Demystifying Omega 3 Fats for Dogs and Cats

January 14, 2024

Do you get confused when it comes to the topic of omega 3’s? What’s the best source? How can you tell if it’s of good quality? What are the best sources? Is it rancid or not? How do you balance them with other fats? Omega 3 essential fatty acids are well-studied to be important for dogs and cats in terms of their anti-inflammatory effects and for supporting the nervous, digestive, immune system and musculoskeletal systems.

But omega 3s are not all equal and it can be confusing to understand how to best incorporate them into your feeding schedule. Today’s article is all about omega 3’s – let’s dive in!

What are Omega 3’s?

Omega 3 essential fatty acids are polyunsaturated fats that your pet’s body doesn’t produce. They are called essential because they need to be obtained from diet. They are only one type of many fats that your pet needs to stay healthy and balancing them all can get a bit confusing. I’m going to make it simple for you to understand today!

In highly processed pet foods and even with fresh food diets, omega 3 fats are often unbalanced. There are other types of omega fats but today’s focus will be on omega 3s. These are the most difficult to obtain in a healthy way in our modern world. Kibble, cooked diets and raw diets are all lacking in omega 3’s and need to be added. There are a number of ways to do that.

Why Does Your Pet Need Omega 3s?

Omega 3 fats help increase immune-modulatory markers in the bloodstream – essentially, they are anti-inflammatory fats. Examples of their role in the body include the well-researched facts that they can help prevent arthritis and aid in immune-modulation can help relieve allergy symptoms.

Extensive research on humans and animals confirms their numerous health benefits in the following areas:

  • brain
  • skin & coat
  • eyes
  • gut
  • reproductive system
  • heart
  • joints

Omega 3 Profiles

Here’s where we get into a little but of science and math. But I promise it won’t hurt!

There are many different omega fat types, including omega 3s, 6s, 7s, and 9s. Each type has its own roles and properties, so it’s important to know the difference. Today’s lesson focuses on the ones that are the most commonly lacking in pet diets – omega 3s.

The omega 3s we will focus on today:

ALAalpha-linoleic acid – This short-chain omega 3 comes from plants and can be used as energy in the body. Your pet has a limited ability to convert this into other types of omega 3s (including EPA and DHA). ALA can be found in nuts, seeds and oils such as flax, chia, hemp, walnut, and other plant-based oils. ALA needs to be balanced in relation to an omega 6 fatty acid called linoleic acid (LA).

EPA – eicosapentaenoic acid – This one is a long-chain fatty acid is found largely in animal-based foods like fish and krill. Some algae strains also contain EPA and raw pastured eggs have some as well. This is the most well-studied fat for pets in terms of its anti-inflammatory and immune-modulatory effects and often seen as the most important one to supplement into to the diet.

DHA – docosahexaenoic acid – DHA is another long-chain omega 3 that makes up a large part of the brain (up to 25%!), the retina of the eyes, and countless other body tissues. It is vital for brain, heart, and joint health. It’s also found in ocean sources like krill, fish, marine algae and some is found in pastured eggs.

Fats Often Mistaken for Omega 3s:

  • GLA – gamma linoleic acid (omega 6)
  • LA – linoleic acid (omega 6)
  • ARA – arachidonic acid (omega 6)
  • CLA – conjugated linoleic acid (omega 6)

Though we won’t focus on these today, you may hear these names in your nutritional explorations. They also have important roles in the body and need to be balanced in relation to omega 3’s. Keep reading!

When Dietary Fats Are Not Balanced…

A balanced ratio of dietary fats at of all types helps the body maintain homeostasis. When they become imbalanced for long periods of time, they can lead to bodily imbalances.

One of the most the most common dietary fat imbalances is the omega 6 and omega 3 ratio. Highly processed kibbles are, without exception, high in omega 6s and lacking omega 3s. An imbalance in this ratio can lead to serious health issues stemming from chronic low-grade systemic inflammation.

Omega 6-rich diets are common in the pet food world because grains and legumes are high in omega 6 and have very little omega 3s. Commercial raw diets can also have imbalanced ratios – don’t assume that just because you’re feeding raw that your fats are balanced! Pet food companies often add omega 3s to the formula but given that they are highly unstable, they get destroyed and go rancid with exposure to light, oxygen and freezing.

So how do you do all of this without being a mathematician?

Omega 3 Supplementation for Dogs and Cats – Making it Easy

There are two main dietary forms of essential omega 3s that pets are often lacking: EPA and DHA. Your pet can also benefit from ALA as well.

EPA and DHA is often provided by feeding fish or fish oil. You cannot feed plant-based oils to provide EPA and DHA – not even from flax or chia! Flax and chia contain ALA only.

Below is a reference table that will help you to choose the best types of omega 3 for dogs and cats based on what diet you are feeding. For all pets, it’s important to provide as much food variety as possible so that they have access to all the important fats they need. Protein types contain different fat ratios so here’ how to know which fats to pair with each type.  Top be clear, this table specifically focuses on supplementing for raw diets, not for processed feed (which is a whole other ball game). If you’re looking to provide an anti-inflammatory diet, fresh food is the way to go. Your omega 3’s won’t have as much influence if your peti s eating processed food. It’s the same for us!

Omega 3 Supplementation Chart

Meal Contains This Diet Needs:

Raw Poultry*

LA (Omega 6)

·      Chia or Flax Oil (ALA – Omega 3)

·      Fish/Marine Oils (EPA & DHA – Omega 3s)

Raw Red Meats/Ruminants*

Saturated fat

·      Hemp Oil (LA – Omega 6)

·      Fish/Marine Oils (EPA & DHA – Omega 3)

Kibble (Grain-Based or Grain- Free)

LA, GLA, ARA, CLA (Omega 6s)

·      Fish & Marine Oils (EPA & DHA – Omega 3)

 

*pasture-raised/pasture-finished poultry and ruminants are naturally higher in omega 3s!

What Forms of Omega 3’s are the Best?

The omega 3 oil industry is a bit of a mess. Unfortunately, most of it is already oxidized when you purchase it and has no value or can actually be inflammatory when added to your pet’s food. These fats are so difficult to preserve that you have to be specific about your priorities when purchasing them for your pet. Things to be aware of when you’re making omega 3 choices:

a) Sustainability. Fishing for sustainability of our ocean resources is mostly a common myth. There are “better” ways to fish but they are all destructive to sea life. The ocean is under great environmental pressure right now so being mindful on your purchasing footprint in this area is important. While sea life is where DHA and EPA is obtained, I do my best to have the smallest footprint possible. Fish oil, green lipped muscle, krill, or other oils that come directly from the ocean all leave an ecological footprint, however, some more than others. No matter what the label says, none of them are 100% sustainable for ecology. Sustainability, in this case, is a phrase that supports the fishing industry rather than the actual ocean. To make it easy to choose, the higher up the food chain you go, the less sustainable the food source is. For example: salmon is the least sustainable with smaller fish such as sardines and maceral being a better choice and krill being the lowest on the food chain in terms of oils and foods that we can easily purchase. On a personal note, I mostly use krill oil, home-raised pastured chicken eggs, canned sardines packed in water and frozen sardine and mackerel. Farmed salmon should also be avoided like the plague since they are less nutritious and are harming wild salmon populations in a dangerous way.

b) Heavy Metals. Fish (especially longer-living, large species, and higher-level predators) will bio-accumulate heavy metals such as lead, mercury, arsenic, and cadmium. These metals come from industrial sources that commonly pollute ocean ecosystems. These contaminants often end up in your fish oil. The best solution is to also stay low on the food chain to avoid toxic accumulation.

c) Rancidity. Despite what people think, omega 3 oils are not “whole foods.” The whole fish contains a number of antioxidants that help preserve omega 3 fats. The oils often do not contain these elements so they need to be preserved in other ways. Tips for ensuring better quality oils:

  • Choose oils that are refrigerated by the retailer
  • Choose oils preserved with natural vitamin E (tocopherols) and/or rosemary extract
  • Krill oil contains axstathanthan, the red coloring from the krill which is a powerful antioxidant for the oil and also for your pet!

d) Hidden Chemicals. Some omega 3 oils are obtained through a chemical stripping process that can leave trace amounts of toxic chemicals in the oil. Only choose oils that have been extracted using non-chemical cold-processing techniques and/or treated with activated charcoal to remove heavy metals.

It’s important to use sources of omega 3s for dogs and cats that don’t create more harm than good. It is possible to be mindful and to ask your local raw pet food store for details about how oils are harvested, extracted and stored. Some companies can even provide you with a COA (Certified Analysis) to ensure the quality of their product. Sources grown on land in structured cultivation facilities allow for sustainable products free from heavy metals.

I hope this helps make omega 3’s less confusing and easier to choose. Happy feeding =)