Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids are widely known for their numerous health benefits, however pet owners and even vets are often making a seemingly harmless mistake – supplementing fish oils and omega 3, on top of an already balanced diet. If you’re wanting the benefit of omega 3, there’s some things to consider before you start supplementing:
The Role of Omega 3 and Omega 6
Both Omega 3 and Omega 6 are crucial as they are needed for different metabolic functions. Omega 3 is not ‘better’ than Omega 6 – they rely on each other for full effect. Many pet owners often focus solely on Omega 3’s and forget that the ratio, not just the total omegas, plays a pivotal role. Omega 6 essential fatty acids, include linoleic acid and arachidonic acid; these fatty acids play a vital role in skin health, brain health and bone health. Omega 3 essential fatty acids, which include alpha-linoleic acid (ALA), eicosapentanoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are important for their anti-inflammatory effects, trainability and brain function, joint health and skin/coat health.
It’s also incredibly important not to forget that cats require arachidonic acid (an omega 6 fatty acid) to survive, as they are unable to synthesize it from linoleic acid like dogs. Both dogs and cats need linoleic acid to be present in their diet, and deficiency is common – resulting in poor hair/skin and coat condition. DHA is required for growing puppies and kittens (and conversely, nursing mothers) for brain development and improved trainability.
Importance of Balanced Ratios
Omega 6s can produce pro-inflammatory hormones, whereas omega 3s do not promote inflammation. As Omega 6s, such as arachidonic acid, are still required for cats and many metabolic processes, the level within the diet or supplement must be perfectly balanced to ensure the benefits of both omegas are realized. Most fish oil supplements or omega oil pumps will only contain omega 3 fatty acids, often in very high levels.
Why is this a problem? When we add much higher amounts of one type of omega, we disrupt the balance (and ratio) of the Omega 6:3. The recommended ratio of Omega 6:3 for most pets (according to the National Research Council) is between 2.6:1 to 26:1. This means, if you were to add omega 3 only, on top of a diet already containing this ratio, you very quickly begin to approach a 1:1 or 1:2 ratio.
Why is an unbalanced ratio a problem?
Upsetting the omega 6:3 ratio will at best, render your supplementation useless, and at worst, actually have harmful consequences – read on to find out why this is a bad idea;
If you are feeding a therapeutic diet, particularly one that has an enhanced omega 6:3 ratio, or higher omega 3 content such as a skin or joint care diet, it is not a good idea to add to this with a supplement. These diets already contain a carefully crafted balance of nutrients and specific ratios to influence the disease process, reduce inflammation and enhance the skin barrier and appearance. In many cases, adding more omega 3 actually undoes the benefits of the diet; the pet may actually begin to have dry flaky skin due to the imbalance of the ratio cancelling out the benefits, or become excessively oily and limp causing seborrhea as the body tries to excrete the excess oil through the skin.
Too much omega 3 can actually cause altered platelet function, gastrointestinal disturbances, delayed wound healing, and weight gain. These side effects make supplementing potentially hazardous for those patients undergoing surgery, increasing the risk of complications. As these patients are often being supplemented with omega for joint support, they are also the same demographic that potentially would be undergoing corrective surgery of the joints – so being aware of the surgical implications of these supplements is vitally important.
Fish oil, which is the most common omega supplement pet owners are using, also has known drug interactions; fish oil can reduce insulin sensitivity and when administered with non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) it can contribute to gastrointestinal ulceration, causing chronic blood loss and anemia. This is another factor to consider in the case of diabetic or inflammatory bowel disease patients who have systemic inflammation but supplementing may actually do them a disservice in this case.
How much is too much?
This depends entirely on what you’re trying to achieve and what disease state is at play. The omega 6:3 ratios and essential fatty acid combinations vary depending on what the pet needs, how much is already present in the diet and what the supplement contains.
Some examples of the therapeutic doses for specific diseases are listed in the table below:
Key Points to Remember
If you want to get the best out of your supplement or therapeutic diet, don’t mix the two and make sure you are targeting the right ratios for the right condition! Each condition will require a different ratio or combination of omega 3 and 6 fatty acids – certain fatty acids have different roles in the body and in disease than others, so it’s important to also consider this when choosing a diet based it’s omega 3 and 6 content. Almost every premium diet available will have some essential fatty acids, so consider this before blindly adding supplements – in most cases, switching to a therapeutic diet will provide a better overall balanced dose of essential fatty acids, without the risk of side effects or nutritional excesses.
It’s also vital you let your vet know if you are giving any supplements as they can interact with medications or surgery.
- Fish Oil Dosing in Pet Diets and Supplements
- Beynen, Anton. (2020). Beynen AC, 2020. Omega 6-3 ratio in dog food.
- Nutrient requirements and dietary nutrient concentrations. In: National Research Council. Nutrient Requirements of Dogs and Cats. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press; 2006:355-373.
- Bauer JE. Therapeutic use of fish oils in companion animals. JAVMA 2011;239(11):1441-1451.