Essential Fatty Acids (EFA’s) are a type of lipid (fat), that is like vitamins. EFA's, must be a part of the dog or cats’ diet as they cannot manufacture EFA’s internally, therefore it is referred to as essential. These fatty acids play an important role in the body and if not represented in the diet, are replaced with non-essential fatty acids, which can be pro-inflammatory to the body. EFA’s produce a hormone like substance in the body called prostaglandins, which is involved in regulatory processes in the body.
EFA's are important to be included in the diet of dogs and cats because, they are involved in many regulatory systems, they provided energy, insulation against cold, protection around nerves to help with smooth synaptic relays. Fats in the diet are also involved with the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins and make up the cell walls in the body. Essential fatty acids play a role in the immune system, as they help to form a strong skin barrier, as part of the innate immune system, to protect the body against environmental and pathogenic assaults.
EFA's are a very important part of the anti-inflammatory process in the body, reducing the effect of inflammatory processes on the body such as infections (skin infections) and age-related degeneration – think of joint health. EFA's also help to promote healthy aging by improving and protecting mental health and clarity, through the protective function in the synaptic relays and myelin sheaths in the brain.
Fatty Acids can be separated into two main groupings, monounsaturated fatty acids and poly-unsaturated fatty acids. EFA's falls into the poly-unsaturated group and are based on linoleic acid (LA). EFA's are made up of various types, each has their own unique function in the body. The most important sub-groups of EFA’s are omega 3 and 6. Omega 9 Fatty acids, also fall under the poly-unsaturated grouping, but as omega 9 Fatty acids, can be synthesised in the body of cats and dogs, they are therefore not considered essential (Essential nutrients needs to be gained from the diet).
Each group must be balanced in the diet, as too much of the pro-inflammatory EFA’s could cause disease in the body, due to systemic inflammation. Pro-inflammatory EFA’s are found in the omega 6 group of EFA’s. If there are an oversupply of omega 9 fatty acids, it will impair the absorption of omega 3 and 6 fatty acids, thus creating a shortage of these EFA’s, which will in turn cause health issues. The ratio of Omega 6 to Omega 3 should be around 4:1 for healthy dogs and cats, but in most processed foods, it can be as high as 50:1, therefore causing systemic inflammation in the body - no wonder pets on highly processed diets are prone to systemic inflammation and disease.
Omega 3 fatty acids can be further divided in sub-groups of Alpha Linolenic Acid (ALA), Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA) and Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA), each with their own function in the body. Omega 3 fatty acids are found in red meat (ALA), cold water fish (DHA and EPA) such as mackerel, halibut, salmon, herring, tuna and cod livers and crustaceans such as krill.
ALA is implicated in the healthy water barrier function of the skin. ALA is found in high quantities in red meat and can be used as a precursor for EPA and DHA, but as the conversion rate is very low in cats and dogs, the supply of ALA cannot be relied upon as sufficient for health.
DHA and EPA work in combination to improve certain health conditions, with DHA being more protective for conditions such as heart disease, irregular heartbeats, cancer, menstrual issues, allergic response and lung disease. DHA on the other had has greater influence on the brain and nervous system, especially in the growth of puppies and kittens and further has a protective effect on the brain of adults and helps with healthy aging.
Omega 6 fatty acids contains Linoleic acid (LA), used to synthesise Arachidonic Acid (AA) as well as Gamma Linoleic Acid (GLA) and Dihomo-Gamma-Linolenic Acid (DGLA). Omega 6 Fatty Essential fatty acids are commonly found in vegetable oils, poultry and pig fat.
Linoleic acid (LA), mainly found in animal fats (best sources are poultry, pork and beef fat), nuts and seeds, plays a role as a physiological barrier for skin permeability to water. LA is the base from which adult dogs can synthesise AA.
Gamma Linoleic Acid’s (GLA) role in the body is associated with cell growth and reduction in inflammatory processes. It has an additional protective function in skin issues. Oils such as borage and evening primrose oil, are good sources of GLA.
Arachidonic Acid (AA) is classed as omega 6 fatty acid. Growing puppies, kittens and adult cats need to have sufficient supply to develop and age healthily. Cats cannot, like adult dogs, convert LA to AA, and must therefore obtain AA from food, such as beef, eggs, poultry and cold water fish species. AA is a base ingredient for the synthesis of prostaglandins and leukotrienes by the body.
Dihomo-Gamma-Linolenic Acid (DGLA) is an omega 6 fatty, active in conditions such as arthritis, high blood pressure nerve damage due to high blood sugar and skin conditions. Vegetable oils such as Evening primrose oil and spirulina, oats and barley all contain DGLA.
Deficiencies may develop in the dog or cat due to a lack of essential fatty acids in their diet or an imbalance in the ratios between Omega 3, 6 and 9 fatty acids, due to poor storage, rapid rancidity and high heat processing of highly processed foods mostly fed to dogs and cats.
When the Omega 3 and 6 fatty acids in dog and cat diets are lower than demand, there will be a tendency towards inflammatory skin issues, problems with growth and reproduction , cardiovascular disease, digestive issues causing absorption issue Omega 6 Fatty Essential fatty acids are commonly found in vegetable oils, poultry and pig fat. Furthermore, degenerative eye conditions as well as autoimmune conditions, nervous system problems and allergies, are all linked to a deficiency of essential fatty acids. It is therefore not a bad idea to supplement a dry fed dog or cat, with a balanced Omega 3 and 6 oil supplement.
Omega 3 fatty acid deficiency mainly cause skin, reproductive and growth problems, whereas diets deficient in Omega 6 fatty acids, will be more inclined to have an effect on the nervous system, learning issues, male fertility and vision problems.
As you can see the role of EFA's in the body of our pets are varied and important for a health.
Anneke is a Degree qualified Naturopath, with a passion for animals and natural health. She has been using natural health solutions with her children and pets since 2001 and after doing many equine treatment courses, decided to follow her heart and started her formal education as a human naturopath in 2014, graduated in 2018 after 4 years of full time study. Upon graduating she enrolled into various equine and small animal therapy courses and in a Diploma of Holistic Animal Care (equine and companion animals) to further cement her knowledge in animal care.