Pet food diets are formulated by animal and veterinary nutritionists to meet the nutritional requirements of our pets. However, some of the ingredients in pet food can provide health benefits beyond basic nutrition (functional ingredients). This includes omega fatty acids, which contribute to healthy skin, a shiny coat and overall well-being.
What Are Omega Fatty Acids?
Nutrients — the parts of food necessary for life — are divided into six categories: water, carbohydrates, protein, fats, minerals and vitamins. While “fats” tends to make us think of an unhealthy diet, fats (also called lipids) actually have important roles in keeping your pet healthy. Fats provide an energy source, transport fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, K) and protect the body by insulating against heat loss, cushioning vital organs and minimizing bacterial and viral invasion.
Fatty acids are components of fats that are key building blocks of cell membranes, concentrated energy sources and precursors of some hormones and chemical signals. The characteristics of fatty acids are used to assign them to groups, such as omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-6 fatty acids are important for cell membrane structure and integrity, skin health, growth, reproduction and fat transport within blood. Omega-3 fatty acids are important for skin health and cell membrane flexibility, brain and retina (part of the eye) development and function.
Essential Fatty Acids
Like amino acids, some fatty acids are considered essential and need to be provided in your pet’s food because they either can’t be synthesized by the body or can’t be synthesized in enough quantities to meet nutritional requirements. The omega-6 fatty acid, linoleic acid, is an essential fatty acid for dogs and cats found in ingredients like sunflower oil and millet.
While dogs can convert linoleic acid to arachidonic acid — another omega-6 fatty acid required by the body — cats lack the enzyme that facilitates this reaction. This makes arachidonic acid, which has important roles in cell membranes, cell signaling and inflammation, an essential fatty acid for cats. Animal tissue contains large amounts of arachidonic acid, whereas plants contain little to none. This is why it is important that cat food contains animal-based ingredients such as poultry fat to provide a source of arachidonic acid.
The omega-3 fatty acid, alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), is an essential fatty acid that is found in ingredients like flaxseed, chia seed and canola oil. Two other omega-3 fatty acids, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), are abundant in cold-water fish (salmon, mackerel, halibut) and their oils, and in krill oil and algae products.
Both omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids help maintain healthy skin. In the epidermis (the outermost layer of the skin) linoleic acid is incorporated into ceramides; a family of naturally occurring waxy lipids found in cell membranes. Ceramides are part of the epidermal barrier matrix that helps control water loss and protects the body against environmental allergens and disease-causing microorganisms. Arachidonic acid, EPA and DHA are all found in cell membranes that also contribute to maintaining a healthy skin structure.
Inflammation and Disease Response
Omega fatty acids also have roles in inflammation and the immune response. For example, if omega-3 fatty acids are present when skin injury occurs, the compounds produced due to the cell membrane damage are less pro-inflammatory and can reduce an allergic condition or inflammation.
Some research suggests that omega-3 fatty acids from marine fish oil may be beneficial for dogs with kidney disease. Omega-3 fatty acids may help lower pressure in the glomeruli (the kidney structures that filter blood in the process of making urine) and improve removal of creatinine (a key waste product), thereby improving kidney function.
By reducing inflammation, EPA and DHA can also help reduce the number of free radicals produced. Although they are a normal product of cell activity, free radicals can be harmful to cells and tissues if produced in excess. Synergistic benefits of omega-3 fatty acids with antioxidants — substances that neutralize free radicals — may be seen in cases of chronic kidney disease. Kidney-friendly diets with omega-3 fatty acids and increased levels of antioxidants are better at slowing chronic kidney disease progression than either omega-3 or antioxidants alone.
Brain and Vision Development
Studies have found that DHA is important for brain and vision development in young puppies and kittens. In nursing adult dogs and cats, DHA is passed from the mother to the puppy or kitten through the mother’s milk.
Pet Food Omega Fatty Acid Sources
Omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids can come from a number of different plant and animal ingredients in your pet’s food. Below are some examples of ingredients in Diamond pet food formulas that are a source of the omega fatty acids essential for healthy skin, a shiny coat and overall well-being.
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