Everyone’s talking about the health benefits of omega-3 and omega-6 -from helping to keep their heart in peak condition, to looking after their skin. Omega-3 fatty acid supplementation has also been found to be beneficial in virtually all known types of inflammation in veterinary medicine, including itchy skin and arthritis.

Omega-3 And Omega-6 for healthy pets

Fatty acids are polyunsaturated (‘good’) fats, found in different quantities in many plant, grain and fish foods. All animals require certain ‘essential’ omega-3 and -6 fatty acids in the diet to stay healthy. Omega-6 fatty acids are found readily in most healthy diets, but omega-3 fatty acids are present in fewer foods. An imbalance between omega-3 and omega-6 can lead to health problems, and some premium pet food companies have added omega-3 fatty acids to their foods to try to give an optimum balance for maintaining peak health.

Omega-3 in therapy

As well as some poor diets having a less-than-ideal ratio of omega-3 to -6 fatty acids, research shows that in certain disease conditions, there can be further health benefits from eating higher levels of fatty acids. Fatty acids have an important role in cell membranes. Omega-3 constituents (rather than omega-B) work to reduce the process of inflammation in many situations. It is these anti-inflammatory properties than omega-3 supplements are often used for.

Skin Health

A complete and balanced premium diet has omega-3 and omega-6 in a ratio and at levels to maintain optimal skin and coat quality in a healthy animal.
Dry skin and dull coat Dogs with seborrhoea (oily, dandruffy skin) have depleted amounts of omega fatty acids in their skin despite eating a diet that should be optimal. When omega fatty acids levels are supplemented, the seborrhoea improves.
Atopy (allergy) and skin itching Atopy, or allergic skin disease, causes skin inflammation and terrible itchiness for many pet dogs, and omega-3 fatty acids can substantially reduce these signs. In some animals with allergic skin disease, omega-3 supplements alone can decrease itchiness or inflammation to an acceptable level. More often, omega-3 supplements are used in conjunction with other therapies (for example antihistamines or steroids), and reduce the dose needed. Omega-3 supplementation has also been shown to reduce yeast infections that commonly cause skin and ear problems for dogs and cats.
Veterinary prescription skin diets are a good way to supply tested levels of omega fatty acids, and are recommended for any dog with a level of itchiness (including dogs that chew their feet). For pets that do not like the prescription diets, or for other health reasons, supplements are prescribed that have calculated levels of omega-3.

Arthritis

Many research trials show that omega-3 fatty acids, especially EPA*, may be helpful in reducing the inflammation associated with arthritis. Diets enriched with omega-3 produce improvements in the signs and progression of osteoarthritis including pain, duration of morning stiffness, number of painful joints, joint mobility, and reduced drug usage. Fatty acid supplementation is a very safe way to provide pain relief for patients who are often old, meaning other drugs must be used with caution. Omega-3 supplements can be used in conjunction with other supplements (notably glucosamine and chondroitin in products like green lip muscle extract), and will often reduce or delay the need for anti-inflammatory drugs. There are also prescription veterinary diets enriched in EPA* for use in osteoarthritis.

Cancers

Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to inhibit the growth and metastasis (spread) of tumours in trials, where dogs undergoing chemotherapy for lymphoblastic lymphoma had decreased inflammation, enhanced quality of life, and extended disease free interval and survival time.

Omega-3 fatty acids include:

  • Alpha-linolenic Acid (ALA)
  • Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)
  • Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA)

For healthy pets the ratio in the diet should be somewhere between 5:1 and 10:1 (omega-6:omega-3). Premium foods contain at least 2.2% omega-6 and 0.3% omega-3.
For pets with skin problems or arthritis a higher ratio of omega-3 is recommended-this can be provided by veterinary prescription diets, or omega-3 supplements. The polyunsaturated fats in fatty acid supplements increase the need for antioxidants, so supplements should be fortified with vitamin E. As many supplements are from fish oils, it is important to check that they come from an ethical and a safe source.

Omega-6 fatty acids include:

  • Linoleic Acid (LA)
  • Gamma Linolenic Acid (GLA)
  • Dihomo-gamma-linolenic Acid (DGLA)
  • Arachidonic Acid (AA)

To treat skin conditions, there are also new topical treatments (applied like a flea treatment) that promise very good results.
For skin and arthritic inflammation a supplement dose of 1,000 mg/ml of fish oil that contains 180 mg of EPA and 120 mg DHA per 10 kg is recommended
Not all supplements are the same quality. Ask your vet for recommendations for a supplement that will best suit your pet
Don’t give up on treatment too soon: as fatty acids need to be incorporated into cell membranes, they do not have an immediate effect. Often a pet must be on a veterinary diet or fatty acid supplement for more than a month before any positive results can be seen.

Continued research into how essential fatty acids work is likely to show even more uses for these valuable nutrients. As one veterinary nutritionist states: ‘Where omega-fatty acids are concerned, there is still a lot to learn”.