Omega is no longer just a Greek letter. Two essential fatty acid types – omega 3 and omega 6 – are gaining popularity as supplements for cats. Kathryn Michel, DVM, an assistant professor of nutrition at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, notes that neither omega 3 nor omega 6 fatty acids can be synthesized within any animals body – including your cat. Because it is essential to obtain them from dietary sources, they are known as essential fatty acids.
Only plants can manufacture these fats, both of which are polyunsaturated and liquid at room temperature, explains Michel.
Why cats need them
What role do these essential fatty acids play in your cats health? Both omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids are important in maintaining a healthy skin and coat. They are also vital in maintaining cell membrane integrity, and may play a role in alleviating inflammation. Says Michel: Both are precursors of the eicosanoids, molecules that are potent mediators of many biological processes, including immunity, blood flow, blood platelet function, and reproduction.
In addition, she notes, Cats specifically lack the ability to convert the essential fatty acids found in vegetable oils to the omega 6 fatty acid, arachidonic acid, or the omega 3 fatty acid, eicosapaetenoic acid, in adequate amounts to meet their daily requirements. So, they require a source of these more polyunsaturated, more biologically active fatty acids in their diets.
But Michel believes that overdosing your cat with omega fatty acids might pose health risks. Too much omega 3 can affect the ability of the blood to clot and increase the risk of bleeding. And it is speculated that too much omega 6 can potentiate chronic inflammatory conditions. Are these fatty acids needed in specific ratios? Michel believes that given the correct intake, the correct ratio will follow.
How much is enough?
The complete and balanced cat foods available today contain the omega 3 and omega 6 essential fatty acids in sufficient quantities and ratios required for basic health. Whether that is enough is controversial, says Michel. Optimal levels for these nutrients are currently unknown. In part, they depend upon the genetic makeup and condition of the cat. For example, cats with certain types of skin problems might benefit from additional omega 6 supplements.
Indeed, many veterinarians use essential fatty acid supplements to relieve itching and inflammation in allergic cats. Essential fatty acids in liquid form come in a pump bottle, which is easier to administer to cats than capsules. How well they work may depend upon the product used, the dosage, and the presence of other diseases that can contribute to itching. Unless concurrent problems are treated, simply administering fatty acid supplements may be ineffective.
More information is needed – and it may be forthcoming. Studies on essential fatty acids are currently being performed at the University of Georgia, Texas A&M University, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, and at various pet food companies, says Michel.
To supplement or not to supplement?
The field of animal nutrition is changing rapidly. Previous studies were done on livestock, where the goal was rapid growth; today people are seeking long, healthy lives for their pets, says Michel. With these new goals in mind, we may need to seek optimal rather than just minimum nutrient levels.
So check the ingredient list on your cat food. Pet food manufacturers often add omega 3 fatty acids in the form of flax seed or fish oils. (Because omega 3 acids are unstable, they are best kept cool and away from light and oxygen.) Omega 6 fatty acids are found in various seed oils and animal fats. Michel believes that, for now, people do not need to supplement their cats diets with omega fatty acids. The future may bring changes, she says. But currently, cat foods are formulated to the best of our knowledge, at the best levels we know of.