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Are omega fatty acids important in dog food?

Omega-3 and omega-6 are both essential fatty acids, which means they're required in a dog's diet for good health. See more dog pictures.
©iStockphoto.com/Monika Wisniewska

Anyone even remotely health-conscious -- or heck, anyone who watches TV or reads health ads in magazines, for that matter -- is likely aware of the benefits of consuming omega fatty acids. But it's not just those of us walking around on two legs that can benefit. They can also be helpful for Fido, Lassie and other dogs as well -- and for many of the same reasons they're good for people; they affect everything from inflammation pathways to the moods and behaviors of our four-legged friends [source: Benson].

A little science is helpful in understanding exactly what omega fatty acids are and what types can have an impact in a dog's diet. According to Dr. Jules Benson, a vice president of veterinary services at the insurance company Petplan, omega fatty acids are polyunsaturated fatty acids, or PUFAs, that have double bonds at specific locations in their molecular structure -- the locations of those bonds differentiate the two most important health-related fatty acids, omega-3 and omega-6. "Specifically, omega-3 fatty acids have a double bond at the third carbon from the methyl group, and omega-6 fatty acids have a double bond at the sixth carbon from the methyl group," says Benson.

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Omega-3 and omega-6 are both essential fatty acids, which means exactly what it sounds like it means: They're required in dogs' diets -- just like humans' -- for good health. Why? Omega-3 fatty acids are known to have anti-inflammatory benefits, which can be especially helpful for older dogs experiencing joint pain and arthritis [source: Benson]. Omega-3s can also be beneficial in protecting against life-threatening kidney and heart diseases, as well as cancer.

Omega-6 fatty acids, on the other hand, can cause or modulate inflammation, which means that they can be something of a double-edged sword. Not only can they prevent some of the health problems that come from swelling, too many omega-6 fatty acids can prompt inflammation.

We'll talk about exactly where dogs get their omega fatty acids next.

With the exception of some omega-6 fatty acids, dogs and other mammals do not produce all that they need by themselves [source: Benson]. Fortunately, these essential fatty acids can be obtained by doing something most dogs love to do: chow down. Figuring out whether or not the food your dog eats has the sorts of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids they need can sometimes be difficult. The more premium brands of dog food tend to have them, and they also display that fact prominently on the packaging as a marketing tool [source: Schrage].

But that's not always the case. "[Omega fatty acids] may or may not be listed," says Duffy Jones, a veterinarian at Peachtree Hills Animal Hospital in Atlanta. "Since they are derived from protein, they may not be listed, but the protein source will be listed." When scanning the ingredients list of a dog food package, look for poultry like chicken, turkey or duck, as well as soy, canola oil and corn as providers of omega-6 fatty acids. Omega-3s, on the other hand, come from fish, fish oil, flaxseed and walnut oil. When these ingredients aren't listed, look out for a specific listing of the fatty acid itself, which can be DHA, for docosahexaenoic acid, or EPA, for eicosapentaenoic acid [source: Benson].

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According to Benson of Petplan, essential fatty acids are absorbed into a dog's bloodstream through a fairly routine process, one dictated by the fact that many are found in fats and oils. "After leaving the stomach, the fats ingested in foods are emulsified in the duodenum and small intestine by bile and then broken down by pancreatic enzymes into fatty acids and glycerol," he says. "Once split into these component parts, fatty acids can cross the intestinal barrier to enter the bloodstream."

So how much omega-3 and omega-6 should your pups be getting? Keep reading to find out.

It is fairly rare for dogs on normal commercial diets to receive an insufficient amount of omega-6 fatty acids.
It is fairly rare for dogs on normal commercial diets to receive an insufficient amount of omega-6 fatty acids.
©iStockphoto.com/tycobonnie

One way to figure out whether your dog is getting enough omega fatty acids is to take a close look at his coat. If it appears dull, then there is a chance that your canine friend is lacking some omega fatty acids. But that's not the only potential problem when a dog's diet doesn't have sufficient omega fatty acids.

According to Benson -- who says it is fairly rare for dogs on normal commercial diets to receive an insufficient amount of omega-6 fatty acids -- negative issues that can arise are an increase in skin infections, muscle weakness, a decrease in reproductive capabilities and a lack of coordination. Age is also a factor when it comes to the impact of an omega fatty acid deficiency. "If they don't get enough when they're a puppy, then nerves and the brain may not develop," says Jones, the Atlanta veterinarian. "If it's later [in life], then they may have cellular dysfunction."

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By and large, dogs routinely do get enough omega-6 fatty acids, so the problem is more a lack of omega-3s. Supplementing a dog's diet with omega-3 fatty acids is possible and fairly easy because adding fish oil to their regular food is simple. As a basic rule of thumb, many vets suggest that the ideal ratio between omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids is about 5 to 1. If a supplement is deemed necessary, expect it to be in the range of between 40 and 100 mg per day, with senior dogs more likely to need it than puppies.

But going the route of supplementation also can have some drawbacks, especially in trying to maintain your pet's ideal weight. "Excess supplementation results in the consumption of too much fat and oil, which may lead to obesity and pancreatitis," Benson says.

For more information on the benefits of omega fatty acids and your dog's diet, click to the next page.

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Sources

  • Benson, Jules. Vice president of veterinary services at Petplan pet insurance company and longtime practicing vet. Personal correspondence. Oct. 13, 2011.
  • Jones, Duffy. Veterinarian at Peachtree Hills Animal Hospital. Personal correspondence. Oct. 14, 2011.
  • Krestel-Rickert, Deena. Pet food consultant at Pettec, LLC. Personal correspondence. Oct. 14, 2011.
  • Schrage, Andrew. Editor of MoneyCrashers.com. Personal correspondence. Oct. 13, 2011.
  • Thixton, Susan. Author of book, "Buyer Beware: The crimes, lies and truth about pet food." Personal correspondence. Oct. 11, 2011.

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