By Dr. Becker
If you’re hoping to raise a canine or feline Einstein, you might want to insure your puppy or kitten is eating a diet containing appropriate amounts of DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and antioxidants.
Studies of puppies fed a balanced diet including the fatty acid DHA showed increases in the dogs’ mental acuity. And studies on older dogs fed an antioxidant-rich diet showed they were better able to learn complex tasks.
How DHA Feeds Your Furry Baby’s Brain
DHA is one of the omega-3 essential fatty acids, along with ALA (alpha-linolenic acid) and EPA (eicosapentaneoic acid). It’s a polyunsaturated fatty acid (PUFA) that in humans has a beneficial effect on inflammation and cognition. Increased PUFA into the cellular membranes of the brain supports improved flow of neurotransmitters between cells.
A study published in 2012 in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association suggests that feeding weaned puppies foods high in DHA improves several aspects of their development. The researchers found that diets rich in DHA and other nutrients known to support neurocognitive development improved cognitive, memory, psychomotor, immunologic, and retinal functions in growing dogs.1
The puppies fed diets containing the highest levels of DHA showed significantly better results in reversal learning tasks, visual contrast discrimination, and early psychomotor performance than puppies eating low to moderate amounts of DHA. Interestingly, those puppies also had significantly higher rabies antibody titers one and two weeks after vaccination, and an improved ability to see in low-light or dark conditions.
Adding Omega-3 Fatty Acids to Your Pet’s Diet
DHA is an omega-3 essential fatty acid found in high concentrations in fish body oils.
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 efficiently convert omega-3 from vegetable sources (such as flaxseed oil) into DHA.
I don’t believe processed pet food is the best delivery system for essential fatty acids. Omega-3 fats are very vulnerable to damage from heat and easily become inactivated during the kibbling or canning process. They are also very sensitive to oxygen and can oxidize quickly, and feeding your pet rancid fat is worse than feeding no fat at all. Even if these healthy fats are added to commercial pet food, they often lose their bioavailability during the kibbling or canning process. (Learn more about what happens to the nutrients in processed pet foods in my recent interview with Steve Brown, creator of the first raw pet food diet.)
That’s why I recommend a balanced, homemade, species-appropriate diet for your cat or dog. But since I also advise against feeding a lot of larger fish (because they bio-accumulate more heavy metals and toxins), I recommend supplementing your pet’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. I recommend researching your source of fish oil to insure it’s sustainably harvested and free from heavy metals and residues. You can begin supplementing with appropriate amounts of EFAs as soon as your puppy or kitten is weaned. Ask your veterinarian about the correct dose for your pet based on her current diet, breed and weight.
Antioxidants and Your Pet’s Brain and Body
Several studies of older dogs have proved the benefits of an antioxidant-rich diet for the aging canine brain.2, 3, 4, 5
And a seven-year study of 90 cats aged 7 to 17 who were also fed an antioxidant-rich diet showed fewer decreases in lean muscle mass; improved body weight, lean body mass, skin thickness, and red cell quality; decreased incidence of disease; general improvement in quality of life; and significantly longer life span.6
Antioxidants gobble up toxic free radicals floating around in your pet's body before they can harm healthy cells and tissue, which reduces both oxidative stress and DNA damage.
Antioxidants are found in fresh foods, including:
- Vitamin A and carotenoids, which are found in bright colored fruits and veggies like apricots, broccoli, cantaloupe, carrots, peaches, squash, sweet potatoes, and tomatoes.
- Vitamin C, found in citrus fruits and strawberries. Also green peppers, broccoli, and green leafy vegetables.
- Vitamin E, found in nuts and seeds.
- Selenium, found in protein sources like fish, chicken, beef, and eggs.
Phytochemicals also contain antioxidant properties:
- Flavonoids/polyphenols are in berries, cranberries, and tea (make sure teas are decaffeinated and cooled before offering to your pet).
- Lycopene is in tomatoes and watermelon.
- Lutein sources are dark green vegetables like spinach, broccoli, and kale.
- Lignan is found in flax seed hulls.
Most commercially available pet foods, even those of very high quality, contain synthetic vitamins and minerals that don’t provide an optimum level of nutrition. Your pet should get antioxidants primarily from a species-appropriate, nutritionally balanced diet rather than from vitamin supplements. Your dog’s or cat’s body is designed to absorb nutrients from fresh, living foods very efficiently.