Are Nutritional Supplements for Pets Really Necessary?

Nutritional Supplement for Dogs

Story at-a-glance -

  • Dietary supplements for dogs and cats are becoming increasingly popular with pet owners. In fact, according to one market research firm, 21 percent of dogs and 15 percent of cats in the U.S. are taking at least one supplement.
  • The primary categories for supplements include joint support, skin and coat health, GI tract health, and liver and kidney support. A less well-known but equally important type of supplement supports healthy circulation, optimal immune function, the healthy presence of oxygen in tissues, and cardiovascular health.
  • Along with fresh, balanced, species-appropriate nutrition, carefully chosen dietary supplements can be extremely beneficial to your pet’s health and longevity. As always, we recommend you work with your holistic vet to determine what types of nutritional or issue-targeted supplements are most appropriate for your pet.

By Dr. Becker

Just as many pet parents are paying more attention these days to the quality of food they feed their companion animals, they are also realizing the potential benefits of nutritional and issue-targeted dietary supplements.

According to consumer market research firm Packaged Facts, 21 percent of dogs and 15 percent of cats in the U.S. are given dietary supplements by their owners. And according to Bill Bookout, chair of the National Animal Supplement Council’s board of directors:

“There aren’t any magic bullets out there, but I think supplements are becoming more and more recognized and substantiated as a valuable component of a comprehensive care program where we either try to maintain general health and wellness, or manage health as a result of the aging process or some health challenge.”

The primary categories of pet supplements include those for joint health, skin and coat health, GI tract health, and liver and kidney health.

Joint Health Supplements

Supplements for joint health typically contain glycosaminoglycans (GAGs). GAGs promote the health of cartilage, which is the strong, elastic tissue lining the bone surfaces in joints.

Cartilage cells naturally produce glycosaminoglycans, which when combined with water provide cushioning to help protect your pet’s skeletal structure during movement and exercise.

The most common GAG is chondroitin sulfate, a substance that is naturally present in healthy connective tissue and cartilage. Another is glucosamine, and a third GAG naturally found in normal cartilage is hyaluronic acid which helps maintain its flexibility, elasticity, and strength.

Perhaps the best natural source of glycosaminoglycans is eggshell membrane – the clear, slimy fluid lining the inside of egg shells that usually gets thrown in the garbage right along with the shell. Eggshell membrane contains not only glucosamine, chondroitin, and hyaluronic acid, but also collagen, elastin, two important amino acids that give elastin its rubbery quality, and transforming growth factor-b.

Another excellent ingredient to look for in a joint support supplement is cetyl myristoleate, a potent joint lubricant.

Skin and Coat Supplements

Dietary supplements for your pet’s skin and coat health typically contain essential fatty acids, often a blend of omega-3s, -6s and -9s.

The problem with many of these blended supplements is that most dogs and cats today, especially those eating commercially available processed pet food, get an overabundance of omega-6s and not enough omega-3s. A combination of inexpensive grain and corn-based ingredients, vegetable oils (corn, soy, safflower, canola), and fats from chicken and meat create pet food packed with omega-6 fats.

In addition, the omega-3 fats used in most commercial pet foods come from plant or vegetable sources, and the manufacturing process typically destroys what value these ingredients have.

So the best essential fatty acid supplement for the vast majority of today’s dogs and cats is an omega-3 supplement made from marine oils – krill oil or fish oil, including salmon, sardine, squid and anchovy. Vegetable-derived oils, including flax and olive oil, do not contain EPA and DHA, but rather the less bioavailable, inactive precursor form, ALA.

Supplements for a Healthy Gastrointestinal Tract

Two extremely beneficial supplements to promote healthy digestion in pets are probiotics and digestive enzymes.

Probiotics are friendly strains of bacteria that maintain healthy levels of good bacteria in your pet’s GI tract, and also defend against opportunistic, pathogenic bacteria.

The digestive tract is the largest immune organ in your pet’s body. Your dog or cat has even more intestinal bacteria than you do, despite her much smaller size. The GI tracts of companion animals are designed to handle a tremendous bacterial load – bacteria that would quite likely develop into a life-threatening infection if found elsewhere in your dog’s or cat’s body.

A healthy population of friendly bacteria keeps your pet’s immune system in good working order. If the balance of bad-to-good intestinal bugs gets out of whack, your pet will eventually develop GI symptoms and an increased susceptibility to illness.

Studies demonstrate animals raised without friendly bacteria in the gut, or with a poor balance of good-to-bad gut bacteria, are at dramatically increased risk of developing disease.

When researching supplements for your pet, you’ll want to avoid human probiotics, and probiotics added to commercial pet food. Probiotic formulas used by humans were developed specifically to fortify the bacterial species found in the human GI tract. Pets have specific strains of bacteria unique to them, so they need a unique probiotic.

The bacteria in a probiotic must be live and able to reproduce in order for it to be beneficial. Tests on dog foods claiming to contain probiotic micro-organisms showed the manufacturing process kills too many of the live bacteria, rendering the probiotic effect useless by the time the food is packaged and shipped.

Look for a pet probiotic that can survive the acidic environment of your dog’s or cat’s stomach, contains enough live organisms to colonize the intestines, and the correct strains of bacteria beneficial for pets (not people). It should also remain stable under normal storage conditions and be easy to give to your pet.

High quality digestive enzymes for pets should be sourced from animals (not plants or fungi), and should ideally contain some or all of these ingredients: betaine HCI, ox bile extract, bromelain, papain, pancreatin, protease, amylase and lipase.

Supplements for Liver and Kidney Support

There are a number of wonderful supplements to support your pet’s detox organs.

Liver support products include milk thistle and SAMe. There are also pharmaceutical grade proprietary formulas for intensive liver support, but as always, I recommend you talk with your holistic vet about your pet’s individual needs.

It’s usually cats, not dogs, that get kidney disease, and the best way to support your kitty’s kidney and urinary tract health throughout her life is to feed a moisture-rich, species-appropriate diet to minimize stress on her vital organs. Dry processed kibble is tremendously detrimental to the overall health of cats – and especially their kidneys.

Depending on a kitty’s individual situation, I sometimes use a probiotic specially formulated for kidney support called Azodyl.

Standard Process Feline Renal Support can also be beneficial, as well as phosphorous binders and sodium bicarbonate, if appropriate. Your veterinarian will help you decide if these are indicated or not based on what your pet’s specific situation is.

Supplements for a Healthy Heart

A less well-known but equally important supplement for pets is CoQ10, or more specifically, ubiquinol, the reduced form of CoQ10. (As pets get older their bodies have less ability to convert CoQ10 to its active form, ubiquinol.)

CoQ10 is a coenzyme that nearly every one of your pet’s body functions depends on -- every cell ... every organ... every tissue.

CoQ10 is a compound produced naturally in the liver. It does its work deep down in the mitochondria of cells. Cells use CoQ10 to support their energy and growth. And cells with the fastest turnover -- heart cells, mouth tissue cells, intestinal mucosal cells and immune system cells -- demand high levels of CoQ10.

Coenzyme Q10 also contributes to healthy circulation, promotes optimal immune function, supports the healthy presence of oxygen in tissues, and supports cardiovascular health.

Pets that can most benefit from ubiquinol supplementation include those who need additional cardiovascular support, all pets aged 7 and older, and athletic animals that compete and perform.

If you’re thinking about dietary supplements for your dog or cat, as always, I recommend you talk with your integrative or holistic vet about what products would be most beneficial for your pet’s individual needs.