Healthy Low-Fat Diets For Dogs With Special Dietary Needs



1. Learn to calculate grams of fat per 1,000 kcal rather than relying on fat percentages to identify low—fat foods.

2. Be sure your homemade low-fat diet includes the proper amount of calcium.

3. Avoid foods that are excessively low in protein, such as some prescription and weight—loss diets.

4. Avoid low-fat diets for dogs that are excessively low in fat, unless your dog is one of the few who requires it.

In previous issues we’ve talked about the causes, diagnosis, and treatment of pancreatitis. In this article we will discuss low-fat diets for dogs that can be used long term for dogs who cannot tolerate too much fat in their diet. These low-fat diets for dogs guidelines are meant for adult maintenance only, not for puppies or females who are pregnant or nursing, as their requirements are different.

Many dogs with chronic pancreatitis and those prone to recurrent attacks of acute pancreatitis do better when fed diets that are low in fat. Dogs with exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (EPI) due to damage to the pancreas, or with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), may also respond favorably to a low-fat diet. Some dogs need low-fat dog foods to control hyperlipidemia (high levels of triglycerides in the blood) that can lead to pancreatitis.

Dogs with fat intolerance or mal-absorption may show signs such as diarrhea and weight loss, or steatorrhea (excessive excretion of fat in the stool, resulting in large, pale, greasy, and malodorous stools) in more severe cases. Fat malabsorption can also be associated with liver and gall bladder disease, intestinal infection (viral, bacterial, or parasites), lymphangiectasia, and other conditions. It’s a good idea to try a low-fat diet for any dog with digestive problems to see if he improves, though if no improvement is seen, it need not be continued.

How Much Fat is OK for dogs?

As a rule, veterinarians consider a diet with less than 10 percent fat on a dry matter basis (less than 17 percent of calories from fat) to be low fat, while diets with 10 to 15 percent fat (17 to 23 percent of calories) are considered to contain a moderate amount of fat. Foods with more than 20 percent fat are considered high-fat. A few dogs may need a very low-fat diet, especially if they have hyperlipidemia, or if they react to foods with higher levels of fat.

Low-Fat Diets For Dogs

When comparing the percentage of fat in different foods, you must consider the food’s moisture content. The percentage of fat in wet food (canned or fresh) must be converted to dry matter (DM) for comparison, or to use the guidelines above. To do the conversion, first determine the amount of dry matter by subtracting the percentage of moisture from 100, then divide the percentage of fat by the result. For example, if a food is 75 percent moisture and 5 percent fat, divide 5 by 25 (100 – 75) to get 20 percent fat DM.

Percentages give you only a rough estimate of the actual amount of fat your dog will consume.

For a more exact figure, calculate the grams of fat per 1,000 kcal (kilocalories, the standard caloric measurement). For simplicity’s sake, I will call this GFK, though that is not a standard abbreviation. Veterinary nutritionists consider diets to be low-fat if they have less than 25 GFK (22.5 percent of calories from fat). This measurement can be used for any type of food: dry, canned, or fresh.

The ratio of fat to calories is more accurate than the percentage of fat in the diet, since the amount of food your dog needs to consume is determined by calories.

For example, a diet that is 10 percent fat with 4,000 kcal/kg provides 25 GFK, while a diet that is 8 percent fat with 2,700 kcal/kg provides 30 GFK.

In other words, for every 1,000 kcal your dog consumes, he would get 30 grams of fat from the food with 8 percent fat, but only 25 grams of fat from the food with 10 percent fat. See the sidebars on the following pages for instructions on how to easily calculate the GFK in various foods and combinations.

Here is a list of the percentages of fat that would translate to 25 grams per 1,000 kcal for foods with various calories:

2.5 percent fat @ 1,000 kcal/kg
5 percent fat @ 2,000 kcal/kg
7.5 percent fat @ 3,000 kcal/kg
10 percent fat @ 4,000 kcal/kg

Vegetarian diets are sometimes recommended to provide a low-fat diet. I do not advise feeding your dog a vegetarian diet, whether commercial or homemade. See “Have Dinner In,” (WDJ, April 2007) for more information on how such a diet can lead to serious nutritional deficiencies.

Some low-fat diets for dogs recipes are excessively low in fat, providing as little as 5 to 8 GFK, with as much as seven times more starches than meat. With very few exceptions, it’s not necessary to feed such an extremely low-fat diet to dogs recovering from or prone to pancreatitis or with other forms of fat intolerance, nor is such a diet likely to be nutritionally adequate, regardless of how many supplements you add. The NRC (National Research Council) recommends a minimum of 11.1 GFK for adult dogs (10 percent of calories from fat, or around 5 percent fat DM).

Low-fat diets for dogs that are too low in fat can lead to deficiencies of fat-soluble vitamins and problems with the skin and coat; they can also leave your dog feeling tired and hungry all the time. It’s important to feed adequate fat unless your dog absolutely cannot tolerate it. In that case, you can add easily digestible fat in the form of medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), found in coconut oil and MCT oil (generally made from coconut and/or palm kernel oil). See last month’s article for more information on MCTs.

Not all dogs who have had acute pancreatitis, or who have EPI, need low-fat dog food. Many dogs who have experienced acute pancreatitis can return to a normal diet with no problem. A recent study showed that severe fat restriction (less than 13 percent of calories from fat, or less than 15 GFK) failed to show any significant benefit for dogs with EPI.

A case report of three German Shepherd Dogs with EPI demonstrated that a diet with 19 percent fat (on a dry matter basis) was well tolerated and resulted in weight gain, decreased diarrhea, and an improved coat (the diet used hydrolyzed protein, which is processed in such a way as to render the proteins nearly hypoallergenic). Diets with 43 percent calories from fat have been shown to promote better protein, fat, and carbohydrate digestibility compared to diets containing 18 and 27 percent calories from fat in dogs with experimental EPI.

Find the Amount of Fat in Commercial Dog Foods

You can calculate the grams of fat per 1,000 kcal in any food you find by using the following formula:

Fat percentage ÷ kcal per kg x l0,000 = grams of fat per 1,000 kcal (GFK)

For example, if a food is 10.0% fat and has 4,000 kcal/kg: 10.0 ÷ 4,000 x 10,000 = 25 GFK

For dry food, you need to know the kcal per kg, not per cup. a volume measure that cannot be converted to kcal/kg.

For canned food, if you know the number of calories and ounces per can. you can use this formula instead: Fat percentage x ounces per can ÷ kcal per can x 284 = GFK.

If you know the kcal per pound (rather than per kg) of any food. you can use this formula instead: Fat percentage ÷ kcal per pound x 4,540 = GFK.

See the table below for examples of higher-quality, lower-fat commercial foods (presented alphabetically) that you can choose from if your dog requires a low-fat diet. This is just a sampling; there are other brands that would be comparable. Most are senior or weight-loss formulas, but I have also included some adult formulas that are only moderately higher in fat. which will be fine for many dogs. For comparison. see the gastrointestinal prescription diets at the table‘s bottom; note that these are not high-quality foods.

The most important column in the table is “grams fat/1,000 kcal (GI-K)”. That value gives you the most accurate information about the amount of fat in each food, and can be used to compare different types of foods, Some varieties of food shown are lower in fat than most dogs need (less than 25 GFK); these can be combined with foods that have moderate amounts of hit to give you more feeding options.

Be careful to check the individual food you‘re considering feeding; just because one variety a company offers is low-fat doesn‘t mean they all are. Canidae Platinum Formula is an example of a food where the canned version has almost twice as much fat as the dry.

I’ve included three incomplete dehydrated pre-mixes. These must be mixed with fresh foods per instructions to provide a complete diet. The added foods will boost the protein level of the overall diet to an adequate level.

The fat percentages in the table are taken from the minimum values as shown on the label. The actual amount of fat will be somewhat higher than the guaranteed minimum. Some companies provide (on their websites) the actual “as fed” amount of fat found when the food was tested. Ranges of fat percentage and GFK are given for those foods, showing the difference between the computations using the minimum and actual amounts of fat.

For canned and raw foods, I also show the dry matter (DM) percentages of fat and protein in parentheses: dry foods have so little moisture that their DM percentages are only slightly higher than their “as f ” percentages. Use the DM percentages of wet foods when comparing the amounts of fat or protein to the amounts in dry foods.

Blue Buffalo Chicken Dinner can 1,213 4% (18.2%) 33 8.5% (38.6%)
Blue Buffalo Senior Chicken & Brown Rice Recipe dry 3,398 8% 24 18%
Blue Buffalo Weight Control Chicken & Brown Rice dry 3,100 6% 19 20%
California Natural Low Fat Rice & Chicken Meal Adult dry 3,426 7% 20 21%
California Natural Low Fat Rice & Lamb Meal Adult dry 3,373 7-7.1% 20-21 21%
Canidae Lamb Meal & Rice dry 4,022 12.5% 31 21%
Canidae Platinum Formula dry 3,328 8-8.5% 24-26 20%
Chicken Soup for the Pet Lover’s Soul Adult Formula can 1,139 4% (18.2%) 35 8% (36%)
Chicken Soup for the Pet Lover’s Soul Adult Light dry 3,088 6% 19 20%
Chicken Soup for the Pet Lover’s Soul Senior Dog Formula dry 3,364 12% 36 22%
Drs. Foster & Smith Dry Senior Dog Food Formula dry 3,180 8-8.9% 25-28 23%
Eagle Pack Holistic Select Duck Meal & Oatmeal dry 3,656 13-13.6% 36-37 23%
Eagle Pack Holistic Select Senior Care dry 3,606 10-12.5% 28-35 26%
HealthWise Chicken Meal & Oatmeal Weight Control dry 3,285 7-8% 21-24 20%
Innova Low Fat Adult dry 3,340 7-7.9% 21-24 18%
Innova Senior Plus dry 3,491 10-10.2% 29 24%
Wellness CORE Reduced Fat Formula dry 3,270 9-10% 28-31 33%
Wellness Senior can 1,064 3% (13.6%) 28 7% (32%)
Wellness Super5 Mix Complete Health Chicken dry 3,570 12% 34 22%
Wellness Super5 Mix Just For Seniors dry 3,220 10% 31 18%
Sojos Europa Grain-Free Dog Food Mix (incomplete) dehyd. 3,469 6.5% 19 15%
Sojos European Style Dog Food Mix (incomplete)  dehyd. 3,738 6% 16 13%
The Honest Kitchen Preference (incomplete)  dehyd. 3,510 5% 14 12%
The Honest Kitchen Verve  dehyd. 3,770 7.5% 20 21%
Primal Pet Foods Venison Formula frozen/ raw 1,689 4% (18.2%) 24 16% (73%)
Hill’s Prescription Diet i/d  dry 3,849 9-13% 23-34 22%
Purina Veterinary Diets EN Formula  can 1,194 3% (11.5%) 25 6.5% (25%)
Royal Canin Veterinary Diet Digestive Low Fat LF20  dry 3,410 4-6% 12-18 20%
Royal Canin Veterinary Diet Low Fat LF  can 1,148 1.5-2% (6.8%) 13-17 8% (32%)

Calculate the Amount of Fat in Fresh Foods

The table below has a sampling of foods that you can use to create a low-fat diet for your dog. You can check out other foods at nutritiondatacom, which allows you to save selected foods online and then use them to create recipes.

Once again, the most important column is the “grams fat/1,000 kcal,” which gives you the most accurate fat measurement for comparison purposes, Note that some of these foods, such as eggs, are high in fat, suitable only when combined in limited amounts with lower-fat foods. Several foods show a range that depends on how the food is prepared (raw, roasted, boiled, etc); see nutritiondatacom for details.

A simple formula similar to the one used for commercial foods will allow you to calculate the grams of fat per 1,000 kcal (GFK) in any individual food or recipe. All you need to know is the number of calories and the grams of fat (not the percentage) for each food or recipe. both of which can be found at nutritiondatacom.

grams of fat ÷ number of calories x 1,000 = grams of fat per 1,000 kcal (GFK)

Example: To calculate the grams of fat per 1,000 kcal in low-fat cottage cheese (using the numbers from the table below), divide 1.0 grams of fat by 72 kcal and multiply by 1,000.

1.0÷72x 1,000= 14 GFK

Remember that not everything you feed must be low-fat. Moderate-fat foods can be combined with very low-fat foods in order to create a low-fat meal. To calculate the GFK in any recipe, divide the total grams of fat in the recipe by its kcal and multiply by 1,000. For example, nutritiondatacom says that 8 ounces of cooked white rice combined with 8 ounces of roasted skinless dark meat chicken provide 223 grams of fat and 750 kcal. So, 22.3 ÷ 750 x 1,000 = 30 GFK

Low-Fat Commercial Diets

In order to calculate the amount of fat in commercial foods, you will need to know the kcal/kg. If this information is not provided on the label of the product you’re interested in, call or e-mail the company. Ask them to provide the actual amount of fat from a nutritional analysis if possible, rather than the guaranteed minimum amount that is shown on the label. (See above. You’ll see that the actual amount of fat in a food may be much higher than the “minimum” amount shown on the label.)

Most senior and light diets are relatively low in fat, but look for those that are not also low in protein. Low-protein diets should be avoided, as they can increase the risk of both hyperlipidemia and pancreatitis. Diets that are low in both protein and fat are mostly carbohydrates. Dogs get more nutritional value from protein than from carbohydrates, so it’s better to feed a diet that is higher in protein and therefore lower in carbohydrates. You can increase the amount of protein in the diet by adding high-protein, low-fat fresh foods, if needed. Moderate amounts of protein (up to 30 percent on a dry matter basis, or 23 percent of calories) are recommended for dogs recovering from acute pancreatitis.

Low-fat foods are inherently less palatable (not as tasty). If your dog is unwilling to eat low-fat foods, try adding some low- or moderate-fat canned or fresh foods, or low-sodium nonfat broth, to make the food more attractive. See the homemade diet section below for more information on foods to add. You can also combine low-fat food with moderate-fat food to keep fat at reasonable levels while increasing palatability.

Veterinarians debate about the amount of fiber that is best for dogs recovering from pancreatitis. Some dogs respond better to low-fiber diets (0.5 to 5 percent DM), using mixed soluble and insoluble fiber types, while others do better on diets that include moderate levels of insoluble fiber (10 to 15 percent). The difference may depend on what other gastrointestinal disorders the dog has. Low fiber is recommended for dogs in the initial recovery stages of acute pancreatitis, as fiber slows gastric emptying, which may prolong pancreatic stimulation.

Low-Fat Homemade Diets

To make a low-fat homemade diet, feed about half carbohydrates, and half low-fat meat, eggs, and dairy. The percentage of carbs can be decreased, and the amount of meat increased, if you use very low-fat cuts, or boil them to remove most of the fat.

The majority of the carbohydrates should be starchy foods, such as rice, oatmeal, barley, quinoa, pasta, potatoes, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, and winter squashes (e.g., acorn and butternut), to supply low-fat calories. Other types of vegetables, such as broccoli, summer squash, and leafy greens can be included, but they supply fewer calories so they can’t replace the starchy carbs. You can also use a low-fat pre-mix designed to balance out a homemade diet, such as Preference from The Honest Kitchen.

The other half of the diet should be mostly low-fat meats, or meats cooked to remove much of their fat. Skinless chicken breast is very low in fat, but other parts can be used as long as you remove the skin and visible fat. Turkey, venison, goat, buffalo, and rabbit are low in fat, while lamb and pork are generally high in fat. Ground beef comes in varying levels of fat.

Whole eggs are relatively high in fat but are highly nutritious, so they should be included in the diet in limited amounts. A large egg has about 5 grams of fat, which is not a lot for a very large dog, but too much for smaller dogs. You can hard boil eggs and then feed just a portion each day, or split them between multiple dogs. Almost all of the fat and calories are in the yolks, so the whites alone can be added to increase protein without increasing fat, if needed. When feeding just egg whites, they should either be cooked or a B vitamin supplement should be added, as raw egg whites can deplete biotin over time when fed without the yolks.

Low-fat or nonfat dairy products are also good to include in the diet. Cottage cheese, plain yogurt, and kefir (a cultured milk product that is easy to make at home using low-fat or nonfat milk) are all good choices. Avoid other cheeses; even low-fat ones are high in fat (nonfat is okay).

Homemade diets should include organ meat, and most organs are low in fat. Liver and kidney should be fed in small amounts only, no more than 5 to 10 percent of the total diet (around 1 to 1.5 ounces organ meat per pound of food). Beef heart is quite low in fat and is nutritionally more of a muscle meat, so it can be fed in larger quantities, as long as your dog does well with it.

Fruits such as apple, banana, melon, papaya, and blueberries are fine to include in the diet in small amounts. Avoid avocados, which are high in fat.

Meat can be fed either raw or cooked. Certain types of cooking, such as boiling and skimming off the fat, can be used to reduce the amount of fat, while other types, such as frying in oil, will increase the amount of fat. You can buy less expensive, fattier cuts of meat if you remove the fat by cooking or trimming before feeding. Grains and starchy carbs should be cooked to improve their digestibility, while other vegetables must be either cooked or pureed in a food processor, juicer, or blender in order to be digestible by dogs (raw whole veggies are not harmful, but provide little nutritional value).

If you feed raw meaty bones, the amounts should be small, as these tend to be high in fat. Be sure to remove the skin and visible fat from poultry, and avoid fattier cuts such as lamb and pork necks and breast (riblets).

This is one case where “balance over time” does not apply. A high-fat meal can’t be balanced out later with a low-fat meal. Instead, combine foods so that no meals are high in fat. Some dogs prone to digestive problems do better with more fiber, while others do better with less. Many vegetables and fruits are high in fiber, as are beans and some grains, while white rice has little fiber. If you need to add fiber, you can use canned pumpkin or psyllium.

Balancing a Homemade Diet

You will need to add calcium to your homemade diet, unless you feed at least 20 percent raw meaty bones (RMBs, where the bone is consumed) or use a pre-mix designed to balance out a homemade diet.

Because you need to feed more food when feeding a low-fat diet in order to supply the same number of calories, it’s better to calculate the amount of calcium needed based on the calories your dog consumes rather than the weight of the food. The National Research Council recommends 1 gram (1,000 mg) of calcium per 1,000 kcal for adult dogs. Another way to compute the amount of calcium your dog needs is by body weight: the NRC recommends 30 mg calcium per pound of body weight (65 mg/kg) daily. Be sure to divide this daily amount by the number of meals you feed.

If you are feeding RMBs but they are less than 20 percent of the diet, adjust the amount of calcium proportionately. For example, if your diet is 10 percent RMBs, you would need to add only half as much calcium as the NRC recommends to balance out the rest of the diet.

You should also adjust the calcium amount if you feed part commercial and part homemade. There’s no need to add calcium if the homemade food is just a small percentage of the diet, say 25 percent or less, but if you feed more than that, calculate the amount of calcium based on the percentage of the diet that is made up of homemade food. For example, if you feed half commercial and half homemade, give half as much calcium as your dog would need based on body weight, or calculate the calories in the homemade portion and base the amount of calcium to add on that amount alone. You can use any form of calcium, such as calcium carbonate or calcium citrate. You can also use bone meal. Ground eggshells can be used to supply calcium. Rinse and dry the eggshells, then grind them in a clean coffee grinder or blender. One-half of a teaspoon of ground eggshell provides approximately 1,000 mg of elemental calcium.

Find the Amount of Fat in Combination Diets

If you feed a combination of different commercial foods, you’ll need to know the weights of each in order to calculate the GFK. Calculations are based on weight, not volume. The actual weight doesn’t matter, only the proportions.

If you feed the same amount of two or more foods, just add the values together before doing the calculation. For example, if you feed halflnnova Low Fat Adult (7.9% fat, 3,340 kcal/kg) and half lnnova Senior Plus (10.2% fat. 3,491 kcaI/kg), add the values for each together:

7.9 ÷ 10.2 = 18.1 grams of fat
3,340 ÷ 3.491 = 6,831 kcal
18.1 ÷ 6,831 x 10,000 = 26 GFK

What if you feed different amounts of two different foods? Say you feed 3 ounces of canned Blue Buffalo Chicken Dinner (4.0% fat. 1,213 kcal/kg) plus I ounce of dry Blue Buffalo Weight Control food (6.0% fat, 3,100 kcal/kg); that’s a ratio 3:1. To do the calculatiOns. multiply each canned value by 3 and add the results to the values for the dry food:

3 x 4.0 = 12.0 ÷ 6.0 = 18.0 grams of fat
3 x 1.213 = 3.639 ÷ 3.100 = 6.739 kcal
18.0 ÷ 6,739 x 10,000 = 27 GFK

If you know the kcal/oz of a canned food, you’ll need to convert that to kcal/kg in order to compute the GFK of a combination of foods. To do so, divide the number of calories per can by the number of ounces in the can, then multiply by 35. For example, if a food has 360 kcal per 12 oz can, 360 ÷ 12 x 35 = 1,050 kcal/kg.

If you know the kcal/lb of any food, again you’ll need to convert that to kcal/kg in order to compute the GFK of a combination of foods. To do so, multiply the kcal/lb by 2.2. So, if a food has 1,200 kcal/lb: 1,200 x 2.2 = 2.640 kcal/kg.

Things get a little trickier when you combine fresh foods with commercial foods. To calculate the GFK in a combination of a commercial food and fresh foods, convert both to amounts per 100 kcal.

To convert kcal/kg (which is how the information is usually given for commercial foods) to kcal/100 grams, just divide by 10. Percentage of fat is the same as grams of fat per 100 grams, so no conversion is needed there. Use to get the grams of fat and kcal for 100 grams of any food or recipe (be sure to change the serving size to 100 grams).

If you feed half commercial food and half fresh food, just add the grams of fat per 100 grams of the fresh food to the percentage of fat in the commercial food. then divide by the combined total calories. Remember that calculations are based on weight. not volume.

For example: To calculate the GFK in a meal that is half Blue Buffalo Weight Control Chicken & Brown Rice and half broiled 95% lean ground beef (e.g., 4 ounces ofeach), add the values for the two together and use the same formula from above. Blue Buffan has 6.0 grams of fat (6.0% fat) and 310 kcal (3,100 divided by 10) per 100 grams. The ground beef has 6.5 grams of fat and 171 kcal per 100 grams.

6.0 ÷ 6.5 = 12.5 grams of fat
310 ÷ 171 =481 kcal
12.5 ÷ 481x 1,000=266 GFK

This same formula will work no matter what combinations you use, as long as you adjust for weight ratios. For example, if you combine 4 ounces each of three different foods. you‘re feeding the same amount of each food. so just add the grams of fat and kcal for all three foods together.

If you use more of one food than another, then multiply the grams of fat and kcal for that food by the appropriate factor — for example, if you use three times as much of one food as another, multiply the grams of fat and kcal for that food by 3 and add it to the numbers for the other food.

For example: lnnova Senior Plus has 10.2 grams of fat (10.2% fat) and 349 kcal (3.491 divided by 10) per 100 grams. Low-fat cottage cheese has 1.0 grams of fat and 72 kcal per 100 grams. If you feed 6 oz lnnova Senior Plus and 3 oz low-fat cottage cheese. you‘re feeding twice as much of the lnnova as the cottage cheese, so multiply those values by 2 and combine them with the values for the cottage cheese:

10.2 x 2 = 20.4 ÷ 1.0 = 21.4 grams of fat
349 x 2 = 698 ÷ 72 = 770 kcal
21.4 ÷ 770 x 1,000 = 28 GFK

You can use the same formula for combining the values for raw meaty bones with other fresh foods, since doesn’t have information on RMBs. Enter your recipe for all the ingredients except the RMBs into nutritiondatacom and get the grams of fat and kcal for 100 grams of that recipe; again, make sure to change the serving size to 100 grams. Then combine it proportionately with the values for RMBs from the table above.

Once you get a feel for the diet you‘re feeding, there will be no need to continue to do the calculations. You’ll know about how much eg you can add, for example, without increasing fat too much — or you’ll know that you can add more egg when feeding a particularly low-fat meal.

Note that when we talk about a meal being half one thing and half another, we are talking about weight, not volume. A cup of dehydrated food will weigh less than a cup of ground beef, for example, so use the weight for the calculations. It‘s easy to weigh the food with an inexpensive kitchen or postage scale.

Dietary Supplements for Dogs

If the low-fat diets for dogs you feed lacks variety, especially organ meats, it’s best to add a supplement designed to balance out a homemade diet. Two supplements are designed to balance out high-carb diets: Balance IT Canine and Furoshnikov’s Formulas Vitamins & Minerals for Home-Cooked Dog Food.

When using Balance IT, calculate the amount of calcium your dog should have based on the formulas above, then figure how many scoops of the supplement are needed to supply that amount of calcium.

See Spot Live Longer Homemade Dinner Mixes can also be used, but give a little less than the recommended amount, since it’s made for diets that are higher in fat. Each of these supplements supplies calcium in the proper amounts, so there’s no need to add more.

Even if the low-fat diets for dogs you’re feeding has a lot of variety, it’s a good idea to add certain supplements. As discussed last month, digestive enzymes and probiotics may help to control the effects of chronic pancreatitis, and sometimes are helpful for other digestive problems. Fish body oil, such as salmon oil (not cod liver oil), and antioxidants, including vitamins C and E, beta carotene, and selenium, may help reduce the risk of acute pancreatitis. Dogs with chronic pancreatitis can be deficient in B vitamins, so a B-complex supplement is also recommended.

Diet versus Single Recipe

Many people feel more confident feeding low-fat diets for dogs that has been designed by a veterinary nutritionist, but these can have limitations. Most nutritionists provide the dog owner with a single recipe rather than a diet, and in fact caution against making any substitutions to the recipe in order to keep each meal “complete and balanced.”

The problem with this approach is that variety is key to good nutrition. Human nutritionists would never supply a single recipe and expect clients to eat that and only that for the rest of their lives. Instead, they give guidelines for which foods can be eaten in quantity, which in moderation, and which should be avoided or eaten in only very limited amounts. That’s what I’ve tried to do here. If you do use a recipe from a nutritionist long term, don’t be afraid to sometimes substitute other foods in the same category as those used in the recipe if they have similar amounts of fat (as long as your dog does not have severe digestive problems or food allergies that require a very limited diet).

The other problem with these recipes is that often they are excessively high in carbohydrates, with minimal amounts of protein, and rely on supplements to provide many nutrients. Carbohydrates are needed to supply low-fat calories for dogs who require a low-fat diet, but they provide less nutritional value than animal products such as meat, eggs, and dairy. Diets that are high in carbohydrates must rely on synthetic supplements to supply much of the nutrition that your dog needs.

A diet that contains more animal products and variety will meet more of your dog’s nutritional needs naturally, without requiring a complete vitamin-mineral supplement. Also, diets that rely on supplements may lack nutrients as yet unidentified as necessary or beneficial, as was the case with taurine before it was discovered that a deficiency leads to heart disease in cats (and some dog breeds as well). Taurine is one example of a nutrient that is found in meat, but not plant products.

Low-Fat Treats

If your dog cannot handle much fat in his diet, then you’ll also need to use low-fat treats. Carrot, apple, and banana pieces or green beans can be used, if your dog likes them. Many people buy or make dried sweet potato slices for dogs prone to pancreatitis. Rice cakes are another option.

Many commercial treats are low in fat. Check the fat percentage on the label of dry treats to get an idea of how much fat they contain; most dry treats with 8 percent or less of fat should be fine. Moist treats are harder to calculate, since you must either convert the fat percentage to dry matter, or know the number of calories so that you can use one of the formulas above in order to determine the actual amount of fat (most treat labels do not provide information about calories).

Some dehydrated or freeze-dried lung and other meats are low in fat. Avoid using dehydrated chicken jerky, though, as most are imported from China (check the small print carefully), and the AVMA and FDA have warned that these treats have been linked to kidney failure in dogs, though no cause has yet been found. Also avoid using pieces of cheese, hot dogs, lunch meats (even those marked low fat), and other fatty foods as treats.

You can create your own dehydrated treats by drying thin slices of low-fat meat in a dehydrator or an oven set to a very low temperature. Sprinkle with garlic powder or nonfat Parmesan cheese before drying to make them even more enticing. Anise is another flavor that dogs really like. Try boiling beef heart in water with a couple of teaspoons of anise seed powder, then cut into small pieces to use as treats.

Use low-fat or nonfat yogurt in place of peanut butter or cheese for stuffing Kongs. Put them in the freezer to create a frozen yogurt treat that will last a long time.

Some chews, such as bully sticks (also called pizzles), are low in fat, while others, such as dried trachea and pig ears, are quite a bit higher. Dried tendons appear to be low in fat, but may be greasy, so use your own judgment. Similar products from different manufacturers may vary in fat content, so pay attention both to the amount of fat listed on the label and to the feel of the chew. Marrow bones are filled with fat and should be avoided. Knuckle bones also appear to be too high in fat to use safely.

Two low-fat chews that last a long time are Himalayan dog chews, which are made from yak and cow milk and are less than one percent fat, and deer antlers, such as those marketed by Lucky Buck. Mindy Fenton, who owns K9 Raw Diet, carries these and other low-fat chews, and has helped many customers whose dogs are prone to pancreatitis to find chews that work for them.

I found several anecdotal reports of rawhide chews, particularly those that were imported, causing acute pancreatitis in dogs, but could find no studies or warnings from veterinarians or other reliable sources on this topic. Some people fear that the act of chewing for long periods may overstimulate the pancreas and cause problems for some dogs, but I could find no supporting evidence. A veterinary pancreatitis specialist confirmed that he feels chewing is not a problem as long as the chews are not high in fat (such as pig ears). Keep an eye on your dog and discontinue giving chews if they appear to cause any discomfort.

Do What Works

Remember that the bottom line is always to do what works for your dog. Numbers tell you only so much, and nutritional analyses for both commercial and fresh foods may vary from what you’re actually feeding.

If your dog continues to have problems, try different foods to see if he tolerates some better than others. If possible, feed frequent small meals, which are easier to digest. Experiment with supplements to find those that seem to help your dog. Keep a journal of what you feed, including treats and supplements, to help you see patterns and identify ingredients that might cause problems for your dog.

If digestive disorders continue no matter what you feed, work with your vet to look for other causes, such as intestinal infection, parasites, or food allergies that may be an underlying factor.

Mary Straus does research on canine health and nutrition topics as an avocation. She is the owner of the website. She lives near San Francisco with her almost 17-year-old dog, Piglet.

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Mary Straus has been a regular contributor to Whole Dog Journal since 2006. Mary first became interested in dog training and behavior in the 1980s. In 1997, Mary attended a seminar on wolf behavior at Wolf Park in Indiana. There, she was introduced to clicker training for the first time, and began to consider the question of how we feed our dogs after watching the wolves eat whole deer carcasses. Mary maintains and operates her own site,, which offers information and research on canine nutrition and health. has been created to help make people more "aware" of how to make the best decisions for their dogs. It's designed for people who like to ask questions and understand the reasoning behind decisions, rather than just being told what to do.  Mary has spent years doing research for people whose dogs have health problems, or who just want to learn how to feed them a better diet. Over this time, she has learned a great deal about dog nutrition and health, including the role of diet, supplements and nutraceuticals.  In 2007, she was asked by The Ivy Group to contribute to The Healthy Dog Cookbook. She previously also wrote a column for Dog World.


  1. I’m having trouble figuring out then GFK on various dry dog foods: Health Extension Lite Chicken and Brown Rice
    Recipe. Crude Fat 9% minimum; 3025 Kcal/Kg; 288 Kcal/cup. Has no peas, legumes, potatoes, etc. Another choice was
    Fromm’s Gold Reduced Activity and Senior Dry Dog Food: crude fat 11%; 3475 Kcal/Kg; 1580 Kcal/lb; 368 Kcal/cup.
    My reservation was their listing of potatoes on the label in the 6th or 7th position and inclusion of sweet potatoes
    later on in the list. Last choice – American Natural Premium Original Recipe Dry Dog Food: crude fat 16%; 3837 Kcal/kg
    with none of the less than desirable ingredients. I thought this might be too high fat and the Health Extension too low
    fat. I was hoping you could help me out. I do receive the Whole Dog Journal. Thank you very much.

    • GFK for Health Extension Lite Chicken & Brown Rice: 30 (9/3025*10000)
      Fromm Gold Reduced Activity and Senior: 32
      American Natural Premium Original Recipe: 42
      You don’t say why you’re looking for a low-fat diet. The first two would be suitable for dogs who need reduced fat; the third would be OK for a less active dog who doesn’t otherwise require a low-fat diet.
      Primary ingredients are more important than those listed further down the ingredient list.
      It’s best to rotate among different foods made by different companies using different protein sources, anywhere from daily to every few weeks. Just be sure to adjust the amount fed so that the number of calories your dog gets is comparable. For example, you’d need to feed about a quarter cup more of the first option (288 kcal/cup) to provide the same number of calories as one cup of the second (368 kcal/cup).

  2. Mary

    My 78 lb – 7 yr old chocolate lab, Ally was recently diagnosed with acute pancreatitis after she digested a large amount of peanut butter and chocolate on accident. The vet recommended low-fat prescription food diet for the remainder of her life. I was in shock when I saw how much this food costs. Before this took place, I fed her 2 cups of ground venison burger mixed with unsalted green beans and brown rice a day a long with 2 cups of diamond naturals dry dog food (2 cups, twice a day). Do you think I can go back to her regular food after a month of the low-fat diet? I thought the ground venison was already low in fat, but the vet said no? Also, if I can go back to this diet, should I add a calcium supplement?


    • Andrew, I can’t really answer your questions. Diamond makes many dry dog foods, I have no idea how much fat is in the food you were feeding. You should calculate the grams of fat per thousand calories in the food you were feeding to see if it qualifies as low fat.
      As far as adding venison goes, you would need to ask your supplier how much fat the meat contains. While venison tends to be a lean meat, it can vary. NutritionData lists raw ground venison from game as having 7% fat as fed, but that converts to 45 grams of fat per thousand calories or more than 24% fat on a dry matter basis. It’s possible your dog might be able to tolerate this much fat at some point in the future, but it would be dangerous to try it now.
      I don’t know how much venison or rice you’re feeding; the only way to calculate calories accurately is by weighing these foods, but it sounds like it could be a fairly large percentage of your dog’s daily calories, coming from an unbalanced source. Calcium is not the only nutrient that would be missing from a mix of venison, brown rice and green beans, but you have not provided enough information to calculate what percentage of her daily calories are coming from this unbalanced source. If it’s more than about 20%, that’s a problem.
      Because your dog developed pancreatitis due to a dietary indiscretion and not due to her regular food, you should be able to switch from a prescription low-fat diet to a low-fat commercial diet once your dog has fully recovered, but you’re going to need to be careful about increasing fat in the diet, as her pancreas may have been damaged and so she may be more sensitive to fat now than before.
      As always, I recommend rotating among different diets made by different companies and using different protein sources as well, though I would not try this until your dog is fully recovered and doing well on one diet. Be sure to introduce anything new gradually, in case she reacts poorly to it.

      • Mary

        I mix 1 lb of ground venison with two cans of green beans and 1 cup of rice (before it is cooked). I mix these all together and then feed my dog two cups of this one time per day. For her morning meal, she eats her normal Diamond Naturals dry dog food. I did the calculation for GRAMS OF FAT/1,000 KCAL (GFK) and it was in the mid 30s.

        • Andrew, you can calculate the calories in what you’re making, then divide that by how many days a batch lasts in order to determine how many calories of this mixture your dog gets per day. Then compare that to how many calories she gets from her regular food per day. If she’s getting more than about 25% from the added food, you need to start adding supplements, including calcium, to help balance the diet.
          Go slowly if and when you start to add this, as it’s considerably higher in fat than any veterinary low-fat diet. Your dog may be fine with it after full recovery if her pancreas was not damaged, but could continue to have problems with fat tolerance if it was.

          • Hi Mary,

            I’m in similar situation, my dog had a pancreatitis incident after eating sandy loam spread in my garden (I’m assuming it must have contained bone meal for her to want to eat it). She is a Boxer mix so apparently has some genetic tendency toward pancreatitis anyway.

            My question is… The article states to calculate fat on a calorie basis (for homemade food) – divide the total GRAMS of fat in the recipe by the kcal in the recipe, then multiply by 1000.

            The example is 8 ounces of white rice and 8 oz dark meat chicken. We are told there are 223 GRAMS of fat and 750 kcal.
            the example then divides 22.3 (instead of 223 grams) by 750, x1000.

            Moving the decimal point is not explained and seems to represent something different than grams (which is what we are told to use in the formula). Please help me understand why it says to divide grams by 750 but then moves the decimal point essentially using a number representing 1/10 of the grams. I have the feeling this should be obvious to me, but I am not getting it, regardless.

            If whatever I am feeding does not seem to be causing symptoms, is it safe to assume that it is okay? Or do I need to get bloodwork to make sure everything is back to normal and the inflammation is under control?

            Thank you.


          • Kate, there’s a typo in the section you reference. It should say 22.3 grams of fat, not 223 grams of fat. The information was correct in the original article, but something must have happened when it was moved to this website.

            If your dog has a normal appetite and stools, no vomiting, is energetic and happy and does not show signs of discomfort after meals, there is no need to do blood work.

    • Yours was the most comprehensive article I have EVER found on diets for dogs w/pancreatitis. I need help–Bella, 4 yr old pit mix, diagnosed w/h.pylori, IBD, acid reflux, e.coli/shigella, nausea, and chronic pancreatitis –she’s losing wt. For over 2 yrs she was put on Science Diet I/D low fat, then got another bad flare up of above-mentioned, then put on Royal Canine Hydrolyzed Protein. She HATES the food, is losing wt, & is not improving. Feces tested by Animal Biome, showing LOW in most ever gut bacteria, some zero, 2 were high, so she was put on their FMT (fecal matter transplant) & Gut Maintenance Plus to replace the bacteria & try to bring gut back into balance. R.C. Rx food is high soy protein & I don’t believe this is good for her, but 3 vets say that the body doesn’t recognize the content so no allergic reaction & will calm gut. Don’t see any progress.Have added sw potato, butternut squash, & sometimes brocolli stalks (cooked/pureed), sometimes apple, & occasionally 1/2 banana a muciliage also some manuka honey. I need a precise diet to cook for her that’s better balanced, vitamins, minerals but don’t seem to be able to put it together.Live in USA (Florida). Pls help me, i don’t want to put her down, but I don’t want her suffering from stomach. She’s also on Budesodine 1x/day; GasX, Gabapentin 200mg 3x/day, Tramadol 50mg/2xday; I am starting CoQ10 to keep her strength up, and considering adding multi-vit B.

      • Eileen, I’m sorry your dog is so sick. Hydrolyzed protein diets can help about 80% of dogs with food allergies, but if your dog won’t eat the food, then it can’t help her. There are a number of different hydrolyzed protein diets (Hill’s u/d, Purina HA, etc.), so you could try different ones to see if there are any that she likes and does well with.
        You’re giving so many medications and supplements that I would normally tell you to stop as many of them as possible just to see if your dog improves at all — if so, you can add them back in one at a time to try to determine which ones may be helping, and which ones may be causing problems. I would definitely eliminate Tramadol (has not been shown to be effective in dogs). Don’t stop a prescription medication without guidance from a vet, but you could likely stop the Gut Maintenance Plus. Rather than adding Vitamin B, talk to your vet about B12 testing and injections, as dogs with insufficient B12 usually have trouble absorbing it from the digestive tract. When a dog is having problems with appetite and digestion, I usually look to simply, not keep adding more things, any of which might be contributing to her lack of appetite rather than helping.
        You can get low-fat recipes and supplements from Balance IT. Their Nutrient Profile shows “Amount per Mcal” for various nutrients — look at the row titled “[204] Total lipid (fat).” This value is the same as what I called GFK (grams of fat per thousand calories). You can adjust the amount of fat in the recipes downward, within reason. If necessary, you can request an even lower fat veterinary diet with your vet’s approval (which they make easy to get).
        You don’t mention any medications to help with nausea or appetite. More info:
        If you have not consulted with an internal medicine specialist or veterinary school, I would advise doing so.

  3. Mary, my 13 year old female Boston terrier chopper has Addison’s disease, and recently was hospitalized for gall bladder disease. We may need to remove the gall bladder but are trying medications first. She’s become uninterested in her food- they swapped us to a pea protein diet-z/d. She likes rice cakes and her low fat treats. Can you suggest a home cooked low fat recipe promoting liver and gall bladder health that might be tasty enough to entice her?