Fatty Acids for Pets by Dr. Shawn Messonnier, DVM
Fats in the form of fatty acids have recently become a popular supplement among veterinarians, and not just those interested in holistic care. First suggested for use in treating allergies in pets, they are now advocated in cases of kidney disease, elevated cholesterol, and arthritis as well. Veterinarians are discovering that fatty acids can be valuable for a variety of conditions. So many doctors now use fatty acid supplements in treating atopic dermatitis in pets that, while I will discuss them in this chapter, they could almost be considered a conventional (although non-drug) therapy!
When I talk about using fatty acids, that doesn’t mean adding some vegetable oil to the pet’s diet to get a nice shiny coat. I’m referring to omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids (omega-9 fatty acids have no known use in treating pets). Omega-3 fatty acids, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), are derived from fish oils of coldwater fish such as salmon and trout, and flaxseed. Omega-6 fatty acids, linoleic acid (LA) and gamma-linolenic acid (GLA) are derived from the oil of seeds such as evening primrose, black currant, and borage.
Since processed foods have increased omega-6 fatty acids and decreased omega-3 fatty acids, if your dog eats processed food, adding omega-3 supplements is probably a good idea. Adding large amounts of omega-3 fatty acids to a dog’s diet favors the production of non-inflammatory eicosanoids, decreasing inflammation and itchiness in the pet with atopic dermatitis. Eicosanoids produced from arachidonic acid are not the sole cause of the inflammation in pets with atopic dermatitis, however. For this reason, fatty acid therapy is rarely effective as the sole therapy, but is used with other therapies, often with other supplements, to achieve an additive effect.
Obtaining Fatty Acids
Fatty acids are supplied in liquid form, and in a capsule form. Most pets take either form well. For dogs that are difficult to “pill,” the liquid form is quite popular. Owners of dogs 20 pounds and under find the liquid form more cost effective than the large bottle of fatty acid capsules that we prescribe.
For owners who do not like giving their pets medication, or for pets who don’t take the fatty acid supplements easily, it might be wise to try some of the medically formulated dog foods that contain the fatty acids. These are available from veterinarians, who often prescribe such food as an anti-inflammatory diet for pets with allergies. The main concern among holistic owners is that most of these “premium” diets are not natural, holistic products. Most of them contain fillers, by-products, and chemical preservatives and additives. A far better option is to feed natural processed food, or better, a balanced homemade natural diet, and then supplement the diet with the recommended dosage of fatty acids. If you are using packaged processed food as a source of fatty acids for your dog, be sure to check product labels carefully for the source of the fatty acid. Many processed diets supplemented with fatty acids use flaxseeds or flaxseed oil as the fatty acid supplement. While flaxseeds or flaxseed oil is not harmful to pets and does supply some essential omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids, flaxseed oil is a source of alphalinoleic acid (ALA), an omega-3 fatty acid that is ultimately converted to EPA and DHA. Many animals (probably including dogs) and some people cannot convert ALA to these other more active non-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids, due to a deficiency of desaturase enzymes needed for the conversion. In one human study, flaxseed oil was ineffective in reducing symptoms or raising levels of EPA and DHA. Therefore, I do not recommend flaxseed oil as a fatty acid supplement for pets with atopic dermatitis. Instead, look for fish oil, which provides EPA and DHA. Flaxseed oil is often added to diets because fish oil produces a “fishy” smell that may be offensive to owners.
Benefits of Fatty Acids
A number of studies have documented the benefits of fatty acid supplements for allergic pets. These studies involved only a few of the many fatty acid supplements currently available, however. As is true with most nutritional supplements, the majority of supplement manufacturers have not paid for the expensive double-blind placebo-controlled studies so often required for definitive “proof” that the supplement actually works. This does not mean that only the few supplements tested are effective. Follow your doctor’s advice when trying to choose a supplement for your pet. If one fatty acid supplement is ineffective, there are many others you can try. In the literature, fatty acid supplements made from fish oil were effective in reducing symptoms of itching and inflammation in 11 to 27 percent of allergic dogs and over 50 percent of allergic cats. How well fatty acids work in an allergic pet depends upon a number of factors, including the product used, dosage, and the presence of other diseases that can contribute to itching. Many atopic pets also have flea allergies, bacterial skin infections, Malassezia yeast skin infections, and food hypersensitivity. Until these other concurrent problems are identified and treated properly, simply administering fatty acid supplements to a dog suspected of having only atopic dermatitis is unlikely to be effective.
In my practice, I have not found that the reported figures hold up. Few of my patients actually got better or even improved on fatty acid supplements without other complementary therapies. Therefore, while I discuss the research results with pet owners, I point out that in my practice I don’t expect these results and therefore rarely use just fatty acids supplements as my main treatment. I don’t know why I don’t get these results, but I do know that any reported results are just guidelines and will vary among practice locations. In my part of the world, in Texas, year-round allergies are a problem for pets and their owners. I believe that atopic dermatitis is a harder disorder to control here than in other areas of the country. I understand that pets living along the Gulf Coast have a similar situation with flea allergy problems, unlike pets living in cooler, less humid climates.
While many veterinarians, including me, use fatty acids for a variety of medical problems, there is considerable debate about their use. One part of the debate concerns the dosage to use. Due to their anti-inflammatory effects, I routinely use large doses of fatty acids when treating atopic dermatitis in pets. Like most doctors, I recommend 2 to 4 times the label dose, as research in allergy treatment indicates that the label dose on most products is too low to exert an anti-inflammatory influence.
In people, research suggests that the effective dosage is from 1.4 to 2.8 grams of GLA per day, or 1.7 grams of EPA and 0.9 grams of DHA per day. It’s hard for people to take that much using the supplements currently available because they come in a much lower dose. If this dosage is correct, translating this dosage to dogs (adjusting for weight) means a 50-pound dog would need to take 10 or more fatty acids capsules per day, depending upon the supplement.
Another concern is the correct fatty acid to use. Should we use just omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA), or combine them with omega-6 fatty acid (GLA)? Is there an ideal ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids? The ideal dietary ratio seems to be 5:1 of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids, although this is also debated. Whether or not this “ideal” dietary ratio is ideal for the treatment of allergies remains to be seen. According to one pet food manufacturer of premium (but not “natural”) food, allergic pets eating their diet containing the “ideal” ratio of 5:1 omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids showed improvement. Other dietary ratios failed to show the same improvement in allergic pets.
As with other supplements, the use of fatty acids often allows doctors to lower the dosages of drugs such as corticosteroids or antihistamines. As reported in the literature, some pets, especially those with mild clinical signs and whose owners are thorough with regular hypoallergenic shampooing and conditioning, respond quite favorable to using only fatty acid supplements, without the need for other therapies. As I mentioned, in my practice I haven’t had good success with fatty acids alone.
Obviously, there are many questions regarding the use of fatty acid therapy as part of our treatment for allergic pets. While we have ample research showing that fatty acid supplements can be beneficial in pets with atopic dermatitis, more research is needed to determine the proper dosage and ratio of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids. Until we get definitive answers, you will need to work with your veterinarian (knowing the limitations of our current research) to determine the use of the supplements for your pet.
From the Inside Flat from The Allergy Solution for Dogs: Fatty Acids used by permission of Prima Publications.
Copyright © 2000 by Shawn Messonnier, D.V.M. All rights reserved. Excerpt from The Allergy Solution for Dogs, Prima Publishing, Roseville, CA.
“When your dog is constantly scratching and uncomfortable, you need answers. If the problem is allergies, The Allergy Solution for Dogs can help you provide the best care possible for your beloved companion. Holistic veterinarian Dr. Shawn Messonnier focuses on the pros and cons of natural and conventional treatments. Inside, you’ll discover:”
While a glossy, beautiful coat is a sign of your pet’s overall health & well-being, skin & coat problems are one of the most frequent reasons pets see a veterinarian. I would like to recommend Life’s Abundance Skin & Coat Formula. This supplement provides essential fatty acids needed by your dog or cat to maintain normal skin and hair quality.
Benefits of Skin & Coat Formula for Dogs & Cats
- Soothes irritated skin from the inside out.
- Recommended for animals with excessive itching & scratching.
- Formulated for flaky skin: dry or oily.
- Promotes a shiny, healthy, full coat.
- Promotes healthy skin & coat thus reduces shedding.
Features of Skin & Coat Formula for Dogs & Cats
- Contains natural, wholesome skin & health support nutrients including fish oil (omega fatty acids) and vitamin E. Delicious roast beef flavor.
- Fatty acids are microencapsulated for better absorption. Oil is certified free of contaminates such as mercury & lead.
- Manufactured by a pharmaceutical plant that makes human products.
Suggested daily dosage:
Less than 15 pounds: ½ tablet
15-29 pounds: 1 tablet
30-49 pounds: 1-½ tablets
50-99 pounds: 2 tablets
100+ pounds: 3 tablets
Start off with ½ suggested dose, gradually increasing to recommended dose within a week.
Additional Reading: EFA’s for Pets