Omega-3 fatty acids are the big thing for humans these days, but they are important for your cat, too!
The Omega fatty acids are a type of polyunsaturated fat that is used in the membrane of every cell in the body. They are precursors to many important hormones and other compounds in the body. In cats, they’re especially important for skin and coat health. Lack of a healthy balance of essential fatty acids is linked to many serious health conditions, such as allergies, skin diseases, obesity, cancer, insulin resistance, diabetes, asthma, arthritis, autoimmune diseases, behavioral issues, and cognitive dysfunction (senility).
There are two main types of essential fatty acids. Omega-3s generally are anti-inflammatory, while the kind of Omega-6s that are found in vegetable and plant oils and most animal fats, Omega-6s (the most common in both human and pet diets), can actually promote and increase inflammation when there’s too much of it.
Pet foods typically utilize leftovers and by-products of the human food industry. In the U.S., livestock and poultry are fed large amounts of corn, which shifts their natural Omega-3 content to mostly Omega-6. Pet foods that use animal fat or vegetable oils therefore contain large amounts of Omega-6s and virtually no Omega-3s, unless they are added—which many pet food makers are now doing.
Some pet foods now list Omega fatty acids in their guaranteed analysis, but this may not be a true reflection of the actual content. Omega-6 is often listed as a guaranteed minimum (meaning there may be, and probably is, much, much more of it in the food), while the minimum guaranteed Omega-3 is usually the most that is present. Some labels are manipulated to create an “ideal” ratio of 5:1 or less, but it’s a good bet that your pet will still benefit from additional Omega-3s.
The forms of Omega 3 that have been thoroughly studied are alpha linolenic acid (ALA), EPA and DHA. Because cats don't convert the ALA in flaxseed and other plant-based oils into EPA and DHA, marine oils are the best way to supplement dogs and cats with those essential fatty acids. Marine sources include fish oil, cod liver oil, and greenlip mussel oil.
So, how do you choose the best Omega-3 supplement? Let's look at the main sources of Omega-3s on the market:
The vast majority of plant-based oils are in the form of Omega-6 fatty acids, which are already over-supplied in our pets' diets. Flaxseeds and a few other seeds and nuts also contain the Omega-3 alpha-linolenic acid (ALA).
ALA is essential for cats, and it does have beneficial effects of its own, particularly on skin and coat health. If you want to incorporate ALA into your cat's diet, Missing Link is a great product, and I have seen wonderful results with it. Most cats tolerate the taste if you introduce it very gradually.
However, cats cannot convert more than 1-2% of ALA into EPA and DHA. Only marine oils contain these particular Omega-3s in bioavailable form. So let's take a look at the three types of marine oils: fish oil/cod liver, krill, and green-lipped mussel.
Fish oil and cod liver oil are the most common and popular sources of EPA and DHA.
Most salmon oil (and all salmon products from the Atlantic Ocean, Scotland, and Norway comes from farm-raised salmon. These factory-farmed fish are grown in polluted, overcrowded pens; they are heavily vaccinated, and fed antifungals, parasiticides, and antibiotics; and they contain up to 10 times more mercury, dioxins, PCBs, and other toxins than wild fish. Farmed salmon also pose a serious threat to wild species in both Atlantic and Pacific oceans from disease, parasites, and interbreeding of escaped fish.
Additionally, about 1/3 of labeled “Alaska,” “wild,” and “wild-caught” salmon are not truly wild, but bred and raised in hatcheries; their release into the ocean is threatening both wild salmon, and other fish. If proposed FDA rules take effect, genetically modified salmon products will soon be flooding the stores--and you won't be able to tell from the label which is which.
The safest fish oil supplements come from non-predatory fish such as anchovies or herring. However, they must still be purified to remove heavy metals and other contaminants.
Cod liver oil made for humans is heavily supplemented with Vitamins A and D at levels that could easily become toxic in cats and dogs. Moreover, a loophole in the law allows non-cod species to be labeled as cod.
There are also oils made from other fish, such as menhaden (a threatened keystone species, and the source of most unspecified “fish oil”). Sardine, herring, and anchovy oils are, so far, more sustainable and cleaner than most other fish oils.
If you choose to use fish oil or cod liver oil Nordic Naturals makes excellent products especially for pets.
Krill oil is a non-fish alternative Omega-3 product that is gaining in popularity. Krill (tiny shrimp-like crustaceans), are the keystone species and major food source for many marine animals, including fish, whales, seals, squid, and birds. Krill are utilized for oil, as well as being processed into food for farmed fish. Krill oil capsules are smaller than fish or cod liver oil products, so you might find this an attractive alternative.
But there are problems with krill harvesting that may change your mind.
The global biomass of krill is enormous, and krill oil promoters claim that it's impossible to over-harvest it. On a global scale, that may be true. But the problem is where they are being harvested: in and around critical feeding grounds of the animals that eat them. This is already causing local areas of depletion, threatening dozens of species of fish, seabirds, and mammals, including whales, which are already at higher risk from melting ice packs and warming sea temperatures.
While krill oil is comparable in quality to other marine oils, due to the serious environmental concerns I cannot recommend it.
Green-Lipped Mussel (GLM) Oil
New Zealand green-lipped (or greenlip) mussels (Perna canaliculus) are grown under a Sustainable Farming Program that ensures the long term viability of the greenlip mussel industry, with minimum impact on the environment. GLM are bi-valve mollusks known to be a rich source of 33 fatty acids, of which 5 are Omega 3s (including essential Omega 3s EPA, DHA, and alpha linolenic acid).
One of GLM's unique array of Omega 3s is ETA (eicosatetraenoic acid). ETA--which is not found in any other food to any measurable degree. It has been shown to have extremely powerful ant-inflammatory properties.
GLM oil has less saturated fat, and more mono- and polyunsaturated fats, than fish oil or cod liver oil.
Choose a GLM oil product that is organic and sustainably grown; humanely processed; cold-extracted; and certified to be free of mercury and other toxins and pollutants. Like all Omega-3 oils, it is fragile, so it should contain strong natural antioxidants, such as Vitamin E. I recommend Moxxor as the best GLM oil on the market.