Are Fish Oil and Omega-3 Fatty Acids Safe Supplements for Your Dog?

Due in part to better nutrition and veterinary advances, many dogs are living longer than they might otherwise, decades ago. One result is that a slew of nutritional supplements are now being marketed to doggie parents for the benefit of our beloved canines, much as they are marketed to the human population.
Fish oil’s benefits are derived from the various omega-3 fatty acids, including DHA and EPA. However, the quality of the supplements often is not well regulated for canines. Even if a pet parent is not purchasing fish oil supplements, some dog treats and even foods are now adding it into their formulations.

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Even with supposedly human-grade fish oil supplements, low-quality, contaminated and even dangerous fish oil supplements have been sold as recently as 2010.1 According to Democracy in Action, a lawsuit was filed in March 2010 in California court against eight manufacturers and distributors of fish oil supplements where independent testing found levels of PCB contamination above the safe limit for humans. Amongst the defendants are well-known chains including CVS Pharmacy, Inc., General Nutrition Corp. (GNC), Pharmavite LLC (Nature Made brand), and Rite Aid Corporation. For those who are unaware, PCB’s are linked with cancer, child development and interference with reproductive processes.

So what is a doggie parent to do? Let’s start with educating ourselves, right now.

Read the label of any supplement you are considering for purchase. According to an article in Time Magazine, “best omega-3 source is oily fish like salmon, mackerel and sardines”.2 Fish oil made from other types of fish may not contain much (or sometimes any) omega-3 fatty acids. Compare the levels of omega-3 fatty acids between different brands available to you. Leave the ones with low levels of omega-3 on the shelf.

On the label, look to see if the amount of DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA acids are clearly identified; it is better to get a good concentration of both acids, rather than a supplement with a high level of one acid and a low level of another acid. Then double check to see if the amount of DHA and EPA (and any other omega-3 fatty acid listed) adds up to the total amount of omega-3 acids. If the individual amounts are not listed or they do not add up to the total, be aware that the supplement may be using non-nutritive filler oils. Those supplements should be left on the shelf as well.

Look for some indication that the supplement is tested by an independent third-party laboratory for purity and quality. If the label has no such indication, consider putting that brand back on the shelf as well.

Also consider the form the fish oil is marketed in. You may prefer either a flake-like dry powder or liquid, both of which can easily be added to most dog foods. However, if you are “free-feeding” your dog and have multiple dogs, you have less control over how much of the supplement each of your dogs is getting. In that case, you may prefer capsules or individual treats to ensure that each dog is getting the desired amount of omega-3.

Whichever form you prefer, take a moment when you first purchase it to take a good deep whiff of the supplement. Fish oil can go rancid and spoil fairly easily, so make sure that it is good when you first get it. As you work your way through the container, check occasionally to be sure that it has not spoiled.

Most consumers are unaware that not all omega-3 sources are from fish. Keep your eyes open for new omega-3 supplements made from algae, oilseed and other plant sources. A newer omega-3 supplement (life’sDHA) has been created by Martek Biosciences Corporation and the source is not fish, but tank-farm algae. This is considered a completely vegetarian omega-3 supplement for humans; the animal nutrition version is called DHAgold. The downside is that the algae version, while high in DHA, has little-to-no EPA. To counter this, Martek is developing an oilseed-algae hybrid, which would have high values of DHA, EPA and other fatty acids. 3

Remember to look past marketing hype of new products so that you can be assured that you are making the best choices for your dog.


2 Time Magazine, January 25, 2010, “The Trouble with Fish Oil”, Tim Padgett.

3, retrieved January 12, 2011