Fatty Acid Supplements for Pets

By: Catherine Lenox, DVM, Diplomate ACVN

TVMA Member
Houston, TX

Published April 2015

Omega-3 fatty acids and fish oil are commonly discussed topics in both human and animal nutrition. Many pet owners wonder what omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are and what they can do for their pets.

Where Can You Find Fatty Acids for Pets?

Both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are considered essential for dogs and cats, meaning that pets cannot make these fatty acids in their bodies. Therefore, they must be consumed in the diet or as a supplement. Plant-based oils often contain both omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6 fatty acids, but different oils contain different amounts of these fatty acids. For example, flaxseed and canola oil are higher in omega-3 fatty acids while corn oil and walnut oil are higher in omega-6 fatty acids. Fish oil also contains omega-3 fatty acids but contains different omega-3 fatty acids compared to plant oils. The omega-3 fatty acids in fish oil are called EPA and DHA.

Benefits of Fatty Acids

Supplementation of fish oil above what is essential for a dog or a cat can be beneficial for pets with certain health conditions. Conditions for which omega-3 fatty acids can be useful include cancer, arthritis, skin problems, inflammatory bowel disease and others. These conditions have a component of inflammation involved in the disease process, and omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil can help reduce inflammation associated with these conditions.

Fish oil omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA) can be found in commercial pet food or used as a dietary supplement. Some diets contain high levels of omega-3 fatty acids, and pets consuming those diets may not require fish oil supplementation. Diets that contain omega-3 fatty acids include joint diets and skin support diets. Other pets may benefit from a fish oil supplement if they are consuming a diet that does not contain high levels of omega-3 fatty acids. Typically, fish oil can spoil easily, making it difficult for pet food companies to preserve foods containing high levels of EPA and DHA, especially dry diets.

Are There Risks Associated with Supplements?

Omega-3 fatty acid supplements do have side effects, so be sure to consult with your veterinarian before starting a fish oil supplement to ensure that it is safe for your pet. Risks associated with fish oil supplementation include gastrointestinal signs (vomiting and/or diarrhea), issues with blood clotting and issues with quality control. Your veterinarian would also be able to educate you on the most beneficial dose of fish oil for your pet and which product to use. A good quality product should be used to avoid ingestion of toxins or excess nutrients.

In general, the omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil but not the ones from plant oils are considered anti-inflammatory. When fish oil omega-3 fatty acids are used in the body, they are less prone to causing inflammation when compared to other omega-3 fatty acids and when compared to omega-6 fatty acids.

Despite the distinction of EPA and DHA as anti-inflammatory, it would not be good to provide only omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil and not plant-based omega-3 fatty acids or omega-6 fatty acids. Both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are needed for normal tissue function, including skin health, nerve development, visual development and reproduction. For this reason, it is important that pet foods contain omega-6 fatty acids, omega-3 fatty acids from plant oils and omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil. Providing all of these types of fatty acids in the diet allows the body to function normally.

Finally, different supplements contain different omega-3 fatty acids. Remember that the omega-3 fatty acids in fish oil—EPA and DHA—are the ones that are anti-inflammatory. Flaxseed oil and other plant-based oils rich in omega-3 fatty acids do not have the same effect as fish oil, making supplementation of these oils less useful for management of chronic diseases.

Dr. Catherine Lenox owns a consulting business, Lenox Veterinary Nutrition Consulting, PLLC.  She does nutrition consults (mainly homemade diet formulation) and acupuncture for pets and owners in Houston.