By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.
Dietary supplements – I’m happy to report – are increasingly becoming part of most Americans’ daily regimens. In fact, 77% of adults in the US take at least one vitamin or supplement every day.1
Omega-3 fatty acids (usually in the form of fish oil) are among the most popular supplements. According to a 2012 National Health Interview Survey, nearly 8% of adults used fish oil.2 I have no doubt that number is even higher today.
With so many people realizing the value in supplementation, it begs the question: Do your pets need supplements too?
Some supplements can definitely play an important role in the health of many dogs and cats. And at the top of that list is an omega 3 supplement like fish oil.
The omega-3 fats in fish oil are already known to have several benefits in humans. Most notably, omega-3s are essential for heart health, helping everything from blood flow and viscosity to blood pressure and cholesterol levels. They’ve also been shown to prevent inflammation, protect against inflammatory diseases like arthritis, support brain and eye development in babies/kids and overall brain health in adults, improve the condition of skin and hair, and more.
And it turns out your pet may experience some of these very same health boons with omega-3 supplementation. I’ll get more into those benefits in a minute. But first, here’s a primer on omega-3s.
Essential Omega Fats Must Come from Diet
Like humans, dogs and cats cannot produce essential fatty acids on their own. They need to get them from their diet.
There are two main groups of essential fatty acids: omega-6s and omega-3s.
Omega-6 fats include linoleic acid, gamma linolenic acid, and arachidonic acid. The omega-3 fats include eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA).
Omega-6s and omega-3s may have similar names, but they have totally different effects on the body. Omega-6s are pro-inflammatory, while omega-3s are anti-inflammatory. “Pro-inflammatory” sounds pretty ominous, but remember, inflammation isn’t inherently terrible. Since it aids in healing and protects against infection after an injury, it’s a key to survival. It’s only when inflammation is long term and chronic that it becomes problematic.
For optimal health, people need to maintain an ideal ratio of omega-6s and omega-3s. I believe the same applies for our dogs and cats. Knowing the benefits of omega-3 supplementation for pets (described below), as well as the results I saw in my own dogs after feeding them omega-3-rich salmon, it only makes sense. Arguably, we should all be eating more omega-3s than omega-6s to counteract other sources of inflammation in the diet like excess sugar, toxic pesticide residues and the like, so a 1:1 balance is something to strive for at the very least. When it comes to diet, consuming too many pro-inflammatory omega-6s and not enough omega-3s is a leading cause of chronic inflammation.3
Sadly, the standard American diet represents all that is wrong with this omega-6/omega-3 ratio. Americans consume far too many omega-6s, thanks to the prevalence of polyunsaturated cooking oils (vegetable, canola, soy, sunflower, safflower, and corn oils) and foods made with them (think: processed foods)—all of which are very high in these inflammatory fatty acids.
Likewise, some commercially produced dog and cat food tends to be high in omega-6s and low in omega-3s, for some of the very same reasons—over-processing and inferior ingredients. And when you add certain types of treats (grain-based, high-sugar “cookies” and “bones,” etc.) to the mix, your dog or cat more than likely is eating far more omega-6s than necessary, and too few omega-3s to balance out the omega-6s’ inflammatory effects. This can result in problems related to excess inflammation, like heart disease, arthritis, and coat/skin problems.
By upping the omega-3s in your dog’s or cat’s diet, though, your pet can experience a lot of the same benefits that humans do. Here are a few of the ways that omega-3 supplements can improve your pet’s health.
Omega-3 Benefit #1 – Lessens Joint Inflammation & Arthritis
Several studies support the use of omega-3s in dogs and cats for arthritis relief.
In one study, 30 dogs with osteoarthritis were given either a diet rich in omega-3s from fish or a regular diet (control) for 13 weeks. From baseline to the 13th week, the dogs on the omega-3 diet saw a major change in peak vertical force measurements—this is how researchers analyze functional impairment in dogs with arthritis. The researchers wrote that a diet containing high levels of omega-3s “improved the locomotor disability and the performance in activities of daily living.”4
A larger study of 78 dogs yielded similar results. In this 84-day trial, dogs were given either placebo oil or an omega-3 oil. They underwent orthopedic exams at baseline, day 42, and day 84. “All clinical outcomes for measuring discomfort, lameness, and joint severity at day 84 and all blood metrics at day 42 and day 84 significantly improved compared to placebo.”5
Omega-3s for cats can be just as beneficial when it comes to joint relief. In a 20-week study involving 21 arthritic cats, dry food was supplemented with either EPA/DHA fish oil or corn oil that smelled like fish but contained no omega-3s.
Compared to the cats on the control (corn oil) diet, those on the omega-3 diet had higher activity levels (walked up and down stairs more), were less stiff, and jumped higher. They also had more interaction with their owners.
Omega-3 Benefit #2– Protects Heart Health
Heart disease isn’t just a concern for people; it is one of the most common disorders in both dogs and cats, affecting 11% of dogs and up to 20% of cats. And just like with humans, omega-3s can have a number of important benefits on a canine’s or feline’s cardiovascular system.
Research indicates that omega-3s for dogs can reduce the risk of fatal arrhythmias, and heart failure.7-8
And according to one study that looked at omega-3s for dogs and cats: “Omega-3 fatty acids’ anti-inflammatory and anti-arrhythmic effects may be beneficial in managing the loss of lean body mass and arrhythmias that are common in heart failure. However, omega-3 fatty acids also may have positive effects on myocardial energy metabolism, endothelial function, heart rate and blood pressure, and immune function.”9
Omega-3 Benefit #3 – Better Skin & Coat Health
Omega-3s can enhance the health of skin and coats/fur in both dogs and cats.
Because of their anti-inflammatory properties, omega-3s for cats with allergies, dry skin, or hot spots can provide excellent relief. And for dogs, omega-3s can help ease skin allergies, itchy/flaky skin, and dermatitis.
Omega-3s can also help give your dog or cat a fuller, shinier, silkier coat—all while improving the health of hair follicles and decreasing the amount of fur that gets shed.
Other Benefits of Omega-3s for Dogs & Cats
Additional reasons to consider adding omega-3s to your dog’s or cat’s diet include:
- Better kidney function in animals with renal disease
- Reduced anxiety, aggression, depression, and hyperactivity10
- Strengthened immunity
- Protection against certain forms of cancer3, 11-13
- Prevention of autoimmune diseases13
How to Add Omega-3s to Your Pet’s Diet
If you feed your dog a high-quality kibble that he likes and it agrees with him (digestively speaking), there is no reason to change. If you do wish to explore a different brand or type of food, though, look for one that’s salmon based and/or enriched with DHA and EPA. Even so, be aware that many dog foods lack the levels of omega-3s that truly benefit pups—making supplementation all the more important. (Honestly, even if your dog is on a raw food diet, there’s still a good chance he’s not quite getting a sufficient level of omega-3 fatty acids.)
As for cats, increasing their omega-3 intake is a little easier since so many cat foods are fish based. Choose food that contains omega-3-rich fish like salmon, trout, or mackerel. A lot of cat food also happens to be enriched with DHA and EPA.
Another wonderful and healthy way to boost omega-3 intake in both dogs and cats is to add a tasty salmon-based food topper to your pet’s regular diet. The fish is freeze-dried while raw to preserve its nutritional integrity, then ground into a fine powder that you can quickly sprinkle over your furry friend’s dinner. You can also feed dogs canned salmon and sardines – I always gave my dogs these fish because of their omega-3, as well as coenzyme Q10, content.
For truly therapeutic levels, supplementing with omega-3s is easy and convenient. There are oils or powders you can shake on top of your pet’s regular food, chews you can give as treats, and capsules you can throw into their food bowl (and they’ll likely chow it down without even realizing it).
Finally, if you want to offer your pet a treat from time to time, forgo the typical grain-based “junk food” sold in most pet stores. Instead, opt for freeze-dried treats made 100% from omega-3-rich salmon. Since salmon is the one and only ingredient you can be assured they’re getting pure protein and omega-3 fats and no fillers or cheap, inflammation-promoting ingredients.
*This blog was developed with Veterinarian Dana Wilhite, DVM to help educate pet owners
**Note: Supplementation with fish oil is not appropriate for ALL dogs and cats; please consult with your veterinarian regarding the use of fish oil supplements if your pet has a sensitive GI system or a condition that makes them prone to excessive bleeding.
- Council for Responsible Nutrition Press Release. Dietary Supplement Use Reaches All Time High. 2019 Sept 30.
- National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Omega-3 Supplements: In Depth. Last updated May 2018.
- Biagi, Giacomo & Mordenti, Attilio & Cocchi, Massimo. (2004). The role of dietary omega-3 and omega-6 essential fatty acids in the nutrition of dogs and cats: A review. Progress in Nutrition. 6. 0-0.
- Moreau M, et al. Effects of feeding a high omega-3 fatty acids diet in dogs with naturally occurring osteoarthritis. J Anim Physiol Anim Nutr (Berl). 2013 Oct;97(5):830-7.
- Mehler S, et al. A prospective, randomized, double blind, placebo-controlled evaluation of the effects of eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid on the clinical signs of erythrocyte membrane polyunsaturated fatty acid concentrations in dogs with osteoarthritis. Prostaglandins Leukot Essent Fatty Acids. 2016 Jun;109:1-7.
- Tudor K. Omega-3 fatty acids and arthritis in cats. PetMD. 2013 Jan 31.
- Freeman L. Beneficial effects of omega-3 fatty acids in cardiovascular disease. J Small Anim Pract. 2010 Sep;51(9):462-70.
- Kinoshita I, et al. Antiarrhythmic effects of eicosapentaenoic acid during myocardial infarction—enhanced cardiac microsomal (Ca(2+)-(Mg2+)-ATPase activity. Jpn Circ J. 1994 Dec;58(12):903-12.
- Billman G, et al. Prevention of sudden cardiac death by dietary pure omega-3 polyunsatured fatty acids in dogs. Circulation. 1999 May 11;99(18):2452-7.
- Lewellen, H. Boosting Tranquility Through Nutrition. DVM360.com, April 26, 2016.
- Freitas, Raquel D S, and Maria M Campos. “Protective Effects of Omega-3 Fatty Acids in Cancer-Related Complications.” Nutrients vol. 11,5 945. 26 Apr. 2019, doi:10.3390/nu11050945
- Gollakner, R. Fish Oil. VCAhospitals.com, last accessed Aug. 31, 2020 at https://vcahospitals.com/know-your-pet/fish-oil
- Marsden, S et. al, Fatty Acid Supplements. VCAhospitals.com, last accessed Aug. 31, 2020 at https://vcahospitals.com/know-your-pet/fatty-acid-supplements
© Stephen Sinatra, MD. All rights reserved.