Omega-3 is one of the single most potent supplements you can add to your dog’s diet. Countless studies have shown that omega-3 fatty acids have wide-ranging positive effects on the health of dogs. Amongst others, omega-3 fatty acids can contribute to the brain development of puppies, strengthen the immune system of dogs, reduce inflammation, increase the ability to fight cancer and benefit heart health.
What are Omega-3 Fatty Acids?
Fat plays an important role in the nutrition of dogs. However, not all fat is the same. While some fats solely act as a source of energy, other fats are closely associated with the health of our canine companions.
All nutritional fats are composed of fatty acids. The two primary groups of fatty acids are omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids.
Omega-3 fatty acids include:
Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)
Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)
Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)
Omega-6 fatty acids include:
Linoleic acid (LA)
Gamma linolenic acid (GLA)
Dihomo-gamma-linolenic acid (DGLA)
Arachidonic acid (AA)
While animals can produce some types of fatty acids out of other nutrients, certain types of fatty acids must be directly supplied via the food eaten. These fatty acids are referred to as essential fatty acids (EFAs).
Linoleic acid, an omega-6 fatty acid, is essential for all animals to stay in good health. Other fatty acids considered essential for dogs are the ALA and/or EPA and DHA. All of them are omega-3 fatty acids.¹
When it comes to health benefits in dogs, research has shown that EPA and DHA are most powerful. While the metabolism of dogs is able to convert limited amounts of the less powerful ALA to EPA and DHA, this process is not very efficient. Therefore, it is recommended to enrich the diet of your dog with omega-3 fatty acids high in bioavailable EPA and DHA.²
Benefits of Omega-3 Fatty Acids for Dogs
Supporting the brain development of puppies
Helping dogs with arthritis by reducing inflammation
Improving your canine companion’s ability to fight cancer
Benefiting the immune system of dogs
Boosting the heart and kidney health of canines
Improving the skin and coat health of dogs
Helping dogs by reducing anxiety, depression and hyperactivity
Supporting the Brain Development of Puppies
Puppies fed food containing high amounts of omega-3 fatty acids rich in DHA performed better in various tasks than puppies with a low omega-3 diet. The tests the young dogs performed in this study included the visual differentiation of objects, memory, balance and coordination tasks.³
Helping Dogs With Arthritis by Reducing Inflammation
Extensive research has shown that omega-3 fatty acids rich in EPA and DHA can form a crucial element in the treatment of canine arthritis. The dog owners involved in some of the studies confirmed that supplementing the diet of their pets with omega-3 fats resulted in significantly reduced discomfort, lameness and joint severity.⁴
Improving the Ability of Dogs to Fight Cancer
Omega-3 fatty acids have shown that they are able to slow or even inhibit the development and metastasis of certain cancers. This effect has also been confirmed in a study involving 32 dogs with lymphoma. The supplementation of their diet with omega-3 fatty acids high in EPA and DHA, significantly increased their disease-free intervals and survival times.⁵
Benefitting the Immune System of Dogs
Research has shown that the supplementation of omega-3 fatty acids (rich in EPA and DHA) to a canine’s diet positively effects their immune system. Effects described a range from alleviating the harmful effects of allergies caused by an over-reactive immune systems response,⁶ to substantially higher antibody titers after vaccinations.⁷
Boosting the Heart Health of Dogs
Several studies involving dogs of different sexes, age, breed, size and weight, have shown considerable positive effects of omega-3 on canines suffering from different heart conditions. The positive effects include improved heart function and appetite, lower blood pressure, inflammation and reduced muscle loss. As a result, those dogs reported longer survival times in comparison to those dogs that did not receive omega-3 fatty acids.⁸ ⁹ ¹⁰
Improving the Health of Dogs Suffering From Chronic Kidney Disease
Omega-3 fatty acids rich in EPA and DHA have significant positive effects on the health of dogs suffering from chronic kidney disease. The same study has also shown that feeding omega-6 rich vegetable oils (safflower) significantly worsens the condition of the dogs.¹¹
Contributing to the Skin and Coat Health of Dogs
The positive effect of omega-3 fatty acids on dogs suffering from the harmful effects of allergies, atopy, pruritus and flea allergies have also been extensively researched during the last several decades. These studies have shown that adding omega-3 fatty acids to a dog’s diet has an alleviating effect on their over-reactive immune systems. This leads to reduced itchiness and substantial improvements of their skin health and coat character.¹² ¹³
Reducing Anxiety, Depression and Hyperactivity in Dogs
If your dog suffers from anxiety, depression or hyperactivity, he or she may benefit from supplementation with omega-3 fatty acids.
While the precise mechanism by which omega-3 fatty acid exerts effects on behavior is not known, they have been proven to modulate neurotransmitters and to affect neuroplasticity. In fact, fatty acids have also been found to influence the same pathways that anti-anxiety medications do, most notably fluoxetine, a commonly prescribed treatment for anxiety disorders in dogs.¹⁴
The calming effect has also been confirmed in a study conducted on 24 anxious Labradors in 2016. There is further evidence in literature that supports using omega-3 fatty acids as a potential reliever of depression, anxiety, and hyperactivity in numerous species. It appears that this may hold true for dogs as well.¹⁵
Why is it Important to add Omega-3 Fatty Acids to Your Dog's Regular Diet?
Most dog foods, especially kibble, are manufactured at very high temperatures. This is detrimental to the temperature sensitive omega-3 fatty acids. Even if you feed your dog a raw diet, there is a high likelihood that you are missing out on omega-3 fatty acids if you are not consciously adding seafood or marine oils to your pet’s diet.
Maintaining an Ideal Ratio Between Omega-3 and Omega-6 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are important. Additionally, it is important that a certain dietary ratio between omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids is maintained. Imbalances between the two can also lead to health problems for your pet.¹⁶
In general, commercial dog food is high in omega-6 and rather low in omega-3.¹⁷ If you are not already adding fish or omega-3 supplements to the diet of your dog, it is safe to assume that the balance between the two fatty acids is not ideal. Consequently, omega-3 should be added.
Best Omega-3 Supplements for Dogs
The most potent and effective omega-3 fatty acids for the health of your dog have the following characteristics:
The omega-3 fatty acids most beneficial to the health of dogs are high in eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).
Many sources of omega-3 fatty acids also contain omega-6 fatty acids at the same time. As most dogs are already getting too much omega-6 as part of their diet, it is important to select a supplement that has a high omega-3 to omega-6 ratio.
In addition to the above, the omega-3 supplements for your dog should also be free of toxins and pollutants. Ideally, they should also be sustainably harvested. Lastly, it is advisable to buy omega-3 supplements from certified suppliers (not unknown sources on the internet).
The fats of land-living animals like ruminants or poultry are high in omega-6 and low in omega-3. This excludes them from being a viable source of omega-3 fatty acids.
Plant oils like flaxseed or canola oil are high in omega-3 fatty acids. However, the omega-3 in these oils is high in alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) and does not contain EPA and DHA. This prevents plant oils from providing the desired health benefits to your dog.
Omega-3 fatty acids high in EPA / DHA and low in ALA are found in fish and other marine sources.
In a perfect world, many different types of fish could provide your dogs with the omega-3 fatty acids they need. Unfortunately, a large part of our fish supply is nowadays tainted with industrial toxins and pollutants. Especially large carnivorous fish up in the food chain like mackerel, sea-bass and tuna are known to accumulate toxins, including heavy metals like arsenic, cadmium, lead and mercury over their life span. This is why feeding these types of fish to our pets is no longer recommended.
Healthy Sources of Omega-3 Fatty Acids High in EPA and DHA
Small fatty ocean fish like anchovies or sardines. Both fish feed from krill and have relatively short life spans. They therefore do not harbor pollutants like larger, longer living carnivorous fish. You can feed these fish raw, frozen, dehydrated or canned (if packed in water, not oil).¹⁸
Fish oil made from anchovies or sardines (not from larger fish like herring, mackerel, salmon, etc.). The use of capsules is preferable over oils in bottles or pump dispensers, as the latter can easily get rancid.
Krill oil is made of small, shrimp-like crustaceans living in large amounts in the oceans of the world. Krill is feeding from phytoplankton, which places them at the very bottom of the aquatic food chain. Again, capsules are preferable over bottles or pump dispensers.
Phytoplankton as food supplement typically comes in form of a powder. It is derived from microscopic, single-celled plants that drift near the ocean’s surface. Phytoplankton can also be grown in aquacultures. Phytoplankton is the only recommendable plant-based (vegetarian or vegan) source of omega-3 fatty acids rich in EPA and DHA.
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How Much Omega-3 Fatty Acids Should I Give to my Dog?
Target ranges for the combined total of EPA and DHA (not total omega-3) essential fatty acids vary widely for the treatment of different conditions. They typically fall between 20 and 100 mg/lb body weight per day. Furthermore, the National Research Council publication on Nutrient Requirements of Dogs and Cats indicates a safe upper limit of combined amounts of EPA and DHA as listed in the below table.¹⁹
SAFE MAXIMUM DAILY DOSE OF COMBINED EPA AND DHA (NOT OMEGA-3)
Safe Upper Limits for the Combined EPA + DHA Dosage in Dogs per Day
Quality sources of omega-3 fatty acids should list the amount of EPA and DHA in mg absolute or percent of total.
Please note that the maximum dose (outlined above) is not tolerated by all animals.
You can get a good idea of the correct dose by looking at your dog’s stools. If you notice the feces becomes very soft, you want to reduce the dosage. If you don’t notice much of a benefit in terms of joint stiffness or coat improvements within eight weeks, then you can increase the dose slightly.
You may also want to consider the extra calories which comes with the omega-3 by reducing the rest of your dog’s diet accordingly. This is especially recommended for overweight pets.
Please always consult with your veterinarian prior to giving any omega-3 supplements to your dog.
The right types of omega-3 fatty acids can provide powerful health benefits for dogs. It is recommended to select sources of omega-3 fatty acids that are high in EPA and DHA. At the same time, they should be low in omega-6, as it is also important to increase the dietary ratio of the omega fatty acids in favor of omega-3. The best sources of omega-3 for dogs are small fatty fish like anchovies or sardines, fish oils made from these small fish, krill oil or phytoplankton.
Do you add omega-3 fatty acids to the diet of your dogs? How do you feed it? What are your experiences? We’d love to hear from you!