Dogs need two types of essential fatty acids for healthy development and maintenance of their cardiovascular and nervous systems: Omega-3 and Omega-6. Fish oil omega-3s are commonly what you may think of as a source.
But are they the best source?
While Omega-6 fatty acids are plentiful in a dog’s diet, regardless of what they eat, Omega-3s are not.
Because the Omega-3s are fragile and break down quickly in the presence of heat, air or light, they are lacking in both the commercial and fresh foods that we tend to feed our dogs.
While pet food labels may state that Omega-3 and Omega-6 essential fatty acids have been added, the reality is that the food is deficient in Omega-3 due to unavoidable exposure to air and light.
Feeding a good Omega-3 supplement is therefore advisable.
But which one is best to use? The topic of Omega-3s is not as simple as it sounds.
Concerns with Fish Oil Omega 3s For Dogs
The two best Omega-3 fatty acids for dogs are eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). These are found in the oils of fatty fish such as salmon, sardines, and anchovies.
Cod liver oil also contains EPA and DHA, along with vitamins A and D.
However, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends that humans eat no more than six, 6 oz servings of cod per month due to mercury levels in this fish.
And because the oil concentrates the mercury in the liver, cod liver oil will contain even higher levels of mercury. Therefore it’s safer to use fish body oils rather than those extracted from the liver.
Contamination is still a concern. Ocean dwelling fish absorb toxins and heavy metals as they feed. So this means the larger fish at the top of the food chain contain more toxic compounds.
When buying any kind of fish oil, here are some considerations to keep in mind.
The Source Of Fish Oil Omega 3s
Look for an eco-friendly, sustainable source of fish oil. Most high-grade products are wild-caught, non-threatened anchovies, sardines, and mackerel.
And these guys feed off small plankton, from the deep clear Pacific waters off the coast of South America. So they sit lower on the food chain with fewer toxins and mercury than larger fish.
Where The Fish Is Processed
The most reputable fish oil processing plants are in Norway. This is because they only process the smaller South American fish. So look for ”Product of Norway” on the label.
Smell And Taste
High-quality fish oil should have a very pleasant smell, whether in liquid form or capsule. The refining process has a great impact on smell and taste. The Norwegians have done extensive research on the development of good-tasting fish oil.
How The Fish Oil Is Distilled
When our mothers’ mothers made children take cod liver oil, it was in a time when producers didn’t have as many contaminants to worry about.
The fish oil was boiled in a still and separated from harder to boil materials like waxes, mercury and other pollutants that had different boiling points. The process was crude but it did the trick.
While many processes exist today, the preferable process is triple-phase molecular distillation, which is much gentler.
The oil is placed under vacuum and then the Omega-3s and pollutants like PCBs and mercury are boiled off at extremely low temperatures, molecule by molecule.
The EPA and DHA Omega-3s are separated from toxins. The resulting product is then converted back to triglyceride form. This is a costly process but the fish oil is more stable.
And then it is less likely to degrade and improves the bioavailability of the product. Companies using this process will freely share this information.
Avoid fish oil produced via the synthetic ethyl ester process which is easier and cheaper. It uses ethanol in the distillation process to produce a higher concentration of EPA and DHA.
Ethanol is a free radical and makes the fish oil unstable, even though the oil may be more concentrated and contain a higher amount of Omega-3s. Left in this form as ethyl ester, it is less bioavailable than the natural form of triglycerides.
Testing Your Fish Oil For Ethanol
A quick home test will show what kind of fish oil you have. Pour some of your fish oil into a styrofoam cup.
If the fish oil eats through the cup in 30 minutes or less, you may have fish oil with ethanol content. Also, if the container does not say natural triglyceride or TG from the fish oil, it is likely the ethyl ester form.
Caution With Salmon Oil
Salmon oil is very popular and is probably the first fish oil that comes to mind. But it may not be the healthiest option.
Farmed Vs Wild
Most of the salmon in grocery stores today are raised in fish farms. This makes it one of the most polluted foods our dogs eat.
Researchers analyzed farm-raised and wild salmon from eight regions around the world. The farm-raised salmon contained dangerous levels of PCBs and dioxins. They also found the insecticides dieldrin and toxaphene.
- PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, are highly toxic and carcinogenic. PCBs were banned but you can still find them in the environment. The most likely source of exposure is eating contaminated fish.
- Fish and shellfish contain Dioxins. These are a group of carcinogenic, chemically related compounds. The EPA’s guidelines for exposure to dioxin, note that one meal of farmed salmon a month can pose unacceptable cancer risks.
- Dieldrin is a highly toxic, long-lasting insecticide, restricted by law to non-agricultural use.
- Toxaphene is a toxic solid polychlorinated camphene used as an insecticide. It was banned from use in the United States in 1990 because it is a suspected carcinogen.
The farmed fish contains higher concentrations of toxins because of what they are fed. They consume pellets made of fish- meal which is other types of fish. Fish oils are also added to this pelleted mix.
The goal is to encourage rapid growth but it concentrates the number of toxins in their bodies. The salmon farms also release large quantities of antibiotics into the water, as well as other chemicals generated during farming.
“Norwegian salmon” are not wild salmon but farm-raised. Farm-raised salmon can be high in the pro-inflammatory Omega-6 fats and low in healthy Omega-3s.
Wild-caught Alaskan salmon has a more favorable Omega-3 to Omega-6 ratio and fewer toxins.
Choosing A Certified Oil
Should you decide to use some fish oil omega 3’s for your dog look for one that has been certified. There are third-party testing and certification programs for fish oil. It rates products based on the criteria of Omega-3 content, contaminants, and stability of the product.
The International Fish Oil Standards Program (IFOS) has contracted Nutrasource Diagnostics (nutrasource.ca). They specialize in regulatory consulting, clinical trials and product testing. Enter the product, company or batch/lot number of your fish oil or select from almost 100 producers to get the IFOS rating of your fish oil.
If buying salmon oil, make sure it is from wild-caught Alaskan salmon.
You need to think twice if the label says that it is made from salmon caught in the pristine waters of Norway or the Atlantic Ocean.
Alternatives To Fish Oil Omega-3s
EPA and DHA are two fatty acids that are essential for cardiovascular function. They also play a role in the prevention of dementia. The richest sources are fatty fish but there are other sources we can reach for too.
Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), is a short-chain Omega-3 fatty acid. You can find ALA in walnuts, hemp and chia seeds, flaxseeds and soybeans. On its own, ALA is an inefficient source of DHA.
This is because its effect depends on its conversion first to EPA and then to DHA. Dogs can only convert about 20 percent of the ALA to DHA.
Data indicates that algae oil supplements are more concentrated in Omega-3s. Algae supplements can provide both EPA and DHA and are a good alternative to fish oils.
Selecting a trusted algae supplement is just as important as choosing a fish oil. Research the company and ensure you are dealing with the producer, not a third party or broker.
You want a product tested by a reputable, independent third party. And make sure it’s organically grown outdoors with plenty of natural sunlight. Just like fish oils, you want to avoid contaminants.
Combining crushed chia seeds and an algae supplement offers a healthy mix of ALAs, DHAs, and EPAs. My recommendation for Omega-3 supplementation is to follow the regimen below.
- Crushed chia seeds: 1 teaspoon (small dogs) to 1 tablespoon (large dogs) per day
- Walnut Oil: 1 teaspoon to 1 tablespoon a day, according to your dog’s size as above
- Quality fish oil supplement or algae oil supplement: twice per week. Dose according to the recommendations on the container for your dog. If using a human product, assume it’s for a 150 lb human and adjust for your dog’s weight.