Beginner Guide: Omegas For Dogs

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Omega 3s can offer your pet spectacular benefits. (And we don’t throw around spectacular lightly).

From the heart to the skin to the immune system, omega 3s pack the best kind of punch. Adding omega 3s to your pet’s routine is one of the best steps you can take to help them thrive.

So, what exactly do you need to know about these mighty omegas? We’ll cover the what, why, how, and more — AND some key insights that others just won’t tell you.

On The Agenda

How Omega 3s Benefit Your Pet

Omega 3s Are Essential

Your pet’s body can’t produce omega 3s on its own (which is why omega 3s are referred to as essential. Also: essentially amazing!)

So, it’s absolutely vital that you add omega 3s to the bowl. When you do, your pet can start experiencing HUGE benefits throughout their entire body.

Heart

Omega 3s might be most well-known for promoting a healthy heart — and there’s good reason! EPA & DHA fatty acids (the type of omega 3 your carnivore needs — more on this in a moment) serve as energy and powerful support for the heart muscle.

Brain 

DHA fatty acids are also crucial for brain development for growing puppies and kittens, which means you should start adding omega 3 with DHA (and EPA) to the bowl while your pet is still young!

Skin

Omega 3s help keep the skin and coat nourished and hydrated, and they help the body produce its own protective oils. This makes omega 3s especially beneficial for pets who suffer from dry, itchy skin and allergies.

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Immune System

Omega 3s promote a robust immune system. Immune health is incredibly important because it is key in keeping the body healthy and in the prevention of diseases like cancer. 

Muscles

Omega 3s have also been shown to benefit muscles — ultimately lowering muscle damage and inflammation even through strenuous activity.

Kidneys

When incorporated on a long-term basis, omega 3s can also support kidney health and renal function. This makes omega 3s a vital addition for pets with renal failure.

Antioxidant Properties

This might be the most overlooked benefit of all — and it’s a HUGE deal (for reference, the level of excited you should be is roughly the level of excited your pet would be if you dropped an entire chicken on the kitchen floor). 

Antioxidants are absolutely crucial for the long-term health of our pets, and omega 3s actually have antioxidant properties! Here’s why this is chicken-level exciting:

Every day, free radicals are released in your pet’s body. These free radicals set off a chain of reactions known as oxidative stress which causes cell and DNA damage. And that can lead to premature aging and a whole slew of diseases (from diabetes to cancer). 

But antioxidants neutralize the free radicals and help fight cell damage before it even occurs. Pretty amazing, right? That’s the power of preventive care.

And because omega 3s have antioxidant properties, you have yet another reason (if you even needed more!) to add them to the bowl. When you do, you’ll be providing your pet with powerful tools for prevention.

Understanding The Types of Omegas

Fats 101

Fats play many key roles in the body. They supply the body with energy — and/or store it for later. They also help with vitamin absorption, hormone levels, and inflammation. 

There are multiple types of fat — both good and bad — and numerous branches on the fat family tree. Hang tight and we’ll cover everything you need to know.

Saturated Fats

Saturated fats are generally considered “bad” and are unhealthy in large quantities. You generally want to avoid that side of the fat family tree (think of them as those relatives).

Stay away from long chain triglycerides like animal fat/lard — these are the relatives that you really don’t want to have over for dinner ever

Medium chain triglycerides like coconut oil can be okay in small quantities — these are the relatives that you can handle in small doses occasionally.

Unsaturated Fats

Unsaturated fats, on the other hand, are known as the “good” fats. 

EDITOR NOTE: “Good” is a gigantic enormous HUGE whopping understatement. 

This is the side of the family tree with all your favorite relatives (and for the record, if your favorite relatives are actually dogs, we’re not here to judge).

On the monounsaturated fat branch, you’ll find omega 9 (more on this guy in a moment).

On the polyunsaturated fat branch, you’ll find omega 3 (the coolest and most favorite relative ever) and omega 6 (also solid).

We’re mostly going to focus on this polyunsaturated group because omega 3 and omega 6 are both absolutely vital for pets — the body can’t produce either. We’ll break it down further by looking at each one individually.

Omega 3

There are 3 types of omega 3s: EPA, DHA, and ALA.

EPA and DHA are readily available for the carnivore’s body to use — which means they are exactly what your pet needs. EPA and DHA are found in grass-fed meats and fish like salmon (yum).

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ALA, on the other hand, is NOT in a readily available form. If they have to, dogs can convert ALA to a usable form like DHA or EPA, but it’s extremely inefficient and leads to only about 5-15% being utilized. Cats cannot convert ALA at all. ALA is found in plants like hemp seed, flaxseed, or chia seeds (which makes sense – plants *equal sign with slash through it* carnivores).

The bottomline: go for active, ready-to-use forms of EPA and DHA. Avoid using ALA as your primary source of omega 3 only because your pet just won’t be able to reap the benefits.

Omega 6

There are 4 types of omega 6:

GLA (Gamma linolenic acid) is particularly beneficial for hydrating the skin and helping the body produce its own protective and nourishing oils. It is found in black currant seed oil, borage oil, and evening primrose oil.

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LA (Linoleic acid) is essential for pets. It supports skin and coat health, the immune system, and normal growth and development. It is found in corn, canola, safflower, and sunflower oils as well as whole grain and the body fat of poultry. Though it does provide benefits, this form is overused in kibble, because its sources are cheaper and readily available.

AA (Arachidonic acid) is also essential, particularly for cats (cats cannot produce it on their own). It plays a key role in brain development, skin health, and the immune system.

It is found in the body fat of poultry, lean meat, egg yolks, and some fish oils.

rawfood

DGLA (Dihomo-gamma-linolenic acid) is actively being studied and may also provide numerous benefits. It is found in organ meats.

The bottom line: omega 6s can be hugely beneficial BUT it’s crucial to balance them in the proper ratio with omega 3s (more on this MAJOR piece of the puzzle in just a moment).

Omega 9

There’s just 1 type of omega 9 — oleic acid. It’s found in food sources like olive oil, avocado, and almonds. 

But it isn’t the star of the show today — or the type of omega that you should really focus on adding to your pet’s bowl.

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The Crucial Omega Ratio That Nobody Is Talking About

Here’s the thing: omega 3s are excellent. Omega 6s are also excellent. Both should be in your pet’s bowl. But the piece that so often gets overlooked is the ratio of omega 6:omega 3. This ratio is everything!

The Ratio of Omega 6 : Omega 3 Is Key

Ideally, the ratio of omega 6 : omega 3 should be 1:1. That’s your ideal. But up to 5:1 is reasonable. 

So what happens if the ratio exceeds 5:1? Well, too much omega 6 and not enough omega 3 can lead to chronic inflammation. And chronic inflammation is the culprit in all sorts of disease (ranging from diabetes to gut issues to cancer). 

We’re not kidding when we say this ratio matters. Big time.

The goal is to achieve this ratio through a balanced diet that contains foods rich in omega 6 and omega 3. But are most pets eating balanced diets? Unfortunately… no.

healthy pet diet. quality food and bowls. cat dinner time. beautiful bengal kitty.

Which Omegas Are In Your Pet’s Food?

Since so many pet parents choose to feed kibble, let’s start there.

Kibble often contains plenty of omega 6 but barely any omega 3 (if any at all). Why? Omega 6 is cheaper.

Many kibbles have an omega ratio as high as 20:1 (omega 6:omega 3). And remember, we’re shooting for 5:1 at the highest.

This means that kibble is pro-inflammatory.

But what if the packaging says “rich in omegas” and there’s a picture of a salmon on the bag!? Isn’t that good? 

Maybe. But you need more information — you need specificity. The type of omegas matters. The balance of omegas matters.

Pro tip: no matter what you feed (kibble or otherwise), ask your food manufacturer for the ratio of omega 6:omega 3.

Omegas & Raw Food Diets

With raw food diets, you have more control over what’s going in the bowl, so you can focus on adding omegas in the proper ratio. Load up on grass-fed meats and marine sources of omega 3s. These whole food sources are a fantastic choice for getting your carnivore the EPA and DHA they need (Learn more with “Fish Oil for Dogs & Cats: Is It The Best Choice?”).

But does a raw food diet provide enough omegas? Should you be doing more? Well, you can always level up — and you’ve got a lot of great options for adding additional omegas to the bowl (read on!).

How Much Omega 3 Your Pet Actually Needs

Why Therapeutic Levels Matter

In order for a nutrient or ingredient to have the desired effect, there must be enough of it. This amount is called the therapeutic level.

When you’re adding omega 3s, it’s important to make sure you hit that therapeutic level so your pet can actually benefit.

The milligrams of EPA and DHA your pet needs daily depend on their weight (see chart).

Keep in mind that this therapeutic level can be reached through a combination of sources — whole food, treats, supplements, etc. And don’t forget that vital ratio of omega 6:omega 3! Strive for the proper amount and balance of these polyunsaturated fatty acids.

Is There Such Thing As Too Much?

Pets rarely get too much EPA and DHA (in fact, the majority don’t get nearly enough). So you probably don’t need to worry about giving your pet too much EPA and DHA. 

Of course, we don’t want our pets to become obese (excess omega 3s would be stored as fat). Also, if you rapidly add an excessive amount of omega 3s (as in, greater than the recommendation), your pet might experience diarrhea. So do stick to the daily recommendations.      

But, in general, bring on those omega 3s!

Sources of Omega 3s

So where can you find those amazing omegas?

Grass-Fed Meats

Grass-fed meats like beef contain high levels of EPA and DHA — and remember, that’s the kind of omega 3 your pet needs.

Whole meat is easy to incorporate into your pet’s diet. Remember, dogs and cats are carnivores! Dogs need protein-rich diets with 70-80% meat as scavenger carnivores. Cats need closer to 80-90% meat as obligate carnivores.

Whatever you feed, you can always add real, whole meat to the bowl. Or, try a freeze-dried whole food option.

Salmon

Salmon is a great source of EPA & DHA fatty acids. However, there are a few things to keep in mind:

  1. Always choose wild-caught over farmed. Wild-caught salmon has a lower risk of contaminants, harmful chemicals, and antibiotics.
  2. Make sure the supplier and fishery are committed to sustainable practices. Look for the MSC label.

3. Be mindful of biomagnification. Biomagnification occurs when the concentration of a toxin increases in a food chain. So, let’s say the littlest fish has a small concentration of a toxin. In the medium fish that eats the littlest fish, the concentration becomes a bit higher. In the large fish that eats the medium fish, the concentration becomes higher still. Since salmon are large fish, this is a concern. 

Toxins found in fish include mercury, arsenic, cadmium, and lead — which are harmful to dogs and cats (any living being, basically) who consume contaminated fish or fish oil (more on oils in a moment).

Small Fish Like Anchovies, Mackerel, & Sardines

Small fish are a terrific choice because they are packed with EPA and DHA. Since they’re small, they are lower on the food chain, which means that they will contain fewer toxins (due to biomagnification). 

Here are a few excellent options:

  • Anchovies are small, oily fish known for high levels of omega 3s — plus calcium and vitamin D. 
  • Mackerel is also high in omega 3s and is also a great source of vitamin B!
  • Sardines are another solid choice — high in EPA and DHA and lower in toxins. 

As always, choose a sustainable supplier.

Krill

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Krill might be a tiny crustacean, but it can provide your pet with HUGE benefits. It’s packed with EPA & DHA fatty acids and it contains phospholipids, which deliver those omega 3s right to where the body needs them most. This makes krill a super efficient source of omega 3 (yep, more efficient than fish sources!).

Plus, it’s full of astaxanthin — nature’s most powerful antioxidant (and remember how amazing antioxidants are?!).

And of course, because krill are so tiny, they are way at the bottom of the food chain. This means they are much lower in toxins than larger fish like salmon (due to biomagnification).

When considering the form, always go for ground krill (rather than oil). It’s better for your pet and better for the planet (more on this in a moment).

And speaking of the planet… be sure to choose krill from a fishery that is committed to sustainability. Always look for the MSC label to help ensure that you are choosing a sustainable source.

Avoid Plant-Based Sources

There are multiple plant-based sources of omega 3 like hemp and flax seed. These are not the right choice for your pet because plant-based sources of omega 3 contain ALA rather than EPA and DHA.

ALA is not bioavailable for the carnivore’s body to use. Dogs can convert it if they have to, but it’s extremely inefficient and only allows for about 5-15% usage. Cats can’t convert ALA at all. 

So, much to your pet’s delight, stick with the meat and fish sources for that vital EPA and DHA!

Options For Adding Omegas To The Bowl

There are numerous options for incorporating omega 3s into your pet’s daily routine — but where to start? 

One major factor to keep in mind here is that omega 3 is not very stable, which means that it often goes rancid quickly (for this reason, it’s best to avoid kibble brands that claim to add omegas — those giant kibble bags are mass produced and then they sit for long periods of time… so what’s happening to those unstable omegas?!).

Be aware that some forms of omega 3 last longer than others. Investigate why — and be on the lookout for unwanted additives and preservatives.

Real, Whole Food

Real, whole food is always a solid choice. Fill that bowl with real grass-fed meat and fish. Whole foods are excellent sources of omegas.

Remember that omega 6:omega 3 ratio, though. When you load the bowl up with omega 3s, don’t forget about omega 6s (and vice versa). It’s all about balance.

And remember, no matter what you feed, you can (and should) level up by adding additional omegas to the bowl.

As Dr. Bessent so poignantly puts it, “The presence of an ingredient is not the same as a therapeutic level of it.”

Oils

This is a big topic. You’ve probably heard some buzz about fish oil. Yes, it is a good source of omega 3s, but there are some key things you absolutely must know before adding it to the bowl.

  • What is fish oil? 

Really, what is it? “Fish” is such a vague term — you might as well be saying “meat.” Often, you really don’t know what is in fish oil. Some manufacturers report the kind of fish they use, but many do not (and are not required to do so). So the contents could range from sardine to cod to whale blubber. It’s impossible to guarantee quality with so little transparency. (Learn more with “Fish Oil For Dogs & Cats: Is It The Best Choice?”).

  • The type of fish matters. 

Salmon oil is often praised — and it does have numerous benefits — but the biomagnification concerns still apply. In fact, the toxins can be extra concentrated in oil. Though there are some promising new oil extraction methods, the conventional methods of fish oil extraction produce oil with toxin levels that are much higher than the acceptable limits. We don’t want our pack eating that high concentration of toxins

  • Oils generally go rancid quickly.

In fact, if left out for too long, some oils (like krill oil) actually cause oxidative stress — as in, the cell damage that antioxidants help fight. You definitely don’t want your omega source to be the cause of that!

Is the fish sustainably sourced? Remember to look for the MSC label. Also, even if the fish is sustainably sourced, consider this: after the oil is extracted from the fish, the rest of the fish gets thrown away. This is wasteful and not a sustainable practice.

Chews & Tablets

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Chews and tablets are a great option for pets that are picky and struggle when trying new things. They’re also super convenient — both in terms of storing and adding to the bowl — and they don’t go rancid quickly the way oils do.

They do usually contain inactive ingredients to bind the chews and tablets together (since the omega source is coming from oil). The amount of inactive ingredients is generally low, though, (or it should be — read the label), so chews and tablets can still be a solid option.

But if you’re concerned about the inactives, you’ve still got pure omega 3 alternatives… like ground krill!

Ground Krill

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Ground krill is exactly as it sounds — whole krill, ground up into a powder. We already know how nutritious krill are (packed with EPA, DHA, phospholipids, and antioxidants) and that krill are lower in toxins because they are so low on the food chain.

As always, make sure your supplier is committed to sustainable practices. Plus, think about this: when you have a responsible supplier, ground krill is doubly sustainable. Why? Well, ground krill uses the entire krill — rather than throwing away the rest of the fish after oil is extracted. This makes it sustainable on multiple levels!

Human Capsules

The good news about human capsules is they are human grade, which often comes with some guarantees about safety and purity.

However, if you’re looking at fish oil capsules, all the oil-related concerns still apply (sustainability, sourcing, toxins, etc.).

Also, if you’re using a human capsule, be extra mindful of dosage so that your pet gets the proper therapeutic levels.

Rotate Your Sources

There’s no reason you have to choose only one source of omega 3s! In fact, we encourage incorporating a wide variety of sources.

  • Throw some fresh, grass-fed beef into the bowl.  
  • Add a sprinkle of ground krill.
  • Sardine snack, anyone?
  • Maybe a chew here and there.

Rotate your sources (especially if you are using a source like salmon that brings a risk of toxins) and let your pet reap the benefits from a multitude of omega 3s!

Choose The Best Omega 3 For Your Pet

Have a look at our complete checklist for a quick and easy reference to help you choose the best omega 3 source for your pet!

Or, if you’re still not sure where to start, take the quiz for a personalized recommendation!

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Dr. Chris Besent

Dr. Chris Besent

Chris Bessent, DVM, MSOM, Dipl. OM, L.Ac. has over thirty years of experience in veterinary medicine including certificates in veterinary acupuncture, veterinary chiropractic and veterinary Chinese herbology. Imbued with Eastern philosophy and the knowledge that food is the foundation of health, Dr. Bessent also received her degree in veterinary nutrition and began to formulate recipes fit for a carnivore from nothing but whole foods. Currently, she divides her time between the Simple Food Project and Herbsmith, both of which are owned and operated out of her facilities in southeastern Wisconsin.

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Hayley - Content Writer

Hayley - Content Writer

Hayley is a freelance writer based in Northern California. (Writing for the Herbsmith is her favorite, but don't spread it around.) She enjoys riding horses, taking road trips, and eating grilled cheese sandwiches. Her foster dogs have mixed feelings about the spinach she keeps trying to sneak into their bowls.

Kayla - Editor

Kayla - Editor

Kayla is the Content Editor for Herbsmith. She has a cat named Professor Cat-Faced Meowmers, who goes by Kitty, and a goof of a dog, named Duck. She stays busy biking trails, playing board games, and searching for the next best craft beer.

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