Just like with us humans, some natural supplements can be beneficial to our pets, boosting the immune system, reducing the occurrence of diseases, etc. Omega 3 and 6 are some of the most common supplements given to dogs and cats, with the benefits of Omega 3 being well recognised and demonstrated through a plethora of scientific studies.
What Are Omega Oils?
Omega 3 and 6 are essential fatty acids, with some Omega 3 oils containing two important polyunsaturated acids (Eicosapentaenoic Acid & Docosahexaenoic Acid, EPA & DHA respectively).
Omega 3 is found in fish and plant-based materials, whereas Omega 6 is found in plant materials, eggs and meat.
The type of Omega 3 we feed our pets is important. Omega 3 from fish oil contains EPA and DHA, whereas Omega 3 from plant-based materials, such as flaxseed oil, contains a different polyunsaturated acid known as Alpha-Linolenic Acid (ALA). ALA does not offer the same health benefits as EPA and DHA.
Furthermore, some species, including humans, have the ability to convert ALA to EPA and DHA. Cats, however, are one of the species that cannot convert ALA to EPA and DHA, and dogs cannot convert it efficiently. As a result, it can be argued that Omega 3 from plant materials is of little to no benefit to cats, and has a limited benefit to dogs.
What about Omega 6? This Omega oil is regularly added to commercial pet food, but while it does have known benefits for both dogs and cats, studies have also shown that it can cause an inflammatory response in pets with pre-existing conditions (e.g. renal failure, inflammatory bowel disease). Therefore, if Omega 6 is present in significant quantities it could have a detrimental effect on an animal's health.
While some pet foods contain omega oils, it might not always be in sufficient quantities or quality to provide health benefits. So, a good quality supplement is often advisable.
Evidence suggests that Omega 3 has a positive effect on the immune system, especially in older animals, and helps to lessen the symptoms of inflammatory diseases such as arthritis. Other health benefits have been noted across several studies and it has led to the conclusion that Omega 3 containing EPA and DHA can also aid in the management of conditions such as:
High blood pressure
Behavioural issues such as excessive licking and pacing
A lack of essential Omega 3 and 6 in our pets' diet can also affect the quality of their coat and cause dull and greasy fur, itchy skin, and dandruff. Used as a general supplement, Omega 3 (containing EPA and DHA) is also believed to aid in organ health, bone development, help develop cognitive function, and help prevent the onset of diseases such as diabetes.
There are several types of Omega 3 oils currently available for pets, and the majority of these are marine oils. Omega 3 supplements containing fish oils from sardines, anchovies, and salmon are all excellent sources of Omega 3. If sustainability is also a key concern for you when purchasing products, there are plenty of fish oils that are sourced from sustainable fish stocks.
As mentioned above, marine-based Omega 3 oils are healthier and more beneficial for our dogs and cats compared to plant-based supplements.
Flaxseed oil is a plant-based Omega 3 supplement commonly used in pet foods, but as flaxseed oil only contains ALA its benefits are limited for dogs and non-existent for cats. Cats do not have the enzyme in their bodies that is needed to convert ALA to the more beneficial EPA and DHA, mainly due to the fact that they are obligate carnivores and therefore have no need for digesting and utilising plant matter.
In wild cats, ALA will have already been converted to EPA and DHA by their prey.
Unlike cats, dogs can convert ALA to EPA and DHA, but not efficiently. Studies have demonstrated that the conversion rate of ALA to EPA and DHA is very limited. In one study, investigators conducted a double-blinded, placebo-controlled, randomized trial with 29 dogs over a 10-week period, all of which were suffering from an inflammatory skin disorder. Some of the dogs were treated with flaxseed oil and some with Omega 3 fish oils. The study confirmed that it took 2.3 times as much flaxseed oil as marine omega 3 oil to achieve similar improvements in their condition.
While Omega 6 oil may be of benefit to a healthy pet, it has been proven to cause an inflammatory response in pets already diagnosed with inflammatory conditions such as bowl disease, renal failure and heart disease (as opposed to Omega 3, which causes an anti-inflammatory response). A good quality Omega 3 fish oil supplement, however, has been demonstrated to be beneficial with these sort of conditions.
If you are feeding your pet a prepared food that includes Omega oils, it is best to be aware of what oils are stated on the label as well as the quantity contained in the food. It is not mandatory for any pet food to include values of their omega 3 content, and a product advertising itself as containing omega oils does not necessarily contain fish oils and could be limited to flaxseed or other plant-based Omega oils.
Back in 2002, the total world production of oils and fats was around 99 million metic tons. 1.88% of this was sourced from fish and other marine by-products. Based on this, and due to the substantial amount of fish being consumed annually, it is important to consider the sustainability of the products we are purchasing.
The production of fish oil is partially dependent on wild fish populations as well as farmed, so it is important to ensure that the fish species used are not currently endangered and are from areas with a healthy and stable population. The Marine Conservation Society rate fish for consumption based on the sustainability of where they are fished from, and provide lots of handy information to help consumers make conscious decisions.
Some important points to note:
Salmon oil derived from wild Atlantic salmon is best avoided, as their populations are not sustainably harvested. However farmed Atlantic salmon is readily available from sustainable sources, as are other species of salmon.
Krill oil comes from Antarctic krill, a crustacean that contains above-average levels of protein as well as omega fatty acids. The population of krill has been reported to be declining due to a combination of environmental issues such as global warming, and an increase in fishing. There are also concerns over the impact overfishing could have on the surrounding marine life that feeds off of these animals. Currently, there are fishing quotas in place to help prevent the over-harvesting of krill and conservation research is taking place.
Some companies are working on creating marine-based Omega oil supplements that are not derived from fish, and this something we are keeping a close eye on in the pet product market!
Remember, if you have any concerns about your pet's health, be sure to get in contact with your vet. If your pet has a pre-existing medical condition, we always recommend consulting your vet first before introducing any new supplement or changes to their diet.