Abstract A randomized, double blind, placebo-controlled multicentre clinical trial of 12 weeks’ duration was undertaken in 60 dogs with atopic dermatitis to evaluate the steroid sparing effect of essential fatty acid supplementation. The dogs were randomly assigned to receive either a combination of borage seed oil and fish oil or a placebo, in addition to prednisolone tablets. All dogs received a standardized basal diet. Owners of the dogs recorded pruritus daily using a 10 cm visual analog scale and the dosage of prednisolone was established based on the pruritus score, according to written instructions. The dosage of prednisolone and the use of any concurrent treatment (shampoo and/or ear-cleanser) were recorded by the owner on a daily basis. The investigators graded the skin lesions at days 0, 42 and 84. The use of prednisolone during the test period was lower in the active group, but the difference was not statistically significant (P = 0.32). The test period was sequentially divided into 43–84, 50–84, 57–84, 64–84, 71–84 and 78–84 days. On day 64, the difference between the active group and the placebo group reached statistical significance (P = 0.04) with an increasing difference towards the end of the study. A statistically significant reduction in the pruritus scores and the total clinical scores from day 0 to day 84 was apparent in both groups (P < 0.0001). At the end of the study, both the pruritus score and the total clinical score were lower in the active group. Our findings indicate a steroid sparing effect of essential fatty acid supplementation in canine atopic dermatitis and, furthermore, that there is a time lag before the effect is attained.