By Dr. Becker
A recent study1 suggests that feeding puppies foods high in DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) improves several aspects of their development.
The study, published this past September in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association and conducted by Hill’s Pet Nutrition in Canada, concluded that:
Dietary fortification with fish oils rich in DHA and possibly other nutrients implicated in neurocognitive development following weaning improved cognitive, memory, psychomotor, immunologic, and retinal functions in growing dogs.
Study Evaluated Effects of Food Fortified with DHA on Beagle Puppies
The goal of the study was to evaluate the effect of food with added DHA from fish oil on the cognitive, memory, psychomotor, immunologic, retinal function and other developmental measures in healthy puppies.
The research involved 48 newly weaned, 8 week-old Beagle puppies. They were separated into three groups – group one received low-DHA food, group two received moderate-DHA food, and the third group received high-DHA food as their only source of nutrition until they turned one year old. The high-DHA food also contained higher levels of vitamin E, taurine, choline and L-carnitine than the low- and moderate-DHA foods.
Throughout the trial, researchers evaluated the puppies’ visual discrimination learning abilities (their capacity to recognize and identify visual shapes, forms, and patterns), memory function, and psychomotor performance (the coordination of a sensory or cognitive process with a motor activity).
Physiologic tests were also conducted, including blood and serum analysis, electroretinography (a test that measures the electrical response of the eye's light-sensitive cells, called rods and cones), and dual-energy x-ray absorptiometry (measures bone mineral density).
In addition, rabies antibody titer tests were taken at 1, 2, 4, and 8 weeks after vaccination at 16 weeks.
Significantly Better Results Seen in Puppies Receiving High-DHA Food
The group three puppies – those who received diets containing the highest levels of DHA – had significantly better results than the other groups in reversal learning tasks, visual contrast discrimination and early psychomotor performance.
This group also had significantly higher rabies antibody titers 1 and 2 weeks after vaccination, and an improved ability to see in low-light or dark conditions.
The researchers concluded that:
Following weaning, dietary fortification with fish oils rich in DHA and possibly other nutrients implicated in neurocognitive development improves cognitive, memory, psychomotor, immunologic and retinal functions in growing dogs.
Best Way to Supplement Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Docosahexaenoic acid or DHA is an omega-3 essential fatty acid (EFA) found in high concentrations in fish body oils.
Studies show DHA and EPA (another omega-3 fatty acid) from fish body oils are more beneficial than those provided by nut or flaxseed oils, because fish body oils provide greater tissue levels of EFAs than oils from other sources. This is especially important for cats and dogs, because they can’t convert omega-3 from vegetable sources into DHA.
The Beagle puppy study was done by Hill’s Pet Nutrition (makers of Science Diet and Hill’s Prescription Diets) and their goal, I’m sure, is to develop commercial pet food formulas containing added nutrients like DHA. The problem is that omega-3 fats are very vulnerable to damage from heat and oxygen. So even if these healthy fats are added to commercial pet food, they often lose their bioavailability during the kibbling or canning process.
This is one of many reasons why a balanced, homemade, species-appropriate diet is ideal for your cat or dog. But since I advise against feeding much fish to pets, I recommend supplementing your dog’s or cat’s diet with krill oil, which is a rich source of omega-3s. Other sources include salmon oil, tuna oil, sardine oil, squid oil and anchovy oil.
As the study shows, it’s beneficial to begin supplementing with EFAs as soon as your puppy (or kitten) is weaned. Ask your vet about your puppy’s correct dose, based on her current diet, breed and weight.