By Jean Hofve, DVM
No doubt you’ve heard of Omega-3 fatty acids, Omega-6 fatty acids, and essential fatty acids. 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. For example, humans and dogs can make Vitamin A out of beta-carotene, but cats must consume Vitamin A directly from their food. Among fatty acids, arachidonic acid is essential for cats but not for dogs; while Omega-3s and Omega-6s are essential for both.
Omega-3s generally are anti-inflammatory, while the kind of Omega-6s that are found in vegetable and plant oils and most animal fats, Omega-6s (the most common in both human and pet diets), can actually promote and increase inflammation when there’s too much of it.
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. 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).
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 often listed as a guaranteed minimum (meaning there may be, and probably is, much, much more of it in the food), while the minimum guaranteed Omega-3 is usually the most that is present. 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.
In the body, the forms of Omega 3 needed are EPA and DHA. Because our pets cannot convert plant oils (such as flaxseed oil) into EPA and DHA to any significant extent, 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 such as anchovies or herring. They must also be purified to remove heavy metals and other contaminants.
Fish and Cod Liver Oils
Most fish and cod liver oils made for human consumption add flavors such as lemon, orange, strawberry, mango, and peach. While manufacturers insist these flavorings are “natural,” the definition of natural flavors is extremely broad and may include things that most of us would rather avoid, including MSG and genetically modified foods. And while you’d think that, with their reputation for loving fish, cats would also love fish oil, the taste is just too strong for most cats. Start very small when introducing these products to your cat.
• Cod liver oil is an excellent source of EPA and DHA, but most manufacturers add large amounts of extra vitamins A and D, which can quickly reach toxic levels in small pets like cats. Look for cod liver oil that contains only naturally-occurring amounts of vitamins.
• Predatory fish such as salmon and tuna (as well as tilapia, grouper, bass, mackerel, and many others) are at the top of the food chain; so environmental contaminants become concentrated in their fat. Farmed fish, particularly salmon (but also tilapia and catfish), are fed a cocktail of chemicals, pesticides, and antibiotics; and they live in inhumane, crowded conditions in polluted water. The best fish oil supplements come from smaller fish living in clean waters, such as sardines, anchovies, and herring.
• 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. The best way to be certain oil is free from these contaminants is to distill it, much like water is distilled to remove impurities (sometimes also referred to as “pharmaceutical grade”). Look for fish oil that 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 the great oils from the not so good. All oils, but 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.
The safest and freshest fish oil and cod liver oil products we’ve found are from Nordic Naturals. They make several products for pets: Pet Cod Liver Oil (liquid), Omega-3 Pet (liquid), and Omega-3 Pet (capsules).
Green-lipped Mussel Oil
This relatively new source of Omega-3 is a great choice for cats. It’s sustainable, humane, and environmentally responsible. Moxxor makes an excellent product that also includes two powerful antioxidants, Sauvignon blanc grapeseed oil and kiwifruit seed oil. Kiwi seeds also provide the entire spectrum of Vitamin E (all 8 compounds). Moxxor also contains folate, lutien and zeaxanthin. Best of all, the capsules are tiny compared to fish oil and krill oil products (see photo); and some cats will even eat them as treats.
Krill are tiny shrimp-like crustaceans that form the base of the ocean food chain. Some big names are promoting krill oil, and claiming that it is environmentally responsible. But marine protection organizations have significant concerns about the increasing popularity of krill oil. While there are undoubtedly a whole lot of krill in the sea, the areas being harvested are in or near feeding grounds and other areas where a wide variety of marine life (including whales and other mammals, birds, and fish) depends on them. This local over-harvesting is already having an negative impact on whales and other marine life; and it can only get worse. Due to the irresponsible nature of krill harvesting, we cannot recommend krill oil products.
How to Supplement
It’s usually simplest to mix the oil with wet food (canned, raw, or homemade); capsules can be punctured with a pin and the oil squeezed onto the food. However, not all pets appreciate the strong taste of fish oils, so to prevent turning them off completely, start with just a drop or two, and work up to the full dose gradually. Moxxor has the advantage here as well, as the taste of green-llipped mussel oil is much milder than most fish oils.
The first benefit you’ll see from Omega-3 supplementation will be an improvement in skin and coat health; you’ll likely see this within just a few weeks. But it’s the benefits you don’t see—healthier cells, less inflammation, a stronger immune system, and a more efficient nervous system—that will make the biggest difference in your pet’s health and well-being!