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What You Need to Know About Omega-3 Fatty Acid Supplements for Horses

Is the skin the thing? Let’s delve deeper into the dietary omega 3 fatty acids benefits for horses, including economic benefits!


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Some say beauty is only skin deep, and that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But what horse lover doesn’t notice (and perhaps drool a little) when confronted with another horse on the course with way healthier skin than their own horse’s and a coat so dazzling it's nearly blinding?

Perusing the plethora of products available for horse owners to bolster their equines’ outer beauty, many of the ingredients are typical of those found in hoof supplements—biotin, methionine, copper, zinc, a smattering of amino acids and other vitamins, herbs, and nutrients. Right alongside those is the “mane” event: the Mighty Omegas!

One thing you might not have realized all these years is that when you have been bolstering bloom, they’ve actually been benefiting other organ systems, too. Read on to learn what the science says about omega-3s and how veterinary practices offering clients a quality supplement can be economically beneficial.  

Quick Review of Omega Fatty Acids

Omega fatty acids are a specific type of polyunsaturated fat composed of long chains of carbon and hydrogen atoms bound together with at least one double bond between adjacent carbon atoms. Omega fatty acids are a specific type of polyunsaturated fatty acid. In the case of omega-3 fatty acids, the double bond law states that the first double bond exists at the third carbon atom (hence omega-3). Moot point? Maybe to some, but the body’s “inflammatory cascade,” that controls systemic inflammation doesn’t think so. It can decipher between an omega-3 fatty acid with its first double bond at the third carbon to help decrease inflammation. In turn, the inflammatory cascade easily identifies omega-6 fatty acids that have the first carbon-carbon double bond at the sixth carbon atom. Such fats are actually proinflammatory in nature, adversely affecting the overall health of several organ systems.

Examples of sources of omega-3 fatty acids include fresh water fish, such as salmon, herring and mackerel. Two of the most well-known types of marine-derived omega-3 fatty acids are eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is also an omega fatty acid but is found in plants like flaxseed rather than fish. In contrast, the omega-6 fatty acids abound in corn oil and grains such as oat and corn.

Why the Fats are Phat

Omega-3 fatty acids are widely touted as a perfect supplement for optimal skin and healthy coats, and helping clear up rain rot or Culicoides-associated problems. In the land of science, however, these are only rumors. To date, no controlled studies confirming the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids on skin and coat in horses appear to have been published. In contrast, a large body of evidence supports the use of omega-3 fatty acids for a variety of other purposes, including the following:

1. Joint Trauma, Inflammation, Osteoarthritis (OA)

Yes, glucosamine, chondroitin sulfate, avocado-soybean unsaponifiables (ASU), methylsulfonylmethane (MSM) and hyaluronic acid are the usual compounds we think of when choosing a joint supplement. Recent studies, however, show that omega-3s should be a staple in the realm of joint supplements. 

One soon-to-be-published study co-authored by equine joint guru Wayne McIlwraith involved offering sedentary horses a dietary supplement containing 40 grams of fatty acids (including 1.93 g of EPA and 5.43 g of DHA) per 100 kg of body weight. The key finding was that supplementation was not harmful, EPA and DHA concentrations increased in the synovial fluid of supplemented horses and that the studied product was potentially indicated as a joint therapy and/or chondroprotective agent. Additional research was recommended.

In a related study, the research team took joint health one step further. Their purpose was to determine if omega-3 fatty acid supplementation could protect the joints of young, exercising horses when offered prophylactically, before the onset of injury. Young horses were offered a pelleted concentrate and coastal Bermudagrass hay; half of the included horses were supplemented with 287 grams of a marine-derived omega-3 supplement (including 15 grams of EPA and 20 grams of DHA).

Blood samples were collected on days 0, 35, and 63 of the 63-day study. Prostaglandin E2 (PGE2) concentrations in those samples were measured as an indicator of joint inflammation. The theory was that systemic inflammation mirrors joint inflammation. Key findings of the study were that (1) PGE2 levels increased over time in both supplemented and unsupplemented horses as the exercise intensity increased, indicating a rise in inflammation; and horses supplemented with omega-3 fatty acids had lower PGE2 concentrations on days 35 and 63 compared to the control horses.

2. Heaves/Equine Asthma

The term describing asthma in horses may be updated, but the causes (e.g., chronic inhalation of fine, airborne particles from hay, dust, and mold spores, etc.) and clinical signs of the condition remain relatively unchanged.

Means of minimizing the development of equine asthma and managing the condition once present were recently reviewed and updated. For example, improvements in airway inflammation are facilitated by replacing hay with a complete pelleted feed, turning horses out on pasture when possible and using low-dust bedding material (newspaper), dampening/soaking hay before feeding when turnout is unavoidable.

Evidence also exists that adding an omega-3 fatty acid supplement can offer additional improvement in airway function in asthmatic horses. The study, conducted by a team from Purdue University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, included 43 horses with airway inflammation. All horses were offered a complete pelleted diet (read: no hay) and either supplemented with 30 grams or 60 grams per day of an omega-3 fatty acid supplement, or 30 grams of a placebo. 

Two months later, lung function, clinical signs of airway inflammation, and bronchoalveolar lavage fluid (BALF) analyses were performed. Here’s what they found:

  • An improvement in all horses occurred during the study period;
  • A greater improvement was noted in horses supplemented with omega-3 fatty acids. Specifically, supplemented horses had a 60% improvement in cough scores, a 48% decrease in respiratory effort, and a marked decrease in the number of BALF neutrophils (from 23% to 9%);
  • Horses in the control group only showed a 33% improvement in cough score, a 27% decrease in respiratory effort as well as an increase in BALF neutrophils (from 11% at baseline to 17%);

Not convinced the “Great O” (which, by the way, Wikipedia claims is the literal translation of omega) is responsible for? The study authors assure us, it certainly appears that way as levels of DHA in the blood increased significantly following dietary supplementation: they were 10 times higher at the conclusion of the study than baseline.

3. Mare, Foal and Stallion Reproductive Health

This topic alone can fill an entire book. There is great evidence that omega-3 fatty acids benefit broodmares, stallions participating in both natural cover and AI programs, as well as the foals they produce. For example, not only is colostrum quality impacted by omega-3 fatty acids but foals from mares also reap the rewards of improved memory and cognition (ergo trainability).

4. Boosting Response to Vaccination

Researchers recently tested the theory that fatty acids could help bolster a horse’s immune system following vaccination. To do this, they fed horses one of three diets: a pelleted diet meeting the basic requirements described by the National Research Council (NRC); a proprietary diet providing a higher plane of nutrition than recommended by the NRC; or, the basic diet supplemental fatty acids (type and amount were not described). Included horses were fed their respective diets for 111 days. All horses were subsequently vaccinated using bovine vaccines, and response to vaccination was assessed.

Compared to horses on the basal diet, horses offered a higher plane of nutrition and those supplemented with fatty acids had an elevated response to vaccination.

5. Other Potential Indications

In humans and other mammalian species, omega-3 fatty acids are also indicated for brain development, to facilitate trainability and support cognitive function in older animals. Human patients with heart disease, head trauma, inflammatory bowel disease, depression, stress and cancer also benefit from omega-3 fatty acids. Finally, even patients undergoing routine surgical procedures benefit from omega-3s during their postoperative recovery. 

Economic Benefits of Omega-3 Fatty Acids

As if the vast and varied list of ways omega-3s help horses wasn’t enough, we can’t ignore the economic impact of the pet nutritional supplement industry, which includes horses. According to multiple reports, nutritional supplements are hot commodity throughout the equine industry. For example, one recent study reported that eventers and dressage horses are offered an average of two nutritional supplements daily, with some receiving no supplements and others fed 12 different products daily. Of those, the most popular nutritional supplements were:

  • Joint health (joint problems, osteoarthritis, and tendon, ligament, soft tissue support);
  • Electrolytes;
  • Calming and other energy and behavioral issues;
  • Back and muscle discomfort;
  • Gastrointestinal issues (colic, gastric ulcers, digestive problems);
  • Hoof and coat conditions; and
  • Respiratory problems.

According to the 2013 edition of Packaged Facts’ publication, Pet Supplements in the U.S., 4th edition (the last version to include horses), an estimated $1.3 billion US were spent on retail sales of nutritional supplements on pets, including horses. Horse owners currently spend over $600 million per year, and other market reports currently predict a marked growth in the market until 2020. Interestingly, with all this money being spent on supplements, most horse owners purchase their supplements through channels other than their veterinarian and without their veterinarian’s advice.

In addition to the lost income from having owners purchase their supplements from other outlets, safety is also a huge issue. Many nutritional supplements are not produced using pharmaceutical-grade quality assurance/control procedures, do not contain the ingredients or amount of ingredient listed on the label, or are contaminated with potentially harmful compounds. In addition, supplement-herb-nutrient interactions exist, which makes veterinary input on supplementation imperative. Supplement safety and economy will be discussed in more detail in a related article. 

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