By now, everyone’s heard of essential fatty acids and Omega-3 fatty acids. But do you know what they really are, and why they’re important?
The term “essential” as applied to nutrients means that the animal cannot synthesize the nutrient within its body, but must obtain it in the diet. For instance, humans and dogs can make Vitamin A out of beta-carotene, but cats must consume Vitamin A directly from the food. In the fatty acid world, arachidonic acid is essential for cats but not for dogs, while Omega-3s and Omega-6s are essential for both.
Fatty acids are specific types of polyunsaturated fats. These fats are liquid at room temperature because they contain one or more double-bonds where the long, thin molecules “kink,” preventing them from packing together closely. Saturated fat molecules have no double bonds, and can bunch up tightly like punk rockers in a mosh pit, making them solid at room temperature.
The two main classes of essential fatty acids are the Omega-3’s and the omega-6’s. (Skip the rest of this paragraph if you hated high school chemistry!). The number describes where the furthest double-bond is located; either 3 or 6 carbons from the end of the chain (Omega being the last letter of the Greek alphabet). There is another class of fatty acids, Omega-9 (found in olive oil, avocados, and some nuts); but it is not essential. Interestingly, all fatty acids contain an even number of carbon molecules. For example, linoleic acid, found in grape seed oil, is designated “18:2n6” where 18 is the number of carbons in the chain, there are 2 double-bonds, and it is an Omega-6.
What do essential fatty acids do? First, they are critical in development, especially for the nervous system and heart. They are incorporated into the membrane of every cell in the body. They are precursors to many important hormones and other compounds in the body. They’re especially important for skin health.
Omega-3 fatty acids are said to be “anti-inflammatory” and Omega-6’s “pro-inflammatory” because of the way they are used in the body to make certain hormones; one pathway suppresses and the other promotes inflammation. The main essential Omega-3 fatty acid is called alpha linolenic acid, and the main Omega-6 molecule is linoleic acid. From these fundamental molecules the body makes all the other fatty acids it needs. The Omega-3 pathway is important because the body does not use alpha-linolenic acid directly, but processes it into the compounds EPA and DHA (I won’t torture you with their full names, but if you want to know, please leave me a comment and I’ll tell you!). Humans can do this fairly well, but evidence suggests that dogs and cats have a limited ability to make the conversion—although they definitely do make some.
So, which fatty acids do pets need—or more particularly, which ones need to be supplemented? I ask the question this way because the typical American diet is very high in Omega-6s and very low in Omega-3s. This disparity is usually referenced in a ratio of Omega-6 to Omega-3, such as 20:1 or 5:1. But we need to know a little bit more before we can accurately answer the question.
Pet foods typically utilize leftovers and by-products of the human food industry. In the U.S., livestock and poultry are fed large amounts of corn, which shifts their natural Omega-3 content to mostly Omega-6. Pet foods that use animal fat or vegetable oils therefore contain large amounts of Omega-6s and virtually no Omega-3s, unless they are added—which many pet food makers are now doing.
Some pet foods now list Omega fatty acids in their guaranteed analysis, but this may not be a true reflection of the actual content. Omega-6 is typically listed as a guaranteed minimum (meaning there may be much more of it in the food), while Omega-3 is usualy a guaranteed maximum. Some labels are manipulated to create an “ideal” ratio of 5:1 or less, but it’s a good bet that your pet will still benefit from additional Omega-3s.
An imbalance or deficiency in dietary fatty acids is linked to many serious health conditions, such as allergies, skin diseases, obesity, cancer, insulin resistance, diabetes, asthma, arthritis, auto-immune diseases, behavioral issues, and cognitive dysfunction (senility). Because we can be sure that no matter what our pets are eating, they are getting plenty of Omega-6s in their diet, the only fatty acid supplement they really need is Omega 3.
Because pets can’t as readily make the EPA and DHA they really need from plant sources, fish oils are the best way to supplement dogs and cats with essential fatty acids. The best fish oil supplements come from wild salmon (not farm-raised salmon) or non-predatory fish, and are purified to remove heavy metals and other contaminants. Cod liver oil is an excellent source of EPA and DHA, but most manufacturers add extra vitamins A and D, which can reach toxic levels in small pets.
My very favorite Omega-3 supplements are: