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6 min read

Fatty Acids for Dogs


By Emily Bayne

Published: 06/21/2017, edited: 10/13/2023

Reviewed by a licensed veterinary professional: Dr. Linda Simon, MVB MRCVS

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Fat has been public health enemy number 1 for decades, leading to a rise in low-fat or fat-free products. But fats don't deserve the bad rap countless magazines have given them. Healthy fats and fatty acids are an essential part of both human and animal diets! 

For instance, DHA, an Omega 3 fatty acid, is crucial for healthy brain development in puppies (and human babies!) Other Omega fatty acids help reduce inflammation, boost the immune system, and keep your pet's coat shiny and soft! What's more, your dog can't produce omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids on their own — they can only get them through the food they eat!

Read on for the low down on vital fatty acids and why they're so important for our four-legged friends!

chia seeds

How fatty acids benefit your pup’s health

Sure, fatty acids will add shine to your woofer's skin and coat, but the benefits of fatty acids go more than skin deep. Fatty acids are an essential part of a healthy diet and are necessary for optimal health. From issues such as demodectic mange to coat health and muscle condition, fatty acids support critical bodily functions. Here are just a few of the roles they serve in the canine body.

Support the immune & endocrine systems

Fatty acids may help to improve systemic issues such as immune deficiencydiabetes, and digestive problems. Emerging research suggests that the growth of some cancerous tumors in dogs can be significantly slowed by adding omega-3s and 6s to your pup's food bowl. 

Help with prostaglandin production

Did you know fatty acids play a key role in moderating inflammation and blood flow too? Yep, this is due to their influence on prostaglandin production!

Make up the structure of cell membranes

Fatty acids affect dogs even down to the cellular level since they are integral to the structure of the cell membranes!

Promote healthy growth and development

Omega fatty acids (especially DHA) are crucial for neurological development in puppies and also affect overall health and growth. What's more, dogs who don't get enough fatty acids can fail to thrive and become infertile

Involved in vitamin absorption

Fatty acids help dogs metabolize fat-soluble vitamins like Vitamins A, D, E, and K.

Used as energy source

Like all dietary fats, fatty acids also serve as an energy source for our canine friends. In fact, they have over twice as many calories as carbohydrates, when compared by weight.

raw salmon on cutting board

Types of essential fatty acids

Fatty acids are polyunsaturated fats that can be separated into two main classifications: omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. You may be surprised to learn that omega-3 and omega-6 aren't types of fatty acids but rather categories of fatty acids that share a similar molecular structure. 

While your dog’s body produces some of the fatty acids it needs, several fatty acids can only be consumed through diet — that's why it's so important to make sure your dog is getting enough fatty acids in their diet! The fatty acids your dog can't manufacture on its own are considered essential fatty acids. The specific fatty acids in these groups include:

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

  • Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA): ALA is a plant-based essential fatty acid that can lower the risk of heart disease and plays a major role in canine development.
  • Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA): EPA is an anti-inflammatory fatty acid found in fish and fish oils, which can help promote blood flow and can slow blood clotting. 
  • Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA): DHA is one of the most important fatty acids since it helps the brain and eyes develop! According to the National Research Council, "Studies over the last decade have provided evidence that a deficiency of DHA leads to nervous system abnormalities, such as decreased visual acuity, electroretinographic abnormalities, polyneuropathy, and reduced learning ability."  

Omega-6 Fatty Acids

  • Linolenic acid (LA): LA helps to maintain the skin barrier, keeps fur looking great, and is vital for reproductive health. That being said, excessive amounts of linolenic acid can trigger swelling and inflammation. 
  • Gamma linolenic acid (GLA): This fatty acid helps with the regulation of hormones and decreases inflammation. Dogs can convert linolenic acid to gamma-linolenic acid, but they need a several biological ingredients and nutrients to make that happen, including the appropriate amounts of zinc, magnesium, and vitamins. 
  • Dihomo-gamma-linolenic acid (DGLA): Dihomo-gamma-linolenic acid is a potent anti-inflammatory, but very little is found in food. To remedy this, the body manufactures Gamma-linolenic acid. 
  • Arachidonic acid (AA): On the other end of the spectrum, arachidonic acid, which is found in fish, meat, and dairy, stimulates inflammatory processes and, in large amounts, may trigger chronic inflammation. 

Healthy sources of fatty acids for dogs

How do you go about ensuring your furbaby is getting enough fatty acids? While many commercial dog foods contain omega-3 and omega-6 oils, heavy processing can often reduce or even eliminate their effects. Let's talk about some foods you can offer to sneak more fatty acids into your pooch's diet: 

fish oil pills and oils - fatty acids for dogs

The lowdown on fatty acid supplements for dogs

Adding supplemental sources of fatty acids such as flaxseed oil or fish oil can help ensure your dog is getting the fatty acids they need. Both flaxseed and fish oil come in a variety of commercial and prescription supplements. Some dogs find oil-filled capsules at night (wrapped securely in a slice of cheese) a welcome treat. Others will readily consume a small amount of oil added daily in meals.

The trick is experimenting with brands and methods to find which works best for both you and your dog's routine. Regardless of delivery method, adding essential fatty acids to your dog's diet is a new trick worth learning and one that will see you enjoying many years of long, healthy, and happy life with your favorite four-legged companion.

All dogs can benefit from extra fatty acids in their diet, but especially dogs with skin issues or dull coats, growing puppies, elderly dogs, and dogs with or predisposed to joint issues.

Considerations when supplementing with fatty acids

Many fatty acid supplements need to be refrigerated since they can lose potency or go rancid at room temperature, so check the label for storage instructions after opening. Also, some fish oil-based supplements are quite stinky, so keep your dog's toothbrush handy!

Be sure to pick quality supplements. Do your research and pick from a reputable brand. Cheaper rarely means better when it comes to vitamins! 

Always talk to your vet about the appropriate dosage of fatty acids for your dog since age, breed, and vitamin levels can all affect how much your pet needs.

If you're going with fish oil, it's also important to know that there are 3 main types.

  • Natural triglyceride oil: Natural triglyceride oil is the most easily metabolized but can contain impurities since it's unprocessed. 
  • Synthetic triglyceride: Synthetic triglyceride won't contain any of the impurities of natural triglyceride. However, it is more difficult for dogs to metabolize. 
  • Ethyl ester oil: Ethyl ester oil is a concentrated, semi-synthetic fish oil that contains both DHA and EPA. This particular oil is often marketed as "fish oil" and is a top pick since it is more digestible than synthetic triglyceride but not quite as digestible as natural oils. It does hold one advantage over natural triglyceride oil, though — since its processed impurities aren't as much of a concern as the unrefined natural fish oils. 

Recommended doses for fatty acids

  • Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA): 0.11g recommended allowance for adults and 0.2g recommended allowance for dogs under 1 year. 
  • Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA): 0.11g - 2.8g (max for adult dogs) and 0.13g - 11g for dogs under 1 year. 
  • Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA):  0.11g - 2.8g (max for adult dogs) and 0.13g - 11g for dogs under 1 year. 
  • Linolenic acid (LA): Adult Dogs, 2.8g recommended - 16.3g (max). Dogs under 1 year: 3.3g recommended, 65g (max)
  • Arachidonic acid (AA): No recommended allowance for dogs under 1 year, 0.08g recommended allowance for puppies. 
  • It is unclear what the current dosage recommendations are for Gamma-linolenic acid and Dihomo-gamma-linolenic acid in dogs. Ask your vet for specific dosage recommendations if you are unsure, especially if your dog has medical conditions that may affect supplement absorption. 

Possible side effects of fatty acid supplements in dogs

Though usually considered safe, fatty acid supplements can cause side effects in some dogs, especially in high doses. These can include:

  • Diarrhea 
  • Upset stomach
  • Pancreatitis
  • Weight changes
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Lowered immune responses
  • Changes in white blood cell counts
  • Slowed wound healing or blood clotting
  • Exposure to contaminants or heavy metals
  • May cause vitamin levels to spike or plummet
  • May help with blood sugar and low insulin levels
  • Degradation of lipids in the plasma and urine (lipid peroxidation)

It is advised we start of on a low dose, gradually building to the recommended daily dose, to ensure our dog tolerates the supplement.

Finally, remember that there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. Extremely high doses of fatty acids can lead to toxic overdoses and cause plasma levels of vitamin E to plummet. 

Beagle running with stick

Fatty acids for dogs: Recap

  • Fatty acids are broken down into two categories, the ones that dogs can synthesize themselves and the essential fatty acids that they must get from their diet. 
  • Essential fatty acids are separated into two groups Omega-3 fatty acids and Omega-6 fatty acids. 
  • Fatty acids are integral to canine health affecting your dog's development and health down to the cellular level!
  • Fatty acids can improve blood flow, the immune system, skin conditions and reduce inflammation.
  • You can ensure your dog gets plenty of omega-3 and -6 fatty acids by adding fish, flaxseed, or peanuts to their diet. There are also many over-the-counter fish oil and omega fatty acid supplements for dogs (like Welactin Liquid)
  • Too much fatty acids can cause toxicity and abnormal plasma levels of vitamin E.

Got more questions about your dog's nutrition? Chat with a veterinary professional today for trusted pet advice. 

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