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Integrative Pet Vet column: Essential fatty acids, fatty acids and pets

Fatty acids are lipids (fats). Some fatty acids are considered essential for health because dogs and cats cannot make them. This means that they must be included in the diet. Fats and fatty acids from the diet have important functions that include providing energy (calories), helping intestinal absorption of fat soluble vitamins (like vitamins A and D), increasing (n-6 fatty acid) or reducing inflammation (n-3 fatty acids), aiding formation of cell signaling and hormone-like compounds (prostaglandins), playing a role in the structure of cell membranes, and a host of benefits for the skin, cardiovascular system and brain.

Dogs require the essential fatty acids LA (linoleic acid), ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). Cats require these plus the essential fatty acid AA (arachidonic acid). These essential fatty acids are classified as n-6 or n-3. While food sources contain a variety of fatty acids, it is the inability or limited ability of dogs and cats to convert one fatty acid into another that makes some essential. LA (n-6) and ALA (n-3) can be found in plant oils like corn oil, soybean oil, canola oil and flaxseed oil. AA (n-6) is found in animal fat. EPA (n-3) and DHA (n-3) are present in fish oils.

Fatty acids are named based on the length of their carbon chain and the number of single and double bonds they contain. The length of the carbon chain gives short-chain (less than eight carbons in length), medium-chain (eight to 12 carbons) and long-chain (more than 12 carbons) categories. Saturated fats contain no double bonds, while unsaturated fats can contain one double bond (monounsaturated fat) or two or more double bonds (polyunsaturated fat). They are further described by where the first double bond is found. For example, the n-3 (also known as omega-3) fatty acid in fish oil has it first double bond at the number three position, has more than two double bonds (polyunsaturated) and is more than 12 carbons in length (long-chain).



The first question to consider is why this mind numbing description is important. Knowing how the fatty acids are named and categorized helps with understanding of health claims and information about fatty acid supplements. This also helps to decipher the steps involved with metabolism of the essential fatty acid in the body. For example, LA and AA are both n-6 fatty acids. Dogs are able to convert LA into the longer AA using a specific enzyme reaction. Cats lack this enzyme so cannot make the conversion and need AA in the diet. AA plays an important role in the cell membrane structure, cell signaling and it is pro-inflammatory.

Since inflammation has an important role in health, and too much inflammation can result in problems, a counterbalance to the n-6 is needed. The n-3 essential fatty acids EPA and DHA provide an anti-inflammatory effect by reducing substances that promote inflammation. It is important that there is an appropriate ratio of n-6 to n-3 in the diet. Fish oil is the main dietary source of EPA and DHA. Krill oil also provides these n-3 essential fatty acids. Research reports are inconsistent in humans regarding whether krill oil is superior to fish oil for providing health benefits. More research will be needed on this topic.



Coconut oil is a medium-chain fatty acid. It does not contain appreciable amounts of the n-6 or n-3 fatty acids. However, it does contain lauric acid, which many believe has anti-inflammatory, anti-fungal and antibacterial properties. Some feel that coconut oil has been useful for topical applications like wound management. Others feel that coconut oil has been helpful for chronic digestive problems and allergy issues. Research has not substantiated all of its potential uses, and some research results are contradictory.

When selecting an oil or fatty acid supplement, keep in mind the importance of selecting one that is focused on the problem you are supporting and that it is appropriate for the dog or cat. Also remember that some health issues like pancreatitis are typically managed with low-fat diets.

If you have questions about the use of dietary oils and fatty acid supplements, contact your veterinarian.

Ron Carsten, DVM, PhD, CVA, CCRT was one of the first veterinarians in Colorado to use the integrative approach, has lectured widely to veterinarians and has been a pioneer in the therapeutic use of food concentrates to manage clinical problems. He is also the founder of Colorado Animal Rescue (CARE). In addition to his doctor of Veterinary Medicine, he holds a PhD in cell and molecular biology and is a certified veterinary acupuncturist and certified canine rehabilitation therapist. He practices integrative veterinary medicine in Glenwood Springs.


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