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Effects of Omega-3 Fatty Acids for ArthritisBy Dr. Bryan Waldridge · December 17, 2010

Omega-3 fatty acids have direct anti-inflammatory actions that can be useful for the treatment of osteoarthritis and lameness.

Inflammation is characterized by pain, swelling, heat, redness, and loss of use. One of the most important mediators of inflammation is prostaglandin, which is produced from fatty acids in cell membranes. The usual mediators of inflammation are produced from omega-6 fatty acids. Dietary supplementation of omega-3 fatty acids can offset the inflammatory response in several ways. Increased concentrations of omega-3 fatty acids compete with omega-6 fatty acids to produce prostaglandins. The end products produced from omega-3 fatty acids have less inflammatory effects than those usually produced from omega-6 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids must be supplemented for at least 28 days before they have any effect on the inflammatory cascade.

A recent study involving 109 dogs with radiographically confirmed osteoarthritis of the hip or stifle investigated the effects of omega-3 fatty acid supplementation for 12 weeks on the dose of carprofen required to control the dogs' level of pain (Fritsch et al., 2010). Carprofen is a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug often prescribed by veterinarians as supportive treatment for relief of arthritic symptoms in dogs.  The results of the study indicated that the required dose of carprofen to improve lameness decreased significantly faster in dogs supplemented with omega-3 fatty acids.

A study of 16 horses with confirmed arthritis of the knee, fetlock, stifle, or hock investigated the effects of omega-3 fatty acid supplementation for 90 days (Manhart et al., 2009). Arthritis was confirmed using radiography and force-plate analysis, which detects weight-bearing differences on each hoof. Supplementation with omega-3fatty acids significantly decreased plasma concentrations of prostaglandin E2 and joint fluid white blood cell counts. Force-plate analysis revealed a trend for horses to bear more weight on their lame limb, but this was not statistically significant.

Osteoarthritis is a common and potentially career-ending ailment of horses. Treatment of osteoarthritis involves rest and anti-inflammatory drugs such as phenylbutazone, corticosteroids, hyaluronic acid, or polysulfated glycosaminoglycans. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as phenylbutazone can have serious adverse effects in some horses such as renal disease and gastric or colonic ulcers. Further research is needed to determine how omega-3 fatty acid supplements can benefit lame horses or allow the dose of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs to control lameness to be reduced. 

Fritsch, D.A., T.A. Allen, C.E. Dodd, D.E. Jewell, K.A. Sixby, P.S. Leventhal, J. Brejda, and K.A. Hahn. 2010. A multicenter study of the effect of dietary supplementation with fish oil omega-3 fatty acids on carprofen dosage in dogs with osteoarthritis. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 236:535-539.

Manhart, D.R., B.D. Scott, P.G. Gibbs, J.A. Coverdale, E.M. Miller, C.M. Honnas, and D.M. Hood. 2009. Markers of inflammation in arthritic horses fed omega-3 fatty acids. Professional Animal Scientist 25:155-160.

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