What you need to know about omega-3 essential fatty acids for dogs

What you need to know about omega-3 essential fatty acids for dogs

You’ve heard of essential fatty acids, and you know your dog needs them to thrive. But what are they, exactly, and how can you make sure your dog’s getting enough?

Like humans, dogs are unable to synthesize omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids in their bodies. Thus, they need to get adequate amounts of these “essential fatty acids” from their diet. When dogs don’t get enough essential fatty acids, they develop symptoms of deficiency that can lead to a number of health issues. In order to make sure your dog is getting enough of these vital nutrients, it’s important to understand what they are and where they come from. So let’s take a closer look!

ALA, EPA & DHA – what’s the difference?

There are three primary versions of omega-3 fatty acids: ALA, EPA and DHA.

Omega-3 Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) from plant sources (flax seed, chia seed, various seeds and nuts) are considered “short chain omega-3” as ALA is an 18-carbon long molecular chain. Plant origin omega-3s are not the most bioactive version of omega-3s and need to be converted by the dog’s body enzymes and synthesized into the very bioactive “long-chain” omega-3s; Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) a 20 carbon long molecular chain and Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) a 22 carbon long chain molecule. These long-chain omega-3s, EPA and DHA, are found in fish oils, marine animal oils and algae oils.

The conversion of short chain ALA to the very bioactive long chain EPA and DHA is a very inefficient process with only 1–10% of ALA being converted.1 Most dog foods generally contain low cost, low bioactive plant sourced ALA short chain omega-3s, and little if any of the expensive bioactive fish/marine long chain omega-3s, EPA and DHA.

There’s “something fishy going on” with omega-3 supplements for dogs

Unscrupulous pet product marketers take advantage of the complexity of omega-3 forms. Many contain ALA, which does not readily provide the animal with omega-3 the way a supplement containing EPA and DHA would.

When buying an omega-3 supplement for your pet, reach for a fish/marine oil or algae oil. If budget permits, buy a product made from human grade ingredients to ensure that the toxic heavy metals and PCBs (Polychlorinated biphenyls) have been removed.

Assessing the options

Fish oil forms in fish from the fatty acids contained in the algae and phytoplankton that fish eat in the food chain. Photosynthesis by algae and phytoplankton leads to production of these fatty acids which directly or indirectly are consumed by fish and become fish fats (Moffat and 71 McGill, 1993).

While all products are different, here’s a breakdown of some standard “guaranteed analysis” numbers when it comes to omega-3s. Assessing them will help you better understand what to look for – and what to avoid!

Farmed salmon oil and herring oil are generally “veterinary grade”. In other words, they may contain heavy metals and PCBs, often go rancid very quickly, and have a very low EPA and DHA payload.

Standardized human grade quality fish oil will typically have 180mg of EPA and 120mg of DHA per 1000mg (1 gram). In other words, it has a total of 300mg of EPA and DHA bioactive omega-3 per gram of fish oil.

Farmed salmon oil typically has 30mg of EPA and 40mg of DHA per 1000mg (1 gram) of oil – only 70mg of EPA and DHA bioactive omega-3 per gram. This is only 23% of what standard human grade fish oil delivers!

By comparison, wild Alaskan salmon oil typically has 80mg of EPA and 100mg of DHA  per 1000mg (1 gram) of oil. This translates to 180mg of EPA and DHA bioactive omega-3 per gram – 60% of what standard human grade fish oil delivers.

Herring oil typically has 70mg of EPA and 45mg of DHA per 1000mg (1 gram) of oil – only 115mg of EPA and DHA bioactive omega-3 per gram of herring oil, or 38% of what standard human grade fish oil delivers.

While every dog has different nutritional needs, the recommended dose of total long-chain omega-3s EPA and DHA is 10 to 20 mg per pound of body weight.  For example, a 50lb dog would need 500 to 1000 mg combined of EPA and DHA per day. The following amounts show what a dog of this size would require:

Standard human grade fish oil – 1.7 to 3.4 grams per day

Farmed salmon oil – 7 to 14 grams per day

Wild Alaskan salmon oil – 2.8 to 5.5 grams per day

The bottom line

Always read the label carefully before buying a product. And remember, you’ll get the best bang for your buck – and for your pet’s health – if you invest in a product that contains high levels of EPA and DHA, not just ALA!

1Bauer JE, Dunbar BL, Bigley KE. Dietary flaxseed in dogs results in differential transport and metabolism of (n-3) polyunsaturated fatty acids. J Nutr 1998; 128 (12 Suppl):2641S-2644S.

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