fish oil killed my dog

I Almost Killed My Dog With Fish Oil

That’s the thought provoking title to a five year old post that recently made the social media rounds. If you haven’t seen it surface recently, the gist of the article is a seemingly anonymous dog owner noticed that her three year old Neopolitan Mastiff became terribly lame after eating eight capsules of fish oil a day.

One day, when the dog finally had trouble rising, his worried owner began researching his symptoms and saw that he might be suffering from vitamin E deficiency. After further research, she discovered that fish oil could deplete the body of vitamin E, so she stopped giving the fish oil and started giving her dog vitamin E.

Within a week, her dog was completely sound and back to normal. Of course, millions of dog owners began to question the fish oil they were feeding their dogs.

We did too and here are our thoughts on the matter.

Isn’t Fish Oil Good For Dogs?

Well, that’s a loaded question. And the best answer we can give you is … maybe. It might be best to start at the beginning if we want to make sense of the fish oil debate.

Dietary fats are divided into three main categories: saturated fats, monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats (PUFA). Most vegetable oils except palm oil, olive oil and coconut oil are high in PUFA while most animal fats are mostly composed of saturated and monounsaturated fat.

The main dietary PUFAs, omega-3 fat and omega-6 fat, aren’t metabolized by the body and need to be obtained from food. Not surprisingly, PUFAs usually contribute only a minor part of your dog’s fat tissues, while the majority is composed of saturated and monounsaturated fats, like most other mammals.

There aren’t many foods that contain omega-3 fats and they’re primarily found in the fat of cold water fish. Vegetable sources, such as walnuts and flaxseeds, aren’t easily converted to the critical components of omega-3: eicosapentaenoic acid, called EPA and docosahexaenoic or DHA, so they’re not a great source of omega-3, especially for dogs.

Omega-6 fatty acids are mainly found in seeds and nuts, and the oils extracted from them.

Omega fatty acids are important to the body as it manufactures hormones from them. In general, the hormones derived from the two fatty acids have opposite effects. Those from omega-6 fatty acids tend to increase inflammation (an important component of the immune response), blood clotting, and cell proliferation, while those from omega-3 fatty acids decrease those functions.

So it’s important that both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, and their respective families of hormones, are in balance to maintain optimum health.

So What’s The Problem?

Humans (and their dogs) used to primarily eat lean meat, fish, green leafy vegetables, fruits, nuts, berries and honey. Cereal grains are only a recent addition to the human diet and represent a drastic departure from the food we’re genetically programmed to eat. And our carnivorous dogs are even less prepared to eat grains.

Cereal grains are high in omega-6 fatty acids and low in omega-3 fatty acids. And studies show that high carbohydrate diets increase the risk of heart disease, diabetes and obesity.

But our movement away from our ancestral diets doesn’t end with grains. Refined vegetable oils, such as soy oil, are used in most of the snack foods, cookies, crackers, and sweets in the American diet as well as in fast food. Soybean oil alone is now so common in fast foods and processed foods that an astounding 20 percent of the calories in the American diet are estimated to come from this single source.

Up until the 1930s, Americans consumed on average about 15 grams (one tablespoon) of PUFA per day. Since the 1930s, this value has more than doubled to over 35 grams per day as Americans have increased their intake of vegetable oils rich in the omega-6 fatty acid. Ironically, most of this increase occurred after 1961 when the American Heart Association began recommending that people replace saturated fats with vegetable oils in order to lower cholesterol levels.

Pet foods have followed the same path. This is in part because grains are necessary to hold kibble together and because they are a more cost effective source of protein. Soybeans and vegetable oils have also found their way into pet foods, and diabetes, obesity and inflammatory conditions are on the rise in our companion animals too.

And sadly, even our meat supply has been “modernized.” Feed animals are rarely fed the grasses and plants they were designed to eat; like us and our dogs, they too are raised on omega-6 rich grains, and this in turn creates an imbalance between the omega-6 and omega-3  fatty acids in their meats.

Avoiding The Quick Fix

In today’s modern world, supplementing your dog’s diet with omega-3 rich foods like fish oil would be a good idea, right? Wouldn’t that take care of the excess omega-6 and the inflammation it can cause?

Well, yes. But instead of mindlessly supplementing our dog’s diet with fish oil, shouldn’t we first look at the reason why they might need it? Because, as one Neopolitan Mastiff owner found out, the descent into fish oil and omega-3 supplementation can be a slippery slope indeed. But we’ll get to that later. First, let’s talk diet.

How Do Omega-6 Fats Get Into Dogs?

When we discussed the sources of omega-6 fatty acids, hopefully a small part of you thought “well that shouldn’t matter because my dog doesn’t eat vegetable oils, nuts and seeds.” Hopefully, you’re beginning to see that diets high in omega-6 fatty acids aren’t all that natural for dogs.

We all know that dogs are carnivores, right? We know that dogs don’t have any nutritional requirement for grains. If you don’t, then you might want to read this.

Just as modern diets have caused chronic health issues in people, they’re doing the same to our dogs. These are two really big reasons why dogs need fish oil in the first place:

  1. Processed dog food contains omega-6 rich plant oils (which have questionable digestibility for dogs with their relative lack of carbohydrate-digesting enzyme, amylase).
  2. Processed dog food contains omega-6 rich grains (which have questionable digestibility for dogs with their relative lack of carbohydrate-digesting enzyme, amylase).

Instead of feeding our dogs fish oil, wouldn’t it be a really good idea to feed them what they’re supposed to eat – and then perhaps they wouldn’t need the fish oil? Why would any pet owner (or kibble manufacturer) knowingly produce a food that’s imbalanced in its PUFAs. Is slapping some fish oil on the problem the best solution we can find?

One of the major kibble manufacturers patted themselves on the back with the recent addition to their food: DHA.  They found that adding DHA to their puppy food improved trainability and development. The company thought this was a wonderful addition to the food and a testament to their research team. Yet the question nobody asked was why this omega-3 derivative was out of balance in the first place.

Getting Back To Nature

The reason that food was deficient in DHA is that unnatural foods lead to unnatural outcomes. The further away we get from wholesome, natural nutrition, the way mother nature intended, the more concerned we need to be about supplementing and balancing that diet to avoid chronic health issues.

Instead of reaching for that bottle of fish oil, first take a look at your dog’s diet. If he’s eating a processed, carbohydrate-laden diet, then he’s consuming too many omega-6 oils and this can cause inflammatory conditions and damage his health. Moreover, both omega-3 and omega-6 fats are extremely vulnerable to heat, so if your dog is eating a processed food, he may not be getting enough of either.

Now there are some reasons why you would want to feed fish oil, and in the next article, we’ll discuss what those reasons would be and how to find the best fish oil for your dog’s diet (yes, not all fish oils are made the same). But slapping a fish oil bandaid on a poorly constructed, processed diet certainly isn’t the best thing you can do for your dog’s health. Because there are some real concerns with feeding fish oil in the long term – and we promise we’ll get to that next.

In the meantime, here are some important diet changes you should look at before reaching for those fish oil capsules:

  • Feed your dog a meat-based diet, free of grains. Click here for raw diet ideas.
  • Avoid vegetable oils of any kind. They’re loaded with omega-6 fats and your dog doesn’t need them.
  • Look for grass-fed meats whenever possible. These will have a better balance of PUFAs.
  • Look out for vegetable oil in disguise (many ingredient lists can disguise vegetable oil as other ingredients).

Note: Consider phytoplankton for your dog. Find out why here