Fatty Acids for Pet Skin and Haircoat Health

Fatty Acids for Pet Skin and Haircoat Health

By Randy Kidd, DVM, PhD, Holistic Veterinarian

You've probably heard that proper amounts of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids in your pet's diet can make for healthy skin and haircoat. But what exactly are fatty acids? Which ones do your pets need? Are the fatty acids in commercial foods enough? In this article, we'll look at the basics of these dietary building blocks to help you understand what your pets need and where to find it.

First, let's take a look at fats. In small amounts, fats are a natural part of a healthy diet for both pets and their people. Some special fats, known as fatty acids, are especially important for the general health of any animal species, particularly to maintain healthy skin and haircoat.

Fatty acids are one of three categories of dietary fats (or lipids):

  • Oils - lipids which are liquid at room temperature
  • Fats - lipids which are solid at room temperature
  • Fatty acids - fats with a particular chemical structure 

Essential fatty acids, or EFAs, are those fatty acids that a species requires that it can't make from other sources. Linoleic acid is an example of an EFA for dogs, and cats require both linoleic and arachidonic EFAs.

Fatty acids are further grouped into categories including omega-3 and omega-6, each with its own specific biochemical structure. While both are needed for optimum health, each works differently in the body. Here are some common ones and where they can be found:

Omega-3 fatty acids include: Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA. (Note that DHA is not DHEA, another commonly available supplement). Fish oils, especially cold-water fish such as salmon, mackerel, halibut, and herring, as well as animals that feed on these fish, are the primary dietary sources of omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids are also found in oils from some plants such as flax. Walnuts and soybeans also contain significant amounts, as well as freshly ground wheat germ.

Omega-6 fatty acids include: Linoleic acid (LA), its active form, gamma linolenic acid (GLA), and arachidonic acid (AA). Omega-6 is found in safflower, sunflower, corn and evening primrose and Borage oils. It is also present in poultry and pork fat, but very little is present in beef fat or butterfat. Arachidonic Acid, the essential fatty acid for felines, is only found in animal sources–in some fish oils, pork fat and poultry fat.

Many commercial pet foods contain far more omega-6s than omega-3s, but it has been shown that diets higher in omega-3s can provide significant health benefits. There are a number of reasons for this, but essentially it has to do with where the ingredients come from. Corn, for example, is high in omega-6 fatty acids, so the meat from animals fed on corn is also high in omega-6s. Meat, eggs, and milk that come from animals fed a diet containing flax seed have a higher proportion of omega-3s, as does the meat from grass fed or free-range animals.

While omega-3 fatty acids may be harder to come by, the benefits are well worth the trouble. Sufficient amounts of fatty acids, with the correct ratio of omega-3 and omega-6, are known to help prevent the following conditions (some conditions may also be treated with therapeutic levels of the correct fatty acids):

  • Dry, dull, brittle, itchy skin and haircoat
  • Inflammatory processes from any source
  • Allergies, immune system dysfunctions-especially autoimmune conditions, and related diseases, such as arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, diabetes, asthma, and ulcerative colitis, may respond to proper amounts of dietary omega-3s.
  • Yeast infections can be slowed
  • Visual acuity and heart conditions may be improved 
  • Omega-3s have been shown to slow the growth of some cancers
  • Fish oils decrease the levels of cholesterol and triglycerides in the blood
  • Overweight-a proper balance of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids can actually help prevent obesity
  • Many mental conditions (in humans) respond favorably to increased levels of omega-3s.

In addition to the amount, a correct balance of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids is also important. It is known, for example, that too much of the omega-6, linoleic acid, can actually cause inflammation. So, the key is to supply enough of the necessary fatty acids, in the correct balance. This is problematic because, even though research is ongoing, at present we don't really know the ratio that is healthiest for each pet species.

While you might see recommendations that the omega-6-to-omega-3 ratio should be anywhere from 20:1 to 5:1, you should be suspicious. Omega-3s are difficult to preserve in packaged foods. 

For most pets eating a commercial diet (typically high in omega-6s), an additional daily dose of omega-3s in the form of fish oils or flax seed oil (or even a sprinkling of whole flax seeds) mixed into pet's food will be helpful. Ask your vet for a reccommendation. for instance, for dogs, unless the pet food you are using specifically mentions an omega-3 content, you can probably assume that adding about 1 tablespoon of flax or 1 teaspoon of fish oil to each pound of your dog's food will be beneficial. Again, check with your vet for exact dosages and for the specific fatty acids to use. 

Tips for providing a healthy amount of omega-3s to a pet's diet:

  • Whenever possible, choose natural sources, such as fish, flax seed oils or whole flax seeds, over supplements packaged in pills or capsules. 
  • Whenever possible, use fresh sources. Oils, especially the omega-3 fatty acids, can turn rancid quickly. Keep them out of sunlight and refrigerated, as their bioactivity diminishes with any heat.  
  • Supplemental vitamin E can be added to a pet's diet to help keep the fatty acids from turning rancid, and there is some evidence to indicate that vitamin E adds to the absorption and activity of the fatty acids.
  • Essential Fatty Acid supplementation may decrease the amount of antihistamines, corticosteroids or other medicines that your pet may be taking. Check with your vet if your pet is currently on medications.

Fatty acids are an important factor for your pet's overall health. Either as a regular part of your pet's diet or as a supplement, omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids together provide a natural way to alleviate or cure skin and other conditions, while being key to developing and maintaining a healthy haircoat. 

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