A few decades ago, back in dog food’s infancy, dogs developed terrible skin and coats from their kibble. That’s when scientists discovered several key fats were essential for health.
Today, we know more about fats than ever … especially the omega fatty acids. But despite our new understanding, we can still get fats wrong when it comes to omega oils for dogs.
Let’s take a look at how new research into fats can help you reduce inflammation and boost health in your dog … and how getting fats wrong might rob your dog of these health benefits.
Essential Fats For Dogs
There are two main families of essential fats for dogs: omega-6 and omega-3.
Your dog can manufacture all of these fats, with the exception of linoleic acid (LA) and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). These two fats are truly essential and need to be in the dog’s diet.
Other omega fats are considered essential for dogs, even though they can manufacture them. This includes arachidonic acid (AA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).
All of the omega fats are important for health. They form important parts of your dog’s cell membranes and are precursors to important immune modulators that play a vital role in his immune, hormonal and inflammatory response.
In the right balance, omega fats can play a key role in health and immunity. So let’s take a look at the key omega fats and how to get them in your dog’s diet …
Omega-6 Fatty Acids
Omega-6 fats are often viewed as unhealthy … but that can be a mistake. There’s an important omega-6 fat that’s anti-inflammatory and immune modulating. Let’s look at the three main omega-6 fats:
Linoleic Acid (LA)
LA is truly essential and needs to be in your dog’s diet. If LA is deficient, dogs will develop skin and coat conditions, reproductive issues and other health problems.
LA deficiency is rare because it’s found in good quantities in both plant oils and animal fats. Your dog can’t make LA but he can convert it to other omega-6 fats as needed. But this process needs enzymes, which might be lacking or slow to produce. So the omega-6 fats listed below are considered conditionally essential, which means your dog should probably get them in his diet, even though they can all be made from LA.
Gamma-Linolenic Acid (GLA)
LA can be converted to GLA with the help of an enzyme called delta-6-desaturase (D6D). Zinc, magnesium and vitamin B6 are also needed for this conversion. GLA is a key anti-inflammatory fat that also helps control hormones and is linked to healthy skin and coat.
This is a key fat you want in your dog’s diet.
Arachidonic Acid (AA)
AA is another member of the omega-6 family … and it’s the one that might give omega-6 fats a bad name. AA is an inflammatory fat … it initiates an inflammatory immune response. While inflammation may be needed if your dog is injured or sick, it can be a major cause of chronic inflammation if your dog’s fats aren’t balanced.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
The omega-3 fatty acids are the fats we consider to be anti-inflammatory. And this is true for two reasons. First, they innately reduce inflammation in the body. But they can also facilitate the conversion of omega-6 fats to anti-inflammatory compounds.
Let’s take a look at the individual omega-3 fats … and then discover why balance between omega-6 and omega-3 fats is critical.
Alpha-Linolenic Acid (ALA)
ALA is a true essential fatty acid … your dog can’t manufacture it so ALA must be in his diet. Food sources of ALA include leafy plants, nuts and seeds. ALA can also be found in meat and dairy, as long as the animals are eating foods that are rich in ALA.
Like LA, the body can convert ALA into the longer chain fatty acids it needs to work at its best. But this process can be inefficient and enzymes might be lacking, so two omega-3 fats are considered essential: EPA and DHA.
ALA can be lengthened and converted into other omega-3 fatty acids … but it must first be converted to SDA.
Stearidonic Acid (SDA)
SDA is similar to EPA and is also an anti-inflammatory fat that’s heart healthy.
It’s important to note that ALA uses the enzyme D6D to convert ALA to SDA. This is the same enzyme used to convert LA to GLA or AA. We’ll discuss the importance of that in a bit.
Eicosatetraenoic Acid (ETA)
SDA is converted to ETA with the help of the enzyme elongase. ETA is a powerful anti-inflammatory fat and immune modulator that can also help regenerate cartilage in arthritis.
Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA)
Even though your dog can manufacture EPA from ETA, it’s considered an essential fatty acid. That’s because the conversion of ALA to EPA is really inefficient … the ALA needs to first be converted to SDA, then ETA and finally to EPA with a few other steps along the way. This is why ALA is a poor source of EPA … very, very little is converted.
EPA is one of the best researched omega fats. It’s another important anti-inflammatory and plays a significant role in the immune response.
Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA)
DHA is the final end point for ALA conversion. EPA must be converted to eicosapentaenoic acid (DPA) and then finally to DHA. DHA is not an anti-inflammatory fat, but it’s important for eye, brain and nervous health and fetal development.
There are three main anti-inflammatory fats your dog should have in his diet: GLA. ETA amd EPA. He cannot make enough of these from their precursors, LA and ALA.
Why Fatty Acid Balance Is Important
In a perfect world, the amount of LA and ALA in your dog’s diet is about the same … this is what would happen in nature. But conventionally raised animals are fed the same grain-rich Western diet that humans eat … and this changes the balance of omega fats.
Whereas animals eating grasses would have an omega-6 to omega-3 ratio of 1:1 to 5:1, most dogs eating conventionally raised animals are eating a diet that’s 15:1 or even 30:1 (AAFCO pet food standards allow a ratio of 30:1, which is worrisome). Left unchecked, this diet is very inflammatory. So we add omega-3 fats to the diet … usually as fish oil
But it’s not that simple …
Both LA and ALA rely on the same enzyme (D6D) to be lengthened and converted. This works well when the diet is balanced … but when the diet is too rich in LA, it starts to break down.
For example, if there’s not enough EPA, DGLA won’t be converted to anti-inflammatory prostaglandins and most will be converted to pro-inflammatory AA. And if there’s too much LA, it will use most of the D6D activity, which means little ALA will be converted to important omega-3 fats. Remember, ALA needs the same enzyme to be converted.
Many dogs are also deficient in D6D or its activity is depressed. This can happen in dogs with diabetes, hypothyroidism, infections or cancer. Zinc deficiency can also inhibit D6D activity.
So LA can be converted into healthy fats like GLA … but too much LA will be converted to inflammatory AA … especially in dogs with health challenges. In this case, a diet high in LA is like pouring gasoline into an already inflamed body.
Mineral and vitamin deficiencies can inhibit or slow the conversion of LA and ALA to anti-inflammatory fats. Zinc. magnesium, vitamns C and B6 are important cofactors that activate the conversion of enzymes like elongase and D6D. Drugs, illness and age can also negatively affect conversion.
Typically, only 1% to 10% of ALA in the dog’s diet will be converted to EPA, while much less than 1% will be converted to DHA. So plant oils are typically considered a poor source of EPA. But some plant oils can still supply some anti-inflammatory omega fats.
And while fish oil can supply your dog with EPA and DHA, it might be lacking in other omega fats …
Sources Of Fatty Acids
Ideally, your dog will get a good helping of EPA and DHA … but he also needs other important anti-inflammatory fats including GLA and ETA. Here are the main sources of all of the important omega fats, along with the benefits and potential problems.
Algae are naturally high in DHA content … and this makes algal oil a sustainable alternative to fish oil. But algal oil contains only a small amount of anti-inflammatory EPA and is completely lacking in GLA and ETA.
Phytopankton are microscopic little greens that fuel the entire ocean. They’re rich in minerals and omega fats, including EPA. A benefit of phytoplankton oil or powder is that it may be more bioavailable than plant oils. The drawback of phytoplankton is that it’s expensive … and supplies only a minuscule amount of fats.
Flaxseed oil is a good source of both LA and ALA … but like most plant oils, the conversion to EPA isn’t efficient. Flax also lacks GLA.
Camelina oil is another newcomer to the omega scene. Its claim to fame is a high vitamin E content … but it contains only ALA and LA and doesn’t contain GLA.
Hempseed oil is a sustainable source of LA and ALA that’s also rich in minerals. Hempseed is a better source of EPA than flaxseed oil because it contains not just ALA, but SDA … which is the precursor to EPA. The conversion of SDA to EPA is much more efficient than ALA, so hemp is a better source of omega fats than flaxseed oil. Hemp also contains GLA, another important anti-inflammatory fat.
Ahiflower is one of the newer players in the omega fat field. Ahiflower is an extremely rich source of SDA, and contains 10 times more than hemp. SDA converts to anti-inflammatory ETA and EPA better than ALA since there are fewer steps. Ahiflower also contains 60% more GLA than hempseed oil, making it the best plant-based source of omega fats.
Fish oil is an excellent source of EPA and DHA … and certainly the most common source. Fish accumulate their EPA and DHA from algae and phytoplankton (or other fish that feed on these) … and they supply it in a more concentrated form.
There are a few key problems with fish oil …
First, it’s processed. Some fish oil is extracted with solvents or heat. Fish oil may also contain PCBs, mercury and other toxins and needs to be independently tested.
Fish oil is also not sustainable if the fish are wild caught. Most salmon oil (especially from Canada and Norway) comes from farmed salmon. Farmed fish contain much more toxins than wild fish … and contain a lot more omega-6 fats because of their diets. Another 1/3 of both Pacific and Atlantic salmon are raised in hatcheries and then released into oceans, where they threaten wild fish.
Fish oil is also deficient in GLA and contains little ETA.
Krill are tiny little crustaceans and a major food source for many fish, whales and seals. Even though there are lots of krill in the ocean, krill rely on phytoplankton that live under sea ice. So global warming is decimating their populations … as is their growing popularity as an omega-3 oil supplement. Krill supplies are being decimated and species of penguins, whales and fish are at risk of extinction due to krill harvesting.
Like fish oil, krill oil is rich in EPA and DHA but relatively low in ETA with no GLA content.
Calamari (Squid) Oil
Calamari oil is a new addition to the omega-3 offering. Calamari are squid and are small cousins to the octopus. For now, calamari populations are growing and sustainable … likely because fish populations have been depleted so there are fewer fish to eat them. But squid numbers will also become depleted as its popularity grows as an omega-3 supplement. Like fish oil, calamari are rich in EPA and DHA … but deficient in GLA and ETA.
Green Lipped Mussel Oil
Green lipped mussels are bivalve mollusks found in New Zealand. Green lipped mussels are sustainably farmed with minimum impact on the environment under the Sustainable Farming Program. Unlike farmed fish that are fed corn and soy, green lipped mussels eat phytoplankton, which can also be sustainably grown on land in clean water.
The green lipped mussel is unique among all oils. It’s extremely rich in ETA, which isn’t found in significant amounts in other oils. ETA is a powerful anti-inflammatory fat that’s starting to get a lot of attention from researchers. Green lipped mussel oil is also more bioavailable than fish oil, so a smaller amount will get the same results.
Unlike other marine oils, green lipped mussel oil is also rich in magnesium and zinc, which are cofactors for the conversion of omega-3 fats.
Omega-3 Requirements For Dogs
Although there’s plenty of research on the health benefits of omega fatty acids, AAFCO has only recently set minimum requirements for dogs.
For dry foods, EPA and DHA combined should be no less than 0.05% of dry matter. For raw foods, there should be 0.1g per 1,000kcal.
If that’s not very clear (and it’s not!), that’s a minimum of 175 mg of EPA and DHA daily for every 25 pounds of body weight. This will be the equivalent of about 1,000 mg of oil per day, depending on the oil you choose … or 1/4 tsp per 25 pounds of body weight.
Remember, this is a minimum amount. You could give more than this but you don’t want to just flood your dog’s body with EPA and DHA either. Excess EPA and DHA can cause diarrhea, drug interactions and unwanted changes in immune function.
Most importantly, you’ll also want to be sure your dog also gets a good supply of SDA, and especially GLA and ETA, for a full complement of anti-inflammatory and immune support. We tend to think only of EPA as an anti-inflammatory fat but as researchers learn more about omega fats, the immune benefits of GLA and ETA are becoming much more evident.
Rule DC, Broughton KS, Shellito SM, Maiorano G. Comparison of muscle fatty acid profiles and cholesterol concentrations of bison, beef cattle, elk, and chicken. J Anim Sci. 2002 May;80(5):1202-11
Szechinski J, Zawadzki M. Measurement of pain relief resulting from the administration of Perna canaliculus lipid complex PCSO-524™ as compared to fish oil for treating patients who suffer from osteoarthritis of knee and/or hip joints. Reumatologia 2011; 49, 4: 244-252
Bauer JE. Therapeutic use of fish oils in companion animals. JAVMA 2011; 239(11):1441-1451
Lenox CE, Bauer JE. Potential adverse effects of omega-3 fatty acids in dogs and cats. J Vet Intern Med 2013; 27(2):217-226