The use of essential fatty acids (EFA)
in the management of skin problems in dogs and cats has become
increasingly more popular over the past few years. Recent
research has looked at the role specific fatty acids play
in skin problems involving inflammation and pruritus. The
fatty acids in question are generally grouped into 2 types:
n6 & n3 (also called omega-6 and omega-3).
This article will look at the source of these
oils and when they are of use in skin problems.
Sunflower Oil - high in LA (n6) which is
a component of biological membranes and plays and important
role in the oil layer of the skin . There is some evidence
to suggest that is has some anti-inflammatory effects in the
skin and appears useful in dogs with scaly skin.
Evening Primrose Oil - contains high levels
of n6 oils (GLA & LA) which appear to be better utilised
than those found in borage oil, there is little doubt, when
given at the right dose, evening primrose oil has anti-inflammatory
properties in dog skin, the only drawback is the high cost,
there is evidence that other less expensive oils (eg sunflower)
may have similar activity
Borage Seed Oil - contains high levels of
n6 oils (GLA & LA) but there is some question about how
well they are used by the body, some studies have suggested
when given at the right dose there is some anti-inflammatory
properties in atopic dogs.
Other vegetable and fungal oils - although other oils show
some promise there are not may controlled studies to back
up their potential. Others that are often used with apparent
benefit include: flax seed oil, canola oil, soybean oil, black
currant seed oil, gooseberry seed oil, comfrey seed oil.
Some of the vegetable seed oils (canola, corn and
especially flax seed) contain both n3 & n6 oils in what
is thought to be the right ratio and hence should be useful
in skin inflammation.
Cold Water Fish Oils - contain high levels of n3
oils, research has shown some anti-inflammatory effect on
skin in dogs with atopy and or flea bite allergy, they also
tend to improve coat gloss, may work better when combined
in the right ratio with n6 oils
What is best? n3 or n6 ?
It appears that a mixture of n3 & n6 is superior over
n3 or n6 used alone. The ratio of these oils seems to be the
determining factor. What ratios to use in a supplement will
depend on the levels of n3 and n6 already in the diet. It
is accepted that a ratio of 5:1 in a supplement seems to have
the most benefit.
When to use supplementation:
Atopy in Dogs - (Atopy: allergy to airborne or inhaled allergens)
Many dogs with atopy respond to immunotherapy (performed by
a veterinarian) but many will still require “anti-itch”
therapy. Besides medications prescribed by your vet (eg cortisone,
antihistamines) there is much data to support the use of EFAs
to control itching. Those oils containing the right ratio
of n6:n3 appear to be the best. Many different blends are
available commercially eg Megaderm, Omega-3, My Beau, which,
besides having the right types and ratios of oils, also contain
other ingredients (eg Zinc, Innositol, Vitamin E) which can
be of benefit to the skin.
There are some general guidelines when using EFAs for atopy
- They won’t work when there is severe inflammation
or infection with bacteria or yeast;
- The response is dose related - follow the directions on
- There is a lag period before an effect is seen - generally
allow 4 weeks of continual therapy before expecting a response,
then another 2 months before maximal effect is seen;
- If your dog is on cortisone or antihistamines for skin
problems, the use of EFAs may reduce the dose of these drugs
Seborrhoea - keratinisation defects - generally
seen as a scaly coat like dandruff. The use of EFAs seems
to be beneficial. One study showed that using sunflower
oil at 1.5ml/kg every 24 hrs for 4 weeks improved the coat
of dogs with scaly skin.
Itchy Skin in Cats - Cats will become itchy
for a variety of reasons - eg fleabite allergy, atopy. EFAs
have been shown to be of use in treating these problems
in cats. It is extremely important to have good flea control
in cats with a skin condition that causes crusting, scaling,
over grooming or scratching. What to use for this - go here.
When using EFAs in the food, it is important that they are
ingested quickly as prolonged exposure will cause oxidation
of the oils and a loss of their properties.