Can Dogs Convert Plant-Based Omega-3 Fats?

Dog under screenshot of statement on plant-based omega-3 fats

So I was asked a really good question this week about healthy oils for dogs …

Recently, an integrative vet published an interesting article online. In it, she said that dogs can’t convert plant-based Alpha Lipoic Acid (ALA) to eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). She said dogs don’t have the enzymes needed to do this, so they should get fish oil or krill oil, not plant oil.

Screenshot of article that argues that dogs can’t convert plant-based Alpha Lipoic Acid (ALA) to eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)

Yes, dogs need these essential fatty acids in their diets. But I wanted to respond to this statement because I think it’s important.

** I also thought the answer was important enough to jump on a quick Facebook Live and share it with you. Homeopath and owner of Adored Beast Julie Anne Lee joined me! Here’s the video:

Healthy Oils For Dogs

EPA is very important to your dog’s health. It competes with inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids for receptor sites and decreases inflammation.

DHA makes healthy cell membranes, especially in nerve cells. This makes it especially good for brain and eye health.

Now, EPA and DHA are the more bioavailable forms of ALA, a main omega-3 fatty acid. ALA is found in grass-fed animals and plant oils. These contain ALA, which is the precursor of EPA and DHA, but not EPA and DHA themselves. In order to reap the benefits, dogs have to convert them. But fish and marine oils contain ALA plus EPA and DHA, and that’s why they’re so popular.

[RELATED] I don’t even think fish oil is a healthy choice and it doesn’t belong in the dog’s diet. Here’s why.

What The Research Says

Why did the vet I mentioned say that dogs can’t convert ALA? Well, researchers compared plant-based ALA and ALA from fish oil. Then they looked at the inflammatory markers in both groups. They found that the fish oil had a bigger impact on inflammatory markers. And they found that dogs can convert ALA to EPA, but just a small amount. And they also produced a DHA precursor called DPA, but not much DHA.

But wait, taking this research and saying dogs lack the enzymes needed for conversion is a stretch. The dogs DID convert it. The researchers just thought it wasn’t enough. They saw bigger changes in inflammatory markers if the dogs were fed EPA and DHA along with ALA. The scientists just said they didn’t know if the amount is enough to control inflammation.

So, let’s be clear on this point first: dogs do have the enzymes they need to convert ALA to EPA and to a DHA precursor.

But here’s the thing about nutrition – and why we shouldn’t make blanket statements like “dogs can’t convert ALA to EPA and DHA.” There’s far more that we don’t know about nutrition than what we do know. And that’s because it’s really hard to make studies that really measure what we want them to.

And this study is a perfect example.

Screenshot of study on healthy oils for dogs

The dogs in those studies were fed kibble … and kibble is very high in inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids. The dogs were already dealing with too much inflammation. And it’s probably true that in that case, they couldn’t manufacture enough EPA to curb it. Both omega-6 and omega-3 fats compete for the same receptor sites. If there’s too much omega-6 in the diet, you’ll never be able to get enough omega-3 in there to compete with it.

The problem might NOT be that the dogs couldn’t manufacture enough EPA. The problem could be that they couldn’t make enough EPA to make up for the omega-6 orgy in their kibble diet.

And research actually shows this is the case. Diets high in Linoleic Acid (LA), a primary omega-6 fat, can decrease ALA conversion by as much as 40%. Trans fats, which are the result of high temperature cooking, can also reduce the conversion of ALA to EPA and DHA.

And high intakes of EPA and DHA and even ALA can decrease the conversion rate. So if you’re giving your dog a lot of fish oil, you could be limiting his ability to convert ALA into EPA and DHA. That’s right … his body will rely on that supply and stop trying to convert it.

But there’s something else that’s really important to remember here … the microbiome.

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