Updated on February 10, 2010
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.
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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