Fats are broken down into two main groups: mono-unsaturated and poly-unsaturated.
Fatty acids are specific types of polyunsaturated fats. The two main groups of fatty acids are the omega-3's and the omega-6's. The third primary group is the Omega-9's.
What is an Essential Fatty Acid?
Animals can produce some of the fatty acids they need, in their own bodies. Others which they cannot produce must be supplied through the diet and these are referred to as ‘Essential Fatty Ecids or EFA’s. Some fatty acids are ‘essential’ for certain species but not for others. For example, the fatty acid, arachidonic acid is essential in the diet of cats but not dogs.
What are the Health Benefits of Feeding Fatty Acids?
In addition to drastic improvements to skin and coat, high levels of Omega-3's improve cardiovascular health, fight inflammatory diseases, retard development of certain cancer cells, inhibit progression of kidney disease, enhance the immune system, reduce the symptoms of allergic dermatitis and reduce joint stiffness, which is especially beneficial for older dogs.
Fatty acids in foods are subject to degradation. Overcooking can destroy fatty acids. Improper storage or a suboptimal amount of antioxidants in dry food may result in rancidity and a subsequent deficiency in fatty acids.
Omega-3 fatty acids include:
Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)
Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)
Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)
Omega-6 fatty acids include:
Linoleic acid (LA)
Gamma linolenic acid (GLA)
Dihomo-gamma-linolenic acid (DGLA)
Arachidonic acid (AA)
Ratios of Fatty Acids
Research is being performed to determine the optimal ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids that should be consumed. Previously, it was thought that the ratio should be approximately 15:1. Current recommendations are for ratios of 10:1 to 5:1 and the lower the ratio, the better.
Most pet foods contain far more omega-6 fatty acids than omega-3's, for an extremely high ratio. Some pet food companies have added omega-3 fatty acids to their foods to lower the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids. As Dr Holly Nash notes, “It is important to realize that although the ratios may be a guideline, the actual concentration of EPA in the omega-3's is what is most important.”
The Dog Food Project’s Sabine Contreras states: “Independent researcher Dr. Doug Bibus (formerly University of Minnesota) completed a fatty acid study with dogs and recommends a ratio between 2:1 and 4:1. Personally, I believe that a quality food should contain a ratio of at least 7:1, the lower the better, especially if skin and/or coat problems are present. When my dog suffered from severe flea allergy dermatitis I switched to a food with a ratio of 2.5:1 and had great results within just a few weeks.”
In addition to the ratios, the actual amounts of fatty acids in the diet, are also important. A ratio that is within the optimal limits is not beneficial if the amounts are inadequate.
According to Contreras, “A good quality dog food will contain at least 2.2% Omega-6's and 0.3% Omega-3's”
Which Foods do Fatty Acids Come From?
Omega-3 Fatty Acids:
Alpha linolenic acid (ALA), found in flaxseed oil and to a lesser extent, canola, soy, and walnut oils.
Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), found in cold water fish and their oil.
Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), found in cold water fish and their oil.
Omega-6 Fatty Acids:
Linoleic acid (LA), found in corn, soy, canola, safflower and sunflower oil, whole grains, body fat of poultry (chicken, turkey, duck etc.).
Arachidonic acid (AA), found in the body fat of poultry, lean meat, egg yolks and some fish oils.
Gamma linolenic acid (GLA), found in black currant seed oil, borage oil and evening primrose oil.
Dihomogamma linolenic acid (DGLA), found in organ meats like spleen, kidney and adrenals and metabolized from GLA.
Lucy Postins is founder and Chief Integrity Officer at The Honest Kitchen. She is a companion animal nutritionist who started The Honest Kitchen in her kitchen in 2002. She is passionate about advanced nutrition and holistic health including complementary modalities such as herbalism and homeopathy. Considered an expert in her field, Lucy frequently writes articles for local and national media, conducts radio interviews and educational spots, and occasionally holds educational seminars for pet owners on the importance of good nutrition. She also recently authored Dog Obsessed, a guide to a happier, healthier life for the pup you love.