Veterinary Nurse) and Dog Mom with over a decade of experience with dogs and cats. Since graduation from college (BS Biology, Dip. Animal Nutrition, AS Animal Science) she has adopted two mixed breed dogs – Ranger and Ash, and has focused her time learning about pet food and nutrition.

Nikki shares information on a range of dog nutrition topics: from how to create a homemade complete and balanced dog food recipes, to how to choose a dog food. Nikki strives to give dog parents the information they need in order to make the best nutrition decisions for their pup!

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