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The ABCs of EFAs

Pump up your dog's health with the essential fatty acids found in a variety of fish oils.

Dog World article by Mary Straus, published in Dog World Magazine, November 2011, and in Natural Dog Magazine, 2014 Annual.

Dogs require two types of fats: omega-3 and omega-6 essential fatty acids (EFAs). Omega-6 fatty acids are generally plentiful in food, no matter what type of diet you feed. Omega-3 EFAs, however, are fragile and break down quickly in the presence of light, heat or air, so they're often in short supply in both commercial and fresh foods.

Supplementing your dog's diet with omega-3 fatty acid will support his heart, kidneys, brain, eyes, immune system, skin and coat. These EFAs also reduce inflammation linked to allergies, arthritis and autoimmune disease, and may lower the risk of cancer.

When adding oils to your dog's diet, you can use products made for humans or pets as long as the dosage is appropriate. Keep in mind that the body’s vitamin E requirement increases when you supplement with oils of any kind. Although many fish oil supplements include tiny amounts of vitamin E as a preservative, it’s best to give 1 to a maximum of 2 IUs of vitamin E per pound of body weight daily (or you can give higher amounts less often) if you add oils to your dog’s diet.

Fish Oil

Available from many fish sources, such as salmon, sardines and achovies, fish oil provides the two best omega-3 fatty acids for dogs: eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Most dogs can benefit from fish oil supplements, even if the are fed a commercial food that includes EFAs, because omega-3 fatty acids become rancid when exposed to light, heat and air.

Most fish oil gel caps contain 200 to 300 milligrams combined EPA and DHA, though some are more concentrated. Pay attention to the serving size on the label to be sure how many gel caps are needed to provide those amounts. Fish oil also comes in liquid form, which should be kept in dark bottles in the refrigerator and used within a couple of months of opening to prevent rancidity.

For healthy dogs, give an amount of fish oil that provides 100 to 150 mg EPA and DHA combined per 10 pounds of body weight daily. For older dogs with cognitive dysfunction, or dogs with health issues such as heart disease, kidney disease, allergies, arthritis, autoimmune disease and cancer, you can increase the dosage to 300 mg per 10 pounds of body weight.

Canned fish, such as sardines, jack mackerel and pink salmon, is also a good source of omega-3 EFAs. One small sardine contains about 100 mg combined EPA and DHA.

Cod liver oil

EPA and DHA are also found in cod liver oil, but cod liver oil is high in vitamins A and D – fat-soluble vitamins that are stored in the body and should not be oversupplemented. You can give an amount of cod liver oil that provides 100 mg vitamin D per 20 pounds of body weight daily. (The amount of vitamin D will always be listed on the label of a cod liver oil supplement.) If you wish to provide more omega-3 fatty acids, use fish oil instead of or in addition to cod liver oil.

Other Oils

You might think that all oils are good for coat and skin health, but that's not the case. Read on to learn more about a variety of oils.

Vegetable oils, such as corn oil, safflower oil, soybean oil and canola oil, are high in linoleic acid, an omega-6 fatty acid also found in grains, vegetables and poultry fat. Too much linoleic acid contributes to inflammation, unlike the more beneficial omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil.

Flaxseed oil provides a form of omega-3 EFA called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which must then be converted in the body to EPA and DHA in order to be utilized. Most dogs do not make this conversion well; at most, 15 percent of ALA is converted, and in the worst case, none at all. For this reason, fish oil is the better choice for providing dogs with omega-3 EFAs.

Olive oil contains mostly oleic acid, a non-essential omega-9 fatty acid. Omega- 9 fatty acids compete with omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids and decrease their concentration in the blood and skin. It's possible that olive oil might benefit the coat and skin, but keep amounts very small if you wish to use it (no more than ¼ to ½ teaspoon daily per 20 pounds of body weight).

Coconut oil provides saturated fats rather than essential fatty acids. Many people believe that coconut oil can help with skin problems, as well as other health issues. Coconut oil does not replace the need for essential fatty acids, though, so use it in addition to, not instead of, fish oil supplements. The maximum recommended daily dosage of coconut oil is 1 teaspoon per 10 pounds of body weight, but this adds a lot of fat and calories, and doesn't take into account the fact that large dogs need less for their weight than small dogs do. A better idea would be to give up to 1/2 teaspoon daily to dogs weighing 10 lbs, 1 teaspoon to dogs weighing 25 lbs, 1.5 teaspoons to dogs weighing 50 lbs, or 2.5 teaspoons to dog weighing 100 lbs, preferably split into multiple servings.

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