Fish oil is a popular supplement these days for many health conscious people.
There are many proven benefits, and we now know that many of these same benefits also apply to our canine companions.
What is Fish Oil?
As the name implies, fish oil is derived from marine animals and is a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids. Animals cannot manufacture these fatty acids on their own; they must be consumed in the diet. For this reason they are often referred to as “essential fatty acids.”
Mackerel, tuna, salmon, sturgeon, mullet, bluefish, anchovies, sardines, herring, trout, and menhaden are all loaded to the gills (pun intended) with omega-3’s, and they are common sources of fish oil supplements. The fatty acids with the greatest health benefits are docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). Both are ingredients found on the labels of fish oil supplements.
Five Known Benefits of Fish Oil Supplementation for Dogs
Based on the documented benefits of fish oil, veterinarians recommend its use as a nutraceutical (a food that provides medicinal benefit) for the following common canine maladies.
The anti-inflammatory properties of omega-3 fatty acids are responsible for their therapeutic benefit for dogs with arthritis. In a study of 127 dogs with arthritis, those fed a diet supplemented with omega-3 fatty acids showed significant improvement in their abilities to rise from a resting position, play, and walk. Prescription diets made specifically for dogs with arthritis are heavily supplemented with fish oil.
Inflammatory Skin Disease
Allergic skin disease and other inflammatory skin conditions have the potential to benefit from the anti-inflammatory effects of fish oil. A study was performed on 16 dogs with itchy skin. Compared to the placebo group, those receiving fish oil demonstrated significant improvement (less itching, less self-trauma, and improved haircoat).
Another study performed on dogs with varying stages of skin allergies demonstrated that fish oil was more effective for dogs who were in the earliest stages of their skin problems compared to those with more advanced disease.
Treatment of Canine Cognitive Dysfunction
Canine cognitive dysfunction is a well-recognized syndrome of older dogs that, in many ways, resembles human dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. The omega-3 fatty acid, DHA, has been shown to improve cognitive dysfunction in affected dogs. Interestingly, DHA appears to slow the progression of human dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
A study was performed on 142 older dogs with a variety of behavioral abnormalities (disorientation, disrupted sleep patterns, altered interactions with family members, altered activity levels, and loss of house training). During the 60-day period, dogs fed a DHA-supplemented food showed significant improvement in every one of these behavior categories.
Treatment of Heart Disease
Profound weight loss is a common symptom in dogs with chronic heart failure, and is associated with decreased survival times. A study was performed on dogs with heart failure, some of whom were fed fish oil. The dogs receiving the fish oil supplementation experienced longer survival times and less weight loss compared to those on a fish oil-free diet.
Treatment of Kidney Disease
Fish oil supplementation has proven benefit in dogs with glomerular disease, a kidney disorder resulting in excessive protein loss in the urine. Glomerular disease is often associated with kidney failure.
In a study of dogs with glomerular disease, dietary supplementation with fish oil was shown to significantly slow the progression of the kidney damage. Additionally, fish oil has been shown to have a protective effect against acute injury to the kidneys. For this reason, fish oil supplementation is reasonable to consider for any dog with compromised kidney function.
Fish Oil Precautions
Let the buyer beware. Not all over the counter fish oil supplements are created equal. In a study of 51 best-selling fish oil products in the United States, 21 of them varied in their DHA and EPA concentrations by more than 10 percent compared to their label claims.
Careful attention to the dose of fish oil for a dog is important. Too much fish oil can produce adverse side effects such as diarrhea, blood clotting abnormalities, delayed wound healing, vitamin E deficiency, weight gain, and altered immune system function. Lastly, fish oil has the potential to produce problematic interactions with some other medications, particularly nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications.
Questions for Your Veterinarian
Thinking of getting your dog started on a fish oil supplement?
Before you do, I encourage you to discuss this idea with your veterinarian.
Here are some questions to be sure to ask:
Does my dog have a disorder that might benefit from fish oil supplementation?
What dosage should I give?
What brand of fish oil do you recommend?
Is fish oil supplementation compatible with the other medications I am giving my dog?
Do you give a fish oil supplement to your dog? If so, what is the reason?
Nancy Kay, DVM
Nancy Kay, DVM
NANCY KAY wanted to become a veterinarian for just about as long as she can remember. Her veterinary degree is from Cornell College of Veterinary Medicine, and she completed her residency training in small animal internal medicine at the University of California—Davis Veterinary School.
Dr. Kay is a board certified specialist in the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine. Recently retired from clinical practice, she worked as a specialist in private practice for 30 years. She is published in several professional journals and textbooks and lectures professionally to regional and national audiences. One of her favorite lecture topics is communication between veterinarians and their clients. Since the release of her books, Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life and Your Dog’s Best Health, Dr. Kay has lectured extensively and written numerous magazine articles on the topic of medical advocacy. She was a featured guest on the popular National Public Radio show, Fresh Air with Terry Gross. Dr. Kay’s award winning blog, “Spot Speaks” is posted weekly (www.speakingforspot.com/blog).
Dr. Kay was selected by the American Animal Hospital Association to receive the Hill’s Animal Welfare and Humane Ethics Award. This award is given annually to a veterinarian or nonveterinarian who has advanced animal welfare through extraordinary service or by furthering humane principles, education, and understanding. Dr. Kay was selected to be a recipient of the Leo K. Bustad Companion Animal Veterinarian of the Year Award, presented every year by the American Veterinary Medical Association to a veterinarian whose work exemplifies and promotes the human animal bond. Dr. Kay has received several awards from the Dog Writer’s Association of America.
Dr. Kay’s personal life revolves around her husband (also a veterinarian), her three children (none of whom aspire to be veterinarians) and their menagerie of four-legged family members. When she’s not working or writing, she spends her spare moments in the garden or riding atop her favorite horse. Dr. Kay and her husband reside in Hendersonville, North Carolina.
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