Essential Fatty Acids in Your Cat's Diet Title

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Not all fat is bad for your cat. In fact, there are some fats, like the essential fatty acids, that your cat needs in order to stay health and thrive. Since essential fatty acids affect most of your cat’s tissues and organs, keeping up on these can help prevent a good number of illnesses.

The Role of Fatty Acids

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Our bodies and our cat’s bodies are made up of a complex system of trillions of cells. Each cell has a nucleus, a membrane, and various organelles. The membrane surrounding the cell as well as the membranes surrounding the nucleus and individual organelles are made up primarily of fatty acids. These membranes affect the cell’s ability to function internally and to both send and receive nutrients and information from other cells.

Fatty acids also perform other roles in the body. They are an energy source that supplies 2 times as much energy to the body as proteins or carbohydrates. Fatty acids also play a role in the body’s ability to absorb fat-soluble vitamins such as Vitamins A, D, E, and K.

Some of the fatty acids that the body needs can be produced by the body. Other fatty acids can not be produced by the body and must be consumed in foods that are eaten.  Fatty acids that can not be produced by the body are called essential fatty acids.

Omega 6 Fatty Acids

One important group of fatty acids which includes essential fatty acids is the Omega 6 fatty acids. They are named from their chemical formulation which includes a double bond at the 6th carbon molecule. These come mostly from plant-based sources like pumpkin seeds, hemp, and flaxseed. These fatty acids include:

  • Linolenic Acid (LA), which is an essential fatty acid for cats
  • Gamma Linolenic Acid (GLA)
  • Dihomo-gamma-linolenic Acid (DGLA)
  • Arachidonic Acid (AA)

Most commercially prepared cat foods have more than enough omega 6 fatty acids. That being said, deficiencies in omega 6 fatty acids are somewhat unlikely. Should a cat become deficient in omega 6 fatty acids, it could cause the following problems:

  • Liver and kidney degeneration
  • Compromised immune system
  • Behavioral disturbances
  • Miscarriages
  • Sterility in males
  • Failure to gain weight
  • Poor overall development
  • Poor wound healing
  • Dry flaky skin (which can lead to hyperkeratosis)
  • Dull, brittle coat

Omega 3 Fatty Acids

Product Photography - Omega 3 6 9 - Top down

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Omega 3 fatty acids are another very important group of fatty acids which includes essential fatty acids. These fatty acids help to regulate inflammation, immune system response, and blood clotting activity by encouraging the production of prostaglandins and leukotrienes. Inflammation due to arthritic conditions (even rheumatoid arthritis) and certain bowel conditions (like ulcerative colitis and inflammatory bowel disease) can be reduced by omega 3 fatty acids. Omega 3 fatty acids, which have a double bond at the 3rd carbon molecule, include:

  • Alpha-linolenic Acid (ALA), which is an essential fatty acid for cats
  • Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA)
  • Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA)

These are the fatty acids that tend to be lacking in commercially prepared diets. Deficiencies in omega 3 fatty acids can result in:

  • Immune system dysfunction
  • Stunted growth
  • Lack of motor coordination
  • Eye problems

The optimal source for omega 3 fatty acids is  marine body oils. Dr. Karen Becker, DMV believes that krill oil is the most biologically appropriate for cats. She suggests that cats receive 250 mg per day if they are from 1 to 14 lbs and 500 mg for cats that are 15 – 29 lbs.

Keeping Essential Fatty Oils in Balance

The balance of omega 6 and omega 3 fatty acids is very important. Currently, the recommended ratios of omega 6 to omega 3 fatty acids are 10:1 to 5:1. One of the benefits of a good balance is the reduction of inflammation. Both arachidonic acid (an omega 6 fatty acid) and eicosapentaenoic acid (an omega 3 fatty acid) can be incorporated into cell membranes. When a cell gets damaged, both fatty acids are released. Arachidonic acid is metabolized by enzymes which increase inflammation and itching. Eicosapentaenoic acid competes for those same enzymes, thus reducing the amount of arachidonic acid that gets metabolized. The production of docosahexaenoic acid (another omega 3 fatty acid) can also compete for those enzymes, further reducing the inflammation that occurs.

Using Supplements for Essential Fatty Oils

Omega 3 Krill Oil

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It is worth noting that deficiencies in essential fatty acids can be caused by the processing of cat foods. At a temperature of only 110ºF (about 44ºC) both omega 6 and omega 3 fatty acids are lost from a food. Poor storage and less than optimal amounts of antioxidants in food can also lead to the loss of omega 6 and omega 3 fatty acids.

If you begin using supplemental essential fatty oils with your cat, prepare to be patient. Since essential fatty oils need to be absorbed into the cell membrane results could take a little while. Many veterinarians will recommend continuing to give your cat the supplement for 9 – 12 weeks before determining its effectiveness.

Always discuss concerns over your cat’s diet with your veterinarian. There are a few side effects to using supplements for essential fatty oils with your cat. Fatty acids do add calories to your cat’s diet. Also, since many supplements for essential fatty acids are based in fish oils, your cat’s breath may get a fishy smell from them. Very rarely cats can develop pancreatitis, which is painful inflammation of the pancreas.

Does your cat take any vitamins or supplements?

Sources & Digging Deeper

Cat Nutrition Tips – ASPCA 

Fail to Give Omega-3 Fats to Your Pet and You Are Asking For Trouble. – Dr. Karen Becker, DVM

Omega Fatty Acids: Sources, Effects, and Therapeutic Uses in Cats – Drs. Foster & Smith

Essential Fatty Acid Requirements in Cats: Pathology of Essential Fatty Acid Deficiency – ML MacDonald et al