When it comes to your dogs, “fat is where it’s at!” Fat provides energy, warmth, calories and an abundance of other benefits. Fat is essential for good canine health. It is important to provide fat sources from animal-based foods in your dog’s diet. In a normal, healthy dog, fat is easier to digest than either proteins or carbohydrates. Studies have shown that animal-based fats digest at a rate of about 95%. Fat is also the primary and best source of energy for dogs. This is especially true for working dogs that undergo stress and need endurance and stamina, such as sled dogs.(1)
Fats, or lipids, have a more complex method of absorption than proteins. Since they are fats, and not water soluble, they need to be emulsified. This means they need to be broken down into a medium that can pass through the small intestine. Bile salts from the liver are released from the gall bladder and aid in fat digestion by enhancing the fat enzyme, lipase. Bile salts coat the fat and enable them to break down into smaller particles called micelles. These break down into monoglycerides and fatty acids. If fat is not being digested properly in a dog, common symptoms include large, foul smelling stools, diarrhea and dehydration. The stool is often light in color with mucus and has a loose consistency. This occurs most often when dogs are fed cooked fats, or fats found in prepared dog foods that can go rancid if packaged too long. Poor digestion of fats can lead to liver disease, pancreatitis (inflammation or disease of the pancreas), Cushing’s disease or diabetes.(2) Exocrine Pancreatic Insufficiency can be another cause and more details about that disease can be found at the purine website, www.purina.ca.
Fats are essential for several reasons. Fats are necessary for the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins. They also provide protection from cold and protect the nerve fibers in the body. They provide more calories per gram than carbohydrates or protein and improve the flavor and palatability of the dog’s food. Fats also help satiate the dog’s appetite. While many commercial dog food brands offer low fat diets to dogs for weight reduction, these foods actually cause the dog’s appetite to increase because there isn’t enough fat to satisfy the dog’s hunger. Fats do not affect canines the same way they affect humans. Fats do not cause high cholesterol in dogs, nor do they cause heart disease. Dogs are carnivores and do not have the propensity for cholesterol clogging the arteries or producing strokes. High cholesterol or triglycerides in a dog means there are other heath issues present. If your dog tests high for cholesterol, it should be tested for diseases such as hypothyroidism, diabetes or Cushing’s disease.
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Lastly, fats provide a source for essential fatty acids. Dogs need a good quality source of fat in order to maintain sufficient levels of fatty acids. Rancid fat or poor quality fat, common in commercial foods, can cause a deficiency of these fatty acids. If your dog is suffering from a deficiency of essential fatty acids, the first signs are commonly seen in poor coat and skin condition. This deficiency can show itself as pruritis (itching), dermatitis (skin inflammation) and seborrhea. To help absorb essential fatty acids, a good source of vitamin E is recommended. (3)
The two essential fatty acids most commonly discussed for nutrition are Omega 6 and Omega 3 fatty acids. Omega 6 fatty acids are found in animal sources such as chicken and pork. Smaller amounts are present in beef and larger amounts are found in plant sources such as olive, safflower and other plant oils. Omega 3 fatty acids are less common. They are found in fish oil, other marine sources such as spirulina and blue green algae, and flax seed oil. (4)
Omega 6 fatty acids are more readily available in animal fats and plant sources, so it is easier to ensure your dog is getting enough Omega 6 its diet. Therefore, it is not necessary to add Omega 6 fatty acids to your dog’s diet. However, Omega 3 fatty acids are less common and not as readily available or easy to come by, so it is important to supplement your dog’s diet with a quality source of Omega 3. The best ratio of Omega 6 to Omega 3 is thought to be approximately 5:1 to 10:1. (1)
The best sources for Omega 3 fatty acids are found in fish and salmon oil. Fish oil has a readily available form of Omega 3 called EPA and DHA. Plant based oils do not. Therefore, the body must convert these oils before they are beneficial to the body. Most dogs are unable to do this conversion and therefore plant based oils result in a higher amount of Omega 6 than Omega 3. When there are higher levels of Omega 6 to Omega 3, it promotes inflammation, poor coat, allergies and skin conditions.
“While flaxseeds or flaxseed oil is not harmful to pets and does supply some essential Omega 6 and Omega 3 fatty acids, flaxseed oil is a source of alphalinoleic acid (ALA), an Omega 3 fatty acid that is ultimately converted to EPA and DHA. However many dogs and some people cannot convert ALA to these other more active non-inflammatory Omega-3 fatty acids due to a deficiency of desaturase enzymes which are needed for the conversion. In one human study, flaxseed oil was ineffective in raising levels of EPA and DHA. Therefore, I do not recommend flaxseed oil as a fatty acid supplement for dogs with atopic dermatitis (skin problems caused by environmental allergies). Instead, supplement with quality fish oil that provides EPA and DHA.”(5)
Cod liver oil, however, is quite different. It is lower in Omega 3 but very high in vitamins A and D, which can promote levels of toxicity.
Other benefits of fatty acids include controlling inflammation, aiding in heart disease, cancer therapy, arthritis and renal disease. In heart disease and cancer, cachexia (muscle wasting) can cause a severity of side effects. Cathexia is caused by excess cytokine production. High doses of fish oil (1,000 mg per ten lbs of body weight) have been found to suppress cytokine, thus increasing life expectancy by maintaining the integrity of the heart muscle and reducing loss of muscle mass in some types of cancer.
Because high doses of Omega 3 fatty acids are found to reduce inflammation, fish oil is known to be helpful for dogs with arthritis and orthopedic problems. The anti-inflammatory properties are also helpful with dermatitis and other skin conditions and certain gastro-intestinal disorders such as Irritable Bowel Disease and Colitis.
Lastly, Omega 3 fatty acids are beneficial for kidney disease. They have been shown to be renal protective and in certain kidney disorders such as glomerular disease, fish oil helps to reduce inflammation.(4) (6)
In conclusion, every dog can benefit from the addition of Omega 3 fatty acid sources regardless of their diet (commercial, raw or home cooked), age or health condition. Always look for fish oil capsules that contain at least 180 EPA and 120 DHA per capsule. Avoid bottled oils, as the Omega 3 fatty acids in fish oils are fragile. They are easily be destroyed by heat, light and oxygen. Pump bottles introduce oxygen into the oil and therefore, fish oil capsules are best for maintaining the integrity of the oil. Recommended dose is one capsule per 10-20 lbs of body weight daily. Some dogs will eat the whole capsule but other dogs can be finicky. If your dog in finicky, you can open the capsule and poor over their food.
(1) Case, Linda P MS, Carey, Daniel PD, DVM and Hirakawa, Diane A, PhD, Canine and Feline Nutrition, Mosby Press, 1995) 245
(2) Simpson, JW SDA BVM Mphil MRCVS, Anderson, RS BVMS Ph.D MRCVS and Markwell, PJ Bsc, BvetMed MRCVS, Clinical Nutrition of the Dog and Cat (Blackwell Scientific Publications, 1993) 66-70
(3) Kronfeld, DS Phd DSc MVSc, Home Cooking for the Dog, (American Kennel Club Gazette, April) 1978 60-61
(4) Kendall, Robert V. PhD Therapeutic Nutrition for the Cat, Dog and Horse, (Complementary and Alternative Veterinary Medicine, Mosby Press, 1997) 62