Antioxidants do battle with free radicals every day to protect the health of our pets. A free radical is “a group of atoms containing oxygen and electrons that can alter and damage the chemical structure of cells or other compounds.”1 Free radicals form as part of the metabolic processes that produce energy for the body. They have a chemical structure that requires the addition of an extra electron to become stable so they will essentially “steal” electrons from whatever is nearby. When a molecule is forced to give up an electron, it often becomes a free radical itself, which continues the cycle of cellular injury. Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), proteins, and cell membranes are common places for free radical damage.
Antioxidants are molecules found in food that can donate an electron to free radicals without becoming free radicals themselves, thereby breaking the cycle of cellular damage. Vitamins A, C, and E, beta carotene, and selenium are all common antioxidants.
When a healthy pet has an adequate dietary source of free radicals, balance is maintained within the body. Free radicals are produced but are quickly eliminated before they can do much damage. However, this delicate balance can be disrupted by changes on either side of the equation. A low quality diet or a poor appetite in a sick pet will result in a reduced intake of antioxidants while many diseases, toxins, and advanced age increase the production of free radicals. Anything that tips the balance between antioxidants and free radicals in favor of the free radicals can adversely affect the immune system, the progression of disease, and the aging process.
Thankfully, caregivers can help pets win their fight against free radicals. A high quality pet food will contain appropriate levels of antioxidants for a healthy pet’s day to day needs. Offering nutritious treats like carrots (a rich source of vitamin A and carotene) and broccoli (with high concentrations of vitamin C) is a natural way to increase the antioxidant level of a pet’s diet. In times of extreme stress, however, antioxidant supplements are the simplest way to counteract the harmful effects of free radicals and help pets remain healthy and happy for as long as possible.
1. Coates J. Dictionary of Veterinary Terms: Vet-speak Deciphered for the Non-Veterinarian. Alpine Publications. 2007.