Omega fatty acids, dog food essentials!

Essential omega fatty acids for dogs

I'm sure you've heard about omega fatty acids. Dog food is often supplemented with these essential fatty acids (in short: EFA). No all fat in your diet is good, but these EFA's cannot be created by the body itself and therefore need to be present in dog food (and in your food too for that matter).

We can divide them in two groups and I'm sure you will recognize the names as these dog food additives are often specifically mentioned on the dog food bag: omega-3 and omega-6. These are high fashion additions! Manufacturers add these to the dog food recipe and are proud of it. So they will make sure you know that they're there.

Omega-6 fatty acids

Includes gamma linoleic acid (GLA), conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), dihomogamma linolenic acid (DGLA) and arachidonic acid (ARA).

Omega-3 fatty acids

Includes alpha linolenic acid (ALA), eisosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).

Omega Fatty Acids are required for a shiny coat and healthy skin and much more.

You can often find the abbreviations on ingredient lists so that's why I've mentioned them (not to confuse you with these long complex chemical names). The distinction between these two is based on molecular characteristics. Not something you need to remember but just in case you are wondering what the 3 or the 6 stands for: it's the location of the first double bond between two carbon atoms (so either after the third or the sixth carbon atom).

Grizzly Salmon Oil derived from wild Alaskan Salmon

Salmon derived fatty acids supplement for dogs

Why choose fish-based fatty acids supplements?

Cheaper plant-based omega-3 fatty acids, such as those found in flax seed, must be converted by your dog's body prior to use. This conversion is very inefficient. Your canine friend uses only 5 to 15% of the supplement if you buy plant-based stuff.

Buy salmon oil and salmon treats online »

Omega fatty acids - essential dog food nutrients

Omega-6 fats are found in animal tissues like pork fat or chicken fat (or other poultry). It is also present in vegetable oils such as corn, soybean, evening primrose and safflower. However, beef is very low in linoleic acid. Most commercial dog food will contain sufficient amounts of omega-6 fatty acids.

Your dog creates other required fatty acids from linoleic acid (essential fatty acid).

Linoleic acid is a polyunsaturated fatty acid and is a member of the group of essential fatty acids called omega-6 fatty acids. It has to be present in the diet of all mammals, so both you and your dog need this. Your dog uses this to make other types of omega-6 fatty acids. Dogs have a special enzyme called delta-6-desaturase (D6D) for this transformation process, though this can be depressed in conditions such as diabetes, hypothyroidism, viral infection, cancer or shortages in vitamins (B and C) or minerals (zinc and magnesium).

In contrast, a cat's diet also requires arachidonic acid as they cannot synthesize this from linoleic acid as dogs can (just one of the many differences between cats and dogs). So what's essential to one species is not essential to another.

Omega-3 fats are found in fish oil (especially cold-water fish such as salmon, mackerel, halibut and herring). Animals that feed on these fish are also a rich source. Vegetable sources include oils from canola and flax, walnuts and soybeans. Fish is an expensive source and as fish stocks are declining, dog food manufacturers will probably go and look for cheaper sources such as kidney beans or soy beans.

At the moment omega-3 fatty acids are not considered an essential nutrient by the AAFCO which is saying that dogs just cannot suffer from an omega-3 fatty acid deficiency.

Overview of omega fatty acid functions in dogs

An understanding of what omega fatty acids do makes the consequences of a shortage only 'logical'.

  • Improve cardiovascular health and reduce abnormal heart beating (arrhythmia).
  • Enhance immune functions.
  • Reduce inflammatory diseases and allergic dermatitis symptoms.
  • Retard development of certain cancer cells.
  • Inhibit progression of kidney disease.
  • Lower blood pressure and reduce clotting of blood platelets (less blood clots).
  • Reduce stiffness of the joints.

So now you know why these essential fatty acids are called essential. It then becomes easier to understand the defects that come from shortages:

  • Hair loss.
  • Failure of wound healing and susceptibility to infections.
  • Sterility in males and miscarriages in females.
  • Growth retardation.
  • Behavioral disturbances and decreased learning disabilities.
  • Impairment of vision.
  • Liver and kidney degeneration.

But please note that any of these can be caused by other factors as well! You need more in your diet than just essential fatty acids for all of these body functions.

How much omega fatty acids for dogs? Dog food differences are substantial

Cheap corn

Cheap corn-based dog food or cheap low calorie dog food is likely to be low in high quality fats.

It's easy to reduce calories per portion by eliminating total fat content. Such an unbalanced diet may not even promote weight loss but it can lead to EFA deficiencies.

Not all dog food brands that advertise the fact that they contain omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are equally good. These are expensive ingredients and especially omega-3 oxidizes quickly. So a cheap dog food shouting it contains these ingredients is not the best choice when you want to fix a skin and coat problem.

The ratio between omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids is very important because omega-6 fatty acids can be converted in the body to substances that promote skin inflammation! This is not the case for omega-3 fatty acids.

Different dog foods contain different ratios of omega-6 to omega-3, ranging from 10:1 to 2:1. Expert opinions vary as to which ratio is best. Dog food company Iams was the first to research fatty acids requirements in dog food. Their results indicate a ratio ranging from 5:1 to 10:1 of omega-6 to omega-3 is best (so 5 to 10 times more omega-6 than omega-3).

Omega-6 usually won't be a problem, but dog food can be too low in omega-3. Due to intensive agricultural methods fat in animals raised for commercial meat has become lower in omega-3. This is because cattle is more and more kept inside and fed on grains instead of grass. The fat in their wild counterparts is roughly 7 times richer in omega-3 fatty acids. The same goes for the omega-3 fatty acid contents of eggs of chickens deprived of greens.

The production process of the dog food is also important as high temperatures distorts the fatty acids and creates unhealthy trans-fatty acids.

Risks of supplementing omega fatty acids to dogs

General rule

Consider switching to a high quality dog food instead of supplementing cheap dog food with supplements.

Dog food usually contains more than the required amount of linoleic acid. So please don't go overboard on these EFA's. Too much of anything is no good and an excess of arachidonic acid (omega-6 supplement) is known to be harmful. Both consuming too much and in an incorrect ratio can give rise to blood clotting problems and vitamin E deficiencies.

For omega-3 the risks are lower than for omega-6. However, when using fish oil supplements these also contain vitamin A or D and these do have a maximum daily dosage. Usually when you feed your pooch a complete and balanced diet, there is no need to supplement.

When your dog is showing signs of fatty acid shortages like described above, then please note other factors can be involved such as season (shedding time) or life stage (as in humans… ever noticed man's coat also gets thinner with age, nothing to do about that  ).

If your dog's coat is dull you can also change dog food and await the results. I have seen good results in my dog when we changed to a diet with meat as the first ingredient listed together with a daily sheep fat bonbon. Please consider switching to a high quality dog food instead of supplementing cheap dog food with expensive supplements.

Should you go and feed supplements then it is advised to also give vitamin E together with the omega-3. This is because omega-3 fatty acids oxidize rapidly and increase antioxidant requirements in the body. Vitamin E is a natural anti-oxidant. Commercial supplements like Derm Caps for dogs (there are many more available) have the correct ratio and also contains vitamin E.

Final remarks on supplementation

  • Nothing can be added to a diet without affecting the overall nutrient profile.

  • Gradually increase the amount of EFA supplement as your dog could suffer from loose stool if you hit him with the full daily dosage at once.

  • You can expect to see coat improvements within 2 to 12 weeks. No guarantee though as coat issues (and all other issues mentioned here) can be caused by other factors than fatty acid shortages.

  • Dogs with allergies often benefit from omega-3 supplementation as it helps fighting hot spots and other skin problems. However be aware that long term omega-3 supplementation can result in omega-6 deficiency so please consult your vet for support.

  • Dogs with inflammatory diseases can benefit as well. When your dog is suffering from arthritis, kidney disease or cancer then ask your veterinarian about the possibilities.

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