What are pet supplements?

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Dr Donna Spector

Pet supplements are defined as either dietary or therapeutic supplements. Dietary supplements (also called dietary nutrients) are substances added to pet foods to make them nutritionally complete and balanced. Therapeutic supplements (also called nutraceuticals) are foods or food nutrients that are taken orally to provide a health benefit, either for prevention or treatment of disease. To have this therapeutic effect, a nutraceutical is usually taken in a larger dose than the daily requirement of that same food when used as a nutrient.

What are pet supplements used for?

There are thousands of pet health conditions that may be appropriately treated using one or several of the numerous pet supplements available. The way most owners learn about pet supplements is through friends, retail stores, Internet, media advertisement or from health care providers. Unfortunately, at times, this information may be incomplete or biased. With respect to pet vitamins, minerals, amino acids, fatty acids and other nutrients, some information can be found in standard nutrition textbooks. These sources may provide dated information and may only include the well-documented indications for specific nutrients and relate primarily to nutritional requirements rather than their uses as nutraceuticals. Information that comes from the Internet or other written sources may or may not be accurate or complete, depending on who has prepared the information. The least biased information comes from publications that have some sort of regulatory control (such as being regulated by a federal government agency).

How is the effectiveness of a pet supplement determined?

Very few supplements and herbs have been subjected to scientific trials to determine their efficacy. Most of the information about pet supplements comes from anecdotal or testimonial evidence (someone tells you about their personal experience or about another pet who showed some benefit while taking the product). Although this information may be helpful, it may be incomplete, or it may not represent what effects the supplement could have on a pet.

It is common for multiple supplements to be given simultaneously or in conjunction with other lifestyle changes. In these cases, it can be difficult to determine what effects can truly be attributed to the pet supplement and what may be attributable to other factors. For example, if a dog starts taking pet supplement "X", starts a new natural dog food and starts getting more exercise, the observed changes may be due to any one of the factors, to a combination of all three, or even to a placebo effect.

To further complicate the issue of effectiveness, some supplements are only effective after they have been given for long periods of time, and the patient may continue to show some of the positive effects for a few weeks after the pet supplement has been discontinued. A good example of this is the use of glucosamine for dog arthritis. It may take one to two months to show the positive effects and can take the same period of time to "wear off" after it has been discontinued.

Are all pet supplements safe to use?

Just because a pet product is natural, does not mean that it is safe. All medicines and medicinal plants are potentially toxic if used inappropriately or given in excess. The best source of information for the safety of pet supplements is your veterinarian.

The use of pet supplements and nutraceuticals is a relatively recent practice in veterinary medicine. Some veterinarians may be unfamiliar with the indications and precautions surrounding the usage of certain pet supplements. Fortunately, reliable information resources about the clinical application of pet supplements are becoming increasingly available to veterinarians.

When there is any uncertainty about the use of a product in a particular pet, it is advised to consult the manufacturer of the product. If there is reliable information about the product’s safety and efficacy in animals, the manufacturer should be able to provide you with this. If the manufacturer is unwilling to provide any information, it is safer to not use that pet supplement.

What is "quality control" or "quality assurance"?

Quality control provides a measure of assurance over what a product contains, both with respect to its medicinal ingredients and its purity. Not all manufacturers share the same concerns about ensuring that their products are high-quality, free of contaminants, contain consistent levels of active ingredients and retain their potency after processing.

Are there any regulations about packaging of pet supplements?

With pharmaceutical products, the manufacturer is governed by strict legislation about contents and labeling. In North America, pet supplements, nutraceuticals and herbs are not considered to be drugs or foods. The FDA requires that all ingredients in these products be listed and that none of these products be recognized as a potential health threat. The FDA also requires that no unsubstantiated claims be made regarding a product’s ability to treat a particular disease. Unfortunately not all natural health products have been reviewed, particularly those being prescribed as pet supplements.

Because of the lack of this control, there is no guarantee of the package contents or product strength. This leaves it up to the consumer to become informed about the integrity and ethics of the manufacturer to provide any measure of assurance that the product is effective and unadulterated.

What should an owner look for on a pet supplement label or package?

Every product package should have the name and contact information of the manufacturer. It should contain information about its contents, ideally with some sort of minimum analysis of the active ingredients. It should also contain information about any inert of carrier substances that are present (e.g. milk sugar, whey, vegetable or animal proteins,etc). For herbal products, the label should also include the Latin name of the plant, a harvest date or an expiration date, the part of the herb used and the amount of active ingredient.

Who should a pet owner get advice from about using pet supplements?

A licensed veterinarian who is knowledgeable about the supplement of interest and about alternative medicine in general is your best source of advice. If your veterinarian is unfamiliar with the supplement you are interested in, ask them to refer you to a reputable information source.

What should an owner do if a pet shows an unexpected reaction to a pet supplement?

Unexpected reactions must always be reported to your veterinarian, to the person who advised you to use the pet supplement (if it wasn’t your veterinarian) and to the manufacturer of the pet supplement. There are often government agencies that collect this information and it is strongly recommended that these agencies be informed of the concerns.

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