our guide to algaes like spirulina and kelp that benefit pets (and people too)
Humans have been drying and consuming algae for its nutritional benefits for thousands of years, and early farmers were the first to recognize the potential for including small amounts of it in animal feed. Modern science has revealed some of the amazing properties of popular algae like kelp (a brown algae) and spirulina (a blue-green algae), and supplements using dried powders and extracts have become increasingly popular for dogs and cats.
How do the naturally occurring compounds in algae like kelp and spirulina benefit pets? Why do they even make these compounds in the first place? What advice do I need to know about giving my pet algae powders? Join us below on to get the rundown on using algae while learning the incredible history of its evolutionary journey towards top-supplement status.
algae evolved to be resourceful
Take a deep breath. Did you know that half of the oxygen you just took into your lungs was made in the ocean by billions of algae? Before there were dinosaurs, before there were trees, even before there were simple sponges and coral, there was algae…and lots of it! Early earth at the dawn of life was a very different place than it is now - in fact, there was likely zero oxygen gas in the atmosphere before algae started pumping it out as a waste product a few billion years ago.
Closer to bacteria than plants, algae was the first variety of life to adopt photosynthesis - spending a billion years floating alone as single celled organisms, drifting like tiny islands jockeying for position and sunlight. Their early work eventually paid massive dividends for the entire planet, as photosynthesis and the production of free oxygen rapidly transformed the atmosphere to support modern life. In only about 10 million years - or the blink of an eye compared to the lifespan of Earth, algae's unrelenting quest for metabolic energy completely terraformed the planet and changed the course of evolution (now some have suggested that we try this on Mars!).
This self-made primordial success story doesn't end there; this legacy of impressive evolution is the reason that spirulina supplements and kelp supplements are packed with compounds that can be so beneficial to your dog's diet - so let's dig into the details.
so what's their secret?
How is it that algae was able to lay a foundation for all of life while surviving on their own for so long?
What gives algae an ability to acquire resources and use them for protection?
The answer to algae's ability to thrive has always been absorbing and transforming natural trace minerals.
but what on earth are minerals anyway?
Perhaps you’ve read that algae is full of minerals that can offer support for healthy thyroid function, seasonal skin allergies, and a functioning nervous system. Well 99% of pet food companies make dog foods that provide plenty of trace minerals and amino acids for your dog’s diet, yet they hardly provide the same health benefits as spirulina and kelp supplements. So what’s the deal?
How do algae actually make use of minerals, and why do they stockpile them in the first place?
And how do we take advantage of those same strategies to benefit pets?
from free-floating trace minerals to rare aquatic compounds
Algae can be found growing happily even in extreme locations like Antarctica. How? They are really good at making due with their environment, adapting to incredibly harsh conditions with limited resources. The definitive secret to their success is the unique ability to absorb and utilize minerals, creating new solutions to survive and thrive where others cannot. It turns out algae are able to absorb free minerals due to the unique cellular structure that they've honed and perfected over time.
Using small specialized pores in their cell membranes, algae take in large quantities of nutrients from the surrounding water. These pores are particularly good at allowing bigger ions like magnesium or iodine to pass through without using a lot of energy to get the job done. Better yet, algae even have special ‘antennae’ on the outer surfaces of their cells that attract and aggregate mineral ions closer to their pores (this is a process known as chelation and bioaccumulation).
Algae selectively retain these minerals in special storage containers, collecting large concentrations from the ambient environment for later use. So what do they need with all those minerals? Scientists have discovered that algae actually modify this material to make complex compounds of their own design, dispelling early ideas that the benefits of algae come from a simple supply of basic vitamins and minerals.
modern takes on the benefits of algae powder for dogs & cats
While traditionally we looked to algaes like kelp and spirulina as a source of vitamins and minerals, the science behind their benefits is much more complex. Algae use minerals and amino acids as the backbones of specialized protective molecules, creating powerful compounds designed for specific survival functions. This adaptation imparts algae with incredible properties that offer specific benefits to dogs and cats depending on the supplement.
Animal studies are revealing kelp and spirulina can have a tremendous impact on long-term health by supporting the animal nervous system with unique algae-based antioxidants. We've made some really cool products just with this purpose in mind, combining algae with some great complementary ingredients from our repertoire. Check out some details on the basics of each one below.
the best algae for dogs and cats
Want some neat examples of how algae has evolved to use minerals to the benefits of pets? Follow that mineral!
iodine as an inorganic sponge
For the longest time researchers were perplexed at why sea kelp has so much iodine content in the first place, but recently they discovered its evolutionary role as a protective compound against environmental stress. Actually, algae is the first and only living organism we know of that converts a mineral for this use. Algae is not full of iodine but full of iodide, a reduced salt of iodine that has a high affinity for binding and neutralizing harmful chemicals.
If the surrounding water becomes toxic or polluted from some outside influences, algae uses iodide as a sponge to clean up the mess. After surviving that period of stress, kelp actually flushes large quantities of iodide out of its cells, which combines with oxygen in the water and air to produce the regular iodine we know. When you give your pet kelp compared to some other mineral rich supplement, the true antioxidant potential and their benefits to the nervous system comes from this key difference. Learn more in our upcoming section on Calming Nerves.
phosphate as a protective shield
As primary producers in food chains, algae absorb different inorganic minerals from the environment to make the basic building blocks of organic life. Microalgae take using minerals to a totally different level though, producing their own defensive compounds for protection. Different from the seaweed family of kelp that utilize iodine, microalgae were the first to make use of the mineral phosphorus in unique ways.
As they are single-celled and hard to protect, microalgae have adapted the ability to encyst themselves into a enter a period of hibernation in response to adverse environmental conditions. During this time they secrete a thick protective wall, keeping out any harsh chemicals and compounds that may be in the surrounding water. Embedded on the surface of the wall are defensive compounds like astaxanthin that neutralize reactive compounds with incredible effectiveness. They’re one of the most powerful antioxidants we have found in nature and they do wonders against free radical damage.
ferrous iron as a last resort
Spirulina evolved to survive in brackish rivers and estuaries where freshwater from the land meets with the salt water from the sea. Oftentimes finding home in stale and alkaline environments, spirulina adapted an ability to capture light in the muckiest of places. The rocks and sediment actively displaced heavy metals from the core of the early-earth, and iron mineral deposits seeped into lakes and rivers. This covered the tops of water with thick layers of red-orange clouds, making it difficult to capture quality light.
Instead of throwing in the towel, spirulina made use of inorganic iron to synthesize a brand new photosynthetic pigment called phycocyanin (this is where blue-green algae gets its name, which differ from plants and chlorophyll). The metallic properties of iron make phycocyanin effective at capturing light in really dank environments. At the same time, the iron-center of phycocyanin makes it really good at attracting and detoxifying harmful ions. It turns out this property carries the same benefit to mammalian nervous systems.
diving into the basics for pets
How does sea kelp and spirulina promote healthy thyroid function?
Historically, kelp powder supplements have been suggested to pet parents for managing iodine deficiency and thyroid health, as the oldest scientifically proven benefit of kelp powder like spirulina for dogs is its ability to stimulate thyroid activity and a healthy metabolism. Since the thyroid gland uses trace elements like iodine to produce thyroid hormone and numerous growth hormones, obtaining these trace amounts from sea kelp for dogs regulates glandular activity (it also helps dogs maintain healthy skin). Nowadays we know that sea kelp also benefits your dog by delivering a natural source of complex compounds capable of supporting the nervous system, seasonal skin allergies, and the immune system.
How does sea kelp and spirulina defend against seasonal skin allergies?
The antioxidant compounds made by algae include some of the same component parts (like specific amino acids) as antioxidants in the animal immune system. By replenishing stores of specific antioxidants from the lymphatic system, oily algae products like spirulina help to regulate a normal inflammatory response in dogs. Regular consumption of algae has also been shown to promote normal immunity by helping dogs maintain normal histamine levels. This is incredibly important when protecting against common seasonal allergies and a runny nose and itchy eyes, and pet owners often turn to algae like spirulina and kelp powder for support.
How does sea kelp and spirulina support the nervous system?
Because of its crucial role in healthy brain function in animals, regular consumption of algae are popular supplement options to support overall neurological health. The antioxidant compounds crafted by adaptations of algae help protect neural pathways from oxidative damage caused by free radicals. Complex molecules like phycocyanin play an important regulatory role within the brain (maintaining lower levels of oxidative stress), helping to balance neural communication and neurochemical activity. They also do a great job managing the fallout from physiological stressors and even the physical damage manifested from mental stress and occasional anxiety.
How much kelp can my pet have? Can pets have too much kelp?
While the benefits of kelp are unmatched, animals may get too much iodine from lower quality (i.e., unregulated or non-standardized) sources of kelp. It’s important to buy organic sea kelp products from a reputable supplier that only cultivates and harvests the right material. Since it’s one of the richest natural sources of iodine, supplementing too much kelp with your dog’s diet can be a risk for pets with problems with thyroid glands and autoimmune disease. Have a chat with your vet over starting a new supplement if your dog has any major issues with overall health.
cultivating safer algae while saving the planet
Thanks to factors like climate change and ocean acidification, experts believe that the underwater forests of organic sea kelp and other sea vegetables are slowly disappearing due to spikes in global water temperature.
Our partnership with the Pet Sustainability Coalition provides us an opportunity to try and make a difference! Learn more in our dedicated section on sustainable harvesting and giving back to the ocean.
see our seaweed!
Freeze-dried algae powder for dogs is amazing, but its best work comes in combination with some other great botanicals. We've combined the finest selections of powdered algae with complementary ingredients into targeted formulas, truly elevating the benefits of kelp and algae. They contain zero artificial ingredients or fillers and they’re super easy to use. Check them out below!