Functional Foods and Advances in Pet Nutrition

Many people are now choosing to eat foods which include ingredients that are widely recognised to have functional benefits in the body that go beyond simply providing an adequate supply of nutrients. The good news is that there is now a wide variety of pet foods supplemented with ingredients selected to support the body’s metabolism and natural defenses. These include but are not limited to: 

  • immune system support 
  • gastrointestinal tract support 
  • skin health and coat condition 

Omega 3 and Omega 6 Fatty Acids

Over recent years, there has been extensive research in both human and pet nutrition exploring the role of a range of omega-3 fatty acids in immune response and health. 

Omega 3 fatty acids are a class of polyunsaturated fatty acids that are structurally and functionally different to omega 6 fatty acids. Omega 3 fatty acids are found in high concentrations in fish oils as well as vegetable oils such as linseed oil and soya oil. Omega 6 fatty acids are found in vegetable oils.

The very long-chain omega 3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA) are known to have an effect on mediating the inflammatory and immune system responses in the body. For this reason, they are often used in diets for working dogs, ageing animals and those animals with diagnosed chronic inflammatory diseases such as osteoarthritis, skin disease and chronic gut disease.

Omega 6 fatty acids are essential for cats and dogs and are found in vegetable oils, as well as animal fats. Omega 6 fatty acids have a positive effect on the skin and coat of our pets and have other functions in the body such as supporting a healthy reproductive system.

Intestinal health, function and dietary fibre

Dietary fibres are found naturally in the plant-based ingredients. Fibre sits within the carbohydrate group of macronutrients, however unlike carbohydrates, fibre does not add calories to our diet or to the diet of our cats and dogs. This is because fibre is indigestible – that is, we and our pets are unable to digest and use fibre for energy, and instead it passes through the gut mostly unchanged. 

It does however play an important role as it passes through the gut – the role it plays is directly related to the type of fibre. Dietary fibre is classed as either soluble or insoluble – soluble meaning it disperses easily in water, and insoluble meaning water has no effect on the fibre. 

Soluble dietary fibre is fermented in the bowel – this helps to stimulate the growth of beneficial bacteria supporting a healthy microflora that live in the colon and may also strengthen and support the cells lining the gut itself. Many prepared pet foods now include select vegetable fibres, such as beet pulp and other similar vegetable fibres to help support gastrointestinal function. Insoluble fibres, such as cellulose, are important to help provide bulk, stimulate normal and regular gut movements, and promote normal stool consistency. Other fibre such as psyllium husk can be important to help manage constipation and diarrhea and helps reduce hairballs in cats.

The importance of regular intake of dietary fibre to gut health is now well recognised in human health and veterinary medicine. 

Skin & coat condition

A number of nutrients are known to have a crucial role in the normal functioning of the skin and maintaining good coat condition in dogs and cats. These include protein, essential fatty acids, zinc, Vitamin A, Vitamin E and B-complex vitamins.

Many prepared pet foods include omega 6 fatty acids from animal fats, and vegetable oils such as  sunflower, canola and safflower oils. Omega 6 fatty acids are recognised as important nutrients for reproduction, tissue repair, skin health and coat condition. B-group vitamins and zinc are also key nutrients for healthy skin function and are widely incorporated into prepared pet foods to support healthy skin and coats.

Looking ahead

Research into pet nutrition continues, providing greater understanding of the role of specific food ingredients and the pet’s well-being. A trip to your supermarket, pet shop or veterinary clinic will provide you many options for your pet, including foods specifically designed to assist in keeping older pets mobile, helping manage furballs in long haired cats and to enhance skin and coat or oral health in dogs and cats.


  • Extensive research in people has shown a positive association between the consumption of many food components found in fruits, vegetables, grains, fish oil and legumes and their positive effect on health and protection against a range of diseases.
  • These “functional food ingredients”, include natural antioxidants, omega 3 and 6 fatty acids and dietary fibre.
  • Many prepared pet foods now include selected functional ingredients to support your pet’s natural defence mechanisms and contribute to their wellbeing.

This article is for general information only:
This information is provided by the PFIAA as general information only. For advice and information concerning feeding your individual pet, we recommend that you seek the advice of your veterinarian.