Using Omega 3 Fatty Acids Effectively and Safely

Jennifer Coates, DVM
By Jennifer Coates, DVM on Aug. 29, 2014

Omega 3 Fatty Acids are very popular nutritional supplements for dogs. They are advertised to help with skin conditions, allergies, kidney function, lymphoma, heart disease, cognitive function, arthritis, and more. Research is spotty but supports their use in some cases. As a result, many veterinarians recommend and owners use omega 3 fatty acids to treat or prevent disease, but do you really know what omega 3 fatty acids are and how to use them safely and effectively?

Fatty acids are molecules consisting of a chain of carbon atoms with an oxygen double bonded and a hydroxyl group (an oxygen and hydrogen atom) single bonded at one end. Omega 3 fatty acids are “polyunsaturated,” meaning that they have multiple double bonds throughout their carbon chain and their first double bond is located between carbon atoms number three and four when counting from the end of the chain away from the hydroxyl group.

Sorry about all the chemistry, but I bring it up for a couple of important reasons. Firstly, all those double bonds make omega 3 fatty acids somewhat unstable and prime candidates for oxidation, which leads to rancidity. Also, dogs cannot make their own omega 3 fatty acids because they are physiologically unable to put a double bond between carbons 3 and 4. This is why dogs have a dietary need for omega 3 fatty acids like eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).

Vegetable oils including flaxseed oil, canola oil, walnut oil, and soybean oil can provide dogs with another omega 3 fatty acid called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which is a precursor to EPA and DHA. However, dogs are not very good at transforming ALA into either EPA or DHA. Therefore, it is much more efficient to provide dogs with EPA and DHA directly. Good sources include cold water fish oils (e.g., salmon oil) and certain types of algal oil.

Commercially available omega 3 fatty acid supplements can have very different EPA and DHA concentrations. Also, the dose of omega 3 fatty acid need to optimally treat various health conditions in dogs is really not known with any degree of certainty, which makes figuring out how much to give difficult if not impossible. Several studies seem to indicate that around 22-40 mg/kg /day of EPA can have beneficial effects, but keep in mind that most fish oil supplements contain both DHA and EPA so the total dose of omega 3 fatty acids is higher. Omega 3 fatty acids are quite safe, but when given in extremely large doses can lead to gastrointestinal upset, problems with the blood clotting system, and immune dysfunction.

When purchasing an omega 3 fatty acid supplement, choose one made from a reputable manufacturer that provides the following information either on the product label or on their website:

  • How much EPA and DHA does the supplement contain?
  • How do they purify their products to remove contaminants like mercury?
  • How is the product preserved to prevent rancidity?

High quality omega 3 fatty acid supplements appear to have multiple health benefits. Ask your veterinarian if one is right for your dog.

Dr. Jennifer Coates


Omega-3 Fatty Acids and Disease: Choosing the Right Product. Cecilia Villaverde. Presented at the American Veterinary Medical Convention, Denver, CO, July 28, 2014.

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Jennifer Coates, DVM


Jennifer Coates, DVM


Dr. Jennifer Coates is an accomplished veterinarian, writer, editor, and consultant with years of experience in the fields of veterinary...

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