By Karen Shaw Becker, DVM
Contrary to popular belief, not all dietary fats cause obesity in your pet. Just as in humans, the "good" fats (omega-3 fats) enhance energy production in your dog or cat, so they actually create less fat.
Because most pets consume an abundance of high carbohydrate, empty calorie dry foods (kibble), the pet obesity issue is quickly rivaling the human obesity epidemic.
A great example is Donnie, a 7-year old mixed breed, neutered male dog. Judging from his physical features we guessed Donnie was a yellow lab/German shepherd mix.
Donnie arrived at my hospital exhibiting classic omega-3 deficiency symptoms. He had tested positive for Demodex mange (a non-contagious skin mite that proliferates on immunosuppressed animals). Fifty percent of his hair was missing and the exposed skin was scabby from scratching. Both ears were infected, and he was not just over weight; he was over-fat and under-muscled.
Donnie was brought to me as a last resort. After his owners had rescued him from a shelter, they were told to consider euthanasia as his skin issues were "uncontrollable" and his immune system was clearly imbalanced . My goal was to provide this dog some immediate relief, as well as address his nutritional deficiencies.
I weaned Donnie onto a new, species-appropriate diet, instituted regular baths and ear cleanings, and provided an abundance of antioxidants and healthy omega-3 fats. After three months, not only was Donnie free from Demodex, he had regrown healthy new hair and had lost over 10 pounds of fat.
The owners were very pleased with his progress, but Donnie was the happiest of all -- itch free, with a shiny coat, and agile in his new, rebalanced body.
And as you might have guessed, omega-6 and omega-3 fats are as vital to your pet's health as they are to yours. These fatty acids are crucial for many of your pet's most important tissues and organs -- everything from reproduction to a healthy skin and coat.
There is also mounting evidence that essential fats play a significant role in your pet's ability to fight off most all illness and disease.
This is the most common nutritional deficiency I see in my practice.
The symptoms I encounter on a daily basis include cats with dry skin and chronic oral inflammation, and dogs with recurrent skin and ear infections.
Fortunately, this is an easily remedied situation.
The "Essential" Nature of Omega-6 and 3 Fats
Your dog or cat has a fundamental dietary requirement for certain fatty acids that it cannot produce on its own. These fats can only come from the food you feed your pet, thus the term essential.
Omega-6 and omega-3 fats derive their names from their chemical composition. It's important to realize that your pet requires both omega-3 (alpha-linolenic) and omega-6 (linoleic) acids in order to thrive.
How to Spot an Omega-6 Deficiency in Your Pet
The ratio of omega-6 to 3 fats is very important to your pet's well being. Current recommendations are for ratios of 10:1 to 5:1.
If your dog or cat is eating a typical commercial pet food diet, it's actually far more likely he or she is getting too much omega-6 fats rather than too little. However, it's important to understand the role the omega-6' fats play in your pet's health.
A lack of omega-6 fats in your pet's diet will result in poor overall development and a failure to gain weight. An omega-6 deficiency can compromise your pet's immune system and cause liver and kidney degeneration.
Other signs of omega-6 deficiency include:
- behavioral disturbances
- poor wound healing
- sterility in male pets
The omega-6 fats also play a major role in the health of your pet's skin and coat. A deficiency can result in dry, flaky skin and a dull, brittle coat which leads to hair breakage and loss. In this compromised condition, your pet's skin can become prone to bacterial infections and itchiness.
Your pet might also develop a condition known as hyperkeratosis (thickened skin).
Omega-6 fats are primarily found in plant oils such as flaxseed, hemp, and pumpkin seeds. If your pet is deficient in omega-6 fats (which again, is highly unlikely given the ingredients used in most commercial pet foods today), supplementation will benefit the skin, coat and nails, and can also help alleviate skin allergies.
The One to Watch: Omega-3 fats
Omega-3 fats have tremendous potential to positively impact your pet's health.
Omega-3's encourage the production of prostaglandins and leukotrienes, compounds that help regulate inflammation, immune system response and blood clotting activity in your dog or cat.
They help to reduce the inflammation associated with arthritis (including rheumatoid arthritis) and conditions of the bowel such as ulcerative colitis and inflammatory bowel disease.
Research indicates omega-3 fats may also prevent pet heart problems like arrhythmia and high blood pressure, as well as decrease triglyceride and blood cholesterol levels.
Omega-3 fats are also being researched for their potential to slow the development and spread of certain cancers in pets, as well as for their ability to prevent or alleviate auto-immune disorders, allergies, and some skin conditions.
A deficiency of omega-3 fats in your cat or dog can result in stunted growth, eye problems, muscle weakness and lack of motor coordination, as well as immune system dysfunction.
How Do You Know if Your Pet is Getting the Right Balance of Good Fats?
Cell membranes and cell walls consist of two layers of phospholipids that are derived from omega 3 fats. The omega 3 fats allow for the production of eicosanoids (i.e. prostaglandins and leukotrienes) which are compounds that regulate inflammation, immune-reactivity and platelet aggregation.
The ratio of omega 3 to 6 fats is very important to your pet's wellbeing. In general, most pets are consuming far too many omega 6's and too few omega 3's.
Unfortunately, both omega-6 and omega-3 fats are also very vulnerable to heat, so while these fats may have once been present in your pet's food, it's possible they lost their bio-availability during the kibbling or canning process. Essential fats are also very sensitive to oxygen and can become damaged quickly.
Since most pet foods contain far more omega-6 fats than omega-3 fats, your pet may benefit from additional omega 3's in its diet. The optimal source of omega 3s is marine body oils, the most biologically available of which is krill oil.
Exactly how much to supplement depends on the current health of your pet and the wellness goals you want to achieve.
If your pet is currently in good health, I recommend supplementing with krill oil as follows:
- 250mg daily for toy breeds and cats (1-14 lbs)
- 500mg daily for small dogs (15-29 lbs)
- 1000mg daily for medium dogs (30-49 lbs)
- 1500mg mg daily for large dogs (50-79 lbs)
- 2000mg daily for dogs 80+ lbs
There is nothing more important for your pet's health and longevity than good nutrition. Insuring your dog's or cat's diet includes a proper balance of omega-6 and 3 fats can make a tremendous difference in the health of your four-legged family member.x