Why I’d never give my dog fish oil
I must say I never expected a simple task like finding and sourcing a safe, balanced and sustainable omega oil supplement for dogs would shake me up so much. But, as often happens, the simplest tasks prove to be much more difficult than they seem.
The positive side is these challenges lead to important discoveries that ultimately make our dogs healthier and our time together with them longer.
Many dog lovers seem to be unclear about omega oils and I've have seen people make serious mistakes that can lead to toxicity, disease, epilepsy and a shortened lifespan.
Omega oils are also known as essential fatty acids (EFAs) and they're divided into three main groups: Omega-3, 6 and 9.
The word essential clearly shows EFAs are vital to your dog’s health. In medicine, the term essential also means the body can't produce the nutrient on its own.
Most of us have memories of our mothers holding a bottle of fishy smelling cod liver oil or sardine oil that made us gasp for air and run the other way. “It is good for you,” my mother used to say, holding a spoon of greasy, stomach-turning fish oil. I secretly hoped she'd accidentally drop the spoon before it touched my lips. However, over time, I learned how essential omega oils are, especially after becoming a veterinarian.
The topic of omegas is also a source of endless online discussions on forums and social media. People debate what omegas to give and what ratios are the best for dogs.
OMEGA-6 AND 9 FATTY ACIDS
Omega-6 EFAs, such as linoleum acid (LA), are relatively common in food and usually come from vegetable oils.
Omega-9 fatty acids are common components of animal fat and vegetable oils. This group of fatty acids is not essential because the body can create them.
The main sources of omega-6 for dogs are meat and eggs for those that eat raw or cooked, grain-free food. Omega-6 is also heavily represented in grain, nuts and seeds.
When it comes to Omega-6 fatty acids, dogs are similar to humans because their modern diet has much higher proportions of Omega-6 and 9 than Omega-3 compared to the diet of wild canines. Some people believe it's because most farm animals are fed grain. Increased intake of Omega-6 and 9 leads to inflammation, slower healing and faster aging.
This group of omega fatty acids is the most valuable when it comes to maintaining health. Omega-3 has very potent anti-inflammatory agents and they are the key building blocks to a healthy healing response. In my experience, dogs do not get enough Omega-3 in their diet and that is why they need to be supplemented. When you are looking for an omega supplement for your dog, Omega-3 fatty acids should be your main focus.
Omega-3 is essential for optimum health in canines and people
Knowing all of the above, you have two important tasks when it comes to keeping your dog healthy and living a long life: give omega-3 supplements and find a safe omega source.
It seems simple doesn’t it? But when I embarked on the search for safe omega oils in 2015, I had no idea how long and hard the journey would be. It also taught me how to source a safe Omega-3 oil, protect your dog and help you avoid mistakes that so many people make.
THE SOURCE IS EVERYTHING
Omega oils can be sourced from either plants or marine animals. Nutritionally, the most valuable omega oils are Eicosapentaenoic (EPA) and Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).
Coconut oil contains medium chain fatty acids, which are very different from Omega-3, and is not a good source of EFA and EPA.
There is another Omega-3 EFA, alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which is abundant in flaxseed oil and other plant oils.
Humans are capable of converting a small fraction of ALA to EPA and DHA. That is why flax seed oil can at least partially replace fish oils for people. However, most scientists agree that dogs lack the metabolic pathways for such conversion.
ALGAE OIL DISAPPOINTMENT
When I started searching for the best source of omega oils for dogs, I was convinced algae would be the right source. It is plant-based, does not accumulate heavy metals and is rich and well-balanced in DHA and EPA.
As we dug deeper and tried to find a quality supply of algae oil, we came to a shocking discovery. Almost all the algae oil on the market is made of GMO (genetically modified organisms) with some very, very costly exceptions. We also learned most algae oil production was linked to Monsanto’s patents and these GMO oils were present in a variety of natural brands including baby formula!
In other words, the journey of looking for the perfect algae oil started with excitement and ended with big disappointment and concern. Algae omega oils were off the list.
FISH OIL QUANDARY
When I was in elementary school in the 70s, I remember one of our teachers saying that the oceans of the world contain an infinite source of food and fish. For many centuries, fish was a healthy and cheap source of food. Unfortunately, fish is not what it used to be. Most people are unaware there are several problems with fish and fish oils.
MERCURY IN FISH
A few years ago, I started using hair testing as one of the most reliable, accurate and inexpensive ways of determining the toxin levels of dogs. As I received hundreds and thousands of test results, I started to see the connection of elevated mercury levels with fish-based dog food and fish oils.
I also learned dogs with elevated mercury levels have a greater propensity for epilepsy and chronic health problems. Click here to read more.
Longer living and larger fish that is higher on the food chain accumulates more mercury. This puts mackerel, marlin, orange roughy, shark, swordfish, tilefish, tuna, grouper and other larger ocean fish off the list as viable sources of omega oil.
And even if this fish didn’t contain high levels of mercury, the problem of overfishing is very serious and makes fish oils environmentally unsustainable.
If you've used fish oil for your dog, I suggest you hair test your dog and also avoid any large fish or mixed fish oil blends.
IS SALMON OIL OK?
I have seen very few problems with salmon oil. It has a perfect balance of EPA and EFA and research confirms that the right omega oils have a very comparable anti-inflammatory effect to NSAID’s (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs), without the serious side-effects.
But even salmon oil production has not been affected by human ignorance. Salmon overfishing is a serious problem and fish farming threatens the wild salmon stock by spreading disease when farmed salmon escapes in areas where it is not native.
I've been using and recommending high-quality salmon oil as a temporary solution until a better oil is available.
SARDINE AND HERRING OIL
As a kid, I loved eating sardines and most dogs love them too. Sardines and herring used to be a perfect source of omegas and many oil companies use them to produce EFA supplements.
Small fish in general are lower on the food chain and their mercury content is low. In fact, until a few years ago, I had no problem giving sardine and herring oil to my patients, but that has changed.
Once again, hair testing brought me another interesting discovery. Many dogs that eat small fish and oil appear to have elevated strontium levels, a radioactive element that has been released in large quantities from the nuclear power plant during the Fukushima disaster, which is still going on. Click here to read more.
I studied the movement of sardines around Japan and learned that the waters around Fukushima are the nursery grounds for sardines. Japan is also a significant exporter of sardines and non-Japanese brands may contain fish from Japanese fisheries and brokers.
WHY IS STRONTIUM A BIGGER PROBLEM IN SMALL FISH?
Strontium is an element very similar to calcium and replaces calcium in bones. Small fish are usually processed and eaten with bones so more strontium gets in the body when you eat products made from small fish. Large fish are usually not eaten with bones, therefore there is less risk of strontium contamination.
That is why I do not recommend oils made from sardines and small fish for dogs and why I no longer eat sardines.
THE LARGEST BIOMASS: GREAT OIL BUT...
Those of you who are familiar with omega oils may have been using krill oil, the largest protein biomass on the planet. However, the latest research shows krill overfishing may seriously decrease them as a food source for fish, penguins and whales, which would have catastrophic consequences and could cause the whole food chain to collapse. Additionally, krill also appears to be sensitive to the effect of climate change.
I agree completely that krill oil is a balanced source of Omega-3, but krill overfishing is becoming a serious environmental concern.
A WINNER AMONG THE LOSERS
There is not a day where we do not hear about the negative impact on the environment, fish and wild animal populations. Ocean overfishing is a serious problem and we need to be responsible by reducing fish consumption.
Our mothers would be very sad to hear that fish is now a source of seriously toxic mercury and radioactive pollution.
However, there is one group that can be considered a winner: cephalopods like octopus and squid. Research has shown that their population has been on the rise since the 1950s and scientists suspect this increase may be a result of climate change and a decrease in the number of squid-eating fish.
*We found squid met all of our criteria for a quality Omega-3 source: It has a great balance of EPA and DHA with extremely low toxin levels and a steady population rise for over 50 years.
Squid live only about one to two years and their short lifespan makes them super-adaptable to changing ocean conditions.
The great news is that squid is an incredibly rich source of EPA and DHA and, because it lacks bones and is low on the food chain, the tests and analysis I've done show squid to be free of any detectable levels of toxins, especially in the northern seas of Scandinavia.
I have been using squid oil now for some time, testing it and observing the effects. My dog Skai has been on it too. I must say I'm very pleased with the results. The oil has about double the amount of DHA than EPA, which is different than in fish.
DHA is great for the skin and coat as well as nervous system function, which can be super beneficial for young, developing puppies, adult dogs and senior dogs for preventing senior dog dementia.
EPA is the anti-inflammatory component of omega oils so if your dog has joint issues, all you need to do is to increase the overall dose.
So, squid oil is the omega-3 winner. It's not only nutritionally comparable with the best sources of omega oil but it is also a feel-good oil because its production does't deplete or disturb the natural food chain.
Supplementing food with squid oil is good for you, your dog and it's also environmentally sustainable. Using squid oil feels as good as driving an electric car in the age of global warming!
© Dr. Peter Dobias, DVM