Fish Oil (Omega-3 Fatty Acids): a Proven Treatment for Canine Arthritis

 I had the good fortune of receiving my veterinary school training at Cornell University.  Part of what made this education so fabulous was that the senior faculty spent a great deal of “face time” with their students.  I have fond memories of a seasoned clinician patiently holding a Dachshund for me while teaching this novice how to collect a blood sample from the jugular vein.  Another taught this city slicker how to collect a milk sample for mastitis testing from the teat of a cow.   A major “take home point” my classmates and I received from these icons in veterinary medicine was, “First, do no harm.”  In other words, before subjecting our patients to diagnostic testing or treatment, we should strive to be as confident as possible that the potential for benefit was far greater than the potential for harm.  “First do no harm” has always been my mantra and is the main reason I try to rely on “evidence based medicine” (facts substantiated by research) rather than anecdotal information to support what I do. 

Unfortunately, there is a paucity of evidence based medicine pertaining to the use of many commonly used supplements, nutraceuticals, and herbs for dogs and cats.  This is the reason a big smile appeared on my face when I opened a recent edition of the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association.  It contained two studies on the effects of omega-3 fatty acids (fish oil) for the treatment of osteoarthritis (also known as arthritis or degenerative joint disease) in dogs.  The study designs were excellent in that many dogs were included, there was a control group (some dogs received a placebo rather than the fatty acids), and the observers were “blinded”- neither the veterinarians nor the dogs’ families knew if the dogs were receiving the fatty acids or the placebo.  

Fish Oil (Omega-3 Fatty Acids)Here’s what the studies showed.  Compared to the placebo group, the dogs receiving omega-3 fatty acids had a significantly improved ability to rise from a resting position and play by six weeks after beginning supplementation, and improved ability to walk by 12 weeks.  Additionally, compared to the control group, dogs receiving the fish oil had improved weight bearing on the affected limbs as assessed by force-plate analysis (an extremely humane testing method).  No significant adverse side effects from the fish oil supplementation were reported. 

If you’ve spent any significant amount of time with dogs (especially large dogs), guaranteed you’ve known at least a few with arthritis.  It is estimated to affect up to twenty percent of dogs over one year of age. Dogs with arthritis resemble people with arthritis- they are often stiff and slow to rise when they first get up in the morning, as well as after vigorous exercise.  There are many ways to treat this common canine malady including nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications (the equivalent of ibuprofen for humans), acupuncture, rehabilitation therapy, and supplements that increase the production of normal joint fluid.  The effectiveness of all of these modalities, including fish oil, will vary from individual to individual.  The beauty of fish oil is that, likely the only potential significant risk is for you- your dog may develop fish breath! 

I love the fact that veterinarians now have evidence based support for recommending fish oil as a treatment for their canine patients with arthritis, and in doing so, they can abide by the mantra of, “First do no harm.”  If you suspect your dog has arthritis (if you have a large breed dog over eight years of age, chances are that you do), talk with your veterinarian about the pros and cons of all the treatment options.  And the next time you are dining on fish, don’t be surprised if your dog’s nose appears right beside your dinner plate.  Chances are, your dog clearly recognizes the benefits of fish oil supplementation!  Now, pass the salmon please. 

Wishing you and your four-legged family members abundant good health.

Dr. Nancy Kay
Specialist, American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine 

Please visit http://www.speakingforspot.com to read excerpts from Speaking for Spot. There you will also find “Advocacy Aids”- helpful health forms you can download and use for your own dog, and a collection of published articles on advocating for your pet’s health. Speaking for Spot is available at Amazon.com, local bookstores, or your favorite online book seller. 

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20 Responses to “Fish Oil (Omega-3 Fatty Acids): a Proven Treatment for Canine Arthritis”

  1. Amy Says:

    I recently switched vets (thanks partly to reading your book!) and the new vet does acupuncture and gave me “Grizzly Salmon Oil” for my arthritic cocker spaniel. This dog also has neurological problems but from what I’ve read, the CDS meds can’t be used with tramadol, so I want to get her off tramadol if I can. I’m really encouraged after reading this post! My other dog is the same age but has fewer symptoms. She starts with the new vet tomorrow and I’ll ask about giving it to this one too.

  2. Nancy Aingworth Says:

    I’ve been a firm believer in the great health benefits of fish oil for many years, both for humans and dogs. But I understand the need for clinical studies in the medical world to validate anecdotal claims, so I’m glad the AVMA published findings from double blind studies on the subject. Perhaps more vets will now be able to recommend fish oil for their arthritic patients, without reservation. Thanks for sharing this news with us!

  3. cheryl Says:

    Thank you for sharing the results of this well done study. Since I do not have access to the Journal, can you share the dosage of fish oil used? Love you daily column!

  4. Elizabeth & The Lab Crew Says:

    Very interesting Dr. Kay, thanks for another great and timely article.
    My female labrador who will be 10 tomorrow has arthritis. It is certainly not severe yet and I do give her glucosamine chondroitin, and MSM and we use metacam before any really big exercise days and the metacam certainly has made a big difference.. All recommended by my vet.
    It would be interesting to know if a dog was put on the omega 3 early enough if it slowed the progression of the arthritis.
    But I certainly plan on asking my vet about this today and getting Caley started on it.

  5. Karen Says:

    Great article. What is the recommended daily amount of EPA and DHA? I prefer to use a human product that is rigorously tested for purity–and that has a small amount of lemon added, which eliminates fish breath!–but there is widely variable info on dosing. Thanks.

  6. Dianne Says:

    What about dosing? I have been giving my 3 geriatric 50 lb mixed breed dogs (ages 13, 14 and 17 years) 2 softgels/day, 1 broken open in AM meal and the 2nd broken open in PM meal. Each softgel is 180 EPA / 120 DHA, human grade Omega-3. I have read that omega-3 supplementation should also be accompanied w/ Vitamin E supplementation, so each pup also receives 200 mg Vitamin E, broken open, 3-4 times/week. Is this OK? Thanks!

  7. Jackie Says:

    I was selling salmon oil in my little shop for years and many people saw the benefit to their dogs. It was packaged in plastic bottles, so I became concerned about the packaging. It seems glass bottles would be better and I am looking for a supplier. Do you know of any? I was selling Halo for Pets’ blend but it is very expensive, prohibitive for people with a 2 or more large dogs. Free Range says their packaging of Grizzly Salmon Oil is excellent, the plastic has a liner so there is no leaching of plastic into the oil. Any thoughts? Now my own 7.5 yr Rottie is lame, our vet, without xrays, says it is arthritis. She has been on Glycoflex II since she was 6yrs. So I really need to find a good source, hopefully besides the health food store, which is hugely expensive.
    She is fed Great Lilfe dog food, which has a salmon oil coating, but maybe more will be helpful.

  8. Marlene Johnson Says:

    Thanks Dr. Kay for this information. Like some of the other posters I was wondering about the dose of fish oil used in the study. Interestingly enough one of my veterinarians told me several years ago when I told him I give fish oil to my dogs that I wasn’t giving enough.

  9. Deborah Parkhill Mullis Says:

    My Husky-Terrier mix has been taking EFA’s since he was three for allergies: http://dogreporter.blogspot.com/2007/06/holistic-approach-helps-dogs-handle.html We saw a big improvement in his coat and skin in a short time after he started on them. My Akita-Border Collie mix has been taking EFA’s since she was diagnosed with bi-lateral hip dysplasia at ten months old. Recently, the brand I buy became unavailable and before I found a suitable substitute I noticed a change in my Husky-Terrier’s temperament. He became more easily agitated and extremely barkative. The EFA’s appear to have calmed down some of his high-strung terrier tendancies. I believe essential fatty acids have many more benefits than we realize for pets and for people. Sardines are also a good source of fatty acids and my dogs love them as a snack or as part of their dinner.

  10. Jeannie Says:

    Please think carefully about your choice to recommend/consume fish oil as a source for omega-3 fatty acids. The New York Times recently ran an OpEd piece on this industry and its lack of environmental ethics. “A Fish Oil Story”
    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/16/opinion/16greenberg.html

    There are plant-based sources of omega-3s — and actually, the original source of the omega-3 oils in fish is from algae. I use these plant-based products and find that they work well.

    We all lament the loss of the passenger pigeon and the dodo and say to ourselves, “How could ‘they’ let this happen?” A similar extinction is going on today with the menhaden fish stocks being depleted for their omega-3 “content.” If you consume these products without regard for the consequences of your actions, you are “they.”

    Thank you.

  11. Dr. Nancy Kay Says:

    Hello and thanks for so many great responses. I purposefully did not include the fish oil dosage because I firmly believe that this is something to be discussed between you and your veterinarian. Not only do I not want to step on your veterinarian’s toes, I think that this is in your dog’s best interest. What I will tell you is that most veterinarians receive the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association so they have access to this exact same information.

    Best wishes,

    Dr. Nancy Kay

  12. Dr. Nancy Kay Says:

    Greetings,

    A colleague reminded me to remind you to NEVER use your own nonsteroidal antiinflammatory medications (ibuprofen or ibuprofen like products) for your own pets. They can be toxic. If you are interested in using a nonsteroidal antiinflammatory medication for your pet, be sure to have a conversation with your veterinarian about all of the potential risks and benefits.

    Best wishes,

    Dr. Nancy Kay

  13. Tracy B Ann Says:

    Great article. Thankfully many of us don’t need validation from allopathic medicine practictioners, we’ve known for years of the benefits of Omega 3, 6 and 9’s. Good for you all for catching up though.

    I did want to mention that Veternarians have no “do no harm” mantra.
    Sadly it is nowhere in their oath. I wish it were.

  14. Tracy B Ann Says:

    I want to ammend my comment to say that while there is not a “do no harm” part to a Veternarians oath, I am sure that Dr. Nancy Kay has that as a part of her personal mantra. I have read enough of her writings and heard her speak and am quite convinced of that!

  15. Debby Says:

    I am curious if dogs can get “indigestion” from the oil? I give my 2 Goldens fish oil and have for some time, lately they seem to be having a problem with it. Any suggestions?

  16. Julie Says:

    I am curious if you would recommend a brand? The brand my vet and canine nutritionist recommended is no longer on the market (3V HP SNIP TIPS by DVM). I am currently using Omega-3 Pet by Nordic naturals but want to be sure I am using a quality supplement. One of my dogs has mild HD in one hip.

  17. Dr. Nancy Kay Says:

    Some have questioned which fish oil product to use. My understanding is that “bioavailability” of the omega-3 fatty acids (how readily the body is able to utilize them) varies from product to product. I encourage you to see if your veterinarian has a strong recommendation. If he or she recommends you purchase a supplement made for humans, I encourage you to use the “ACCLAIM” method for evaluating the worth of a supplement as described in my blog posted on July 6, 2009. The blog is called, “The Lowdown on Nutritional Supplements.” You can find it by visiting http://www.speakingforspot.com/blog.

    Best wishes,

    Dr. Nancy Kay

  18. Dr. Nancy Kay Says:

    It has been brought to my attention that some dogs are burping (stinky burps) after receiving their fish oil supplement. I know that some fish oil products cause burping in people, so no reason they cannot do the same in dogs. If this is problematic for you or for them, I would recommend talking to your veterinarian about switching to a different product.

    Best wishes,
    Dr. Nancy Kay

  19. Gaylene Says:

    I have a 14 yr old basset with painful arthritis in her shoulders and weakness in her back end (most likely from spondylosis). She had been getting glucosamine/condroitin on top of the glucosamine in her food. I didn’t notice any real improvement in her pain level or ability to walk without tripping. I started giving her EsterC every day, and months later CoQ10 with Fish oil every day. I noticed the biggest improvement in her gait and stamina from the EsterC. She has slowed down a lot since we started this a couple years ago, but I believe that her life is much better because of the supplements. I wish that I had started sooner! She now gets all 3 almost every day in a little peanut butter. One of each pill, all human vitamins from the grocery store. (Clover is about 60lbs and not fat)
    A very good article about EsterC supplementation in canines can be found at:
    http://www.workingdogs.com/doc0039.htm

    I hope this helps someone out there improve the quality of life for their canine companion.

  20. Miria Yarden, B.Sc.,MS,APDT Says:

    Thank you,. Dr. Kay, for this infomation. I have been uncomfortable for quite a while about the use of the “conventional” medications (Rimadyl, pradnisone, etc) and this is welcome news to all of us who are owned and loved by our senuoir citizen companions. Will check with my veterinarian, but what if resists? Some do, you know…..

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