The Pet Industry Got It Wrong
Look at any pet food package and you’ll see a percentage of crude fat listed. But have you ever thought beyond what that percentage means? Or what crude fat means? We know that fats play an essential role in the biology of humans and pets – but not all fats serve the same purpose.
Sure, the percentage on a pet food label, tells you what percentage of the food is fat – but it doesn’t give you grams of fat, types of fat, or if are they animal-based, or plant-based? Are the fats included healthy or beneficial? Because of this, it is important for us to consider the varying types of fats in pet foods.
Comparing One Label To Another? Not So Fast!
In short, the pet food label itself is outdated and is in need of major updates. As it stands now, veterinarians and consumers are unable to truly evaluate the quality of the product based on current labeling requirements. This is because the percentage of fat (Crude Fat) is listed by the weight of fat in the food, not the percentage of calories, or grams of fat – and this creates a lot of deception. Even so, fat is usually the nutrient blamed when we discuss the obesity epidemic, however this is a futile argument. Instead, the total number of calories within that food and the digestibility of the food are much larger influencers when it comes to obesity.
All Fats Are Not Created Equal
Fat itself is an essential part of any pet’s diet as it provides energy, protects cells, provides insulation, and helps the body absorb and metabolize other nutrients. Fat also adds palatability and desirable texture to food for both cats and dogs.1 However, there are multiple types of fats that serve different purposes. In fact, the balance of these fats is vital to health, longevity, inflammation, and even weight control. The wrong types, imbalance, or not enough fats can impair nutrition status, and development and promote inflammation.
To set the stage, there are three major types of fats: unsaturated fats, saturated fats and trans fats. As a general rule, we will typically find unsaturated fats in plants and seeds and saturated fats from animal products such as milk and meat. Although there are exceptions to these categorizations. Typically, trans fats are a product of a process called hydrogenation which can make fats more shelf stable – these types of fats are not commonly found in nature.
Cholesterol, Fats & Heart Disease Are Different for Pets
As humans, we are often aware that both saturated and trans fats are associated with increased health risks. However, dogs and cats are not susceptible to the same types of atherosclerotic diseases that humans are, so limiting fats, for this reason, is not sound advice. The reason for this is in part because dogs and cats naturally have more of the “good fat” (HDL cholesterol) providing them protection against some of the “bad fat” (LDL cholesterol) – regardless of what types of fat they consume.2 Even trans fats don’t appear to cause an increased risk of arterial diseases in dogs like they do in humans. When it comes to cholesterol, it has various healthful roles and we could devote an entire discussion to its involvement in cell membrane function, influence on bile acids, various hormones and more.3,4
Unsaturated Fats: What’s Been Hidden From You
Plants primarily contain what are known as unsaturated fats. Unsaturated fats are also primarily found in plant-based foods. Common sources include seeds (e.g. peanut, corn, soybean), fruits (e.g. avocado, olive), and nuts (e.g. almond, walnut).
Unsaturated fats are not saturated with hydrogen atoms because they contain one or more bonds between carbon atoms. Simply, the double bonds take up space that hydrogen atoms would otherwise occupy. If no double bonds were present, then hydrogen atoms would saturate the carbons, these are known as saturated fats which we will cover later.
Typically, we will find that the lower saturation of hydrogen atoms, the lower the melting point of the fat. This is why we usually see plant-based fats in oil form (i.e. olive oil, avocado oil, or even canola oil). Types of unsaturated fats include:
- Monounsaturated Fats: Have one double bond and are typically found in olive and canola oils, avocados, almonds, pumpkin, and sesame seeds.
- Polyunsaturated Fats: Have more than one double bond and are typically found in corn, soy, flaxseed, walnuts, and canola oil. Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids are the most well-recognized types of polyunsaturated fat. However, Omega-5, Omega-7, and Omega-9 also serve important functions.
Some types of fatty acids are considered essential fatty acids (EFAs). The essential nature of a fatty acid is primarily due to an animal's inability to synthesize it in sufficient quantities to meet metabolic needs.1 In other words, even if the body is able to make some, or synthesize it from another source, but still may need to obtain some from the diet in order to meet biological requirements. Other factors that may influence a fatty acid's essential status include age, reproductive status, health status, and other unique individual needs.
We’re familiar with Omega-3 fatty acids due to their involvement in a variety of functions including cell membrane function, hormone synthesis, blood clotting, inflammatory mechanisms, and more. There are three main types of Omega-3 fatty acids: Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA).
ALA is primarily found in vegetable oils, walnuts, flaxseed, leafy vegetables, and grass-fed animal products. This type of Omega-3 fatty acid is considered essential for both cats and dogs. Dogs can convert ALA to EPA and DHA but at varying levels. EPA and DHA primarily come mainly from fish but can also be found in other animal fats. DHA plays a role in vision, neurologic development, and cognitive function. For these reasons, DHA is likely to be more essential than EPA, although more research is needed on this topic for companion animals.
While there are some gaps in research – both the American Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) and the National Research Council (NRC) have included EPA and DHA as part of their recommendations.5 The basis of this is simply because of the varying ability of individuals to convert ALA into DHA and EPA effectively and at adequate levels. In addition, metabolic demand for DHA, for example, is higher during growth and reproduction – meaning it is conditionally essential during growth and reproduction. Even so, many commercial pet foods are either lacking adequate amounts of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids or have less-than-ideal ratios. This is much of the reason why supplementation with both commercial and whole foods has become increasingly popular.
Several studies have demonstrated therapeutic uses for these omega-3s such as dermatologic, cardiovascular, renal, and metabolic benefits.5 Although, these benefits cannot be applied directly to standard amounts found in pet food because it is unknown whether incremental amounts above the minimum amounts would be optimal for health or provide protection against various disease states.5 That said, it is likely that Omega-3’s on their own are over-supplemented, and that there may be greater benefit from instead supplying various Omega’s from different sources.
Buyer Beware - Soybean, Flaxseed, Etc.
In pet food, soybean, flaxseed, and wheat germ oils, for example, are often used in lieu of other sources of fat due to cost – and to provide perceived nutritional value. Perceived nutritional value, in this case, would be providing a plant-based source of ALA, which is an Omega 3 fatty acid. As discussed, the problem is that most canines, felines (and even humans) do not adequately convert ALA into EPA and DHA, the usable forms of Omega-3. In other words, it is not beneficial to add these sources of fats to canines or felines as a large part of their diet.
The ”OMG” On Fatty Acids
Let’s see what other omega fatty acids exist naturally, beyond the main 3 fatty acids, when whole foods are used in feeding practices. It is also worth noting that there are other Omega Fatty Acids as noted in the table below:
Note: The purpose of this table is to show the wide range of unsaturated and saturated fatty acids that exist and why variety and/or rotation of food and supplements may provide a wider range of fatty acids.
Omega-5 Fatty Acids
Omega-5 fatty acids are scarce in nature from a general sense. They are also rarely found within common omega supplements because most are not full spectrum. Said differently, most have isolated omegas such as EPA and DHA. Omega 5 fatty acids are primarily found within the seeds of plants, although they can also be found within some fish, like wild menhaden.
Limited studies have demonstrated that certain Omega 5’s are effective against various chronic diseases related to obesity, diabetes, and high cholesterol.6 The most well-studied source of omega 5 is Punicic acid found within the pomegranate seed. Punicic acid is protective against the formation of some cancer cells due in part due to its antioxidant, antitumor properties. For humans, punicic acid is recognized for additional benefits such as anti-atherosclerotic and serum lipid-lowering properties especially when accompanied by various other omega fatty acids. It’s clear that available data points to benefits in humans, but more research is needed to measure positive health effects for pets.
Omega-6 Fatty Acids
The first functional fatty acid discovered was Linoleic Acid (LA). It was found to be an essential not only for growth but also prevention of skin lesions in dogs and other animals.7 Arachidonic acid (AA) is another type of Omega-6 fatty acid that is essential for cats. Sources of Omega-6 fatty acids include vegetable oils, eggs, poultry, meats, walnuts – among others.
For a period of time Omega-6 fatty acids were looked upon as potentially detrimental to human and animal health as they were thought to be inflammatory. Instead, it is now recognized that Omega-6 fatty acids provide protective and anti-inflammatory benefits, much like Omega-3 fatty acids. For dogs and cats, Omega-6 fatty acids play a role in skin barrier integrity, insulin sensitivity, cardiac function and managing inflammation. Due to this, avoiding or reducing Omega 6 fatty acids may actually be detrimental to the health of the animal. Instead, we need to rethink ‘balancing’ Omega 3 and Omega 6 – there are other Omega Fatty Acids that are also important to consider when it comes to inflammation and other factors.
Omega-7 Fatty Acids
Like omega 5, Omega-7 is also scarce in nature. Omega-7 fatty acid is primarily from salmon and sea buckthorn oil. Palmitoleic acid is one of the most common omega-7s and current literature highlights its benefit on heart disease, diabetes, and other metabolic disorders. There is ongoing research suggesting effectiveness at reducing inflammation, promoting wound healing, and reducing collagen depletion among others.8,9 Omega 7 is also reported to have a healing, soothing effect on the gastrointestinal lining, and help with skin disorders relating to dryness, allergy, and inflammation. These benefits specific to companion animals need more data to measure exact benefits and effectiveness, however, human data suggests Omega 7 has promising benefits for both cats and dogs.
Omega-9 Fatty Acids
Omega-9s are often forgotten about since they are one of the most abundant fats within cells, and the body is able to synthesize them on its own. Omega-9s include Oleic acid, Mead acid, and Erucic acid, among others, and are recognized for their role in both cardiovascular, nerve, and brain health. They can be found in both animal fats, like fish, and plant-based sources such as sunflower, olives, and nuts. They are most notably recognized for their ability to reduce LDL and raise HDL cholesterol in humans. However, even though companion animals are not susceptible to these types of cholesterol concerns it is still very likely they can benefit from the anti-inflammatory properties of Omega-9’s during times of stress or illness. More research is needed in companion animals to better determine mechanisms and more pointed benefits.
Omega Fatty Acid Take-Away
One of the most important factors to take away from the Omega discussion above is that most omega supplements are isolated. Commonly these supplements only include EPA and DHA which are Omega-3’s. While these do provide benefits, it is likely that full-spectrum sources of these oils may provide more benefits. It is also likely that balanced supplements with a wide variety of Omega supplements (e.g. 3, 5, 7, 9). This concept is known as the matrix effect – this takes into account how constituents (e.g., a nutrient) within whole foods interact with other constituents of food and the effect on the body. This is often resulting in different behaviors than those exhibited by the same constituent in isolation. A simple example is that vitamin C within an apple is more effective than an isolated vitamin C supplement.
Where Are Saturated Fats Found?
Saturated fats are primarily found in animal foods such as beef and milk products. Some plant foods also contain saturated fat, such as coconuts (including coconut oil), palm oil, and palm kernel oils. Saturated fats tend to be solid at room temperature and have higher melting points, unlike unsaturated fats. They get their name because they contain no double bonds between carbon atoms and are completely saturated with hydrogen atoms. Dogs and cats readily use saturated fat via a process known as β-oxidation, which uses oxygen and generates chemical energy to fuel other metabolic processes.2 These saturated fats translate to a high-caloric (energy) density for physical activity, body temperature regulation, growth, reproduction, and overall survival.11
As mentioned earlier, dogs and cats naturally have greater amounts of HDL cholesterol which provides greater protection against LDL cholesterol – regardless of the type and amount of fat they consume. Simply put, this is one of the reasons why companion animals are not susceptible to the same types of cardiac diseases and conditions that humans are.
Fats are a necessary component of any diet. In short, reducing or raising dietary fat could have deleterious consequences if the various types of fats are not taken into account or are supplied from an inadequate source. We know that the overprocessing of traditional pet foods like kibble can reduce available levels of healthy fats to both cats and dogs. It’s wise to supplement with a well-balanced product or rotation of products to replace those lost in processing. Further, it is important to consider the species of the animal, and their ability to metabolize the ingredients & supplements supplied.
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7. Hand et. al. Small Animal Clinical Nutrition. 5th ed. Mark Morris Institute
8. Song I-B, Gu H, Han H-J, et al. Omega-7 inhibits inflammation and promotes collagen synthesis through SIRT1 activation. Appl Biol Chem. 2018;61(4):433-439. doi:10.1007/s13765-018-0377-1
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10. WAGNER NRF, ZAPAROLLI MR, CRUZ MRR, SCHIEFERDECKER MEM, CAMPOS ACL. POSTOPERATIVE CHANGES IN INTESTINAL MICROBIOTA AND USE OF PROBIOTICS IN ROUX-EN-Y GASTRIC BYPASS AND SLEEVE VERTICAL GASTRECTOMY: AN INTEGRATIVE REVIEW. Arq Bras Cir Dig ABCD. 2018;31(4). doi:10.1590/0102-672020180001e1400
11. Council NR. Nutrient Requirements of Dogs and Cats.; 2003. doi:10.17226/10668