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Omega Three Fatty Acids for our Pets
Revised: June 02, 2021
Published: June 10, 2019

Did you know that skin diseases account for as much as 25% of the cases seen by small animal veterinarians?

Skin problems typically faced by pets and their owners include:

  •   Itching
  •   Dandruff
  •   Blackheads
  •   Odor
  •   Crusting
  •   Redness
  •   Rashes
  •   Oiliness

The nutritional aspect of skin disease is quite broad. There are true nutritional deficiencies that affect the skin and other skin diseases that can be made dramatically better by using supplements.

Just because a condition responds to a nutrient does not necessarily mean that there is a deficiency of it.

Everyone wants their pet to have a lustrous beautiful coat and would like to do what it nutritionally possible to ensure this. Recently essential fatty acids have received a great deal of press. A brief primer follows. 

What is a Fatty Acid?

Fatty acid diagram
A fatty acid is a long chain of carbons with an acid group on one end. The other carbon binding sites contain hydrogen molecules. Because every carbon in the chain is bound, this fat is said to be saturated. Graphic by MarVistaVet

Biochemically, a fatty acid is what we just call fat. When we talk about different types of fatty acids, we are talking about different types of fat. A fatty acid consists of a long carbon chain (say 20 or so carbons in length) with biochemical acids called a carboxyl group at one end and a methyl group on the other end.

Saturated Vs. Unsaturated

Each carbon has four binding sites. In the carbon chain, two sites will be taken up by other carbons (i.e., the two adjacent carbons on the chain). In a saturated fat, the other two sites are taken up by hydrogen atoms. Saturated fats are typically solid at room temperature, like lard and butter, and are usually made from animals. Saturated fats are generally burned as fuel by our bodies. An example of a saturated fatty acid is depicted in the above illustration.

Unsaturated fats have two adjacent carbons held together by a biochemical double bond. These fats are generally liquid at room temperature and come from plants, such as olive oil, corn oil, etc.

Saturated Fat
An unsaturated fatty acid has a double bond between two carbons in the chain. Polyunsaturated fats have more than one double bond. Graphic by marvistavet.com

Unsaturated fats can be classified as omega three fatty acids or omega six fatty acids, depending on the location of the double bond relative to the methyl group at the end of the chain. These types of fatty acids are essential, meaning that our bodies cannot make them; instead, we must eat them in our diet. These fats are not burned for fuel but are used as structural components.

The omega six fatty acids are used as the main structural components in our cells. Omega three acids are used in the retina and central nervous system.

DHA long molecule
This long molecule is DHA (Docosahexanoic acid). It is one of the omega 3 fatty acids to look for on a label. Note there is a double bond on the third carbon from the end. The double bond in this location makes DHA an omega three fatty acid. Graphic by MarVistaVet.

For healthy skin and coat, the diet must contain adequate omega six fatty acids as these make up the surface of the skin.

Examples of omega six fatty acids (also called n-6 fatty acids): Linoleic acid, gamma linolenic acid, and Arachidonic acid. Evening Primrose oil is an excellent example.

Examples of omega three fatty acids, also called n-3 fatty acids, include: Alpha linolenic acid (ALA), Eicosatetraenoic acid (EPA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).

Cold water fish oils are an excellent source of DHA and EPA. A terrific source of ALA would be flax seed oil. DHA has anti-inflammatory properties, which is why it is so frequently recommended in inflammatory conditions. Many people prefer to use flax seed oil as their omega 3 source because flax seed oil does not taste fishy and people readily convert ALA to DHA. This is great for people but it turns out that pets are only able to convert about 10% of ALA to DHA, so for them cold water fish oils are better. Fortunately, most dogs and cats like the fishy taste. 

Should we Supplement Essential Fatty Acids?

There is no question that a diet must contain adequate omega 6 fatty acids to maintain optimal skin and coat quality. A diet found to be “complete and balanced” will have an amount of omega 6 fatty acids that should be optimal for a normal animal.  

But there’s more.

Omega 6 Fatty Acids and Dandruff

Research has shown that dogs with oily, dandruffy skin (seborrhea) have insufficient omega 6 fatty acids in their skin despite eating a diet that should be optimal. When omega 6 fatty acids are supplemented, the seborrhea improves. This finding supports the old-time remedy of adding a spoonful of corn oil to the diet to ensure a glossy coat. Seborrhea is a complex condition but animals with it may need more omega 6 fatty acids.

Anti-Inflammatory Effects of Omega 3 Fatty Acids

Omega 6 fatty acids constitute our cell membranes. During some biochemical situations, it is necessary to produce hormone-like substances called prostaglandins and leukotrienes. These substances are made from omega 6 fatty acids and the resulting prostaglandins and leukotrienes are not necessarily good for us. In fact, these substances are responsible for itching and inflammation leading to the clinical skin problems listed above. One way to address this is to supplement omega 3 fatty acids, which become incorporated into cell membranes along with the omega 6s. After a couple of months of supplementation, omega 3 fatty acids infiltrate cell membranes significantly. When it comes time to make prostaglandins, the omega 3s are mobilized instead of the omega 6s only in this case, the prostaglandins that result are not inflammatory. When omega 3 fatty acids are supplemented, itching can be substantially reduced and even arthritis pain improved.

One problem with this is that no one really knows how much omega 3 fatty acid to supplement. There is some evidence that a ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 fatty acids in the supplement is crucial. If this is so, clinical research becomes hugely complicated as the diets of pets cannot be standardized easily for study. If pets in a study eat different diets, then it is impossible to tell what overall omega 6:omega 3 ratio each is receiving. Essential fatty acids are being pursued as treatment for diseases of virtually every organ system; watch for new research in this area.

Conditions that Have Been Shown to Benefit from Omega 3 Fatty Acid Supplementation

  •   Renal (kidney) insufficiency
  •   Heart failure
  •   Lymphoma
  •   Airborne allergies

Research is ongoing. We know that supplementing with omega 3 appears to be benign with the potential to do a great deal of good. 

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