Michael Goldberg, DVM, CHom
Fatty acids are oils that come from animal, vegetable and fish sources. Two broad groups of fatty acids are important to our pets. These include the omega-3 series and omega-6 fatty acids.
Fatty acids are oils that come from animal, vegetable and fish sources. Two broad groups of fatty acids are important to our pets. These include the omega-3 series and omega-6 fatty acids. Fats serve many important functions in the health of our pets. They play a role in skin, joint, cardiovascular and kidney health and can be useful in fighting cancer.
Fatty acids in the form of omega-3 and omega-6 are known as essential fatty acids because animals (or humans) can’t synthesize them. They must include them in the diet. The fatty acids are brought into the body and used in cell membranes. The cells of the body are little reservoirs that the body can use as needed.
In fact, the number of different jobs these fatty acids perform is surprising. Every time a cell is disrupted, these fats are released and then the fun begins. These fats turn into "eicosenoids." There are good and bad types of eicosenoids. They can cause fevers, increase and decrease blood pressure, allow the body to bleed and also prevent bleeding. Still others will act to stop inflammation and redness (like when your dog gets itchy skin). A general rule is that omega-6s cause inflammation and omega-3s act as anti-inflammatories. The trick is to make sure that our pets have enough of each of them.
Chewing the Fat
The most common problems we see when there is not enough fat in the diet are skin-related. This can include a dry, lusterless coat; hair discoloration; dandruff; thick, greasy or smelly skin; and baldness. When your pet gets a cut, it may heal slowly and as young puppies and kittens there may be poor growth.
As you might imagine from all the functions these eicosenoids have, there are a number of more subtle changes you may not recognize right away.
The food that we feed our pets must be of good quality and must contain the right amount of fats.
Commercial, low quality (cheap) pet food can be one source of deficiency. It may be improperly formulated; old, and thus the fats have gone rancid; or the fats can actually leak out of the bag of food. Home preparation without the addition of the essential fats can also cause deficiency. Cats should have animal sources of arachidonic acid (one of the omega-6 series), as they do not have an enzyme to convert other fats into this particular one. Sometimes the quality of the food is good, but the pet has a problem absorbing the fat from the food. This is known as malabsorption. Common symptoms are diarrhea, excessive stool production or vomiting. This needs to be diagnosed medically. There are homeopathic treatments available.
Omega-3 fatty acids are found in flax seed and hemp oil, canola, soy, black currant and cold water fish oils. The omega-6 series can come from evening primrose, black currant, corn, safflower, sunflower, cottonseed and soybean oils. The oils have different amounts of fatty acids so you must read labels. There are many products available to supplement your pet’s diet. Fish oils, such as salmon, come in convenient capsules. Many of my clients give their pets flax seed oil and evening primrose oil as well as the fish oil capsules. You can ask your health store nutrition specialist or your veterinarian about the different sources.
Fats for Fido and Fluffy
Karen Campbell, a specialist in veterinary dermatology in the US, states that diets in which one per cent or more of the calories come from linoleic acid (omega-6) and 0.3 per cent come from arachidonic acid (also omega-6) will prevent clinical signs of fatty acid deficiency in both dogs and cats.
Improvements in skin, hair and growth have been shown to occur when the levels of linoleic acid are two to three per cent of the energy (calories) in the diet. Tiffany Tapp, an American veterinarian who specializes in this area, cites that results of studies have shown that a ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 in the proportions of 5:1 and 10:1 in the diet showed an increase in the anti-inflammatory cytokines (eicosenoids) compared to the inflammatory cytokines. These ratios showed an improvement in the skin conditions in the dogs that were tested.
At this point there are no hard and fast rules as to what is the best ratio. I would make sure that if you are supplementing a home-made diet with fatty acids, that you make sure you have a source of arachidonic acid, linoleic acid, alpha-linolenic acid and eicosapentaenoic acids in the diet. The important thing to remember is that you should look at the labels and make sure that the levels of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids in the product are between 3:1 and 10:1 in ratio.
Skin allergies are perhaps the most common condition that may benefit from supplements with fatty acids. Other conditions are autoimmune disease, arthritis, digestive problems, kidney disease and cancer. Human and canine studies have also shown that omega-3 fatty acids have a protective effect against arthritis and allergic skin disease.
The health implications of these nutritional supplements are only beginning to be known.