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Omega acid study: What's good for the owner is good for the dog

Published Aug. 28, 2005

It turns out Grandma was right: Seafood is brain food for people _ and also for dogs.

Salmon and other seafood found in cold water has lots of omega-3 fatty acids, including docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA.

Fatty acid biochemist Margaret Craig-Schmidt, a professor of nutrition at Auburn University, says researchers have shown that babies who receive DHA supplements are better at performing simple tasks than those who do not. What's more, studies also conclude that babies with appropriate DHA have a slightly higher IQ than babies deficient in DHA.

Knowing that the nutritional needs of people are often similar to those of dogs, the IAMS/Eukanuba pet food company, based in Dayton, Ohio, researched DHA. As a result of this research, the Eukanuba Puppy Formula and Eukanuba Premium Performance Formula (used for breeding dogs) are now enriched with boosted levels of DHA.

Here's how the research began: Beagle puppies from 27 litters were used to evaluate the effect of different DHA levels in their diets and in their mothers' milk. One group included mother dogs whose food was enriched with DHA.

At 9 weeks old, the pups began a one-week training period to figure out a simple maze test, learning on their own to associate a symbol (a square or a circle) with the location of a food treat. After spending a week learning that the symbol either meant the treat was on the left or right, the puppies were scored on their success rate. The high DHA pups got it right 70 percent of the time, while only 35 percent of the low DHA pups succeeded.

After a time, the symbol was switched and the pups had to learn the direction the new symbol indicated. The results were identical: DHA boosted pups learned faster.

"We didn't know what the difference, if any, would be between the two groups of dogs. It turns out the difference was more substantial than we might have predicted," says Dr. Dan Carey, director of technical services for IAMS/Eukanuba.

Research by Craig-Schmidt and others demonstrates that human babies need to develop a foundation of DHA, a process which typically begins as DHA is transferred across the placenta during perinatal and fetal development. That foundation continues to grow from birth through about the time the child is three months old.

Craig-Schmidt says many of her fellow researchers are beginning to believe it's likely that when human mothers don't have enough DHA in their milk, their bodies somehow know it _ and extra DHA is delivered directly from the brain into the milk so the babies get an adequate level. However, the mothers may pay a price; it seems these moms may be particularly susceptible to postpartum depression as a result of losing DHA from the brain. (DHA is the major structural component of the brain.)

Nutritionist Katherine Tallmadge, who has a private practice in Washington, D.C., and is a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, points out that increased incidents of violent behavior, as well as depression, have been linked to insufficient levels of DHA.

DHA is also a major structural component of the retina and is required for normal vision in newborns.

Craig-Schmidt and her colleagues successfully convinced the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to approve baby formulas enriched with DHA in 2001. Also, eggs with DHA laid by chickens whose diets are supplemented with DHA, and are now available in health food sections at grocery stores.

Tallmadge says people who eat foods with DHA seem to have reduced rates of cancer and heart disease, but exactly what levels of DHA are needed to accomplish this remains unclear. In fact, Tallmadge is so convinced DHA is beneficial that she supplements her own cat's diet with salmon to boost DHA. However, she does warn that too much supplementation might be harmful for both pets and people.

Carey agrees that "too much DHA could throw the fatty acid ratio out of whack. We researched exactly what amount of DHA seemed to work best (for dogs). The trick is that the Omega-3 fatty acid must be balanced to the Omega-6 fatty acids. If that balance is not maintained, there may be repercussions, which can include a range of problems from stomach upset to blood clotting."

While some pet foods do contain some DHA, the new Eukanuba formulas are the only ones on the market with the extra DHA boost.

Carey says research may also be done to determine DHA needs in kittens.

In the Far East, Craig-Schmidt says there's a brand of milk for infants fortified with DHA that's called Einstein milk. "It's a marketing ploy, but then it seems clear with the right level of DHA we are all most likely to benefit and to reach an intellectual potential."

She doesn't think dogs receiving extra DHA will soon drive cars or learn a foreign language. But the boost in DHA could make them more trainable.

"Absolutely, this is exciting," says Carmen Battaglia, a canine genetics expert in Atlanta, who's also on the Board of the American Kennel Club. "In dogs, variables include genetics and the people training the dog."

Since DHA and aggression are linked in people, might a boost of DHA reduce aggression in dogs?

"It's certainly possible DHA may play some role, but aggression in dogs is very complex," says Battaglia. "Often it's not true aggression; the dog is actually fearful. Certainly, we need to learn more."

Confusing breeds

What is a mini-Doberman?

There is no such thing as a mini-Doberman. My guess is you're thinking of a miniature pinscher, which indeed looks as if it could be a miniature Doberman pinscher. In fact, the lively min-pin came before the Doberman, and is a distinct breed, originating in the 17th century. One early name for the min-pin was the reh Pinscher, named for the delicate and very small German reh deer, which people thought the dog resembled.

Write to Steve Dale at Tribune Media Services, 435 N Michigan Ave., Suite 1400, Chicago, IL 60611, or send e-mail to