Essential Fatty Acid Supplementation

They’re now added to our bread, eggs, and milk, touted as treatments for allergy, asthma, arthritis, and even types of cancer, but are Omega 3’s and 6’s an issue when feeding our pets? Essential fatty acids: where they come from, how they are changing in modern diets, and what therapeutic value may they hold.


What are Essential Fatty Acids?

Vitamins of the fat world, Omega-3 and Omega-6 fats are Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs). Our bodies cant synthesise them and we must eat them for survival.  There’s a variety of Omega-3’s but the biggies are α-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). The important Omega-6’s are linoleic and γ-linolenic acids.

Attention was drawn to these fats by the low rates of heart and other diseases in those on Mediterranean, Japanese, and high fat Inuit diets.  Without EFAs, man or animal, may suffer from a variety of developmental, neurological, reproductive, hormonal, skin, eye, bleeding, and possibly psychiatric disorders.  Modern epidemics of infertility, ADHD, type 2 diabetes, obesity, and heart disease have been blamed on Omega-3 deficiency.

In our pets, attention is focused more on how these fats can act as water-proof ‘glue’ between skin cells, and their affect on inflammation. Fish oils and some other Omega-3’s have been proven to be anti-inflammatory, and are of potential benefit to animals suffering allergies, arthritis and some other diseases.j

Where do EFAs come from?

EFAs are made only in plants: Omega 3’s mostly in the green leaves, and Omega-6’s more in the seeds. Animals cannot make them and must instead eat plants directly, or eat animal products grown on a diet of plants. Fish, famed as a source of EPA, like animals, cannot make it themselves and merely bioaccumulate it from a food chain founded of the leafy greens of the sea – phytoplankton.

Animal products, like meat, milk and eggs, have an Omega-3 and 6 content dependent on the diet they were raised on, and can be naturally enriched with a particular fat by feeding the animal a diet rich in a desired fat. Your free range eggs and organic milk may be not be optimal for health if the chicken or cow was fed grain rather than pasture.

Omega-3’s have been described as the ‘spring fats’, abundant during green leaf growth, preparing animals for reproduction, important in hormone regulation, birth, and normal development of the young. Flax and Chia are seeds high in Omega-3’s, and exceptions to this rule.

Meanwhile Omega-6’s are the ‘autumn fats’, highest in seeds, signaling animals for nutrient storage, increasing the number of fat cells and increasing the activity of insulin receptors, and preparing for hibernation in colder climates. The yellow-bellied marmet has biorhythms so dependent on dietary Omega-6’s they cant go into hibernation without it.g


How have our dietary fats changed?

All animals and humans once lived naturally on diets with seasonal peaks in these EFAs, but over time public health campaigns and the interests of industrial farming and food manufacturing sectors have affected this ebb and flow of Omega-3’s and 6’s in our diet.

If you’ve been a little confused over the last few decades, about which fats are good and which aren’t, you’re not alone. So is medical science. Our patterns of fat consumption has followed trends in consumer beliefs lead by public health messages that drifted from demonising all fats, then saturated and trans fats, to favouring polyunsaturated, then olive and fish oils. This field will continue to be a fluid landscape for decades to come, as our understanding evolves.

In an agribusiness marketplace that rewards volume, commercial growers of vegetable oils are more interested in the high oil yield of seeds such as soy, corn, peanut, and sunflower, rather than dicking around with less profitable hippie foods. Our preferred vegetable oils in the west, cheap and certainly healthier than old-school saturated animal fats, are all high in Omega-6’s.

These same Omega-6 fats have become the darling of commercial food industry, both pet and human, as they enjoy a longer shelf life. Omega 3’s, more expensive, more fragile, and quicker to go rancid, will remain an unattractive ingredient for commercial food manufacturers until consumer awareness shifts, as it has with trans fats.

The upshot of these forces is modern diets loaded with Omega-6’s and depleted in Omega-3’s. The ratio of Omega-3 to Omega-6 fats in a typical US diet is now around 1:20, a trend mirrored in animal foods. The Japanese diet is closer to the ideal at 1:4. This begs the obvious question: why is the ratio an issue, as long as my dog gets enough of each?h

Omega-6 & Omega-3 fats as competitors

Numerous studies have shown that the health benefits of Omega-3’s and 6’s is dependent on the ratio in which they consumed. The same cellular machinery is used for absorbing and utilising Omega-3’s and 6’s in the body, and they must also compete for real estate in our cell membranes.

If my dog’s diet is rich in Omega-6’s her tissues may still be deficient in Omega-3’s. It’s not that our diets are low in Omega-3’s, it’s the marked increase in 6’s that threatening to displace the anti-inflammatory Omega-3’s from our body tissues.j

Health claims and recommendations

  • For dry dandruff alone, balanced EFA supplementation is the bomb.
  • Any pet with skin allergies, chronic ear problems, and especially those with atopy, should definitely trial a balanced EFA diet for at least 3 months during the time of year when the skin is at its worst.  Success rates are reported as 10-70%, but rarely are they a cure, and more frequently combined with other treatments. Try it at least once, properly: if the benefits justify the costs, press on.
  • If you have dog, especially a schnauzer, with with brittle, splitting and easily torn nails, he may have lupoid onychodystrophy. You may be able to save some of the pain of all those broken nails by treating with  EFAs.
  • An EFA balanced diet is of theoretic value to sufferers of any disease with an inflammatory component, which would include autoimmune disease, allergies, asthma and arthritis.  Humans with arthritis experience pain relief comparable to NSAIDs, although I rarely see this response reflected in my veterinary patients. Ensure your dog doesn’t gain weight on a new EFA diet, as this will easily outweigh the anti-inflammatory benefit. There are now dry dog foods with balanced EFAs for arthritic dogs (eg. Hill’s® Prescription j/d®)
  • In man, the anti-cancer benefit is still contested, but a fish oil supplemented dry dog food (Hill’s® Prescription n/d®) has been proven to extend life span in dogs receiving chemotherapy for lymphosarcoma. If your going to spend a few thousand on chemo, at least feed the poor bastard salmon.
  • There are a variety of neurological diseases ranging from developmental problems in kids, through to dementia in the old, that have been proven to benefit from balanced EFA diets. By the time you recognise dementia hitting your 16 year old kelpie, however, it’s probably too late for a dietary solution.
  • The causes of  heart disease in man and animal are quiet different and don’t think that Omega-3 supplementation will benefit the failing heart of your elderly poodle as much as people who suffer atherosclerosis.
  • More generally, even if your dog suffers none of these problems, if you can afford the cost of a premium diet with a proven EFA claim, or the time to dedicate to preparing a home-cooked diet based on fish or other EFA oils, then you may be able to prevent, delay or mitigate a whole range of diseases, known and unknown.

fish oil pill

3 options for supplementing EFAs in dogs and cats

  1. Some premium quality dry foods have  balanced EFA  claims that are reliable. The Eukanuba Response Formula®, fish and potato diet, has the added benefit of high EPA and is my first choice, although Royal Canin® also now has fish based offerings.
  2. Balanced EFA supplements are available if you wish to leave the diet unchanged, delivered as a pill (EFA-VET®, 3V® and Derm® or human varieties) or pump pack (EFA-Z® and Mega-derm®). These are best absorbed if given with a meal.  Replacing a portion of the daily ration with a sardine or 2, or sunflower oil (1 tablespoon per 10kg body weight) are inexpensive low-tech options.
  3. Home cooked diet recipes can be modified to balance your EFAs. If you’re investing in the weekly effort of preparation, you may as well try to achieve a 3’s to 6’s ratio of 1: 3. This may involve adding sardines, flaxseed, evening primrose or other oils. Add them at the end of cooking, then refigerate or freeze. It’s important to understand these fats aren’t stored in the body and ideally the daily meal should be balanced, rather than one big fish meal a week.

EFA table

(for more detail, go crazy at

Hemp oil has an ideal ratio of 1:3, contains α-linolenic acid, linoleic and γ-linolenic acids and would be a excellent EFA supplement, once society gets over it’s prejudice. Currently only commercially produced for cosmetic use in Australia, there are many using their moisturiser as salad dressing.

Other notes

  • Cats are often on high fish diets and hence may not benefit as much from EFA supplements. Cats shouldn’t be given excessive sunflower or cod-liver oil supplementation – vitamin A toxicity can result.
  • Claims surrounding Omega-7 and 9 can be ignored; they’re not essential fats, your body can make them itself, and they’re only being used as health industry marketing hype.
  • Keep Omega-3 oils refrigerated, and try to ensure your source is cold pressed as heat during processing may destroy these oils and any therapeutic benefit with it. This raises a concern about poor quality commercial tinned and dry foods – how much of the precious EFAs are lost in processing?

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