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Omega Fatty Acids


Fatty acids are long chains of carbon and hydrogen linked together by chemical bonds that resemble the tail of a flying kite. The number of carbon and hydrogen atoms and the number and arrangement of bonds between adjacent carbon atoms help distinguish one type of fatty acid from another.

Saturated fats, such as those found in animal fats (e.g., beef, lard, butter, cream, cheese), have no double bonds between the carbon atoms. Unsaturated fats, such as those found in seeds, nuts, grains, and vegetables, have at least one double bond. Polyunsaturated fatty acids have more than one double bond between carbon atoms.


King states “Omega fatty acids are a type of polyunsaturated fatty acid. Omega fatty acids are not produced by the body and therefore must be obtained through the diet” (p ). There are two main forms of omega fatty acids: omega-3 and omega-6. Omega-3 fatty acids have the first double bond at the third carbon atom, whereas omega-6 fatty acids have the first bond at the sixth carbon atom. Although this detail seems relatively small, it makes a big difference in how these two omegas are metabolized.

Fatty acids are metabolized to produce inflammatory mediators called prostaglandins. The prostaglandins produced during omega-6 fatty acid metabolism are proinflammatory, which can be detrimental to health. In contrast, the omega-3 fatty acids are metabolized to mediators that inhibit the production of proinflammatory mediators and modulate the “inflammatory cascade.” (Lewis M, Ghassemi P, Hibbeln J)

The most important omega-3 fatty acids are alpha-linolenic acid, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). EPA and DHA are obtained primarily from cold water fish (e.g., salmon, herring, mackerel) and fish-oil supplements, and alpha-linolenic acid is found in high quantities in flaxseed. Linoleic acid and arachidonic acid are classic examples of omega-6 fatty acids. Altering a diet’s ratio of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids by increasing the amount of omega-3 through supplementation can change the type of inflammatory mediators produced and be potentially beneficial to your horse’s health.

Fatty-acid supplements for horses are popular for:

  • Coat and skin health
  • Hoof quality
  • Support of the immune system
  • Weight gain
  • Reproduction Research results show that omega-3 fatty acids have the potential to improve sperm quality. Research in broodmares showed they pass fatty acid levels in their milk and plasma reflective of the omega-3 and omega-6 levels they consumed. This caused an earlier inflammatory response in foals, suggesting that omega-3 could confer an early advantage in responding to infection( Stelzleni, EL, Warren LK, Kivipelto J. 2006).
  • Performance – researchers have examined omega -3 fatty acid supplementation and its ability to decrease exercise induced hypertension and pulmonary hemorrhage. Horses supplemented with omega 3’s have lower heart rates. Fish oil appears to make the red blood cells more slippery and therefore increasing oxygen delivery. The Texas A & M researches demonstrated that horses receiving soy oil versus corn oil have a reduced inflammatory response following exercise.


Forages, which make up the bulk of a horse’s diet, typically contain only small amounts (2-3%) of crude fat. However, forages naturally have higher amounts of omega-3 fatty acids than they do pro-inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids. In contrast, crude fat in cereal grains contains approximately 50% omega-6 fatty acids and only small amounts of omega-3s. Thus, horses supplemented with concentrates are consuming more omega-6 fatty acids that are metabolized to inflammatory mediators. Vegetable oils such as corn, safflower, or sunflower oils are high in omega-6 fatty acids. As mentioned, horses need both types of omega fatty acids, but a diet with a higher omega-3 to omega-6 ratio is more desirable.

The ideal levels of omega-3 fatty acids and the ideal ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 in equine diets or supplements remains unknown. Researchers do know that horses absorb fatty acids following supplementation. King SS, AbuGhazaleh AA, Webel SK, et al. (2008) found that horses fed 40 g/day of EPA and DHA had elevated EPA and DHA levels three days after initiation of supplementation and the levels remained elevated until 42 days post-supplementation. Pagan JD, Lawrence TL, Lennox MA (2010) confirmed that increased omega-3 fatty acid consumption leads to increased levels in blood plasma (the fluid part of blood) as well as red blood cells.


Like any dietary supplement, safety and quality varies from product to product. As recently reported on, problems were identified for >30% of tested omega-3 fatty acid supplements. Visit for more information on choosing a safe, quality supplement.11


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2. King M. The latest on the omegas.
3. Lewis M, Ghassemi P, Hibbeln J. Therapeutic use of omega-3 fatty acids in severe head trauma. Am J Emerg Med. In press.
4. Vandeweerd JM, Coisnon C, Clegg P, et al. Systematic review of efficacy of nutraceuticals to alleviate clinical signs of osteoarthritis. J Vet Intern Med 2012;26(3):448-56.
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6. Stelzleni, EL, Warren LK, Kivipelto J. 2006. Effect of dietary n-3 fatty acid supplementation on plasma and milk composition and immune status of mares and foals. J Anim Sci Suppl 84:392.
7. Erickson HH, Epp TS, Poole DC. Review of alternative therapies for EIPH. Proceedings of the 53rd Annual Convention of the American Association of Equine Practitioners. 2007.
8. King SS, AbuGhazaleh AA, Webel SK, et al. Circulating fatty acid profiles in response to three levels of dietary omega-3 fatty acid supplementation in horses. J Anim Sci 2008;86(5):1114–23.
9. Pagan JD, Lawrence TL, Lennox MA. Fish oil and corn oil supplementation affect red blood cell and serum eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) concentrations in Thoroughbred horses.
10. Hess TM, Rexford JK, Hansen DK, et al. Effects of two different dietary sources of long chain omega-3, highly unsaturated fatty acids on incorporation into the plasma, red blood cell, and skeletal muscle in horses. J Anim Sci. 2012;90(9):3023-31.
11. Oke S. General equine supplements.
Authored by Stacey Oke, DVM, MS; reviewed by Amy Gill, PhD

Images used under creative commons license – commercial use (4/29/2016) Lee Haywood (Flickr)

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