When ‘Fat’ Is a Good Thing: Essential Fatty Acids in a Pet’s Diet
Optimizing a pet’s health always starts with providing a species-appropriate diet that is minimally processed. When cats and dogs eat diets that nourished their ancestors for thousands of years, they are at a significantly lower risk of modern disease epidemics associated with chronic inflammation and poor nutrition. Unfortunately, even when we provide fresh whole foods and take care to balance our pets’ diets, there are still often imbalances in essential fatty acids that can lead to numerous degenerative and disease processes.
What are essential fatty acids (EFAs)?
EFAs are functional fats that our pets need to consume in their diets because they cannot be made by the body. EFAs are also known as Omega-6 and Omega-3 fatty acids. Both are needed, but Omega-3s are the superstars associated with anti-inflammatory functions, including modulating the immune system and slowing the development of some types of cancers.
Omega-3s include alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and eicosapentaneoic acid (EPA). Omega-6 fatty acids are found primarily in vegetable oils, nuts and seeds. Omega-3 fatty acids are highest in fish and flax seeds, but smaller amounts are found in pastured eggs, meats and dairy products from grass-fed animals, hemp seeds and vegetables like spinach and Brussels sprouts.
Our pets’ ancestors maintained appropriate ratios of Omega-6s to Omega-3s because the food they were eating was naturally “pasture-raised” and “grass-fed”. When our pets today consume animal products from grain-fed animals, or we feed them foods loaded with vegetable oils and grains, their diets create a pro-inflammatory internal environment with inappropriately high levels of Omega-6 fatty acids.
How are Omega-3 fatty acids beneficial?
Hundreds of studies in companion animals (and thousands of studies in people) have shaped our current knowledge of the benefits of supplementing Omega-3 fatty acids. Just a few of the known reasons to supplement with Omega-3s include:
- Improvement in pain and stiffness associated with osteoarthritis and degenerative joint disease
- Decrease in allergy-related itchiness, ear infections and skin disease
- Modulation of auto-immune diseases
- Improved neurocognitive development in growing animals supplemented with DHA, including better functioning on cognitive tests, better vision and higher titers after Rabies vaccination
- Improvement in both sleep problems and confusion in older dogs with cognitive dysfunction syndrome
- Decreased inflammation associated with heart disease, improvement of cardiac arrhythmias and decreased loss of muscle
- Significantly improved longevity in cats and dogs with chronic kidney disease, as well as better muscle mass and appetite
- Reduced rates of some types of cancers, as well as the promotion of cancer cell differentiation (normalization) and tumor shrinkage induced by DHA
- Improvement in the control of epilepsy
- Prevention of neuropathy associated with diabetes
Omega-3 fatty acids are available from two main sources: plants and animals. Plant sources, such as flax oil, provide primarily ALA, which is then converted by the body to EPA and DHA. Dogs and cats cannot efficiently process this conversion, and they should be provided with an Omega-3 source derived from fish or krill. Krill, which are small, shrimp-like crustaceans, yield an oil with lower levels of EPA and DHA than those in fish oil. However, the phospholipid structure of krill oil is much more absorbable, making it a more potent anti-inflammatory in the body. In addition, krill contains far fewer contaminants because mercury, PCBs, toxic metal and other ocean contaminants bio-accumulate in larger species higher up the food chain.
Farm raised fish are the worst source of fish oil, as their levels of pesticides and other contaminants are literally millions of times higher than those found in wild fish, but wild fish sources of Omega-3 oil are depleted and the Omega-3 market is driving overfishing. Krill oil, sourced from wild stocks that are abundant, is the clear choice for pets.
Omega-3 oil is prone to oxidizing (becoming rancid) and should be purchased in capsules or liquid with a pump delivery system and refrigerated after opening. If the oils overheat during transit or in a warehouse, or if they are exposed to air, they can be detrimental to a pet and promote the production of free radicals.
Supplementing with Omega-3 fatty acids has few side effects. Some pets may not like the taste, and it can take one to three weeks for a pet’s digestive system to become accustomed to the new supplement. If a pet experiences soft stool, slow down or stop the supplement, and proceed more gradually. If a pet is scheduled for surgery, Omega-3 supplements should be halted a few days prior to surgery to minimize any potential risk of less efficient blood clotting.
Dr. Laura Weis and her husband, Dr. Ransome Weis, own and operate Doylestown Veterinary Hospital & Holistic Pet Care, and Holiday House Pet Resort & Training Center, in Doylestown. She focuses on homeopathy and nutrition counseling for her clients within the full-service veterinary practice. Call 215-345-6000 to request an appointment. June 2019