Does my pet need a nutritional supplement?

Dietary supplements have become as popular in the pet world as they are in human nutrition. If you visit a pet shop, you’ll find dozens of different food supplements on the shelf, all claiming to boost your pet’s health in one way or another. It’s estimated that around 20% of pet owners frequently give their pets supplements in the form of powders, oil, capsules, tablets, paste or chews, for a range of different reasons. But are they necessary? Or could they even be dangerous?

A nutritional supplement is defined as an ingredient to complement the diet, helping to support a particular biological function. Products available range from multivitamins to support overall good health to targeted formulas that claim to alleviate specific problems. Some of these are entirely unnecessary, being sold with marketing hype rather than based on real science. However other products do bring real benefits, falling somewhere between nutrition and pharmaceuticals (drugs). These are often also known as nutraceuticals.

Specialized diets are worth discussing before focusing on supplements. These are also known as “prescription diets” or “veterinary diets”, and they have been around for decades, sold only at vet clinics as a complete diet with a number of added supplements (or sometimes, a reduced level of certain ingredients). A number of specific diseases can be impacted significantly by carefully formulating the pet’s diet to include (or avoid) certain ingredients.

The concept is simple: the ideal nutritional plan for each disease is worked out by vets and nutritionists, and then the food manufacturers source the best possible ingredients, including supplements where needed, to make up that recipe. The resulting diets are then prescribed by vets for animals that are suffering from those diseases. Examples include diets for arthritis, kidney disease, liver disease and diabetes. There are also diets that dissolve crystals and stones that can block up the urinary tract. Special zero-allergenic diets can cure pets that have food allergies. Animals with long-term digestive disorders can be resolved with ultra bland recipes of pet food. There are “dental” diets to keep animals’ teeth and gums healthy. Obese dogs can lose weight by being fed special diets. Emaciated dogs can gain weight by being fed high-energy diets. Innovative pet food companies keep discovering new, better ways to use nutrition to help pets recover from a range of different diseases, and most veterinary clinics carry a range of specialized diets on their shelves. These diets should only be given under veterinary supervision, as they are specifically tailored for individual diseases.

Specific supplements take a different approach: they are given separately to the pet food and they are often marketed for use without veterinary supervision.

Specifically-made multivitamins for pets can help if the animal's immune system is not operating at full capacity, or indeed overactive.
Specifically-made multivitamins for pets can help if the animal’s immune system is not operating at full capacity, or indeed overactive.

The truth is that for most pets, these are not needed. Modern commercial pet food is legally obliged to be formulated to provide complete nutrition: nothing needs to be added for normal pets. However, there are still occasions where additional ingredients may be helpful.

Pet supplements should be selected for pets on an individualized basis, to address their particular needs. The best examples are situations where support is needed for joints, skin and coat issues, and sometimes for aspects of the immune system. Supplements may also be helpful when managing stress or behavioral concerns for some pets. Examples include:

Omega 3 and 6 Essential Fatty Acids

These are oils derived from plants and fish. These have very sensitive active ingredients, some of which are liable to damage by oxidation, by exposure to heat and light. For this reason, they can be difficult to include in high levels in processed food, and it can make sense to add a specific supplement to the daily food ration. Not all pets need these, but Omega 3 fatty acids have been shown in some cases to improve coat quality, brain function, and mobility of pets with joint disease. Specific capsules or proprietary mixes of oils can be given, or a simpler approach can be taken (eg giving a daily teaspoonful of mackerel oil).

Multivitamins

Multivitamins can help to sustain energy release for vitality and overall health in some situations where pets’ immune systems are under stress.

Lysine

A daily amino acid supplement called lysine is sometimes recommended for cats with long-term viral infections: this is reputed to inhibit the multiplication of the virus, although scientific evidence for this is under review.

Combinations

A combination of ingredients known as glucosamine and chondroitin sulphate claim to improve joint health.

Probiotics

Specific probiotics for dogs and cats can be given as supplements to help gut health.

Oils

Proprietary combinations of oils and vitamins may be used to help some behavioral issues

Owners should be very careful about self-medicating their pets with nutritional supplements, just as with other, stronger drugs. It’s important only to use nutritional supplements which have been designed and made specifically for pets, tempting as it may be to use human equivalents. Some human supplements, such as St Johns Wort, have the potential to be poisonous to animals. When research has been done on a product to demonstrate its safety and efficacy for use in dogs and cats, it doesn’t make sense to use something else just because it may be more easily available and slightly cheaper.

The scientific evidence for the benefits of some nutritional supplements is not strong, but there’s no doubt that there are situations where they can make a significant difference. The best approach is to discuss your individual pet’s issues and needs with your vet. Alternatively, use a supplement for a trial period (eg two months), and judge for yourself whether or not it helps your pets’ issues.

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