Why Your Pet Dogs Need Omega-3s
Omega-3 essential fatty acids are known for their health benefits for humans, but many people are unsure whether their pet dogs need them too. The short answer is yes, but before you supplement your dog’s diet, know how they work and how much your dog needs.
Firstly, it’s important to understand that while humans and dogs are similar biologically, our dietary needs are not identical. We are both omnivores, but dogs lean more towards being carnivores. And two of our favourite consumables, caffeine and chocolate, are toxic to dogs. But unless we go seriously overboard with omega-3s, they are almost certain to make our dogs healthier.
So let’s start by looking at your dog’s current diet, and then look at all the benefits of getting enough omega-3s.
Is Your Pet Dog’s Diet Low in Omega-3s?
Many pet dogs thrive primarily on table scraps, and this is fine if their owners eat a balanced diet. Humans and dogs alike require a balance of omega-6 unsaturated fatty acids, obtained mostly from vegetable oils, and omega-3s, the best sources being fish and seal oil. There’s wide disagreement about what the optimal ratio is, but it seems dogs do well at about 6:1, while humans should be aiming for this ratio or lower. But in many Western diets today, the ratio exceeds 10:1 and may be as high as 30:1. In short, if your own diet is high in omega-3s, both you and your dog should be fine. If not, you could both benefit from a supplement.
Other pet owners prefer commercial foods made specifically for dogs, either wet in cans or dried kibble. But in general, commercial dog food is high in omega-6s and low in omega-3s, and those omega-3s that they do contain may be damaged by the very high temperatures used in processing. So if canned food and kibble make up your dog’s menu, an omega-3 supplement could really be needed.
As for how much omega-3 your pet dog needs – through food and supplements combined – that depends mainly on its size. Fortunately the US National Research Council has made a convenient chart, or you can buy their publication Nutrient Requirements of Dogs and Cats. To give you an idea, the safe upper limit of omega-3s for a dog of 5 lbs is 684 mg/day, while a dog of 150 lbs can take 8.765 mg.
Don’t overdo it, though. As with most things we consume, it’s possible to have too much of a good thing. So before you overdose your dog on omega-3s, be aware of the potential for adverse effects. As a simple practical guide, keep an eye on your dog’s stools. If you have started supplementing with omega-3s and the stools become very soft, try reducing the dosage. Conversely, if you don’t notice any improvement in whatever condition you are looking to treat, like arthritic joints, try upping the dosage a little.
How Omega-3s Benefit Dogs
A dog’s brain is primarily fat, and the key building blocks of this fat are omega-3s, in particular docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). So omega-3s are crucial to the growth of a puppy’s brain, and to good cognitive function in adulthood. In one study, puppies were divided into groups and fed diets with varying amounts of DHA. The group eating the most DHA showed “significantly better results” in a range of tests of cognition, memory and retinal functions.
DHA and another omega-3, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), have been shown to improve the mobility of dogs with osteoarthritis. One study assessed the effects of a diet rich in omega-3s and with a low omega-6 to omega-3 ratio on dogs with osteoarthritic joints, comparing them with a control group fed commercial food. Those dogs on the omega-3-rich diet had a “significantly improved ability to rise from a resting position and play at 6 weeks and improved ability to walk at 12 and 24 weeks, compared with the control dogs.”
Omega-3s inhibit the growth and metastasis of tumors, as confirmed by a study of dogs with lymphoma. Some were given a diet supplemented with fish oil, while the control group were given a supplement of soybean oil. Those dogs receiving the fish oil experienced longer disease-free intervals and survival times than did the control dogs.
Studies have found that allergic reactions – indicators of an over-reactive immune system – are reduced in dogs with greater intakes of omega-3s. For example, dogs with pruritus suffer from dry, itchy skin, and omega-3s have been shown to help. More generally, omega-3s are recommended for dogs with atopy, a genetic tendency to develop allergic diseases such as allergic rhinitis, asthma and eczema.
Omega-3s may also increase antibody production against diseases. For example, one study found that dogs fed a diet high in omega-3s developed a “significantly higher” number of antibodies against rabies after being vaccinated for the disease.
A study showed that omega-3s help kidneys function in dogs with chronic kidney disease, while also finding that omega-6s can make matters worse. Dogs were divided into three groups and then fed diets with different fat supplements: omega-3s, omega-6s, and beef tallow. The researchers concluded that differences observed in lipid metabolism, glomerular hypertension and hypertrophy, and urinary eicosanoid metabolism, “could explain, in part, the beneficial effects of omega-3 PUFAs and the detrimental effects of omega-6 PUFAs when administered on a long-term basis in this model of renal insufficiency.”
Studies have shown a range of benefits of omega-3s when treating dogs with heart conditions, including improved heart function, better appetite, lower blood pressure, and reduced inflammation. For example, heart failure is known to be related, in part, to increased cytokine production, and one study confirmed that cytokine production in dogs with cardiac disease could be reduced by administering fish oil.
Anxiety, depression and hyperactivity:
Several studies have indicated that omega-3s can help calm dogs suffering from anxiety, depression or hyperactivity.
It’s unclear why omega-3s affect behaviour, but they have been shown to modulate neurotransmitters and affect neuroplasticity. In fact, EPA has been shown to influence the same pathways as fluoxetine, a medication commonly prescribed for dogs with anxiety disorders.
- A Complete Guide to Omega-3 Fatty Acids | Canadian Seal Product (canadiansealproducts.com)
- Nutrient Requirements of Dogs and Cats | The National Academies Press (nap.edu)
- Omega-3 for Dogs: What is it? Benefits, Sources and Dosage (campfiretreats.com)
- Potential adverse effects of omega-3 Fatty acids in dogs and cats – PubMed (nih.gov)
- Evaluation of cognitive learning, memory, psychomotor, immunologic, and retinal functions in healthy puppies fed foods fortified with docosahexaenoic acid-rich fish oil from 8 to 52 weeks of age – PubMed (nih.gov)
- Effect of fish oil, arginine, and doxorubicin chemotherapy on remission and survival time for dogs with lymphoma: a double-blind, randomized placebo-controlled study – PubMed (nih.gov)
- Double‐blinded Crossover Study with Marine Oil Supplementation Containing High‐dose icosapentaenoic Acid for the Treatment of Canine Pruritic Skin Disease* – LOGAS – 1994 – Veterinary Dermatology – Wiley Online Library
- Effects of dietary polyunsaturated fatty acid supplementation in early renal insufficiency in dogs – PubMed (nih.gov)
- Nutritional Alterations and the Effect of Fish Oil Supplementation in Dogs with Heart Failure – Freeman – 1998 – Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine – Wiley Online Library
- Ragen T.S. McGowan. ‘Oiling the Brain’ or ‘Cultivating the Gut’: Impact of Diet on Anxious Behavior in Dogs. 2016 LINK
- Comparison of therapeutic effects of omega-3 fatty acid eicosapentaenoic acid and fluoxetine, separately and in combination, in major depressive disorder – PubMed (nih.gov)