Omega 3 Fatty Acid:
the Fat on Fatty Acids
Shawn Messonnier, DVM
acids are among the most commonly used nutritional supplements used
in treating dogs and cats. Fortunately, they have been used successfully
long enough that most conventional veterinarians include their usage
in the treatment of at least some diseases. This article will discuss
our current knowledge of fatty acids and present some new ideas
for their usage in treating our pets.
fatty acids are divided into omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. In
general, omega-6 fatty acids tend to promote inflammation, whereas
omega-3 fatty acids act to reduce inflammation. As such, omega-3
fatty acids are used in diseases in which anti-inflammatory activity
is needed. The fatty acids can substitute for medications such as
corticosteroids in the treatment of inflammation.
most commonly used supplements that provide fatty acids are fish
oil and flax seed oil. While flax seed oil contains more omega-3's
than fish oil, the omega-3's found in flax seed oil are in an inactive
form. The omega-3's found in fish oil are in an active form. In
research studies, fish oil has shown positive benefits in helping
people and pets with disease, whereas flax seed oil has not been
as beneficial. For this reason, fish oil is generally recommended
as the omega-3 fatty acid supplement of choice.
active omega-3's, (eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic
acid (DHA)) are derived from fish oils of coldwater fish (salmon,
trout, or most commonly menhaden fish.) Also called linseed oil,
flaxseed oil is derived from the seeds of the flax plant and has
been proposed as a less smelly alternative to fish oil. Flaxseed
oil contains alpha-linolenic acid (ALA,) an omega-3 fatty acid that
is ultimately converted to EPA and DHA. In fact, flax seed oil contains
higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids (ALA) than fish oil. It also
contains omega-6 fatty acids.
to the situation with fish oil, pets with inflammatory diseases
may respond to supplementation with flax seed oil. However, many
species of pets (probably including dogs and cats) and some people
cannot efficiently convert ALA to the more active non-inflammatory
omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA.) In one study in people, flax
seed oil was ineffective in reducing symptoms or raising levels
of EPA and DHA. In pets with kidney disease, flax seed oil was not
as effective as fish oil. While flaxseed oil has been suggested
as a substitute for fish oil, there is no evidence that it is effective
when used for the same therapeutic purposes as fish oil. Unlike
the case for fish oil, there is little evidence that flax seed oil
is effective for any specific therapeutic purpose with the following
exceptions. Flax seed oil can improve the coat and skin of pets.
Also, the lignans contained in flax seed oil may have anti-cancer
oil supplementation may be helpful for pets with inflammatory diseases
including allergies, arthritis, kidney disease, heart disease, and
cancers. People with diabetes may have fatty acid derangement and
require supplementation; this may also be true in pets. Fish oil
has demonstrated benefits in people and pets with allergies, kidney
disease, and heart disease. It has also shown benefits as an anti-depressant
in people with mild depression. Fish oil appears to have benefits
in pets with arthritis as well. Pets with any type of inflammatory
disease may benefit from fish oil supplementation. In general, more
severe disease requires doses higher than those commonly recommended
and often additional supplements are necessary as fish oil is not
often useful as the only supplement.
oil is very effective in some pets with allergic skin disease. It
is easy to administer (via gel caps or liquid) and can reduce the
amount of corticosteroid or antihistamine needed to control itching.
The response is variable in other diseases (such as kidney disease)
but fish oil appears effective in research studies. In pets with
some types of cancer, fish oil has slowed down the growth and spread
of the cancer. While more studies are needed on other types of cancer,
the general recommendation is to add fish oil to the diets of all
pets with cancer.
my opinion, any pet may benefit from fatty acid supplementation.
While we don't always have hard "proof" that they work
in every case, the science is there to show how they work and suggest
their usage any time inflammation may be a problem. In most pets
in my practice, fatty acid supplementation forms the "baseline"
of supplements that I use, adding other supplements as dictated
by clinical response or the nature of the disease.
there is concern about the contamination of fish meat with environmental
contaminants such as mercury, this concern does not apply to fish
oil. Supplementation with fish oil can result in decreased levels
of vitamin E; therefore, fish oil supplements have extra vitamin
E added to them.
true with many supplements, your veterinarian may have favorite
supplements that he will sell you or recommend to you. Pet owners
are cautioned against buying supplements without knowledge of the
manufacturer, as supplements are not highly regulated and some supplements
may not contain the labeled amount of fish oil.
oil supplementation is very safe. The most common side effect seen
in people and pets is a fish odor to the breath or the skin. Because
fish oil has a mild "blood-thinning" effect, it should
not be combined with powerful blood-thinning medications, such as
Coumadin (warfarin) or heparin, except on a veterinarian's advice.
Fish oil does not seem to cause bleeding problems when it is taken
by itself at commonly recommended dosages. In people, high doses
of fish oil (4 grams or more each day) when combined with ginkgo
biloba has caused serious bleeding problems. Fish oil does not appear
to raise blood sugar levels in people or pets with diabetes despite
earlier concerns about this. Flax oil does not appear to cause "blood
thinning." In my practice, I've never seen any side effects
and I use a lot of fatty acids. Very rarely, I have had a few of
my canine patients smell fishy. This side effect goes away as the
dosage is lowered. While many owners worry about giving extra "fat"
to their pets, especially in cases where the pet is overweight,
take comfort. Fatty acid supplements contain only a handful of calories
and supplementation is unlikely to hurt any pet on a diet.
studies done in people and pets, dosages much higher than label
doses are needed to achieve results. As a rule, I try to start with
2-4 times the label dose when treating diseases and adjust the dose
depending upon the pet's response. I use the label dose when recommending
fatty acids as a coat or skin supplement.
acid therapy is becoming a part of our mainstream therapy for many
pet disorders, In general, fish oil is preferred to flax oil as
it contains the more active omega-3's. To get the best results,
dosages higher than those on the label are needed and in most cases,
fish oil should be combined with other supplements for maximum effectiveness.
Messonnier, DVM, is the author of 8 Weeks to a Healthy Dog, The
Allergy Solution for Dogs, and the award-winning The Natural
Health Bible for Dogs & Cats. Dr. Shawn is the medical consultant
Togethers, a pet supplement company, and Pet
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