Fatty Acids: What are they and what can they do?

What are Fatty Acids (FA’s)? 

fatty acidsOver the last few years fatty acids, specifically Omega 3 FA’s, have become more popular as more research into their benefits is performed.   There are many different types of FA’s: Saturated (famous from fast food that luckily don’t play a role in our pets unless you feed them table food) and unsaturated (common in sunflower, soy, canola and fish oil).   In general saturated FA’s are “bad”. They increase cholesterol and low-density lipoproteins (LDL’s).   Whereas unsaturated FA’s are generally “good”.   They decrease cholesterol and LDL’s.   Omega 3 and 6 FA’s are the most commonly taken FA’s. 

Omega 6 FA’s:  These are essential for both dogs and cats as they are very important for cell membranes and their function.   Most dog and cat foods have excessive amounts of Omega 6’s so no additional supplementation is really needed.   Too much dietary omega 6’s MAY results in a production of more pro-inflammatory proteins.  This can be a real problem in patients with concurrent inflammatory conditions such as allergies and arthritis.   Some forms of Omega-6 are better than others as they create more anti-inflammatory mediators.


Omega 3 FA’s: These are not traditionally seen as “essential” for pets but recent strong evidence has emerged regarding benefits of adding omega 3 FA’s to the diet.  ALA (alpha-linolenic Acid) is the main dietary source of omega 3 FA’s but it does not provide the same benefit as adding EPA and DHA in a supplement or food as conversion of ALA to EPA and DHA may not be optimal.   These fatty acids (EPA/DHA) play major functions in maintenance of a normal inflammatory response by replacing Omega 6 FA’s in the cell membranes.  This results in a DECREASE in inflammatory mediators and INCREASE in anti-inflammatories.

The 2010 International Task Force on Canine Atopic Dermatitis stated in their recent guidelines that “skin and coat hygiene and care must be improved by bathing with non-irritating shampoos and dietary supplementation with essential fatty acids”.   This last recommendation was not present in previous guidelines.   You may visit www.omega3learning.uconn.edu/ to further evaluate the potential benefits of omega 3 FA’s in your pet(s) including behavioral modification, arthritis, heart disease, geriatric health, healthy skin and coat, and optimal neurologic development.   This organization has NO affiliation with any industry commodity group.

What role do FA’s play in skin disease?

As mentioned before, FA’s are an important part of your cells membranes, especially on the skin surface.    Recent studies have shown that a skin barrier defect may play a role in the development of allergies by allowing penetration of allergens.  By improving the overall health of the skin barrier the amount of allergens that penetrate the skin and cause allergies is decreased and thus the clinical signs (itching, red skin, secondary infections, etc) are reduced.  A recent study demonstrated that 56% of dogs showed >50% improvement in clinical signs of skin disease over 6 weeks of treatment.

Omega 3 FA’s are not suggested to be a sole treatment for any of the above problems, but instead a piece of the puzzle to allow better control.  Mild cases may be resolved with FA’s but others will require FA’s and additional treatments.

There are many different sources for FA’s and much variability in the products available.  For example the three most common sources of fish oil are Ethyl Esters (very cheap, high concentrations but not absorbed well from the GI tract), Triglycerides (cheap, low concentrations and average absorption), and Free Fatty Acids (high concentrations and superior absorption from the GI tract).   In additional to the form of FA’s you must also be cautious of heavy metals (and other impurities) and bacteria in some sources.  It is also important to not only know that the product has omega 3’s but also that the amounts of EPA and DHA are tested.  Fish oils are also highly prone to oxidation and loss of activity which means products that are made and stored incorrectly will have minimal function.   Lots of human products have beef gelatin capsules which is problematic in many allergy patients.  All this means that the quality of these products is extremely variable and it is very difficult for the average consumer to decide which FA supplement to give and how much.  This is why we recommend certain products (Derma 3 or FreeForm Snip tips) – because we know the source, level of testing, quality of the product, and that the products are tested.  If you have any questions regarding FA’s and your pet(s) then please feel free to contact us at anytime!

Written by: Shawn Seibel, DVM

Advanced Pet Care of Parker