Updated: Dec 16, 2021
Fats are essential in our companion’s diets especially those containing the essential fatty acids found in Omega 3’s and Omega 6’s that help our companions to live healthful lives. Essential fatty acids are essential because they are required to be supplied via the diet and cannot be made by the body (1). A few situations warrant fat supplementation. The first is when feeding a commercial diet especially a kibble based diet.
Compared to a raw species-appropriate diets, kibble is never recommended. One reason is that kibble is often unbalanced in its Omega 3 and Omega 6 ratio. Often the Omega 3 content is destroyed due to exposure to heat, oxygen and/or light (2, 3, 4). The second is when feeding a raw species appropriate diet from less ideal protein sources. Canines and felines should ideally be fed grass-fed meats. This source of food is the natural diet of most herbivores allowing them to function at their full potential which also allows them to produce the healthiest meats as well as other components like fatty acids (5). Finally, the third reason is for companions that need therapeutic support for specific illnesses or situations such as cancer (6, 7, 8) skin conditions (9) and development of babies (10, 11, 12).
There are many options out there regarding fat supplementation in the diets of our canine and feline companions. This includes but is not limited to coconut oil, krill oil, salmon/fish oils, and hemp oil. There seems to be a plethora of information out there especially since such oils have become a trend in the human diet as well. So what is the real scoop on these oils and their impact on your companion's health and wellbeing when included in the canine and feline diet.
Coconut oil is the fatty oil derived from the meat of a ripe coconut. It is composed of 90% saturated fats made of medium chain triglycerides (MCT). This includes Lauric Acid which has antibacterial, antiviral, and anti-fungal properties (13). MCTs also include Capric Acid and Caprylic Acid which are similar to Lauric Acid but primarily function as an anti-fungal (14, 15, 16). Finally, MCTs also include Myristic Acid and palmitic. Coconut oil also is composed of 2% Linoleic Acid, a polyunsaturated fat and 6% Oleic Acid, a monounsaturated fat (17).
Claims made in favor of feeding Coconut oil boasts many healthful benefits that supposedly can improve many systems of our companions.
Relief from Eczema
Soothe Allergies and itchy skin
Reduce body smell
Promotes a shiny coat and rejuvenate crusty pads and noses
Prevent and even treat yeast and fungal infection
Promotes healing of wounds
Spot treatments for hot spots, dry skin/hair and soothe bites and stings
Increase nutrient absorption
Helps symptoms of colitis and irritable bowel syndrome
Improve bad breath
Antibacterial, Antiviral and antifungal properties
Insulin balance and balance of proper thyroid function
Arthritic and joint pain relief
Prevent infection and disease
Supports brain function
All these pros seem pretty great, making coconut oil look like a miracle oil that can cure your companion’s even most complex problems. But one still cannot escape the fact that dogs and cats are carnivores therefore they derive their nutritional needs including fatty acid requirements from meat and animal-based sources (18). Alpha Linolenic Acid, a primary fatty acid found in plant materials (19), cannot be converted in any efficient amount (20). It isn’t even suggested that coconut oil only be used for topical use as coconut oil actually have drying actions as an astringent fatty acid (21).
Hemp oil is another common oil that is often used for a fat supplementation. Hemp oil is composed of 80-90% unsaturated fats and 9-11% saturated fats (22, 23). It also contains Gamma-Linoleic acid (GLA), Oleic acid and stearidonic acid (23). Although dogs make GLA themselves, hemp oil is supposedly ideal for dogs that don't make enough when stressed or are in high performance situations like agility work, pregnancy or lactation. GLA is the building block for prostaglandins (24) important for smooth muscle contractions (25), control inflammation (26), regulate temperature (27) and perform other functions. It is dubbed a complete and ideal oil because of its ratio of essential oils and amino acids (23, 28).
This oil supposedly contains many benefits for our companions:
Fight cancer due to the GLA content and THC content that reduces inflammation and strengthens the immune system.
Relieve joint pain
Protect and rejuvenate the skin and coat by reducing inflammation and promoting cellular growth
Enhance blood circulation
Helps with weight control by increasing energy
Heart health and organ function
Growth and development
Proper brain function
As with many health related supplements and products, coconut oil and hemp oil is not a cure all. There are some cons to coconut and hemp oil inclusion in our companion's diet.
With many things done in excess, diarrhea or greasy feces can result. Although oral use of these oils are the most common method of administration, there is some controversy surrounding this method. Consumption does increase overall fat which can further worsen pancreatitis and increase fat in the blood known as hyperlipidemia but do keep in mind cats and dogs thrive on a moderate to high fat content in their diet (29, 30). Remember the type and source of fat is important in many of these conditions and furthermore adverse results can occur more readily if other or underlying conditions are also at play (31).
Plant based oils such as Coconut oil and hemp oil contain polyunsaturated fatty acids which can promote inflammation (32), pain (33) and cancer cell growth (34). It is important that Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids are balanced in the correct ratio. Coconuts and hemp do not have high levels of Omega 3 fatty acids and is primarily made of Omega 6 fatty acids which is known to provoke inflammation (35).
Furthermore, hemp oil being a polyunsaturated oil can be unstable so it is not good for cooking as it easily can go bad (36, 37, 38). If you want to include it in your companions cooked meal, add it after the meal is cooked. When not being served, the oil should be kept in the fridge. The oil is also not suitable for poultry based diets since poultry itself is high in polyunsaturated fats as well as Linoleic acid (39). It can also interact with certain medications (40) your companion may be taking so it is best to consult your veterinarian before inclusion in your companion’s diet.
If you are going to use coconut or hemp oil it is important to differentiate between processes used to extract the oil when you purchase commercially. Refined coconut oil is typically made of low quality cocoanut and sometimes includes chemicals that were used in the refining process. Virgin coconut oil on the other hand is made from quality coconut, hand pressed or made in a quality manufacturing facility. These methods of oil extraction help retain purity and most of the nutrients preserving the oil's quality (41, 42, 43). The same principles should be applied to hemp and all other oils.
Most foods are high in omega 6 fatty acids (44) such as plant products but lack in significant omega 3’s (20). Animal based sources however contain significantly higher amounts of Omega 3 fatty acids important for controlling inflammation (44).
The unique aspect of these oils are they act at the cellular level (45) as their components are incorporated into many cells changing your companion’s biology in a positive way just as the omega 6’s can have the opposite effect. Alpha Linolenic Acid is a component in Omega 6’s that are released from cells that induce inflammation responses. Both serve a purpose but are required in a balance.
Although in many cases inflammation is bad like provoking joint pain, cancers and skin allergies, inflammation is important for letting the body know something is wrong (46). For example, a wound that needs healing will elicit the attention of white blood cells. If there is no inflammation to signal this, the healing process is severely hindered. Regardless some inflammatory responses are need for general protection and well-being of the body.
Salmon and other fish oil are oils extracted from the tissues of oily fish. Fish oils are composed of eicosapentaenoic acid, more commonly referred to as EPA and docosahexaenoic acid or DHA, precursers of eicosanoids (47). This oil is unique in its make-up because dogs and especially cats have a VERY limited ability to create these oils (1) which is why they are called essential fatty acids. Theses components can be found in other fishes like sardines, anchovies and tuna.
Anti-inflammatory (48) actions for the skin49, hips and joints (50)
Aid in hairball relief (51)
Aid in heart health (52), brain health and eye health (53)
Prenatal care for puppies and kittens in the form of proper eye and brain development as well as tissue development (53, 54)
Nerve cell development (55)
May slow or prevent cancer by inhibiting important pro inflammatory and growth cells that aid in cancer growth (52, 56, 57)
Improve immune function (58)
Aid in reproductive health (59, 60, 61)
Aid Kidney function (62, 63)
Aid in weight loss (64, 65)
Lower/regulate blood pressure (66, 67)
There are some side effects that should be noted when supplementing fish oils.
Too much fish oil can result in diarrhea
It can slow blood clotting (take caution if your companion is taking blood thinners) (68)
Special consideration for companion animals that may be undergoing surgery
Lack antioxidants (69)
Similar to the plant based oils, sourcing quality oil is of utmost importance. Some fishes are not wild caught and instead farmed. Often, they are pumped full of grains, antibiotics, dyes and other unsavory things (70,71). They also live in less than ideal situations that in addition to diet can actually stunt their ability to produce quality essential fatty acids (72, 73, 74, 75).
Wild caught fishes have a better balance of Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids (76, 77). Wild caught fishes do have a higher chance of containing heavy metals (78) being in the ocean so it is ideal to choose fish oils from smaller fish. Because they are lower on the food chain they contain less toxins and contaminants like mercury. Larger fish that are eating all the smaller fish have much more of these concerning toxins (79, 80).
Cold pressed fish oils are also important. Just like with plant based oils, when cold pressed all the essential components remain intake. Processes that use chemicals or heat can easily destroy and denature essential components of the fatty oils of which Omega 3’s are the first to go (81).
Finally, Krill oil is a unique oil from a non-fish source. It is probably the most valuable oil you can provide your companion. Krill oil comes from the tissues of a small shrimp like creature. Although krill oil has similar benefits to fish oils, it has a leg up as it contains antioxidants that destroy free radicals. Other benefits krill oil has in addition to those that fish oils provide include:
High rate of absorption due to delivery of EPA/DHA as phospholipids (82)
Krill absorb less toxins (80, 83)
Include more EPA (82, 84)
Includes antioxidants (85)
No fishy taste
The only con we can add to the list in addition to those of the fish oils is that it is more costly, but from our research only a few dollars.
Do you not feed raw fish on a daily basis. While there are many benefits to our companions, too much is certainly a bad thing. Many fishes such as bass, tuna, minnows and carp contain Thaminase, an enzyme that destroys Thiamin an essential B vitamin (86, 87).
Some individuals use cod liver oil. Although it has similar pros and cons as other fish oils, caution must be taken because the oil also contains high levels of Vitamin A and D which can cause toxicity to your companion in excess (88, 89)
As you can see there are many options for fat supplementation with some being much better choices than others. You can use the non-species appropriate oils (plant based), but their effects will not be as beneficial as animal based sources. Dogs for example can only convert about 20% of ALA found in plant based sources to DHA (90). With oils being fairly important components of fat and important to your companion’s health, I would imagine you would want to use the oil that is most appropriate at targeting your companions’ needs. While animal based sources provide what seems to be similar benefits as plant based sources, animal based sources are much more species appropriate, are needed in smaller doses and are more bioavailable for our companions to use.
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