So, you've read all the positive testimonials from dog owners about the benefits of feeding fish and now you want to know whether it really is possible to feed your dog a fish based diet with amazing health results? To answer the question - is fish good for dogs? - we need to take a look at what nutrients our dogs need and examine whether fish can provide all of the vitamins and minerals our dogs would normally receive from other diets.
To get you the answers you need we've asked Moddie Lambert, BCCSDip. HthNut, WOOFS’ Canine Nutritionist, for her expert opinion on which dogs might benefit most from a fish-based diet. She told us fish can be a great source of protein for dogs with allergies and which types of fish should be avoided, and why.
The benefits of fish as a food for dogs
Fish is a great, easily digestible protein source for dogs. Especially for dogs following digestive upsets or with liver or kidney disease, whilst being relatively low in saturated fats and empty calories (good for weight control).
These facts alone make fish a fantastic source of nutrition and minerals such as calcium, magnesium, selenium, zinc, phosphorous, iodine and iron for dogs.
However, there's more to feeding fish to your dog.
Moddie explains how the vitamins and minerals, as well as Omega-3 fatty acids found in fish, acts as a natural anti-inflammatory making it great for dogs with allergies or intolerances to other non-fish proteins. Fish is also great for dogs with joint issues and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and is a great source of healthy dietary fats that are enriched with essential fatty acids, vital in a well-balanced diet.
"Fish is packed with beneficial vitamins and minerals that are essential to good health in your dog. As most vitamins cannot be made by the body, they need to be provided in your dog’s diet so by simply adding some fish to your dog’s diet, they will gain a raft of health benefits helping keep them in top condition and health throughout their life.
"Minerals are inorganic substances that are often absorbed more efficiently by the body if supplied in foods rather than as supplements."
Moddie shares just a few of the health benefits of adding fish, as a source of protein, into a dog’s diet.
Eye health (and what kind of fish is best for this)
"Fish such as herring and cod are excellent sources of vitamin A, known as retinol, which helps promote good vision in low light, slows down age-related sight loss and helps in the treatment of many eye diseases."
Skin and coat health (and what kind of fish is best for this)
"Fish helps maintain healthy skin, including the lining of the nose which is essential in your dog’s excellent sense of smell. And for dogs with skin conditions, fish that’s rich in Omega 3, such as cod, helps reduce any itchiness, rashes or skin irritation making your dog feel much happier."
Immune system (and what kind of fish is best for this)
"Seafood is a particularly good source of selenium, which plays an important role in the immune system and helps prevent damage to cells and tissues.
"Iron is important in the production of red blood cells, which transport oxygen around the body. If your dog is suffering from a lack of iron it can make them feel weak and tired. The iron in whitefish is well absorbed making this a good choice. High protein foods such as meat and fish are excellent sources of zinc, with herring being a particularly good source.
"Zinc helps the body to make new cells and enzymes, it helps your dog process the carbohydrate, fat and protein in their food and it helps with wound healing. Sea fish are a good source of iodine, which helps make thyroid hormones, essential in keeping cells and your dog’s metabolic rate healthy.
"There are eight B-complex vitamins and fish such as cod are a great source of B6, B12 and niacin (B3). These vitamins help to break down and release energy from food, keep the nervous system and skin healthy and help form haemoglobin, the substance in red blood cells that carries oxygen around the body.
"Vitamin A also helps keep your dog’s immune system in tip-top working order, helping it fight off illness and infection, and is necessary for proper bone growth and development, and maintaining healthy bones as your dog ages."
Joint health (and what kind of fish is best for this)
"Omega-3 is an essential fatty acid present in fish which helps maintain healthy joints and tendons, keeping your dog active throughout its life. Omega-3 is beneficial in treating arthritis and other joint problems.
"Vitamin D is also essential to your dog’s wellbeing, with fish like herring and sprats an excellent source. This vitamin helps the body absorb calcium and phosphorous which are both essential in strong bones and teeth throughout your dog’s life. And with 75% of dogs in this country not getting enough vitamin D in their diets, it’s essential that we make sure they are fed a good source of this essential vitamin, with natural sources from food a much more effective source than a supplement.
"A rich source of calcium are small fish like sprats that can be eaten whole and contain small bones. Calcium gives bones and teeth their strength, ensures blood clots normally, regulates muscle contractions including heartbeat, and has a role in cellular functioning, nerve function and digestion. Phosphorus is naturally found in protein-rich foods such as fish, especially cod, and is a critical component of bones and teeth.
"It also plays a role in the proper function of some B vitamins. Fish rich in magnesium include cod. This essential mineral works with calcium to form the minerals that make up your dog’s bones. In addition, magnesium aids in proper muscle functioning, maintaining heart health."
Dental health (and what kind of fish is best for this)
"Feeding your dog dried fish skins is great for dental hygiene. Their natural, rough texture helps remove tartar and plaque from your dog’s teeth helping maintain great dental and gum health as well as fresher breath."
Is fish a good diet for dogs with allergies?
Fish is great for dogs who suffer from allergies and intolerances such as sickness, skin rashes and itching, ear infections, swelling, stomach pain, wind and diarrhoea.
Moddie explains why fish, thanks to it being rich in Omega-3 fats, tends to be a type of protein that dogs with allergies and intolerances don’t react to.
"Dogs can be allergic or intolerant to a variety of foods, grasses, dust, fleas – the list goes on! And with allergies and intolerances come a range of issues such as sickness, skin rashes and itching, ear infections, swelling, stomach pain, wind and diarrhoea. So if your dog suffers from any allergies or intolerances, hypoallergenic food can be a great choice. Hypoallergenic simply means less likely to cause an allergic reaction.
"Common protein sources found in commercial dog food include beef, soy, chicken, turkey and egg products and these can provoke an allergic response in dogs with food allergies.
"Foods that contain a protein source not commonly used in dog foods, such as fish, increases the chance of the dog not having consumed that protein source before. Meaning the protein isn’t recognised as an allergen by the dog’s body. Feeding these ‘novel proteins’ [such as fish] minimises the chance of an allergic reaction."
There are certain nutrients that, when added to a dog’s diet, can help alleviate the symptoms of an allergic reaction. These include Omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin A.
Moddie explains, "Omega-3 has an anti-inflammatory effect so helps counter any inflammation caused by an allergic reaction. It also helps maintain healthy skin which can be damaged by allergic reactions. Adding Vitamin A also helps skin damaged by an allergic reaction as it helps with skin maintenance, cell growth and hair growth. Fish is an excellent source of both Omega-3 and vitamin A."
Will dogs benefit from a diet of fish mixed with other protein?
Naturally, too much of anything is a bad thing - whether it be fish, biscuits or any type of food. An imbalance of vitamins or simply taking on board too many calories is something dog owners would do well to avoid.
The real advantage to fish in your dog's diet though is its ability to impart so many good vitamins and healthy properties without the increased risk of weight gain or a protein overload causing your dog's internal organs to have to work harder to process the food.
So, how do you create a balanced diet with fish at the heart of it?
Moddie believes when adding anything new to a dog’s diet it’s always a good idea to do it gradually, telling us "for example you wouldn’t suddenly change your dog from one kibble to another as it could cause stomach upsets."
She gives us her top tips on introducing fish into a dog’s diet.
"One way of introducing fish to your dog’s diet is by sprinkling some cod granola or sprinkles on their food at mealtimes. This can add interest to a meal and provides them with all the health benefits of fish.
"Fish treats are another great way of introducing fish to your dog’s diet as a reward or during training. Not only are they tasty but they are lower in calories than many commercial treats making them a healthier choice for your dog."
Should dog owners avoid certain types of fish?
When it comes to choosing what fish to feed your dog the main thing to consider is quality, Moddie explains.
She recommends avoiding fish from countries without strict regulations on health and quality and suggests dog owners avoid intensively farmed fish, adding "as far as species to avoid, don’t feed your dog tuna as it is too high in metal for dogs and always avoid poor quality and unlabelled fish with unknown provenance as it could contain toxins, mercury, antibiotics, for example."
How to tell what is a good quality fish treat (or food)
When it comes to choosing a fish treat for your dog there are a number of things to look out for. Firstly, look at the ingredients. Moddie explains what to look for.
"Treats that are 100% fish or have a very high percentage of fish and only one or two other named ingredients are likely to be far healthier than treats with a low percentage of fish and a load of ingredients that you’ve never heard of.
"It’s also good to choose wild fish over farmed. Wild fish eat a natural diet compared to farmed fish which are often fed processed, high-fat, high-protein feed in order to produce larger fish, meaning wild caught fish are much lower in calories and saturated fat than their farmed counterparts. Farmed fish are also often fed antibiotics and dyes to colour the flesh, both of which you would not wish to feed your dog! Wild fish are also not afflicted with the health problems of some farmed fish such as lice and build up of chemicals, such as mercury.
"Look for treats that have the ‘blue fish label’ from the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) as this ensures that the fish is traceable and sustainable so you can be assured that you are contributing towards sustainable fish stocks – meaning that there are enough fish left in the sea to reproduce. You’ll also be helping to minimise the environmental impacts of fishing operations and encouraging the effective management of fisheries.
"So you’ll know that your dog’s treats are good for the ocean because the fish is wild, sustainable, and traceable back to a certified fishery."
Is fish good for older dogs?
Fish, as the main staple of your dog's diet, is a great way to provide dogs - especially older dogs- with protein without overburdening their digestive system in the same way that some protein rich red meats may do. So when you consider its benefits in helping to keep a dog’s joints and tendons healthy, fish can be beneficial for older dogs for many reasons.
Moddie explains why.
"As your dog gets older, its collagen levels drop. Collagen is essentially a protein and as it makes up a large proportion of the protein found in your dog’s skin and body, it’s a very important one.
"Collagen is responsible for the elasticity of your dog’s ligaments, joints, tendons, skin and cartilage. It also determines the strength of teeth, hair, bones, and nails. So in older dogs, as their collagen levels drop it’s important to supplement their diet with a good source of collagen to maintain skeletal and skin health.
"Fish, especially fish skin, is a great source of collagen and is incredibly beneficial to your dog’s health in older age. And supplementing their diet with fish from a young age means that you’ll ensure their collagen levels are maintained throughout their life rather than waiting for the external signs of lowered collagen to show."
So, is fish good for dogs? Here's the history of the dog's diet
Remember, every dog is different, and there are certain factors to consider when determining what diet will best suit your dog's age, size and lifestyle. However, there are also general rules that you can follow to make sure your pet is getting a complete and balanced diet and all they need.
Years ago, when such a variety of dog nutrition wasn't available, dogs were fed foods that were most plentiful in the region. In the Arctic, dogs were fed mostly fish and whale blubber; in the southern United States, a dog's diet consisted mainly of cornbread; in Europe, potatoes were the main fare. These diets led to diseases such as black tongue (pellagra in humans), rickets, and other less commonly known ailments, many of them fatal.
In the wild, the canine did not just restrict himself to eating just the meat of his prey. He ate the entire animal, including the contents of the stomach. Wild dogs were known to kill each other while fighting over the stomach contents of their prey. Thus, nature provided the wild animal with a diet considered nutritionally complete.
Domesticated dogs were not allowed that luxury, and usually were fed table scraps. These poor diets resulted in serious nutritional imbalances and severe nutritional deficiencies.
After years of study, it was determined that even though the canine is considered a carnivorous animal, he requires certain carbohydrates, fats, proteins, vitamins, and minerals to satisfy nutritional requirements - just as humans do.
Now, as a modern, forward-thinking dog owner, you have the advantage of not just the vast array of commercially prepared pet foods, you also have the advanced nutritional knowledge gained through the years of studies and scientific research conducted by nutritional experts from all over the world. You have access to just about any type of food and nutrition you choose to feed. You have access to the information and guidance on good vs bad dog food nutrition.
When it comes to the question of whether fish is good for dogs, the answer is an overwhelming, scientifically endorsed YES! Dogs can eat fish.