Adding Healthful Oils to a Dog's Diet Regimen
The market for dietary supplements is booming, valued at approximately $35 billion in 2018 and expected to grow to $57 Billion by 2024. Oil supplements can be an effective part of an overall dietary plan for humans, but what about dogs? Are the health benefits similar, and are they safe for canine consumption?
Before adding any supplements to your dog’s routine, talk to your veterinarian. If you are already feeding your dog food marked as “complete and balanced” by the AAFCO (American Association of Feed Control Officials), she is getting all the nutrients she needs under normal circumstances. Additional oil supplements may offer additional health benefits, but research into the effects is limited, and in some cases, there is a risk for overdosing on certain substances leading to toxicity.
Also, keep in mind that dietary supplements are regulated very differently than drugs. Dietary supplements are not reviewed by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to ensure product effectiveness, safety, or quality. More importantly, while drug manufacturers must prove that a drug is safe and effective before it is sold, the FDA must prove that a supplement is unsafe.
Fish oil can be a rich source of two key omega-3 fatty acids: eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). For dogs with joint pain, fish oil may help alleviate symptoms to some extent, though severe cases could require additional medications from your veterinarian.
For dogs with heart disease or heart failure, omega-3 fatty acids in fish oil may reduce inflammation, muscle loss, and abnormal heart rhythms (arrhythmia). While omega-3 acids can help prevent coronary artery disease in humans, this condition does not exist in dogs.
Some dogs with kidney disease may also see reduced proteins in their urine as a benefit of fish oil or omega-3 supplementation, though research into the subject is limited, and we do not understand the exact mechanism at work.
While there are several types of fish oil available, natural triglyceride oil is the most common and the easiest for a dog’s body to absorb.
While you may think of olive oil as a cooking oil or a key part of your favorite salad dressing, parents of pet athletes often use the oil as an effective additive to high-performance kibble to further boost fat and calorie intake. While this can be useful for extremely active dogs, typical house dogs usually do not need the added calories, which can lead to weight gain.
While olive oils do contain both omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids, other oils offer higher levels per volume and would be a more effective way to add these nutrients to your dog’s diet.
Cod Liver Oil
Compared to typical fish oils, cod liver oil contains lower levels of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, along with higher levels of vitamins A and D. Because of this, doses of cod liver oil that would provide enough omega-3s to benefit dogs with heart failure, for example, would unbalance the diet or cause doses of vitamins A and D which aren’t necessary and may be harmful.
Linseed or Flaxseed Oil
Sourced from the flax plant, linseed oil (also known as flax oil or flaxseed oil) is a plant-based triglyceride that contains an unusually large amount of the fatty acid ALA (Alpha-linolenic acid). Compared to DHA and EPA sourced from fish oil or algae, plant-based ALAs are less effective at reducing joint inflammation or treating other chronic diseases. Flax or linseed oil has been used as an additive to help maintain a shiny, healthy coat and skin in dogs.
Because dogs and cats cannot synthesize linoleic acid (LA), a dietary source is important to maintain a healthier skin and coat. While many commercially-produced dog foods provide sufficient levels of LA and other omega-6 acids for most, vegetable oils like sunflower oil are touted as an effective supplemental source. However, sunflower oil does not contain significant levels of arachidonic acid (AA or ARA), an omega-6 acid that is only found in quantity in animal fats.
In recent years, people have touted coconut oil as an immune boosting, anti-inflammatory, anti-fungal, metabolism boosting, Alzheimer’s-fighting wonder product. While some wild claims have been debunked, coconut oil does offer the benefit of high levels of Medium Chain Triglycerides (MCTs). While limited studies have shown that several components of MCTs, such as lauric acid, capric acid, and caprylic acid offer anti-fungal, anti-viral, and antibacterial benefits for a human immune system, results are inconclusive in dogs and additional research is needed.
Coconut oil may have some benefit in treating dry skin and atopic dermatitis and may help wounds heal more quickly. The oil may also help treat some cognitive dysfunctions and reduce seizure frequency when provided at higher doses. Internally, the oil provides a different pathway of absorption of MCTs, which play a role in addressing conditions such as inflammatory bowel disease and Lymphangectasia (poor bowel absorption).
Like most plant-sourced oils, coconut oil does not have high levels of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, and what it does contain is not readily absorbed in dogs’ bodies. Other touted benefits, including cancer prevention, weight loss, and periodontal disease prevention have no proven scientific basis.
The Bottom Line: Talk to Your Vet
In most cases, a high quality, commercially-produced diet, especially those created by a veterinary nutritionist, should contain all of the important nutrients your dog needs to maintain good health. Because there are potentially serious side effects that can come along with the benefits of oil supplements, we recommend that you always talk to your veterinarian before proceeding. He will know about your dog’s specific dietary needs, overall health, and what nutrients she is and is not getting in her existing diet.