By Beth Taylor and Steve Brown
The benefits of including long-chain omega-3 fatty acids in the diets of humans, dogs and cats are well documented. Fatty acids play a major role in the functioning of the immune system and the maintenance of all hormonal systems in the body. Protection against heart disease, progressive retinal atrophy and support for brain development in the womb are just a few of the many benefits seen when these critical fats are included in our diets and those of our animals.
Puppies must be supplied with sufficient DHA before birth in order for their brains and nervous systems to develop properly. If the diet of the mother is deficient in DHA, her body will supply it for the puppies as best she can, but she may never recover her optimum level, and puppies may not get enough.
Puppies that do not eat enough omega-3 fatty acids will never reach their full potential. Omega-3s are critical to the functioning of the immune system and the endocrine system. Dr. John Bauer, a leading veterinary nutritionist, wrote, "Omega-3 fatty acids are critically important in pet neuromuscular development, skin health, and coat quality." (1) Dogs and cats need about 1-1.5 grams of long chain omega-3 fatty acids per 100 pounds of body weight.
The evolutionary diet of dogs and cats contained a much higher percentage of omega-3 fatty acids and fewer saturated fats than today's domesticated plants and animals normally provide, just as the diet of humans is radically different in this respect than that of early man.
It's our opinion that long-chain omega-3s are essential, just as they are for humans. Pet food regulators are in the process of establishing minimum requirements for omega-3 fatty acids, but most dry and wet foods to don't contain these nutrients.
Fish oil is an excellent source of both DHA and EPA (Dr. Mercola has written a number of excellent articles on this topic). Fish oils can be excellent, but they spoil easily, and quality varies considerably. Distilled oils have no contaminants, but they are highly processed foods.
We use whole foods whenever we can to obtain nutrients in as close to their natural state and form as possible. In this case, it's easy!
Sardines: Omega-3s in Their Natural State
Sardines are an efficient and economical way to eat omega-3s (EPA, DHA) for all of us. They may be far more popular with cats and dogs than with humans, for whom sardines are often an acquired taste!
Sardines are the best choice in canned fish because of the omega-3s they supply, and they don't have the heavy load of contaminants carried by larger fish either. They are small fish or immature members of a larger species, thus sardines have not had time to pick up heavy metals in their short lives.
It's very easy to add sardines to your animal's food dish and watch them disappear, but it doesn't look quite so easy when you get to the fish aisle of the grocery store and view the 15 different varieties available!
In small cans, there are choices ranging from mustard sauce through hot sauce, in oil and in water. Fortunately, most of these choices can be eliminated for dogs and cats. Sardines in water are an excellent choice. Tomato sauce is common, but it is easily rinsed off (just be sure it's not spicy tomato sauce). Sardines in olive oil are good too, but the extra calories they add must be considered in the total diet.
Most sardines come in 3.75-ounce cans. There may be five fish in the can, or there may be 24, depending upon the brand and variety. In some areas, you may find 15-ounce cans of sardines in tomato sauce in the fish aisle in your corner grocery store. These are large sardines, and usually cost much less. If you have a large dog, these cans will be very useful, but if you have one cat, smaller cans will be better.
For small dogs and cats, one small sardine per day is enough. For big dogs, a large one will be better.
You can add a few sardines to provide the fatty acids needed, or you can make a once-a-week complete meal of them. Bones are included, and the mineral ratios are perfect: Sardines are real food in its whole form. However, this isn't a meal you would want to feed your pet every day! Sardines, especially packed in oil, have too much fat to be part of a daily diet. (In addition, we strongly suspect that a sardine-fed dog would smell fishy enough be an unpopular companion.)
The fatty acids in sardines are just as fragile as those in fish oil. If you can't use the can immediately, we suggest that you freeze the remainder in glass or a good quality freezer container.
Sardines are one of the most popular treats at our houses. They often don't make it to the bowl. They're shared among the humans and animals as a snack -- a perfect high-fat, high-protein boost to the day. Real food is always better than any biscuit in our dogs' view!
Eggs: Another Perfect Food
Eggs are also a great addition to a dog or cat's diet. They've always been a good source of protein and fat, and now eggs with higher levels of EPA and DHA are available. How is this possible? Manufacturers are feeding chickens foods that are closer to their natural diet, so the fatty acid profiles are much better.
Omega-3 eggs are from chickens fed flax. Your dog's body (or your body) will have to convert the omega-3 from ALA into EPA and DHA -- and it's not an efficient process. It's much better to eat foods with high EPA and DHA levels. Cats are unable to make this conversion at all, which is why flax oil is not a good choice for cats.
When chickens are fed algae or kelp, and other green foods, the EPA and DHA content of eggs increases significantly. These eggs are marketed as "DHA eggs," and are preferable, in our opinion, to omega-3 eggs. Although these high-DHA eggs are not easy to find, we did locate them in a number of stores (from Wild Oats Stores to Stop and Shop).
Adding a raw egg every other day is an excellent way to improve a dry food diet, and to provide variety in a fresh food diet. You can also feed eggs, once per week, as a whole meal. Adding a few pureed vegetables will provide fresh, whole food nutrition at a very reasonable cost.
Be aware how much food you are adding to your dog or cat's dish when adding sardines or eggs. Reduce your animal's meals accordingly. For small animals, food adds up quickly.
For more ideas on how to add real foods to your pet's diet, read our book, See Spot Live Longer.
Contact Steve or Beth for more information at firstname.lastname@example.org.