Essential-Fatty-Acid Cat And Dog Supplements

Essential fatty acids are the building blocks for bodily fats, which are important in the formation of cells and for many vital chemical reactions within the body.

Our (and our pets') bodies can manufacture many fatty acids via chemical modification of the fats in our diet. However essential fatty acids (EFAs) are those which the body needs to maintain good health but which it is unable to synthesize from other fat sources.

The types of fatty acids which are essential for life vary from species to species. In dogs, linoleic acid is essential, while in cats, both linoleic and arachidonic acid are essential in the diet.

EFAs are unsaturated fatty acids. The term 'unsaturated' refers to the fact that there is at least one double bond between carbon atoms in the molecule. This double bond prevents hydrogen atoms dominating every available bond with the carbon atoms - thus the carbon backbone is not "saturated" with hydrogen atoms and has the potential to hold more within the molecule.

To show where the double bond is located in the molecule, the prefix "omega" is used. Omega is the last letter of the Greek alphabet, and the term is used to indicate the end of something. In this case, it tells us the carbon atom nearest the end of the chain is the one which holds the first double bond (and is therefore missing a hydrogen atom).

"The correct ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 fatty acids in the diet has observable health benefits in pets."

Omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids are the main series of fatty acids which are of interest to us. Linoleic acid and arachidonic acid are both omega 6 fatty acids. While most of the omega 3 fatty acids are not currently recognized as essential, the correct ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 fatty acids in the diet has observable health benefits in pets. (There is contention that the omega 3 fatty acid alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) may be essential cats and dogs, while docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) may be conditionally essential for normal brain development in pups and kittens)

One of the most observable effects of fatty acids is in maintaining healthy skin and fur. Linoleic acid is required for a healthy epidermis (skin). With a linoleic acid deficiency, the skin is often noticed to be dry and flaky, while the fur can be dull and can actually fall out. The skin is often greasy and is more susceptible to inflammation.

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Animals with underlying skin allergies will often benefit from fatty acids supplements if the diet is deficient, to reduce the level of skin itching. Several trials in dogs with atopic dermatitis demonstrated the benefits of fatty acid supplementation (particularly DHA and eicosapentaenoic acid {EPA}).

Benefits take a few weeks to appear, while at least 12 weeks of treatment are recommended before deciding whether this is beneficial to a particular pet. Unfortunately, at this time, it is not possible to predict which animals will and will not respond positively to these supplements.

Fatty acids are also involved in blood clotting and regulating blood flow within the body. They are also required for normal reproduction in both males and females, support the immune system and are required for growth and proper development of the brain, kidneys and other organs. The omega 6 fatty acids are required for the absorption of the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, K, so a deficiency of these fatty acids will also lead to a vitamin deficiency, interfering with further body functions. There is also some evidence to support fatty acids having a role in bone and joint health and these may reduce the incidence of osteoarthritis. Some sources have suggested that fatty acids may also be of benefit in cancer therapy.

"Animals with underlying skin allergies will often benefit from fatty acids supplements if the diet is deficient, to reduce the level of skin itching."

The by-products of the different fatty acids vary. The omega 6 fatty acids, in particular arahidonic acid, are largely converted to pro-inflammatory compounds, while the omega 3 fatty acids are converted to anti-inflammatory products. The acids compete for the same enzymes to metabolize them. Therefore, by balancing the ratio of these in your animal's daily intake, we can ensure all the health benefits of fatty acids and prevent any undesirable effects. Nutritional research in pets indicates that the optimal ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 fatty acids is between 5:1 and 10:1, although even this factor is still not confirmed by veterinary dermatologists.

The dietary sources of fatty acids are varied. Omega 6 fatty acids can be found in plant oils such as sunflower oil, corn oil and evening primrose oil, as well as poultry and pork fat. Very little omega 6 fatty acids are found in beef and dairy products. Omega 3 fatty acids can be found in cold water fish oils such as salmon, herring and mackerel, as well as in plants, such as soybean oil, canola oil and flax seed oil. Arachidonic acid is only present in animal tissues, not plants, so cats must get this fatty acid from fish oils, poultry or pork fat. For the most part, veterinarians tend to favor fish oils as fatty acid supplements for pets, as these have the most beneficial ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 fatty acids.

Most of the premium commercial diets for pets will have balanced omega fatty acid levels. However, there are also pet supplements available. These include liquids, capsules and powders. Megaderm, DermCaps and many other generics are available. These supplements are available without a veterinary prescription, however we advise consulting with your vet before administering these to your pet.

1. Mueller R et al. Effect of omega-3 fatty acids on canine atopic dermatitis. Journal of Small Animal Practice, 45: 293-297, 2004.
2. Logas D. Use of n-3 and n-6 PUFA's as Individual Supplements.
3. Logas D, Kunkle G. Double-blinded Crossover Study with Marine Oil Supplementation Containing High-dose Eicosapentaenoic Acid for the treatment of Canine Pruritic Skin Disease. Veterinary Dermatology, 5: 99-104, 1994.
4. Hilton R. Essential Fatty Acid Therapy in Canine Atopic Dermatitis and Cancer.
5. Fatty Acids. Purina Pet Nutrition.
6. Food for Thought Technical Bulletin No.127R: The Importance of Protein, Fat and Fiber. The Iams Company.
7. Food for Thought Technical Bulletin No.9R: Linoleic Acid, Fatty Acids and Cat Nutrition. The Iams Company.
8. Food for Thought Technical Bulletin No.85R: A Shiny Coat: Nutrition is Key. The Iams Company.

Megaderm is a registered trademark of Virbac Corp.

DermCaps is a registered trademark of IVX Animal Health, Inc.