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Fabulous Fish Oils:
Fatty Acids & Omega-3 Supplementation

by Juliette Veenstra, RVT

Statue of a fishermanMany clients are familiar with the idea of "good fats" and have heard the term Fatty Acids.  What many people don't know is where fatty acids come from and which ones are the most necessary.  Many pet owners don't realize that these supplements can be as important for the pet as they are for the owner.

Fatty Acids (FAs) are molecules used by the body for a variety of functions ranging from energy production to brain function to building healthy cells.  The term Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs) refers to FAs that an animal’s body cannot synthesize for itself and must derive from the food it eats.  The two main classes of EFAs are Omega-3s and Omega-6s.  These are polyunsaturated fatty acids found in certain plant and fish oils.

Omega-6 vs Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Most owners have heard of the health benefits of “good” fats for both themselves and their pets.  However, not all fatty acids have the same benefits.

Omega 6 Fatty Acids can be found in very high concentrations in many manufactured pet foods.  Omega-6s include:

  • Linoleic Acid (AA)
  • Gamma Linolenic Acid (GLA)
  • Dihomo-gamma-linolenic acid (DGLA)
  • Arachidonic Acid (AA)

While Omega 6s have many health benefits and are , Arachidonic Acid (AA) can be a bit of a troublemaker, as described later.

Omega 3 Fatty Acids are the “good oils” derived from fatty fishes, such as salmon.  They include:

  • Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)
  • Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA)
  • Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA)

Omega 3s, most notably EPA, are the true workhorses of the Essential Fatty Acids, with help benefits stretching far beyond just a healthy coat.  ALA can, to a certain extent, be converted to EPA in humans and dogs.  Cats do not do this as well.

Omega 6s – the mixed blessing

Unfortunately, not all Omega 6s are helpful.  Arachidonic acid when released by the cells and metabolized, can actually produce inflammatory substances.  These substances can potentially make inflammatory conditions such as arthritis and inflammatory bowel disease worse.  It is thought that some Omega 6s can actually contribute to unwanted blood clotting (as in “stroke” inducing blood clots) and excessive cell proliferation, as well.

On the other hand, Omega-6s are responsible for many important functions and processes in the body. For instance the Omega-6 fatty acid DGLA has anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties, plus it decreases the production of harmful Arachidonic Acid..

Omega 3s to the Rescue

Omega 3 fatty acids have many beneficial effects.  EPA and DHA are essential structural components of healthy cell membranes, helping to maintain fluidity and permeability in functioning cells.  These EFAs are known to support the body’s natural anti-inflammatory response, including from conditions associated with the skin (allergies and puritis), joints (arthritis), kidneys and heart.  Additionally, EPA is known to promote healthy fat levels in the blood of dogs.

Part of Omega 3s’ anti-inflammatory benefits are due to the ability of EPA and DHA to outcompete Arachidonic Acid for cell metabolism.  As a result, AA is not able to produce the inflammatory substances that result from its metabolism.

In short, while some Omega 6s are necessary and beneficial, others have detrimental effects.  Omega 3s can reduce these effects while having many beneficial effects on the body, as well.

Fatty Acids in Pet Foods

Pet foods and the American diet in general are very high in Omega 6 fatty acids.  Omega 3s, being harder to source, are much more rare.  As a result, it is important to consciously supplement our pets’ diet with Omega 3s.

The Magic Ratio

The fact is, we need both Omega 6s and Omega 3s.  The key is in the ratio of 3s to 6s.  Omega-6s are a vital nutrient, however an ideal diet would have enough Omega-3s (especially EPA) added to counteract the negative effects of AA, while keeping the healthy benefit of DGLA, EPA and DHA.

The ideal ratio of Omega-6 to Omega-3 is still under debate, however current recommendations believe it should be approximately 10:1 to 5:1. 

Conditions helped by omega-3 fatty acids

With rare exception, supplementation with quality Omega-3 fatty acids can benefit pets (and their owners!).  Just a few of the conditions that benefit from supplementation are:

  • Allergies/Autoimmune
  • Joint disease & arthritis
  • Kidney disease
  • Heart Problems
  • Cancers
  • Cognitive Dysfunction (senility)

Side effects of Fatty Acid Supplements: 

It is hard to overdose pets on Omega 3 supplements as long as you stay within the recommended guidelines.  Supplements do add calories, so consider this if weight control is an issue for your pet.  Also, as they are oils Fatty Acids can aggravate pancreatitis in high doses (ask your veterinarian if you pet suffers from a pancreatic condition).  Because these supplements are usually derived from marine sources, fishy breath is a common side effect of any dose.

It is important to note that you can give your pet too much Omega-3 fatty acid/Fish Oil.  As Omega 3s can decrease blood platelet activation excessive doses can theoretically decrease blood clotting.  Within dosing guidelines, Omega-3s are helpful in preventing stroke and blood clots; however in excess, they can potentially affect the blood’s normal clotting ability.  Additionally, because Omega 3s suppress immune response, they theoretically can suppress immune and healing function.  Currently, these theories are unsupported by conclusive data and researchers are unsure if they are clinically relevant.  That being said, it is a good idea to stay within the recommended dose range.

The current recommended guidelines for omega-3/Fish Oil supplementation for dogs are 25mg-125mg per Pound of body weight.  This means that a 50lb dog could be safely supplemented with 1250-6250mgs of Fish Oil.  Dogs with inflammatory conditions, especially arthritis, should supplement at the higher end of this range.

Choosing a Supplement - Buyer Beware

Omega-6s are fairly ubiquitous in pet foods and in the American diet in general.  As such, we don’t concern ourselves too much with supplementing these Fatty Acids.  Therefore, supplementation usually focuses on Omega 3 fatty acids with high concentrations of EPA and DHA found normally in cold water fatty fish, such as salmon, mackerel and sardines.

There are many “fish oil” sources on the market however purity, quality and guaranteed analysis of contents are all concerns when choosing a supplement.  The fact is that "supplements" are not held to any standards of purity, efficacy or content the way that pharmaceuticals are.  It is definitely a "buyer beware" market.  When choosing a supplement, consider the company's commitment to quality, self testing and standards.

We recommend and carry Nordic Naturals pet supplements.  We believe these products offer the highest standards of quality we could find in a formulation that is both easy to administer and appreciated by our pets.  For more information on Nordic Naturals Pet Products, visit: https://www.nordicnaturals.com/petRet/ .

Hill's J/D dietWhile many pet diets "supplement" their foods with Omega-3s few offer anywhere near useful levels.  A handful of prescription diets offer high enough levels of Omega-3s as part of their therapeutic benefits.  Hill’s Prescription J/D for instance is a prescription diet for dogs and cats who have or are at risk of arthritis.  This diet has exceptionally high levels of Omega-3 fatty acids aimed at exploiting the anti-inflammatory benefits.  Many clients in studies, at surgical facilities and even in our own clinic have reported notable benefits with this food alone.

If you think that Omega 3 supplements might help your pet, please don’t hesitate to contact us.