Pets Need Omega-3s Too
By Jean Hofve, DVM
You've heard how necessary Omega-3, Omega-6, and essential fatty acids (EFAs) are to human health. But did you know that they are essential for pets, too? The term essential means that the animal cannot synthesize the nutrient within its body, but must obtain it in the diet. However, the rules on how they apply aren't the same for all species. For example, humans and dogs can make vitamin A out of beta-carotene, but cats must consume vitamin A directly from their food. Another fatty acid, arachidonic acid, is essential for cats but not for dogs; however, Omega-3s and Omega-6s are essential for both. Omega-3s are anti-inflammatory, while the Omega-6s found in vegetable oil and most animal fats, which are currently dominant in both human and pet diets, actually promote and increase inflammation when they are taken in excess.
What do essential fatty acids do? First, they are critical in development, especially in that of 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. In dogs and cats, they're especially important for skin and coat health. Lack of a healthy balance of essential fatty acids is linked to many serious health conditions, such as allergies, skin diseases, obesity, cancer, insulin resistance, diabetes, asthma, arthritis, autoimmune diseases, behavioral issues, and cognitive dysfunction (senility).
Omega-3s are powerful antioxidants. This means they fight inflammation, which is the root of many diseases, including heart disease, arthritis, and cancer. Omega-3s help our pets resist age-related degeneration. For instance, arthritis is a common and debilitating condition in older dogs and cats. Veterinarians commonly prescribe pain medications that are effective, but can have serious adverse effects; however, a study in humans showed that Omega-3s were just as effective as drugs for the majority of patients. Omega-3s also have proven benefits in the prevention and treatment of a wide variety of health conditions, including pancreatitis, heart disease, and diabetes.
There are many sources of Omega-3s, but dogs and cats are not efficient at converting plant oils into the forms their bodies need: EPA and DHA. Fish have already made this conversion, so their oils are the best way to supplement dogs and cats with these EFAs.
OK, you know your pet needs an Omega-3 supplement. Now how do you choose the right one? Here's what you need to know to pick the very best:
• Cod liver oil is an excellent source of EPA and DHA, but most manufacturers add extra vitamins A and D, which can quickly reach toxic levels in small pets. Look for cod liver oil that contains only naturally occurring vitamins.
• Predatory fish, such as salmon and tuna, are at the top of the food chain, so environmental contaminants become concentrated in their fat. Farmed fish, particularly salmon, are fed a cocktail of chemicals, such as dyes, pesticides, and antibiotics, and live in heavily polluted waters. The best fish oil supplements come from wild fish living in clean waters, such as sardines, anchovies, herring, and menhaden.
• Purity of the oil is critically important. Like their ocean habitat, many fish are contaminated not only with mercury, but also dioxins, PCBs, and other highly toxic chemicals. Simple filtration may not remove them. The best way to be certain oil is free from these contaminants is to distill it, much like water is distilled to remove salts, metals, and other impurities. Look for fish oil that is formulated for cats and dogs and manufactured to meet the quality and purity standards for humans, including third-party testing to guarantee the absence of environmental contaminants.
• Freshness is what separates not-so-good oils from great oils. All oils, Omega-3s in particular, are easily oxidized (made rancid) from light, heat, exposure to air, moisture, and natural degradation over time. Rancid oils are not only lacking in beneficial properties, but they are actually dangerous to consume. They contain large amounts of free radicals and are known to destroy fat-soluble vitamins. Therefore, fish that are caught and processed immediately, instead of sitting around for days in a warehouse or transport ship, will provide the best and safest oil. Choose an oil that has passed independent testing to guarantee potency and freshness.
When you start supplementing your pet's diet with Omega-3 fatty acids, you're providing a crucial ingredient for optimal health. The first thing my clients notice is a big improvement in coat quality—no more dandruff or ratty-looking fur! However, of course, the internal changes that are happening are even more important. I know you'll see positive changes in your pet's appearance and energy within weeks—and you'll know you're doing the right thing!