Ultimate Guide To Fat

Savannah Welna, Cert. ACN
Learn the difference between saturated and unsaturated fat. What is essential, beneficial and when are oils necessary. Food sources that provide high quality fats. Differences between coconut oil and fish oil and much more.

 Summary of Summaries

Before we get in to this guide I would like to point out that fats can be confusing and overwhelming- yet their solutions are rather straight forward. If you are able to feed your adult, healthy dog a combination of poultry, red meats, organs, eggs, and fish (or fish oil), then it is unlikely that you need to start adding in additional oils.

There is a lot of confusion around fat where raw feeders feel they need to add certain types of plant oils. These popular rules of thumb do not account for if the raw feeder is providing fish or brain in the diet, for example. As a result, some raw feeders may end up feeding unnecessary oils that only add more oxidative stress.  I find these rules to be more confusing than necessary and not cognizant of the fact that preformed fatty acids often found in raw and cooked diets do not require plant based oils for balancing. Here are a few examples of popular raw feeding rules that I would like to challenge:

Add flaxseed oil when feeding chicken or other poultry. But You do not need to add flaxseed oil when feeding poultry if you are feeding preformed omega 3 fatty acids from fish or brain. The fatty acids in flaxseed oil are only poorly converted to preformed omega 3 fatty acids.
Add walnut oil when feeding beef or other ruminant meats. If you are feeding a diet of organ meats, fish, and eggs, you do not need to add walnut oil. You are already feeding preformed fatty acids.

A lot of people don’t know if they should add hemp, or fish, or coconut oil. I hope this guide clears this up.

If you feed your dog an animal-based diet with fiber, then they are likely getting a nice balance of the different saturated fats.
If you feed your dog eggs, organ meats, poultry, red meat, and fish, they are likely getting a combination of all the fats. The reason for this is because preformed fatty acids are highly bioavailable and fatty acids from plant based sources are only turned into these same preformed fatty acids, anyway.

In the context of the graphic above, you do not need to feed all the ingredients listed. Fish does not generally need more fish oil.  However, it is smart to not put all your eggs in one basket, especially if you are a ratio feeder and are not using nutrient requirements. For example, you should not rely on only organ meats for omega 6. You should feed combinations.

If your dog is limited on the proteins they can eat, the amount of fat they can eat, have food intolerances to the foods above, is a working dog, or is in certain disease states, then this guide may be useful. If you would like to just learn more about dietary fat, read on.

And finally, let us say: Coconut oil does not provide essential fatty acids and does not replace fish in the diet.

Fat is an essential macronutrient and brings the most energy per gram (9 kcal/gram for human grade food) to the diet. Beyond energy, fat supplies the essential fatty acids and is required for the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins.

It seems straight forward enough, but fat can be a highly confusing topic for those feeding their dogs a homemade raw or cooked diet. What fat comes from coconut oil vs. fish oil vs. chicken skin vs. flaxseed oil? What are the requirements for the essential fatty acids? What are their forms? Their sources? We will get into all of that in Feed Thy Dog’s Ultimate Guide to Fat.

In this guide I will be providing you the quick summary with the option to expand in to a more detailed explanation.

The Different Kinds of Fat

Fat comes in the form of triglycerides, waxes, compound lipids (ex: lipoproteins), and derived lipids. For the purpose of this guide we are going to talk about the fat of more importance in the diet- triglycerides.

Triglycerides are the most common form of fat in the diet and include saturated fat, monounsaturated fat, and polyunsaturated fat. Their structures determine how they are different.

Saturated Fat

Saturated fat is called saturated because it is a carbon chain that is saturated in hydrogen because of single bonds. Saturated fat can be found in both animal and plant-based food. Coconut oil and butter, for example, are sources of saturated fat. The body can synthesize saturated fat and can also obtain it from the diet. While not considered essential, they serve many functions and provide many different benefits. Saturated fat, then, is non-essential but certainly beneficial. Remember that when the body needs to synthesize something there is a cost in doing so (energy, essential nutrients).

Saturated fat provides energy and has a structural role. Saturated fat makes up some of the membranes of cells in the body. The different saturated fats (from shortest to longest in their carbon chain) includes myristic acid, palmitate, and stearate. They are needed for proteins to do their job by acting as anchors in the cell membrane.

Saturated fats are the more appropriate choice for the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins.

Saturated fat is also not prone to oxidation in the way that polyunsaturated fat is. More on that soon.

Short Chain Fatty Acids (SCFA)


Short chain fatty acids are important for gut health. They can be provided in small amounts in the diet through butter but they mainly are provided by dietary fiber through colonic fermentation and that appears to be the more beneficial route to providing energy to the gut cells. The studies are limited in this area for dogs and proactively fiber is a very good idea.

Full Explanation

SCFA are commonly known for their function in the gut. SCFA are an important source of energy for the cells in the gut. Dogs can create SCFA from the interaction between the microflora of the colon and dietary fiber. Butyric acid (which gets its name from the Greek word for Butter) is a SCFA that can be produced in the gut or consumed as-is from food. Of course, butter contains these SCFA. Butter also contains saturated fat and extra can upset the gut. 

I would be interested in seeing better studies for dogs with digestional disorders who cannot tolerate fiber receive butyrate in higher amounts. The study I was able to find only referred to healthy dogs and minimal effect was noted.


Butter (3-4%), colonic fermentation (from dietary fiber)

Medium Chain Triglycerides (MCT)


Medium chain triglycerides are digested differently than longer chain triglycerides. They go right to the liver. They can beneficial for some neurological or intestinal conditions. Therapeutic needs will likely require an MCT oil while coconut oil, mammalian milk, and some animal fats will provide various medium chain triglycerides. MCTs decrease the “tastiness” of the food and may cause some dogs to turn away.

Full Explanation

Medium chain triglycerides are digested differently than long chain fatty acids. After consumption, they go directly to the liver because of their smaller size. They do not require the use of bile acids. This can be useful for some dogs who have disturbances to fat digestion because of varying intestinal disorders.

MCTs can also play a role in cognitive function, especially in the presence of Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome.

On the other hand, MCTs decrease palatability of the diet and levels too high can cause the dog to not consume the food.

Like the other fats, there are different kinds of MCTs. They are differentiated by their carbon chain length. Some are better for quick energy and others have antimicrobial and fungal properties.

Sources (From Shortest to Longest)

Caprylic Acid- Coconut oil, butter, and milk from mammals

Capric Acid- Coconut oil, goat milk, animal fats. More known for their antimicrobial effect but less is known about its use for dogs.

Lauric Acid- The most abundant fat in coconut oil and the longest of the MCTs. Also present in mammalian milk.

When reaching for therapeutic effects, an MCT oil will be the way to go because the amounts needed for therapeutics is higher than what can be achieved by whole foods.

Unsaturated Fatty Acids

Monounsaturated Fatty Acids

Monounsaturated fat has a single double bond and is still relatively less prone to oxidation (as compared to polyunsaturated fat). Monounsaturated fats are not considered essential but may have beneficial effects on the cardiovascular system in dogs.


Monounsaturated fat can be found in animal fat and also in some oils- such as olive oil.

 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids (PUFA)

At last we arrive to the polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs). In my time working in canine nutrition, no other type of fat has confused owners more than the PUFAs. This is for good reason- there is a lot to know about the essential fatty acids and many incorrect perceptions. Fortunately, the solutions are simple and easy to implement. This section requires time from the reader. Sit back and grab a beverage of choice. 

A polyunsaturated fatty acid is given its name because of the structure. Above, you can see a saturated fatty acid. It is saturated because carbon prefers to form 4 bonds. In a saturated fatty acid, the carbons form a bond with two other carbons and two other hydrogens. It is saturated in hydrogens. In an unsaturated fatty acid, you will find double bonds between carbons. Carbon is still sharing the same amount of electrons. The line (C-H) represents two shared electrons. In a double bond there are 4 shared electrons between two carbons. It is the carbon between the two double bonds that makes PUFAs prone to oxidation. (It is, by the way, extremely incorrect to say that in a saturated fatty acid carbons aren’t bonded together. They are- it is just a single bond.)

It is important you use the image above to grasp why DHA and AA are often the optimal choices. For example, why add flaxseed oil (rich in ALA) when you can add fish (EPA, DHA) or brain (DHA) instead?

Polyunsaturated fatty acids have more than one double bond. They are more prone to oxidation and directly increase the dog’s requirements for vitamin E (which also works with other nutrients in the antioxidant defense system). Therefore, adding sources that are rich in PUFAs mean you need to pay close attention to the antioxidant nutrients in your dog’s diet. It is quite likely vitamin E needs to be added to the diet. Very often I see people adding fish oil to kibble. Not only is kibble low in antioxidants, there is now a lipid that is further increasing the dog’s need for antioxidants. Fish oil can be a great addition to kibble if done correctly.

Essential fatty acids can be a bit perilous, yet, they are called the essential fatty acids because they are just that- essential. The essential fatty acids are known as omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids (AKA n-3 and n-6). They get their names because of where the first double bond is located.

They both have important, necessary functions that are often considered “opposite” of each other. Often, people consider omega 3 as the good fatty acid and omega 6 as the bad fatty acid. This is entirely incorrect. This is mainly derived from the fact that omega 6 plays a role in inflammation while omega 3 is considered anti-inflammatory. However, both are required for the proper inflammatory response- a response necessary for a healing body. Long chain polyunsaturated fatty acids from fish and fish body oils can also increase the performance of scent work dogs (but watch the antioxidants!). They can also become important for certain disease states like chronic kidney disease.

An inflammatory response is only one function of omega 6. Omega 6 is also responsible for tightly knit cells- such as that in the skin but also the gut. This is important and we will come back to it later. Omega 6 plays a role in platelet aggregation and cell proliferation.

Omega 3 as DHA (seen below) and omega 6 as AA (seen below) work together to facilitate a proper inflammatory response and clean-up.

Antioxidant Requirements

Polyunsaturated fat increases the dog’s requirement for Vitamin E. Because Vitamin E does not work alone, it is important that your diet provide all the essential nutrients- including selenium (found in pork and kidney).

The amount of polyunsaturated fat directly influences your dog’s E requirements. Each diet will vary.

For vitamin E, opt for D-alpha tocopherol with at least mixed tocopherols. Tocopherols and tocotrienols
are a bonus.
D-alpha alone or DL-alpha are less preferred.

For d-alpha tocopherol per day:

-Small Dogs: 25-50 IU
-Medium to Large: 50-100 IU
-Large to Giant 100-150+ IU

Remember that diets high in PUFAs may need more and these are only general guidelines.

DO NOT add items like seeds or wheat germ oils to meet vitamin E requirements. While these foods are rich in vitmain E, it is to protect the fragile lipids in these ingredients already. The PUFA:Vitamin E ratio is important here.

DO NOT count vitamin E in fish oil (unless it is Bonnie & Clyde) toward’s your dog’s vitamin E intake. The vitamin E is acting as a preservative.

The Omega 3 Fatty Acids


I strongly recommend reading the full explanations for the essential fatty acids.

ALA, EPA, and DHA are omega 3 fatty acids. ALA and EPA are converted to DHA. ALA comes from plant-based oils like flaxseed oil. Dogs do not convert ALA to DHA very well. EPA in high amounts interferes with arachidonic acid metabolism (an omega 6 fatty acid) and can result in skin and gut disturbances. EPA can be used therapeutically when nutritional protocols do not cut it. High amounts of EPA is a pharmacological approach- not a nutritional approach. DHA is used to resolve inflammation in the body naturally. A diet that contains fish, carefully dosed fish body oils, brain, dark meat of chicken, and/or carefully dosed cod liver oil have adequate omega 3 for healthy dogs. If you are feeding these ingredients (note that it is hard to provide enough from muscle meat alone), you do not need to add additional flaxseed oil (or similar ingredients).

Adding sources rich in Omega 3 fatty acids means needing to provide more vitamin E. Excesses should be avoided.

Full Explanation

Omega 3 fatty acids can come from plant and animal-based sources. Alpha-Linolenic Acid (ALA)- An omega 3 fatty acid that comes from plants. Dogs need to elongate this fatty acid. They certainly can, but arguably not at rates required for optimal health. For dogs who cannot have fish, things from the ocean (including algae oils), dark meat of chicken, or do not have access to brain, sources of ALA become the important fatty acid source in the diet.


Flaxseed oil

Walnut Oil

Pumpkin Seed Oil

Note that these oils will also contain levels of LA

Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA)- This is found in fish and fish body oils. The body concerts EPA to DHA (next). EPA (as seen in the graphic) interferes with the metabolism of Arachidonic Acid (AA, omega 6). EPA is called the “anti-inflammatory” fatty acid. High amounts of EPA can interfere with AA. When cells accumulate large amounts of EPA, it interferes with the normal inflammatory response. Fish are rich in EPA while land animals have lower levels naturally.

For dogs suffering from conditions that do not respond to nutritional strategies, high amounts of EPA are fed. This is not without consequence and should not be considered a nutritional management strategy. This is a pharmacological approach not too unlike the use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). However, there are fewer side effects here and the pharmacological use of higher amounts of EPA do have their place- but certainly not in a proactive diet or for conditions that are able to resolve on their own. Arachidonic acid helps the body reach the level of inflammation needed to heal from injury. The nutritional approach to resolving inflammation would be to provide enough DHA and AA in the diet as we will describe below.

Of course, smaller intake of EPA proactively is beneficial because dogs can convert it to DHA. Fish can contain contaminates and so a high-quality purified fish oil has its place in rotation with fresh oily fish. Cod liver oil will provide epa and dha a well in smaller amounts than fish body oils. However, be careful as it will also provide vitamin D and A. Sometimes these can be in dangerous amounts if the product is fortified.

EPA is a stop along the way to DHA which is really the more essential fatty acid.



Fish Body Oils

Phytoplankton (hard to get meaningful amounts)

Cod Liver Oil (See note above)

Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA)- DHA is our last stop on our journey through omega 3 fatty acids. DHA is a preformed omega 3 fatty acid that the dog can use readily. It helps resolves inflammation. The brain and retina is very rich in DHA and not surprisingly.



Fish Body Oils

Algae Oil


Dark meat of chicken

The Omega 6 Fatty Acids


I strongly recommend reading the full explanations for the essential fatty acids. 

The omega 6 fatty acids include Linoleic Acid and Arachidonic Acid. Arachidonic acid is the preformed fatty acid but dogs can convert LA readily. A diet that includes chicken, organ meats, turkey, beef, and eggs generally do not need added oils. Oils like flaxseed and wheat germ might be useful if the diet is restricted to protein sources lower omega 6. These oils are often given blindly and are not needed.

Full Explanation

Omega 6 fatty acids can come from plant and animal-based sources: Linoleic Acid (LA)- Linoleic acid is elongated like ALA. It can be found in plant and animal foods. Chicken, eggs, wheat germ oil are all sources rich in LA. Diets that are low in poultry (or provide only the lean portions) can be low in omega 6.


Safflower Oil

Sunflower Oil

Chicken (especially skin, fat)

Hemp Oil

Wheat Germ Oil (An ingredient often mistakenly used for vitamin E)

Egg (Yolk)

Arachidonic Acid (AA)- As discussed above, AA plays an important role in gut and skin health and many other functions. It also plays a critical role in the inflammatory response. Like DHA (and EPA), it is also found in the cellular membranes of land animals. Inadequate intake of AA can produce disturbances to skin health. Low levels can be due to poor diet or due to high levels of EPA as discussed previously.



Organ Meats




Criticisms of NRC Fatty Acid Requirements and Common Use


Many fatty acid ratios provided by NRC are misapplied. Healthy dogs eating an animal-based diet of meat, eggs, organ meats, and fish often do not need to worry about these ratios because the diet is providing preformed fatty acids that do not compete. Dogs with certain conditions may benefit from these ratios. Dogs on plant based diets must be fed diets according to the LA and ALA ratio. Again, see the graphic above. If the NRC says to balance LA and ALA, why bother if you are already feeding eggs, fish, poultry, and organ meat?

Full Explanation

The essential fatty acids can be confusing. The section in the NRC book correctly for its time states a lot of verbiage along the lines of “We really don’t know.” That being said, my criticisms come from a place where we formulate homemade diets using fresh food with bioavailable nutrients. These fresh foods can provide fragile PUFAs such as DHA where processed food face serious oxidation issues. A lot of the information in the section in the NRC book is enormously useful and it is often the case that the information is simply misapplied.

The LA:ALA Ratio: The NRC provides a ratio of LA and ALA. In my opinion, this ratio is primarily useful for dogs eating a plant-based diet where the omega 6: omega 3 ratio becomes important as the fatty acids are competing. If your dog is not getting preformed fatty acids from animal-based products, this ratio is not as important. If you are using products like Pet Diet Designer that use these ratios, do not fret if your ratio is unbalanced.

Requirement for LA: The NRC deems AA as a conditionally essential fatty acid depending on life stage. This makes sense because adult dogs can efficiently convert LA to AA. However, I would be fascinated with more information about optimal levels of AA in the diet. Additionally, some people get tripped up because they might see low LA in their diets according to NRC requirements- but this often is not an issue when AA is present!

The EPA:DHA Ratio: This ratio pertains mainly for therapeutic reasons. Falling outside of this ratio does not result in malnutrition. Many using software (again, such as Pet Diet Designer), will add more and more polyunsaturated fat in the form of EPA or DHA in order to balance this ratio. This is a misapplication of this recommendation. The fact that Pet Diet Designer puts the EPA and DHA ratio right below the calcium to phosphorus ratio portrays the wrong idea. These ratios are based off of very different mechanisms.

The Omega 6 to Omega 3 Ratio

This is a hot topic. The NRC correctly states than an overall omega ratio is not always useful because the different forms of the essential fatty acids have different potencies. You may have a low ratio because you include a lot of ALA but this won’t account for the potency of AA in the diet.

The omega 6:3 ratio is a bit silly when we are working with healthy dogs who are eating preformed essential fatty acids.

That being said, when working therapeutically there is support from myself and colleagues that lower omega ratios can be useful- such as in the case of arthritis.

As mentioned above, a diet with adequate preformed essential fatty acids from meat, organs, eggs, and fish will not need to meet NRC ratio guidelines for healthy dogs.

Final Thoughts On Saturated and Unsaturated Fatty Acids

Healthy adult dogs who consume an animal-based diet inclusive of various cuts and sources of meat, organs, eggs, fish, and fish body oils will not see fatty acid deficiencies. For the most part, they do not need to worry about ratios when everything is fed in normal “food” amounts. A diet that is excessive or deficient in any category will present issues. For example, if the owner adds a lot of fish oil, then we may see issues with omega 6. If the owner is not feeding brain or fish, then we would see low omega 3.

A dog eating a kibble diet that sees improvement of skin conditions by the addition of coconut or fish oil may indicate that the diet in general is providing inadequate fat and a complete food change may be indicated.

High amounts of EPA is a pharmacological approach appropriate for only some situations. It is not without side effects including disturbances to gut mucosa and skin and comes with increased oxidative stress. Therapeutic doses of EPA still have their place and can be preferable to other options.

DHA is more important for proactive health and inflammatory resolution- whether that be from EPA elongated to DHA or from preformed DHA. ALA is less preferred because of the poor conversion to DHA.

Many ratios outlined by the NRC are meant for specific use and often do not apply to the balanced homemade diets of healthy dogs who are eating the ingredients discussed above.

High amounts of polyunsaturated fat increase oxidative stress.

Saturated fat is the preferred source of energy as it is not prone to oxidation in the same way as PUFAs. Excess can cause loose stools.

Some saturated fatty acids are also important for conditions requiring therapeutic intervention in the gut and brain.

At last- we can move on!

Fat Displaces Other Nutrients

I have critiqued for a while now the tendency of homemade dog foods to be inappropriately high in fat. Essentially, many homemade diets are high in fat being fed to dogs with low energy requirements. There are many essential nutrients not found in fat. Because the dog has low energy requirements, less of the food must be fed because fat is high in energy. This can result in low intake of essential nutrients.

High Fat Diets and Poor Food Transitions

Dogs do well with higher amounts of fat relative to humans. However, a dog eating a commercial diet high in carbohydrates that is transitioned cold turkey to a high fat diet can often result in digestive distress. Higher fat is something to be worked up to- whether that be formulating a moderate fat diet or doing a careful transition- or both.

For those formulating diets for HEALTHY adult dogs, you do not need to stick right to the recommended allowance for fat.

However, I would consider 300-400+% of the daily requirement an area where fewer dogs thrive.

Activity and Fat

Dogs doing longer and moderate intensity work will do well by deriving their energy from fat. Search and rescue, hiking, and sled dogs are examples of dogs who prefer fat for their source of energy.

Finally, it is important to note that hgh fat diets are not always the culprit for overweight dogs. It is often the combination of high energy, high carbohydate diets that altered dogs struggle with.

I also did a fat mini-series that can be found here where I discuss obesity.

Cholesterol and Dogs


Low fat foods for the majority of dogs that indicate their use for cardiovascular health are backed by no science indicating that they are heart healthy for their reduced cholesterol content or are utilizing out of context and outdated studies pertaining to humans. Cholesterol and lipid issues are rare for dogs and much rarer than what is seen in humans and there is no reason to avoid cholesterol and fat in the canine diet for the majority of dogs.

Hyperlipidemia is a separate issue that indicates another underlying condition. It is often confused as “high cholesterol.”

Full Explanation

Cholesterol is a kind of fat that serves multiple purposes. Cholesterol helps form bile salts, is a precursor for steroid hormones, fat soluble vitamins- vitamin D3, and also forms a protective layer in the skin needed to prevent water loss as well as prevent the invasion of foreign substances. Cholesterol is critical for cellular membranes. Until very recently, it was well accepted that cholesterol causes cardiovascular issues through atherosclerosis and that cholesterol ought to be avoided. While this idea is not being challenged through better scientific studies and observations, many have attempted to apply the so-called “low fat, heart healthy” diet to their dogs in the name of avoiding “bad cholesterol.” 

Hyperlipidemia is where there are high levels of lipids in the blood and is often confused as “high cholesterol” in dogs. This is not so. “ Dietary hyperlipidemia is characterized by increased chylomicron concentrations. Because chylomicrons contain mostly triglycerides and only a small amount of cholesterol, the serum cholesterol concentration of patients with postprandial hyperlipidemia is usually normal or only mildly increased (< 500 mg/dl).”


For dogs, hyperlipidemia is very unusual and indicates that there is an underlying reason why this may be happening- not the diet itself as the primary issue. The process of uptake of lipids to cells involves hormones and functions of the cells and the liver. Any part of this process that is affected by a disease state can affect the lipids in the blood- and not so much the diet itself, though the intake of dietary fat of course is still “causing” hyperlipidemia. Underlying conditions should be addressed. Diabetes, thyroid issues, and pancreatitis are just a few conditions that all can have negative effects on proper lipid metabolism. The question for professionals should be “Why is there lipid in the blood?” rather than only fixing the symptoms with high carb, low fat foods as underlying conditions must be treated. The majority of high triglycerides issues for dogs or high triglycerides and cholesterol is very commonly due to an underlying disorder- whether genetic, drug induced, or metabolic disease.


Low fat foods for the majority of dogs that indicate their use for cardiovascular health are backed by no science indicating that they are heart healthy for their reduced cholesterol content or are utilizing out of context and outdated studies pertaining to humans. Cholesterol and lipid issues are rare for dogs and much rarer than what is seen in humans and there is no reason to avoid cholesterol and fat in the canine diet for the majority of dogs.

If you liked this content, you might like my fat lesson in the Raw Fed and Nerdy Course.


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