Most pet owners already know that their pets need Omega 3 to keep their coats glossy, control allergies and prevent osteoarthritis – but do we really understand this product we’re putting into our pets’ diets, why not all Omega 3s are the same and how much we should be giving? Knowledge is power; product choices can be overwhelming, and it helps to know what you’re looking for.

The Basics

Fat

In the wild, a dog’s diet would be almost half fat. After protein, it’s the nutrient he most needs. Fats can be saturated (mostly solid at room temperature – so butter, lard, animal fat and coconut oil) or unsaturated (usually liquid at room temperature – so all the vegetable oils); unsaturated fats can be mono- or polyunsaturated. Dogs need both saturated and unsaturated fats – and it is with the polyunsaturated kind that things often go awry.

PUFA (polyunsaturated fats)

There are two main kinds of polyunsaturated fats: Omega 6 and Omega 3. You’ve probably heard that it’s the ratio of these two to one another that makes the difference; a ratio of 3:1 is considered ideal for Omega 6 to Omega 3, for humans, dogs and cats.

Why supplement?

The fat of wild animals is usually well balanced when it comes to Omega 6:Omega 3. Various species of deer, for instance have the ideal ratio, 3:1. Compare that to the grain-fed beef we feed ourselves and our animals; here the ratio leaps to 7:1. Grass-fed beef has a much better ratio at slightly over 3:1, but grass feed beef is a luxury not all can afford. For non-free range chicken meat that ratio is even more potentially damaging at 28:1.

Remember, both omegas are needed. Omega 6 works to increase inflammation, an essential part of the body’s defence system, and Omega 3 works to decrease it. Too much Omega 6 in the system, and inflammation soars; too much Omega 3 in the system, and the immune function shuts down.

Few of us, including our dogs and cats, are eating too little Omega 6. It is everywhere. If we’re eating grain-fed beef, non-free range chicken or eggs, and a host of various vegetable oils, we’re boosting our Omega 6 intake and probably upsetting the balance of Omega 6 to 3. So we need to supplement the Omega 3, and here is where not all oils are equal.

Understanding Omega 3

The Omega 3s we want are EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). These are found in fish oils, like salmon and krill. There is another kind, APA (Alpha-linolenic acid), found in plant-based oils such as flaxseed, chia seed and canola, but this has to be converted to EPA and DHA before our bodies can use it. The trouble is, dogs and cats are not very good at converting APA into EPA and DHA; only about 20% of what they ingest is actually converted and used. Therefore, buying a supplement that does not list the kind of Omega 3 is a stab in the dark; you won’t know how much of it is the EPA and DHA your pet needs.

APA has some uses on its own, so it is not a waste to ingest it; but it converts very inefficiently into EPA and DHA, so we cannot rely on APA sources to provide what the animal needs. Chia seed has a host of other benefits apart from Omega 3s, however, and may be worth administering for its calcium, iron, magnesium and trace minerals. Walnut oil, too. Vegetable oils alone, however, will not provide enough of the kind of Omega 3 your pet needs.

Fish oils

Animal-based oils are far better sources of Omega 3s than plant-based oils. Fish oil supplements contain the EPA and DHA we’re looking for and have been shown to improve the symptoms of osteoarthritis, decreasing lameness, swelling and pain and increasing joint mobility and overall ease of movement, in both pets and humans.

There are some cautions to observe with fish oils, however. They can contain high levels of mercury and PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), a chemical once used in hydraulic fluids and electrical capacitors and transformers. They’ve been banned in many countries (not all), but past heavy use has contaminated most environments, especially fish. The bigger the fish, the more concentrated the levels of mercury and PCBs. This is reason enough to vary your pet’s source of Omega 3.

Fish oils are also very unstable and, when exposed to oxygen, go rancid quickly. When your pet ingests rancid fish oil, its body goes into attack mode and all its reserves of antioxidants will be used up trying to neutralise the oxidised component of the rancid oil. This depletes its natural defence system. Yours, too.

Note that oil in capsules can go rancid – just break one open and test it. If it smells really bad, like rotting fish, it’s rancid. It should have a mild, fresh smell and taste. Krill oil, interestingly, hardly goes rancid because it contains a red-pigmented antioxidant called astaxanthin, produced by an algae that krill eat. Salmon eat it too, which is why salmon flesh has its reddish hue. Astaxanthin is a powerful antioxidant with many health benefits, including protecting cells from oxidative damage and inflammation. Krill oil, therefore, is not a bad source of Omega 3.

Some pet owner have queried the ethics of using fish oil when our oceans already suffer dead zones due to overfishing.

The bottom line is that there are dangers associated with fish oil as a source of Omega 3, which is why most pet owners who research the topic advocate varying a pet’s source of Omega 3s. Remember, it’s not the Omega 3 per se that does the work; it’s the EPA and DHA, and to some extent, the APA. We can get these from another source; phytoplankton.

It’s the algae

Essentially, fish oils derive their value from the phytoplankton that the fish eat. There is no reason why we should not go straight to the source, and get our EPA, DHA and ALA from phytoplankton, too – along with our pets. Phytoplankton has been called “one of the most valuable sources of nutrition on earth” and it’s not surprising; it’s the elemental source of nutrition for the whole ocean.

Phytoplankton contains everything your pet needs: essential fatty acids, minerals, chlorophyll, amino acids, carotenoids, vitamins and antioxidants. One of its antioxidants, superoxide dismutase (SOD), is particularly powerful, protecting cells and removing toxins, including heavy metals, from the body. Interestingly, some of the longest-lived animal, like sea turtles, contain large quantities of SOD in their flesh, while the shorter-lived animals, such as mice, contain very little. SOD is said to be 3,500 more potent than Vitamin C in its antioxidant capacity.

Best of all, phytoplankton does not have to be digested; it is made up of such tiny particles that the mucous membranes absorb it directly, making it ideal for dogs with digestive issues.

Phytoplankton works on every system of the body, fighting cancer, supporting the liver and joints, combatting allergies, and counteracting all sorts of skin complaints. Its many trace minerals supply what most pets – humans, too – lack. They perform a host of disease-fighting functions, making phytoplankton a valuable addition to the diet for pets.

Dosage

We don’t need to ditch the fish oils; just make sure they are of a high quality, and that the label gives the EPA and DHA content, because that is the part actually used by your pet. The guidelines for dosages are:

1000 mg fish oil for each 30 lbs (13 kg) of dog or cat per day.

Or, put another way, 300 mg of combined EPA and DHA per 30 lbs (13 kg) of dog or cat per day. Getting the dosage right is important. Too much interferes with blood clotting and other essential functions and too little will be as good as none, as it will have no impact. Some people use the guideline of:

Animal’s weight in pounds X 20 = mg of fish oil to give.

So a small dog weighing 20 lbs (just over 9 kg) would need 20 X 20 = 400 mg fish oil per day. A big dog weighing 75 lbs (34 kg) would need 75 X 20 = 1 500 mg fish oil per day.

Weigh your pet and work out the perfect dosage to derive maximum benefit from your high-quality fish oil. For phytoplankton, very little is potent; 1/16 teaspoon a day is sufficient for any sized dog or cat.

As with the rest of your pet’s diet, vary the source of the supplement; many pet owners give crushed chia seeds and walnut oil daily (1 tsp to 1 Tbs, depending on size) and a quality fish oil or phytoplankton source twice a week. Sardines are excellent; one small sardine contains 100 mg EPA and DHA.

And read those labels. Make sure your Omega 3 contains sufficient EPA and DHA to yield a total of 300 mg per 30 lbs (13 kg) of animal, and don’t be confused by the similar sounding EFA, which just means “essential fatty acid”. Lastly, always consult your vet before starting your pet on a supplement; there are some conditions where certain supplements are contraindicated.

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The Pet Owner Blog by Dr Megan Kelly