Wondering if your pet could benefit from a fish oil supplement? This guide breaks down what you need to know about fish oil for dogs.
A soft, lustrous coat is the first sign of a healthy dog. If your dog’s coat is dull and brittle, or they have dry, flaky skin, then they might be lacking essential fatty acids from their diet and might benefit from a fish oil supplement.
Is Fish Oil Good for Dogs?
Fish oils are a popular supplement for dogs and cats. They are rich in omega 3 and omega 6 essential fatty acids and help to support your pet’s skin and coat health.
Note that a supplement is just that - a supplement - and not meant to replace food sources of nutrients in your pet’s diet. This supplement is adding to the nutrients already present in their food. There are no benefits to over-supplementation, and in fact, getting too much of a nutrient could harm your pet.
Check with your veterinarian before beginning any supplement regimen in order to confirm an essential fatty acid deficiency and to properly integrate the right supplement into your pet’s diet.
Now without further ado, here’s a helpful breakdown of the different types and benefits of fish oil for dogs.
Fish oil is an easy, convenient way to make sure your dog is getting the right levels of essential nutrients and is living their best life. Fish oil contains omega 3 and 6 fatty acids, which help support everyday health from the inside out!
What Are Omega Fatty Acids?
Omega fatty acids are a type of unsaturated fat. “Unsaturated” refers to the chemical structure of the fatty acid, which changes the digestion and function in the body. These fats play a role in the structure of cells and support overall cell function. There are different types of unsaturated fats that work to support a variety of systems in your dog’s body. The main classes of these fatty acids that we will discuss are omega 3’s and omega 6’s.
These fatty acids help support total health. Without appropriate levels of omega 3’s and omega 6’s, your dog’s immune system, cognitive function, and circulatory system could all be negatively affected.
What are Essential Fatty Acids?
Some fatty acids can be made in your pet’s body using other nutrients. They’re still needed for optimal health, but since they’re not necessary to include in the diet they’re called non-essential.
Essential fatty acids, on the other paw, can not be made in the body and need to be included in your doggo’s diet.
A complete and balanced diet will provide appropriate levels of essential fatty acids and the nutrients required to make non-essential fatty acids for the average pet, but some dogs need more support. That’s where fish oil comes in!
Dogs of different life stages, breeds, and health conditions may need additional fatty acids to support skin and coat health, mobility, and to keep their immune system in tip top shape. Fish oil for dogs is one of the easiest ways to ensure that your pooch’s unique needs are being met.
Again, it’s always important to check with your veterinarian to:
- Verify that your dog will benefit from a fish oil supplement,
- Ensure that underlying disorders are treated, and
- Be extra certain that there are no contraindications.
There are three essential omega 3’s and one essential omega 6 for dogs. Food sources of omega 3 and 6 fatty acids can be both plant and animal.
Omega 3 in Fish
Let’s start with the omega 3 fatty acids. These two compounds are found in fish oil and each support different functions in your dog’s body.
1. Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA)
The MVP of fatty acids, EPA is a powerhouse. It helps to reduce inflammation in cells and in the brain, supports cardiovascular health, and supports skin and coat health.
2. Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA)
Typically paired with EPA is DHA. DHA also reduces inflammation, but to a lesser extent than EPA. DHA’s real gift is in its cognitive support. It plays a vital role in the structural components of the brain and is invaluable during developmental stages and to prevent deterioration as your dog ages.
Both EPA and DHA are best sourced from fish oil. There are very few viable plant sources of EPA and DHA, which is why fish oils are the most common choice in the pet industry.
The Missing Omega 3
Alpha Linolenic Acid or ALA is excellent for supporting healthy heart function. Dogs with poor dietary ALA are at higher risk of heart disease.
ALA, however, is best sourced from plant oils, not fish oil. Flaxseed oil is both the most common plant oil supplement and the most abundant source of ALA for dogs.
Dogs (and cats) can convert ALA from plant oils into EPA and DHA, but the conversion rate is less than 20%, so dietary intake is still required.
Benefits of Omega 3 for Dogs
Omega 3’s play a vital role in your dog’s body. If your dog is not getting enough omega 3’s from their diet, supplementation may be helpful in treating the issues that result from deficiency. Here are the top 10 functions of omega 3 for dogs.
1. Conditioned Skin
Many pets suffer from dry skin, particularly in semi-arid and arid climates, and those with cold, dry winters. Omega 3 fatty acids help maintain the skin barrier which nourishes your pet’s skin and coat, restoring moisture and reducing itching and scratching caused by dry skin.
2. Less Shedding and Dandruff
One of the number one complaints about pet ownership is shedding. Most dogs shed at least a little, but there are ways to minimize excess shedding and dandruff. One way to keep your pet’s coat where it belongs (and off your couch and clothes) is to supplement their diet with omega 3’s.
Omega 3 fatty acids keep your pet’s skin moisturized and hydrated, reducing shedding by protecting fur from the roots. That’s good news for everyone, but especially for pet owners who suffer from pet allergies and can’t live without their best friends.
3. Shinier Coat
Moisturized, healthy skin also leads to a shiny and beautiful coat. A shiny coat full of luster is a good indicator of overall pet health, and omega 3’s will help you get there.
4. Fewer Infections
Essential omega 3 fatty acids are helpful in preventing infection because they maintain the skin barrier. If your pet is receiving the right amount of omega 3’s, their immune system should be able to defend itself regularly against infections. Additionally, should an infection develop, omega 3s’ anti-inflammatory properties can help reduce painful symptoms.
5. Reduced Scratching and Hot Spots
Dry, scaly skin is a symptom of essential fatty acid deficiency, and it does more than just make your pet shed and their coat appear dull. Overly dry skin is also itchy, and that can cause some troubles for your pooch.
When pets scratch, they can allow bacteria to penetrate the skin barrier, leading to hot spots. Since hot spots are painful and annoying for your pet, they will instinctually chew or lick at them, worsening the issue.
Omega 3 supplementation can help reduce the inflammation causing the itch, as well as heal any breaks in the skin that your dog has already opened.
6. Support for Treating Chronic Diseases
No pet owner wants to see their pet suffer, especially with a chronic disease that can’t be cured. Omega 3 fatty acids have properties that protect against the risk of chronic disease as well as help manage conditions. It’s not a cure, but it can help reduce symptoms and provide your dog with a better quality of life.
Some studies even suggest that omega 3’s may help prevent and slow the spread of cancer cells in the body.
7. Increased Resistance to Autoimmune Diseases
The immune supporting properties of omega 3’s have the added benefit of protecting your dog from autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, mange, and more. The benefits come mainly from the anti-inflammatory effects of omega 3 fatty acids.
8. Strong Nails
Dry, brittle, and cracking nails are another sign of essential fatty acid deficiency. Poor nail health can affect your dog’s mobility. Offer omega 3’s to help protect the cells that support nail growth and health, leading to smoother, less brittle nails.
9. Improved Brain Health
DHA is vital to your dog’s brain health, especially during puppyhood while they are developing. They protect the structure of brain cells and can stimulate serotonin production, as well as limit aggression. They also help to support cognitive function in senior pets, preventing deterioration that can lead to both physical and mental decline.
Omega 6 in Fish
There are several omega 6 fatty acids that are needed for your dog’s health, but only linoleic acid (LA) is considered essential. Linoleic acid is involved in cell structure and function. It supports growth, immune system, skin and coat health.
LA can be sourced from either plant oils or animal fat, but plant oils are most abundant. The omega 6’s available in animal fat will be dependent on the animal's diet. Animals that eat an omega 6-rich diet will have higher levels of LA in their fat.
Note that most diets provide more than enough omega 6’s, and the need to supplement is rare.
Benefits of Omega 6’s for Dogs
Omega 6’s are more regularly represented in commercial pet foods because they are abundantly sourced from grains, seeds, and plant oils. Here are the top 5 functions of omega 6’s for dogs.
1. Reduced Pain in Stiff Joints
Some omega 6’s have anti-inflammatory properties. This can help to reduce swelling around the joints, reduce grinding of connective tissues and bone, and reduce pain.
2. Normal Growth and Development
Omega 6’s play a role in brain function, skin and coat health, bone development, and metabolism. During growth stages, appropriate omega 6 fatty acid intake may help prevent issues as your puppy ages, including hip and joint problems.
3. Reduced Allergy Symptoms
A balance of omega 6’s inflammatory and anti-inflammatory processes allows your dogs immune system to react more appropriately to allergens. This will reduce unnecessary inflammation and help to soothe skin reactions, like itching and dry skin.
4. Blood Coagulation
Omega 6’s are involved in blood clot formation, which also involves omega 3’s. Improper clotting can result in problems such as wounds that won’t stop bleeding, as well as when blood clots too readily and causes an obstruction.
5. Appropriate Inflammation
We know this one sounds like a bad thing, but not all inflammation is bad inflammation. Inflammation is a natural response by your dog’s immune system. When an intruder is detected, like bacteria or a virus, their body will cause the affected area to be inflamed. This can force harmful bacteria away from vital cells and allow the body to destroy it.
What About Plant Oils?
Some types of omega fatty acids are best sourced from animal tissue, while others are more abundantly sourced from plants. Both are commonly used in pet food, but can be supplemented on top of their diet to help improve common health issues related to essential fatty acid deficiency.
Although omega 3’s and omega 6’s have similar chemical structures and roles in the body, the differences between the compounds matter. It’s not just about having each nutrient in the diet; omega 3’s and omega 6’s need to be fed in the right ratio for optimal health.
Current research indicates that the best ratio of omega 3 to omega 6 fatty acids is about 4 to 1. When this ratio is out of whack it can promote inflammation and increase the risk of chronic disease.
Many carbohydrate-heavy commercial diets contain far more omega 6’s than are needed - sometimes up to 5 times more than your dog needs! That’s why feeding a fish oil supplement loaded with omega 3 will help balance your pet’s diet and meet that magic ratio!
Is Fish Oil Safe for Dogs?
While there are many types of fish oil for dogs, some are safer than others. You have to consider not just the types of omega fatty acids supplied by fish oil, but the quality of the fish that the oil is sourced from. Poor quality fish oil can do more damage than good in the long-run so make sure you research the brand before you buy.
Here are a few things to consider when choosing fish oil for dogs:
- Wild-caught salmon will have a more appropriate ratio of omega 3’s to 6’s. Farm-raised salmon are typically fed grain-heavy diets, and this increases the omega 6 content of the fish’s oils.
- The larger the fish, the higher the mercury contamination. The smallest fish and sea creatures eat plankton and algae, which contain fairly low mercury levels, but larger fish eat fish that have their own mercury contamination, plus the mercury present in whatever their food source is. The mercury level continues to rise as you go up the fish food chain, so oils from smaller fish are typically safer.
- Essential fatty acids aren’t the only nutrients present in fish oil. Some fish oils contain fat-soluble vitamins that can lead to higher than necessary micronutrient levels, especially if your dog is already getting an ample supply of that nutrient from their regular diet.
- Humans and dogs have different nutrient needs. Human supplements are not always safe for pets. Fish oil supplements are popular for people too, but the dosage and ingredients aren’t always appropriate for your dog. Stick to dog-safe supplements and dosages only.
- Where your fish oil is sourced may be important too. Fish, even wild-caught fish, from less reputable countries may be using preservatives in their fish oil that may be harmful with long-term use, like ethoxyquin.
- Wild-caught salmon will have a more appropriate ratio of omega 3’s to 6’s. Farm-raised salmon are typically fed grain-heavy diets, and this increases the omega 6 content of the fish’s oils.
Top Fish Oil Supplements
Now that we understand all of the benefits of fish oil, here are our top 4 suggestions for the best fish oils for dogs! We hope this helps you to pick the best one for your four-legged family member.
Salmon Oil (Approximately - EPA 10% | DHA 11%)
- The most popular choice of fish oil, salmon oil is widely available for both pets and people.
- Salmon oil has a high concentration of EPA and DHA.
- Depending on the source of the fish, salmon can have a low to moderate mercury level compared to other similarly sized fish.
- Salmon oil is generally pretty affordable. Prices vary between brands, but pure salmon oil supplements are moderately priced.
- Salmon are heavily overfished. This has a detrimental effect on the ecosystem, but also diminishes our supply of wild-caught salmon. Many pet food manufacturers are forced to use farmed salmon in the absence of a consistent supply of wild-caught salmon available to the pet food industry.
Sardine, Herring, or Mackerel Oil (Approximately - EPA 18% | DHA 12%)
- These four little fish are often lumped together not only in terms of quality, but also literally. Some omega 3 supplements use a blend of 2 or more of these fish oils to get a broader variety of nutrients.
- Another great option for high EPA and DHA concentration. Blends tend to have higher levels of EPA and DHA than any one oil alone.
- All four of these fish are MSC certified as sustainable, meaning that they are currently not at risk of being overfished.
- They are smaller fish, so they have a much smaller bioaccumulation of mercury and are safe to feed consistently
- This type of fish oil is not as widely available, but is growing in popularity.
- This blend can also be slightly more expensive than salmon oil and are often sold as blends with other fish oils.
Cod Liver Oil (Approximately - EPA 9% | DHA 11%)
- Cod liver oil is high in fat-soluble vitamins A and D which help support eye function, bone density, and the immune system.
- Since cod liver oil is high in vitamin A and D, you need to be conscious of overfeeding. Keep in mind that both of these vitamins are also represented in your dog’s regular diet.
- Cod liver oil can be expensive compared to most fish oils.
- This oil is not as high in EPA and DHA as other fish oils, so the benefits may not be as substantial.
Alaskan Pollock Oil (Approximately - EPA 6% | DHA 12%)
- Alaskan pollock oil is one of the most cost-effective fish oils.
- Alaskan pollock is a very sustainable fish compared to other types of pollock.
- This oil has low mercury levels and is considered generally safe to eat. Pollock caught elsewhere may have higher mercury bioaccumulation.
- Pollock oil for dogs isn’t common, so don’t expect a lot of brand variety.
- Not as nutrient dense as other fish varieties, so this fish will offer lower levels of EPA.
Fish Supplement Alternatives
In addition to fish oils, there are other types of animal-based oils that offer essential fats and nutrients. They aren't always the easiest options to find and can be a bit pricier, but each has it's own advantage.
Krill Oil (Approximately – EPA 11% | DHA 5%)
- Contains omega 3 fatty acids. These aid in nutrient absorption and cell structure.
- Krill is a natural source of antioxidants, helping to fight off disease-promoting free radical cells.
- Krill oil has low mercury levels, since this crustacean eats plankton that have minimal mercury levels from ground and water contamination.
- EPA and DHA levels in krill oil are low compared to other fish oils.
- Though they are a more sustainable source than salmon, overfishing still has large scale environmental impact, as krill are a primary food source for many ocean dwelling species.
- Krill oil has a higher price point than most fish oils.
Seal Oil (Approximately - EPA 6% | DHA 8%)
- In addition to both EPA and DHA, seal oil offers another omega 3 fatty acid called docosapentaenoic acid (DPA), which improves retention and benefits of EPA and DHA.
- Seal oil is highly palatable and easy to feed to even the pickiest pets.
- Oils from mammals are more easily digested and absorbed by other mammals.
- Seal oil is new to the pet world and not easy to find.
- Seal products still carry a bad rap, even though seal hunting is now much more regulated to assure sustainability and humane hunting practices.
- Because of its rarity, it’s expensive compared to fish oils.
How to Feed Fish Oil for Dogs
The best part about fish oils is that dogs usually love the taste, so they are easy to just toss in with whatever food you are already feeding. Because of its liquid state it mixes well with soft foods, but is a easy food topper for crunchy kibble diets.
If you have a picky pooch, you might want to try mixing the fish oil with another tasty food to hide the taste and scent. Here are 5 top tips for sneaking fish oil into your dog’s diet:
Mix the oil with a strong flavoured food, like green beef tripe. You can use canned, frozen, or fresh tripe. It’s got a powerful scent, so your dog will have a hard time noticing the fish oil. Tripett canned tripe is a great option for introducing tripe into your dog's diet.
This popular digestive aid is also a great way to hide fishy oils. Most dogs love the taste of canned or pureed pumpkin, plus pumpkin offers several essential nutrients for dogs.
3. Bone Broth
A flavourful and nutritious broth is a great way to discreetly feed fish oils. If you make your own bone broth at home, make sure to add the oil after the broth has been cooked and cooled to avoid degrading the nutrients in the oil.
Wanna try making your own? Check out Bone Broth for Dogs for an easy homemade bone broth recipe.
4. Canned Food
Kibble eaters are often excited about a special wet food treat, so it’s the perfect opportunity to sneak in your dog’s daily fish oil supplement.
If your dog is adamant about not taking his fish oil, then feeding it in pill form might be the solution for you. You can either pill your dog yourself, or hide the pill in a tasty treat like Greenies Pill Pockets.
It’s All About Balance
A balanced diet with appropriate levels of the right essential nutrients is necessary for your pet’s health. While we know that omega 3 and omega 6’s are needed in your pet’s diet, navigating supermarket aisles can be confusing and it can be hard to know whether or not they will benefit from a supplement in the first place!
Before beginning any supplement regimen or making any major changes to your pet’s diet, consult your veterinarian to make sure your furry friend is getting the best care.
Does your dog get fish oil? Let us know your tips for boosting your dog's diet with fish oils in the comments below!