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How to choose a supplement for your dog

When choosing an Omega supplement, many owners face the dilemma of not knowing what is best for their dog. Conflicting advice from the many suppliers along with a lack of overall understanding of this complex health issue makes it hard to see the wood for the trees. Omega 3 research has shown it to be beneficial to humans and, more recently, to dogs as well - and for all the same reasons, because, after all, we are after both mammals. So where and why has nature gone wrong and landed us in a position where we and our dogs need extra Omega 3? Why hasn’t evolution protected us and what has changed? Jon Szegota of March Laboratories Ltd (Ace Canine Supplements) explains...

Without doubt the big change has been agriculture. After more than 200,000 years of eating a hunter-gatherers diet, we have shifted in only the last few thousand years to a diet based on foods we grow and raise. Consumption of Omega oils has declined. So where are they derived from you may ask, nuts, meat and fish - all once the mainstay of our diet - have now been partially replaced by cereals and sugars.

And this trend has applied to our dogs. They too show a decline in fresh meat and fish consumption with carbohydrates and plant oils taking their place.

So what are they and what do they do?
Omega oils or lipids, often called fatty acids, occur naturally in most life forms - animals, plants and algae. The word Omega is attached to them to signify that they are 'unsaturated,' a meaningless term for the layman I know, but there we are. The three commonly known classes of unsaturated oils are Omegas 3, 6 and 9, and they are all required by our dogs to differing degrees for different functions.

The Omega 9 group contains common oils like olive oil and rapeseed oil. It has been known for a while that we do not need to eat Omega 9 and that the body can make its own supply by modifying other fats that we may eat. On the other hand, it has been thought that Omega 3 and 6 are essential because we can't manufacture them from other sources. The latest research on Omega 6 shows this not to be true for Omega 6 due to significant methodology error in earlier research discovered by University of Toronto scientist Stephen Cunnane.

So forget Omega 6 and 9. Our dogs don't need extra. They will make their own! Indeed research shows that too much Omega 6 is bad for our dogs because excess can depress many of the benefits that come from Omega 3. This is because most Omega 6 fats increase inflammation. Therefore, we shouldn't really consider adding Omega 6 to our dog's diet at all as there is plenty there in meat and in the vegetable oils added to dried dog food.

So we are left with Omega 3 – an essential component in their diet because our dogs can't make it for themselves. The Omega 3 class has been shown to enhance cardiovascular function, reduce inflammation, improve nerve transmission throughout the body, support the immune system and increase mental capacity.

Dogs thrive on the stuff!
Yes, all the positive research results come from Omega 3 or, should I say, from some of the oils (fatty acids) in the Omega 3 class. There are about ten common fatty acids in the Omega 3 class. We know for certain that three of them are really beneficial to dogs. These three beneficial fatty acids are not found in plant oils which are derived from seeds or vegetable matter.

Plant and vegetable oils like flax/linseed, hemp, borage, starflower and sunflower etc. do contain a good amount of Omega 3 fatty acids, but unfortunately not the three really beneficial ones for dogs. Incidentally, for your information, the only three fatty acids that have approved health benefits by the European Food Standards scientific review group are EPA, DHA and ETA found in marine sources. Their chemical names are unpronounceable even for me, hence the letters.

It was thought that another fatty acid called ALA, found in flax and hemp oil, was convertible by mammals to give EPA and DHA. Recent research has shown that this conversion is very limited (0.05% - 0.2%) and consequently supplementation with plant Omega 3 oils does not raise the levels of beneficial Omega 3. There is a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (Vol. 77: 226-233 - 2003) giving evidence of this.

Some pet foods - especially the kibble type - may have extra Omega 3 added. However, this may be a very limited benefit because the amounts may be small and only pay lip service to consumer demand. Additionally, the form of Omega may not be ideal. We have seen that Omega 3 and Omega 6 vegetable oils lack potency. If Omega 3 from fish oil is used, then it can oxidise in the air both in production and in storage, loosing its effectiveness.

So where are we going to get our extra good Omega 3s from you may ask if plant sources are a dubious source and it is impractical to add them to prepared pet food. In nature, we humans get them from fresh meat and fish - and not particularly from best steak or cod fillet either!

Why? Because the good Omega 3s are not found as free oils in nature, they are always bound to another component – either to glycerine or phosphorous. Omega 3 is bound to glycerine to transport it around the body to the cells where it is needed. Some is metabolised for energy like other oils, but a small proportion is converted in the cells to phospholipids which is the only form in which they do all their important work and convey all their health benefits.

With the exception of some seafood e.g. the flesh of oily fish, good Omega 3s are only found in quantity in selected parts of an animal such as the brain, offal and eyes, probably because this is where it is used most.

Guess what - we don't eat these much any more either. So to get your daily ration of good Omega 3, you must eat animal brain, offal and eyes – or get it from seafood. I know where I will get mine, thank you!

Dogs, of course, will take any of the above!

So what are your choices?

  • Fish Oil - This is the best known and is usually pressed from whole bodies, trimmings or even, reputedly, from fillets. Think about the economics of the latter. Why convert prime salmon flesh into oil and dried fishmeal both of which sell for a fraction of the value of salmon flesh. It's a 'no brainer.' Oily fish are the best by a very very long way and include familiar varieties - salmon, mackerel, anchovies and sardines - all of which have a relatively similar Omega 3 profile. Fish oils are often concentrated to remove some of the oils that convey no benefit to health so the concentration of good Omega 3 can be higher. However this is a pretty complex industrial process involving other chemicals and so devotees of natural provenance don’t go a bundle on it. Fish Liver oils (cod liver oil) should be avoided for dogs because the levels of vitamins A and D are too high for a dog’s continuous consumption.

  • Green Lipped Mussel - the Green Lipped Mussel that has helped countless dogs with mobility problems also carries all three good Omega 3’s as well. What’s more these fatty acids are present as phospholipids and so though their quantity is small they are extremely bio-available and guaranteed to be put to good use.

  • Krill Oil - similar to Green Lipped Mussel in its Omega 3 profile, is very good - but not yet economical enough for the canine market.

  • Salmon Phospholipid - new on the market and made from salmon trimmings by a patented process without harsh chemicals, this product contains a high concentration of good Omega 3 phospholipids that has resulted in it being 50 times more potent than salmon oil alone.

What is the future?
Increased understanding of dog nutrition, often as a result of human health research, has already begun to change the domesticated dog’s diet. We see an increase in raw meat feeding and additional nutrients added to prepared pet foods. Reduction of carbohydrate content in pet foods is on the horizon.

We can now feed additional good Omega 3s from fish in various forms to suit our own and our dog's preferences: - soft gels, liquid oils, pills and capsules or now latterly, granulated powder.

All three forms are effective enough for most dogs, though there will always be a quality and price gradient to separate them and give owners the ultimate choice.

About the author...
Jon Szegota
is Technical Director of March Laboratories Ltd, whose Animal Health Division researches and manufactures animal welfare products for horses, birds and dogs too, through their Ace Canine Supplements brand.

With four dogs in the family, he has first-hand experience of our canine friends and he is a keen dog agility competitor to boot. Jon can be contacted by email at jon@marchlaboratories.co.uk  if you would like further information.