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Some dog owners believe their dogs need a low-fat diet, but is it healthy?

Low-fat, nonfat, good fat — just how much dietary fat should be in human diets remains a hot-button topic. Of course, the truth is that fats are actually a type of nutrient we derive from our diets, and therefore some fats are essential. They give us energy and provide our body with the fatty acids necessary for brain development and other important internal processes.

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So while it’s unlikely everyone will ever be on the same page about the perfect amount of dietary fat for humans, most people are at least reading the same chapter: the one that says dietary fat is actually healthy for us in moderation.

What may come as a surprise, though, is the fact that this debate is currently raging in the dog community. Some pet nutritionists believe dogs should follow prey diets, which are low in dietary fat and high in protein. Others insist prey diets have too much protein for modern dogs.

So what’s a dog owner to do? We all love our dogs, and we obviously just want to do what is in the best interest of their health. And after buying bag after bag of dog food over the years, it’s only natural we’ve all wondered at some point, “Can’t I just feed my dog meat?” After all, dogs are descendants of wolves, and wolves in the wild exist on a diet of raw meat.

To gain a little clarity on the subject, we asked veterinarian Dr. Christie Long — the chief veterinarian of Pet Coach — to weigh in with her expertise on the matter.

In her opinion, it’s not a matter of whether or not modernized dogs can adapt to the diet of a wolf but whether they should.

“While I think, nutritionally speaking, dogs would do fine following the same diet wolves eat (i.e., from the standpoint of fat/carbs/protein ratios), I think there are inherent problems in a diet such as this that we have overcome with commercially prepared canine diets,” she explained.

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“For example, commercial diets don’t contain bone, which can break teeth and obstruct the GI tract,” she continued. “In addition, the components to commercial diets are typically free of dangerous infectious pathogens, such as salmonella, thanks to manufacturing processes.”

However, Long points out that many pet parents have turned to these more “natural” diets for their dogs and swear by the results.

“Prey diets, which are closely approximated in today’s world with raw diets, do not actually contain very high levels of dietary fat. They are higher in protein than most commercial dog foods,” she said. “Most dogs do great on these diets, but pet parents should understand the risks and try as much as possible to minimize them.”

According to the FDA, the risks posed by raw food diets for dogs include the consumption of bacteria and other pathogens — as well as a risk to the humans who handle the food.

Even holistic vets like Dr. Ihor Basko warn against a one-size-fits-all approach to feeding dogs a prey or raw diet. “The answer is simple,” Basko says on his blog. “Dogs are not wolves, and don’t have the same environmental conditions and genetic predispositions of normal wolves. Dogs have been domesticated for over 10,000 years, and their diet has varied dependent on the climate, location, and cultural inclinations of the people they have been raised around.”

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Another salient point Basko makes is that, unlike wolves, modern dogs feature many different body structures due to breeding. So it would stand to reason a large, muscular dog like a German shepherd would require more protein than a smaller toy breed like a Maltese. Plus, protein should be reduced as a dog ages (Basko recommends a reduction of 20 to 30 percent for dogs 8 and up).

So should dogs follow a low-fat, high-protein prey diet? In a word, no.

“While many commercial diets that are produced aren’t perfect, I think that they provide the optimal balance between nutrition and safety,” said Long. “Vaccinations form a good comparison tool. There are some risks to vaccinating, but they are minimal, and they far outweigh the risks to our dogs (and to us) of contracting infectious diseases.”

Before you go, check out our slideshow below.

Image: Y Nakanishi/Flickr

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