Omega fatty acids play a pivotal role in companion animal health and may help relieve symptoms related to skin disorders, arthritis, allergies and a variety of other conditions. While more research is needed before omega supplements are considered a mainstream treatment option for cats and dogs, many veterinarians are open to recommending them.
Read on to learn what omega fatty acids are, how your canine or feline friend can benefit from them, and what to look for in a quality supplement. And of course, any discussion about supplements and diet changes should start with your vet.
What Are Omega Fatty Acids and Why Do Pets Need Them?
Omega fatty acids are a type of fat required for normal body functions, explains Dr. Deborah Mitchell, medical director and practice manager at Knollwood Hospital for Pets in Schaumburg, Illinois. “These include building the membranes of our pets’ cells, helping blood clot normally and muscles move properly, and for fighting inflammation of all kinds in our pets’ bodies.”
Omega-3 and omega-6 are essential fatty acids that play a role in optimal health. “Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are the most important for dogs and cats because their bodies can’t make them; they have to come from diet,” says Dr. Jennifer Coates, a veterinary writer, editor and consultant based in Fort Collins, Colorado.
The three main types of omega-3 fatty acids are alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). EPA and DHA are found in marine sources, like fatty fish, while ALA is found in plant sources, such as nuts and seeds.
Omega-3s are incorporated into cell membranes, especially in the brain, the retina and sperm, says Coates. “The body also uses omega-3s and omega-6s to form signaling molecules (called eicosanoids) that have many different functions in the heart, blood vessels, lungs, immune system and hormonal system. Increasing the amount of omega-3s in the body relative to omega-6s may also reduce inflammation, which could have a beneficial role in functions like cognition, heart disease and reproduction.”
Omega-6 fatty acid deficiencies are not seen very often, but might be a concern if your pet is on an extremely low fat or calorie-restricted diet, says Coates. Although rare, signs of omega-6 deficiency include: “skin problems like hair loss, scaly skin, and a tendency to bruise easily,” Coates says. “Reproductive problems can be seen in breeding animals, and young animals may grow poorly if there aren’t enough omega-6 fatty acids in their diet.”
Where Do Omegas Come From?
Sources of omega-3 fatty acids include cold-water fatty fish (especially salmon) and oils from fish, krill, algae and flaxseed, says Dr. Nancy Scanlan, executive director of the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Foundation.
Flaxseed oil is not an ideal source of omega-3s for dogs, Scanlan explains, because dogs are not very efficient at converting ALA into EPA and DHA. Cats cannot convert ALA at all, so they would require one of the other omega-3 fatty acid sources, she says.
Foods rich in omega-6 fatty acids (linoleic acid) include flaxseed, grapeseed, borage, evening primrose and black currant seed oils, Scanlan says.
4 Ways Omegas Can Benefit Your Pet
1). Improved Skin and Coat
The most obvious sign of an omega deficiency in pets is a dull, dry or greasy coat with dandruff, says Scanlan. “They itch a lot, even without any signs of fleas. Skin allergies are worse when they need more omega oils.”
Omega-3 fatty acids help the skin by reducing inflammation associated with allergies in dogs when used with other therapeutic agents, says Dr. Susan Jeffrey, a veterinarian at Truesdell Animal Care Hospital in Madison, Wisconsin. “Dogs with less inflammation are less itchy and thereby more comfortable.”
In one study of 16 dogs with itchy skin, researchers tested the benefits of a high-dose EPA fish oil supplement to treat symptoms (1). Pups receiving the fish oil capsule (versus corn oil) showed significant improvement.
2). Relief from Arthritis Symptoms
Omega-3s have been found to slow the progression of arthritis, says Jeffrey. Researchers created one study to determine if pet food containing a high level of omega-3s (using fish oils) would relieve symptoms in dogs with osteoarthritis (2). The team studied 127 dogs from 18 separate, privately-owned clinics.
Dogs fed a diet containing 31 times the amount of omega-3s than found in a standard pet food diet significantly improved in several areas, including in their ability to rise from a resting position, play and walk, according to pet owners.
In a separate study of 16 cats, those whose diets were supplemented with fish oil reportedly experienced a higher level of activity, including less stiffness, an increase in walking up and down stairs, and more interaction with their pet owners than those fed the (corn oil) placebo (3).
3). An Option for Heart Health
“Some studies show fish oils can decrease the progression of dogs with heart disease as well as help dogs with abnormal heart rhythms (arrhythmia),” says Jeffrey, whose professional interests include preventative care.
One of these studies looked at whether fish oil would reduce the occurrence of arrhythmia in Boxers with arrhythmogenic right ventricular cardiomyopathy, a disease that impacts the ventricles of the heart (4). The findings showed that a six-week course of fish oil supplementation may be useful in reducing arrhythmias in dogs with this disease. Dose and duration still need to be studied further, however.
Additionally, Jeffrey says dogs with heart disease have been found to have lower plasma fatty acid levels than healthy dogs. “Fatty acid supplements such as fish oil will result in plasma fatty acid concentrations equal to healthy dogs.”
4). A Potential Aid for Certain Cancers
There’s some evidence that omega-3 fatty acids may be able to slow down cancer growth (5). “There has been a study in dogs with lymphoma (a type of cancer that usually attacks the spleen, bone marrow and lymph nodes) who were given omega-3 fatty acids,” Jeffrey says. “They were found to have longer survival times compared to those who didn’t receive the supplement.”
They also help with chronic weight loss and poor appetite seen in cancer patients, which can result in a better quality of life, she says. “Omega-3 fatty acids can help decrease the amount of inflammatory mediators that will inhibit appetite and increase the rate of muscle catabolism.” (Catabolism is a metabolic process that breaks down complex molecules into smaller ones).
What Type of Omegas Should You Feed Your Pet?
Feeding your dog or cat the correct type of omega fatty acid is critical, says Dr. Patrick Mahaney, owner of Los Angeles-based California Pet Acupuncture and Wellness. “As most pets have conditions related to inflammation for which owners seek improvement, I recommend that when providing an omega fatty acid supplement, owners should focus on omega-3,” he says. “Ideally, pets should consume a combination of omega fatty acids from animal and plant sources in their diets. Omega-6 fatty acids are still needed to promote healthy body structures, so do not eliminate them from your pet’s diet.”
For supplements, he recommends omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil (that are formulated for pets). “Deep-caught, fresh-water fish are my recommended source for fish oil and supplements should be free from heavy metals, pesticides, radiation and other toxic substances.” (Animal-based omega fatty acids satisfy their dietary requirements more efficiently than plant sources, he says.)
To ensure you’re purchasing quality supplements, look for products with the United States Pharmacopeia (UPS) seal or verified mark, advises Coates. “The USP sets quality standards for health care products that are sold in the U.S.” Jeffrey recommends looking for products labeled with the National Animal Supplement Council (NASC), “as it works with the FDA to ensure safety and quality control standards.”
Proportion is also essential. “Too much omega-6 oil can cause inflammation, especially if the amount of omega-3 is low in the diet,” says Scanlan. Vets recommend an omega-6 to omega-3 ratio of 10:1 to 5:1. In one study, researchers fed 18 dogs with pruritis (itchy skin) a commercial diet with a fatty acid ratio of 5.5:1 (6). The pruritis was controlled within seven to 21 days of the diet, but returned within three to 14 days after the original diet was re-introduced.
Ask your vet about dosage and duration of omega fatty acid supplements, especially if your pet has a health condition. “Extremely high doses can cause gastrointestinal upset and possibly problems with the immune and blood clotting system, so it is best to only use fatty acid supplements under the direction of a veterinarian,” Coates advises.