Health & Nutrition | Dogs | Cats | August 29, 2016

Essential Fatty Acids in Pet Food: Omega 3 & 6

Dog on the deck

As a concentrated energy source, fats are an important component in your pet’s diet. Fatty acids are the building blocks of fat. Some fatty acids are ‘essential’ because the body cannot make them so they must be obtained from the diet. Dogs and Cats require two types of essential fatty acids: omega-6 and omega-3. Essential fatty acids have important roles in cell membranes, the immune system, and the circulatory system. In other words, they are essential for life.

Linoleic acid is an omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acid that is considered to be the most important essential fatty acid for dogs and cats.(1) It plays a critical role in skin health by maintaining the outermost water barrier of the skin. In addition, many other important molecules in the body are made from linoleic acid. It is found in most plant and animal fats and oils, including chicken fat and canola oil. Cats also require an additional omega-6 fatty acid, arachidonic acid, because unlike other animals they cannot make adequate amounts from linoleic acid. Fats from animals and fish, such as chicken, lamb, and salmon, are the richest dietary sources of arachidonic acid.

Omega 3
Omega-3s are polyunsaturated fatty acids that are important for normal metabolism and optimal health. The most important omega-3 fatty acids for dogs and cats and their ingredient sources are:

  • Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA): a plant-based omega-3 found in flaxseed and canola oil
  • Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA): a marine-based omega-3 found in de-boned salmon and salmon oil
  • Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA): a marine-based omega-3 found in de-boned salmon, salmon oil, and algae extract

ALA is considered an essential fatty acid in dogs and cats.(1) Animals can make EPA and DHA from ALA, though the rate of conversion is low. For optimal health, it is typically recommended that dietary sources of all three types of omega-3 fatty acids are consumed. In particular, DHA is important for brain and immune system development as well as eye (retinal) function in young, growing animals, including kittens and puppies.(2)

Omega 3 & 6 fatty acids in pet food
Most fats and oils are higher in omega-6 than omega-3 fatty acids, but it is important for dog foods to contain a balance of both. The role of these fatty acids in maintaining health is affected by the ratio of omega-3 to omega-6, but also the total amount of each in the diet. The National Research Council (NRC) recommends a ratio of 2.6:1 to 26:1 omega-6 to omega-3.(1) The Association of American Feed Control Officials dog and cat nutrient profiles include a maximum omega-6 to omega-3 ratio of 30:1.(3) For comparison, the recommended intake for humans is 5:1 to 10:1 omega-6 to omega-3.(4)

Including both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids in your pet’s diet is important because these fatty acids are metabolized in the body into substances that affect inflammation. Omega-3s are considered less inflammatory than omega-6s. Too much dietary omega-6 and not enough omega-3 could contribute to a chronic state of low-grade inflammation that is associated with certain diseases such as obesity, cancer and diabetes.


  • Linoleic acid is the key omega-6 essential fatty acid for cats and dogs that is found in most fats and oils, including chicken fat and canola oil. Cats also require a dietary source of the omega-6 fatty acid arachidonic acid. Fats from animals, such as chicken, lamb, and fish, are the richest sources of arachidonic acid.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids include alpha-linoleic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Salmon oil is a source of EPA and DHA, while canola oil and flaxseed are sources of ALA.
  • Providing a balance of omega-3 and -6 fatty acids helps to ensure optimal health since each fatty acid plays a different role in your pet’s body.



  1. National Research Council. Nutrient Requirements of Dogs and Cats. Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press; 2006.
  2. Zicker SC, Jewell DE, Yamka RM, Milgram NW. Evaluation of cognitive learning, memory, psychomotor, immunologic, and retinal functions in healthy puppies fed foods fortified with docosahexaenoic acid-rich fish oil from 8 to 52 weeks of age. J. Am. Vet. Med. Assoc. 2012;241(5):583-594.
  3. Association of American Feed Control Officials. 2016 Official Publication. Oxford, IN: Association of American Food Control Officials Inc.; 2016.
  4. Institute of Medicine. Dietary Reference Intakes for Energy, Carbohydrate, Fiber, Fat, Fatty Acids, Cholesterol, Protein, and Amino Acids (Macronutrients). Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press; 2005.