Omega-3, a Fatty Acid: Essential for Health

By The Bark, September 2016

Fats are the major source of energy for dogs, the energy they supply is a more concentrated source (2.5 times) than either protein or carbohydrates. Not only do they supply energy but they also help keep skin and coat healthy, and foot pads supple. Nutritionally, fatty acids aid in the absorption of vitamins because they transport fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, K and E) into the body from the intestine. They also play a role in cell structure and function, including vision and learning abilities. Plus, they make food, both manufactured or homemade, tastier and more palatable. 

Fatty acids are a specific type of polyunsaturated fat and are classified into omega-3s or omega-6s. Essential fatty acids (EFAs) are those that the body cannot make for itself, and needs to be supplied daily in the diet, hence they are considered to be essential (this essential status is species-specific). For dogs, the EFAs are omega-3 and omega-6 acids, which are required for them to thrive. In other words, if a body (animal or human) does not receive sufficient amounts of EFAs, critical body functions can be severely disrupted.

While both are important to a diet, it is thought by many nutritionists that commercial pet food (similar to commercial human food) contains too many omega-6s and not enough of the “good fat”, omega-3s. Omega-6s can be found in meat products, egg yolks, whole grains and vegetable oils, while the best source for omega-3s for dogs is cold water fish. Fish oil provides the long-chain omega-3s (EPA and DHA), that are used for metabolism. Another complication is that fatty acids are very unstable and fragile, and tend to oxidize very quickly. They are easily destroyed by heat, light, and oxygen, thus they break down during processing and storage. It is important to note that the only way you can assure that your dog is getting sufficient amounts of EFAs is to either provide fish, such as mackerel, sardines, tuna, salmon, etc., in their diets or add an EFA supplement yourself. If using a supplement, ideally it should be guaranteed-fresh source packaged in an oxygen-free container, such as soft gel capsules that prohibit air from contacting the oil.

Composition and sources of Omega-3 fatty acids:

- EPA (Eicosapentaenoic acid) cold water fish and their oil.

- DHA (Docosahexaenoic acid) cold water fish and their oil, eggs from chickens fed omega-3.

- ALA (Alpha-linolenic acid) found in flaxseed oil, canola, soy beans, navy or kidney beans and walnut oils, plus green leafy veggies. 

It is important to note that, unlike humans, dogs cannot convert ALA to the all-important EPA and DHA, so plant oils are not an ideal source of omega-3s for them. ALA from plant foods are often the primary sources of omega-3 found in dog food. While they are still important, this does mean that your dog’s diet may be lacking in EPA and DHA, causing them to miss out on certain health benefits. 

Composition and sources of Omega-6 fatty acids:

- LA (Linoleic acid) that can be found in corn, canola, safflower, sunflower oils, whole grain and body fat of poultry.

- GLA (Gamma linolenic acid) in black current seed oil, borage oil and evening primrose oil.

- AA (Arachidonice acid) found in the body fat of poultry, lean meat, egg yolks, some fish oils.  

- DGLA (Dihomo-gamma-linolenic acid) found in organ meats.

Benefits of Omega-3s:

As many veterinarians, including Karen Becker, DVM, have noted, “omega-3s have tremendous potential to positively impact your pet’s health.” Here’s a list of what omega-3s contribute to a dog’s health and vitality:

- Support normal neural development, cardiovascular and immune systems, healthy reproduction, and skin and coat health.

- Therapeutic benefits and aid in managing chronic inflammatory disorders, like colitis, obesity, inflammatory bowel disease, joint pain due to arthritis and allergic skin problems.

- DHA is important for development of a healthy nervous system and proper development of the retina and visual cortex in fetuses and newborn puppies.   

- Manage stress and improvement of brain health and cognitive functioning, especially in senior dogs.

- Support skin and coat health and relieve dry and itchy skin.

- Omega-3s fatty acids have been shown to slow the development and metastasis of certain cancers, while omega-6s have been shown to stimulate tumor development.

- Fish oils have been shown to decrease the levels of triglycerides and cholesterol in the blood.

Not All Fish Oil Is Created Equally

With the rising popularity of fish oil for both the human and canine health, there are many different manufacturers making a variety of claims. So when selecting which omega-3 oil to purchase you need to consider a few factors including, purity, freshness, potency, bio-availability and sustainability.

Purity: The oil must meet international standards for heavy metals, PCBs, dioxins and other contaminants. You need to check with the manufacturer’s Certificate of Analysis (CoA) to receive third-party verification. Many oils come from areas of the ocean that are heavily trafficked and/or polluted by deep sea oil rigs. Make sure you know what part of the world the fish was caught.

Freshness: EFAs are susceptible to oxidation, which turns them rancid. Look for verification about the freshness from the CoA, and for companies that use smaller vessels. Ask how the fish is kept fresh once it is caught, and how long does it take from the “catch” to the processing plant. The product should be available in an oxygen-free container, such as soft gel capsules that prohibit air from contacting the oil. Freshness is measured by oxidation as shown in the CoA’s anisidine and peroxide values, that should be less than 5 meq/kg.

Potency: The oil must contain DHA and EPA. DHA provides most benefits to dogs, so it should exceed the levels of EPA.

Bio-Availability: The oil must be in a natural form not a synthetic triglyceride which many fish oils are.

Sustainability:  Many fish oils are made from fish that are endangered. Choose products made from fish that are certified by organizations such as the Global Organization for EPA and DHA Omega-3s (GOED).

It’s important to look for or request a Certificate of Analysis (CoA) from the maker before you buy a fish oil product and if you have any questions, the company should be available to address those in a timely manner. 

Omega-3s and omega-6s are indeed essential fatty acids, not only because they need to be added to a diet, but because they are essential to overall health. However, as they also add calories, attention needs to be given to the overall caloric count that is provided to a dog in both their food and supplementation. Consultation with your veterinarian is also recommended.