Fat is the most calorie dense nutritional category that our bodies require. Dogs, cats, horses and humans need dietary fat for energy production, to absorb certain fat-soluble vitamins and because it plays a structural role in cell membranes. Animals’ palates have evolved to develop a taste for fat because it provides a concentrated source of energy, which is something that is not always in supply for wild animals. Domestic pets, however, tend to get more than enough fat in their diet and that can lead to weight control problems. So how does a pet parent know which fats are good?
Saturated vs Unsaturated Fats
There are two basic classes of fats: saturated and unsaturated. All fats are composed of chains of fatty acids. Fatty acids are chemically made up of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen, arranged in a carbon chain. A fat is saturated when the carbons are linked to each other in the chain by single bonds and each carbon is bonded with as many hydrogens as it can hold. Unsaturated fats occur when one or more of the carbon-to-carbon bonds forms a double bond, limiting the maximum number of hydrogens that can also bond to those carbon atoms. Unsaturated fats with one double bond are “monounsaturated” and unsaturated fats with more than one double bond are “polyunsaturated”. While both saturated and unsaturated fat have the same calorie content, unsaturated fats are generally healthier. Saturated fats contain high levels of the ‘bad’ cholesterol that can lead to plaque built up in the arteries and cause heart disease.
Saturated Fat Unsaturated Fat
Often Animal Source (meat, dairy) Often Plant Source (nuts, vegetables)
Solid at Room Temp Liquid (oil) at Room Temp
Butter Olive Oil
Shortening Sunflower Oil
‘Marbling’ in Steak Walnuts
Coconut Oil Fatty Fish (salmon, herring)
When you throw one or more double bonds into the mix to create an unsaturated fatty acid, the carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms can be arranged in many different ways even when using the same number of atoms. The arrangement of the hydrogen and hydrogen-oxygen groups on the carbon chain determine the molecule’s orientation. These molecules have a natural alignment that we refer to as “cis” configuration. Unnatural processes such as hydrogenation and excessive heat (400°F and higher) damage the chemical alignment and can twist the molecule into an unnatural configuration that is called “trans”. The body relies on the geometry of these molecules to fit together so when the molecule has the wrong shape, they prevent the molecules from fitting together into a smooth, strong, dynamic structure. If a cell membrane is made up of too many trans fatty acids it cannot carry on its usual functions and that leads to disease. Cell membranes do a lot more than just keep the inside of a cell contained from the outside of a cell. They regulate the materials that go in and out of the cell such as oxygen, water, minerals and other nutrients required for life. Hydrogenation is a popular technique in the processed food industry because it allows fats to (unnaturally) last longer before they spoil, but that’s bad news for our cells. Dysfunctional cell membranes lead to inflammation, skin problems, learning disabilities, heart disease, allergies and more. The biggest culprit of trans fatty acids is partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, but if processed pet foods are exposed to high temperatures in their cooking process trans fats can be formed. Because these manufacturing technologies are still relatively new, we do not know the extent of the problems they inflict on the health of our families (2-legged and 4-legged) or how to treat them.
Essential Fatty Acids
Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs) are types of polyunsaturated fats that are nutritionally required and help make up cell membranes. These fats support the health of numerous systems including skin & coat, eyes, brain, heart and growth. EFAs also help the body make prostaglandins which are involved in metabolic processes including inflammatory response and platelet aggregation to stop bleeding. There are two different classes of EFAs: omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids. Omega 3s are polyunsaturated fats that have their first double bond on the 3rd carbon in the chain and omega 6s are polyunsaturated fats that have their first double bond on the 6th carbon in the chain.
Linoleic Acid (LA) is the only fatty acid to be considered essential (vital for life and required in the diet) for dogs, cats & horses, but here is a list of fatty acids that are most important:
Omega 3 Fatty Acids Omega 6 Fatty Acids
Alpha-Linolenic Acid (ALA) Linoleic Acid (LA)
Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA) Gamma-Linolenic Acid (GLA)
Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA) Arachidonic Acid (AA)
Nutritionists and veterinarians are still doing research to try to determine the ideal ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 fatty acids. Currently many pet supplement suppliers are recommending 5:1.
NOTE: Dogs and horses (and people!) naturally eat fruits, vegetables, nuts and grains in their diet. Cats are carnivores so they have a different set of digestive enzymes and therefore metabolize some fatty acids differently.
Omega 6 Fatty Acids
In general, omega 6s help support healthy skin and a shiny coat. These are the fats you will commonly find in skin and coat supplements. Additional benefits of omega 6 fatty acids include bone health, metabolism regulation and reproductive health. In high levels, omega 6s can actually promote inflammation so it is important not to give too much.
Linoleic Acid (LA)
According to AAFCO’s nutrient profiles, LA is the only truly essential fatty acid that dogs, cats and horses need from their diet and it is important for growth and reproduction. It is the main omega 6 fatty acid and most other fatty acids can be made from it. LA is touted for maintaining the health of cell membranes, improving nutrient use and is the number one fatty acid to increase in a pet’s diet if their skin and coat is dry or lusterless. Oils rich in LA include safflower oil, sunflower oil and soybean oil.
Gamma-Linolenic Acid (GLA)
GLA is one of the omega 6 fatty acids that is anti-inflammatory, which makes it especially helpful for serious skin and coat support. Dogs, horses and people can make GLA from LA, but cats do not have the enzyme needed to make the conversion. Cats do not have a high requirement for GLA, but if pet parents want to give their cat fatty acids to support skin issues GLA is the way to go. GLA comes from borage oil, primrose oil and black currant seed oil.
Arachidonic Acid (AA)
AA can be found in red meat, organ meat and egg yolks. It has a bad reputation of being a “bad fat” because it is a precursor to pro-inflammatory prostaglandins. (More on AA and inflammation below!) Cats and other carnivores need AA in their diet for growth and reproduction because they lack the enzymes needed to make it from LA the way dogs & horses can.
Omega 3 Fatty Acids
Omega 3s have been gaining popularity for their anti-inflammatory properties, but are also very good for eye, brain and heart health. Many omega 3 fatty acid users also report immune benefits. Horse breeders have found omega 3 supplementation in stallions to increase sperm motility and concentration.
Alpha-Linolenic Acid (ALA)
ALA commonly comes from flaxseed, but you can also find it in other nut/seed oils like canola, chia, perilla, soy or walnut. While it is a healthy fat, it may not be the best choice for pet parents looking for an omega 3 fatty acid supplement. Dogs and cats have a difficult time metabolizing ALA into other omega 3 fatty acids (like EPA & DHA) the way people can. Horses do a better job than dogs & cats of converting ALA to EPA and DHA when there is a large supply of ALA in their diet, but the process is still not very efficient. Be wary of omega 3 products for dogs & cats that contain only nut and seed oil sources because they are high in ALA, but may not give you the desired results especially for pets that are still growing.
Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA)
EPA helps reduce cellular inflammation and plays a major structural role in cell membranes. EPA is key to disrupting the inflammation process because EPA and AA compete for the same enzyme, so the more EPA your pet consumes the less AA they can produce. Reducing inflammation for pets with chronic pain like degenerative joint disease will improve their comfort.
Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA)
DHA is best known for its critical role in the development of brains and eyes in young animals. DHA is a bigger molecule than EPA so it takes up more volume. DHA’s large surface area is important for brain cell membranes, making them more efficient at transmitting signals. Some scientists consider DHA to be conditionally essential for young animals to support brain heath throughout their lives. Dietary DHA can help young learn faster and keep senior pets mentally sharp longer. Cognitive function is a growing concern for parents of senior pets, especially since advances in medical care and nutrition are helping pets live longer, physically healthier lives. Many senior pets exhibit signs of disorientation and confusion, which can lead to house soiling and anxiety. DHA is often included in joint support and pain relief products because it is also a precursor for anti-inflammatory prostaglandins.
EPA and DHA are usually found together in marine sources like fish oil or krill oil. They come from algae, but fatty fish and krill that consume algae are also very high in EPA and DHA.
Fatty Acids, Inflammation & Allergies
Inflammation in a tissue or body part is recognized by pain, swelling, heat, redness or loss of use. Any kind of long term painful condition such as arthritis or allergies includes inflammation. Some inflammation is necessary when the body is injured and must heal itself, but chronic inflammation is very uncomfortable! Arachidonic Acid (AA), Gamma Linolenic Acid (GLA) and Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA) are prostaglandin precursors. Prostaglandins are fat-like compounds that play a role in various metabolic functions of the body like hormones and are made from fatty acids. AA makes prostaglandins that promote inflammation while EPA & GLA make prostaglandins that reduce inflammation. As with all processes in the body, enzymes are required to help break down fatty acids into the components needed to create prostaglandins. AA, GLA and EPA all compete for the same enzymes so when the body has a good supply of GLA and EPA, it can more easily create anti-inflammatory prostaglandins which helps reduce inflammation & itchiness associated with allergies. Results can take up to 6 to 8 weeks of fatty acid supplementation, so other therapies may be necessary when first beginning to treat the issue.
Animals & Heart Disease
Animals tend to be very resistant to the formation of fatty plaques in the arteries, which is why you do not hear about pets with cholesterol problems very often. Dogs & cats in particular have a very high tolerance for dietary fat and scientists think that is due to the fact that they bear fur. Studies have shown that a large portion of the fats ingested in a pet’s diet goes to their skin and fur. That is good news for their hearts, but that is still not a free pass to feed your pet as much fat as they want because it will still impact their body weight. Excessive body weight can put a lot of pressure on the cardiovascular system. Be extra careful if your pet has diabetes or hypothyroidism because they can limit the animal’s ability to produce lipase – the enzyme that helps break down fats. Abnormally high levels of fat in the blood can cause acute pancreatitis.
Fatty Acid Supplements for My Pet
Commercial pet food is guaranteed to meet animals’ essential requirements, but most foods do not provide the full spectrum of omega 3 and 6 fatty acids that they should have to feel and look their best. Dry kibble, diets low in fat and poor quality brands in particular will not provide good sources of healthy fat. High quality commercial food is more likely to provide good levels of omega 6s, but omega 3s are less stable and tend to degrade quickly. The easiest way to give your pets the fatty acids they need is to add supplements to their food. Fatty acids are oils so they can be purchased as liquid oils or soft gels that hold the oil. Some manufacturers have developed techniques for including the oils in soft chews or chewable tablets, but oils and soft gels contain higher potencies.
Click Here for a list of Fatty Acid Supplements tested by PetHealthLive!