Fatty acids are lipids (fats). Some fatty acids are considered essential for health because dogs and cats cannot make them. This means that they must be included in the diet. Fats and fatty acids from food have important functions including providing energy (calories), aiding the intestinal absorption of fat-soluble vitamins (such as vitamins A and D), increasing (n-6 fatty acid), or reducing inflammation ( n-3 fatty acids)), support the formation of cell signals and hormone-like compounds (prostaglandins), which play a role in the structure of cell membranes and have a multitude of benefits for the skin, cardiovascular system and brain.
Dogs need the essential fatty acids LA (linoleic acid), ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). Cats need these plus the essential fatty acid AA (arachidonic acid). These essential fatty acids are classified as n-6 or n-3. While food sources contain a wide variety of fatty acids, it is the inability or limited ability of dogs and cats to convert one fatty acid to another that makes up some essential factors. LA (n-6) and ALA (n-3) are found in vegetable oils such as corn oil, soybean oil, rapeseed oil, and flaxseed oil. AA (n-6) occurs in animal fat. EPA (n-3) and DHA (n-3) are found in fish oils.
Fatty acids are named after the length of their carbon chain and the number of single and double bonds they contain. The length of the carbon chain gives short chain (less than eight carbons), medium chain (eight to 12 carbons), and long chain (more than 12 carbons) categories. Saturated fats do not contain double bonds, while unsaturated fats can contain one double bond (monounsaturated fat) or two or more double bonds (polyunsaturated fat). They are further described by finding the first double bond. For example, the n-3 fatty acid (also known as omega-3) in fish oil has its first double bond in position number three, more than two double bonds (polyunsaturated) and a length of more than 12 carbons (long chain).
The first question to consider is why this mind-numbing description is important. Knowing how the fatty acids are named and categorized helps in understanding health claims and information about fatty acid supplements. This also helps decipher the steps associated with the metabolism of essential fatty acids in the body. For example, LA and AA are both n-6 fatty acids. Dogs can convert LA into the longer AA using a specific enzyme reaction. Cats lack this enzyme, so they cannot convert and need AA in their diet. AA plays an important role in cell membrane structure, cell signaling, and is anti-inflammatory.
Because inflammation is important to health, and too much inflammation can cause problems, a counterbalance to the n-6 is needed. The essential n-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA have anti-inflammatory effects by reducing substances that promote inflammation. It is important that the diet has an appropriate n-6 to n-3 ratio. Fish oil is the main dietary source of EPA and DHA. Krill oil also provides these n-3 essential fatty acids. Research reports are inconsistent in humans as to whether krill oil is superior to fish oil for health benefits. Further research is needed on this topic.
Coconut oil is a medium chain fatty acid. It does not contain any significant amounts of the n-6 or n-3 fatty acids. However, it does contain lauric acid, which many believe has anti-inflammatory, anti-fungal, and antibacterial properties. Some believe coconut oil was useful for topical uses such as wound management. Others believe that coconut oil was helpful for chronic digestive problems and allergy problems. Research has not shown all possible uses, and some research is conflicting.
When choosing an oleic or fatty acid supplement, keep in mind the importance of choosing one that focuses on the problem you are supporting and is suitable for the dog or cat. Also, keep in mind that some health problems, such as pancreatitis, are usually treated with low fat diets.
If you have any questions about the use of dietary oils and fatty acid supplements, ask your veterinarian.
Ron Carsten, DVM, PhD, CVA, CCRT was one of the first Colorado veterinarians to use the integrative approach, has given numerous lectures to veterinarians, and pioneered the therapeutic use of food concentrates to treat clinical problems. He is also the founder of Colorado Animal Rescue (CARE). In addition to his doctorate in veterinary medicine, he has a doctorate in cell and molecular biology and is a certified veterinary dupuncturist and certified canine therapy therapist. He practices integrative veterinary medicine in Glenwood Springs.