Does Your Pet Need a Supplement?

These days, it seems we are constantly bombarded by ads for nutritional supplements claiming to make us healthier, live longer or prevent diseases. Many of the same supplements available to humans are now being offered to pets.
We want our furry friends to live long, healthy lives with us, so why wouldn't we supplement their diets to achieve that goal? Unfortunately, not all supplements are created equal, and many products make false claims or contain ingredients that are potentially unsafe for your pet. With so many vendors and products to choose from, how do you determine what's best for your pet's health and avoid spending money on unnecessary (or harmful) products?
Here's the lowdown on some of the most popular pet supplements, plus tips to help you make well-informed decisions when purchasing a supplement for your pet.
Are Pet Supplements Regulated?
While the US Food and Drug Administration does oversee some animal supplements (particularly vitamin and mineral products that are added to pet food), these products aren't as tightly regulated as they could be. As a result, there are many products on the market that make false advertising claims or are patterned after similar supplements for humans but don't necessarily have appropriate scientific data to assure safety or efficacy for animals.
In 2001, the nonprofit trade organization National Animal Supplement Council was founded to help bridge the gaps in regulation and to create consistency and quality standards for companies to uphold. Supplement companies that want to belong to the NASC must comply with the regulations set by the organization.

Though organizations such as the NASC are making some headway in the quality assurance of pet supplements, lack of proper regulation is an ongoing issue. Therefore, being a savvy shopper and doing your research about pet supplements is extremely important.
How Do I Know if My Pet Needs a Supplement?
Supplements are most appropriate in cases where a dog or cat has a demonstrated deficiency or need based on a diagnosed medical or health condition. For the average healthy pet eating a well-balanced diet, supplements are probably unnecessary. Using any product unnecessarily, no matter how natural or safe it claims to be, can lead to toxicities that can be harmful to your pet. For this reason, it is always recommended that you check with your pet's veterinarian before starting any supplement, even when it comes to seemingly harmless over-the-counter products that you can buy online or at a pet store without a vet's prescription.
Here are some of the most commonly used pet supplements and how to recognize if any of them are right for your pet. 
  • Multivitamins and minerals. Most pets consuming a high-quality, balanced diet probably do not require additional vitamin and mineral supplements as all pet foods are regulated to provide the key vitamins and nutrients your pet needs to stay healthy. If your pet is malnourished, post-partum, lactating or has a specific health condition, short-term vitamin or mineral supplementation may be beneficial. In these cases, follow your veterinarian's recommendation to determine your pet's needs. Please note that if your pet has a specific disease or condition and is already on a veterinary prescription diet, his or her food may already be correcting the issue, rendering the need for additional supplementation unnecessary and potentially dangerous.
  • Essential fatty acids (EFAs) are becoming increasingly popular. Studies have shown that EFAs can provide many health-boosting properties for our pets, just as they do for us. Not only do they promote skin and coat health, which is especially helpful for pets with allergies, but EFAs have also been shown to help in the treatment of pets with cancer, heart disease and arthritis. As a vet, I can say that these might not be a total necessity, but many pets can probably benefit from these supplements.

    Essential fatty acid supplements can be found in both gel and liquid form. In my experience, most dogs will happily chew a gel capsule, but a liquid supplement is a better option for cats or finicky dogs. Some treats with added EFAs can also be helpful, but for maximum effects it's best to stick with a pure supplement whenever possible. While EFAs are a fairly benign supplement for most pets, be sure to check with your veterinarian before starting them if your pet has a specific disease condition.
  • Probiotics. We've probably all heard of probiotics, the good bacteria that help improve digestion and support immune function. They are often prescribed by veterinarians to aid in the treatment of short bouts of gastrointestinal upset or in conjunction with antibiotic use. Pets with sensitive gastrointestinal tracts or other digestive issues may benefit from either short or long-term use of probiotics. Although most pets don't require long-term probiotic supplementation, these products are fairly safe and newer research suggests that they may provide some additional health and immune function benefits.

    A word of caution: When searching various pet medication websites, I saw a wide variety of products listed under the category of "probiotics" that did not belong there (probiotics and digestive enzymes are not the same thing). In the case of probiotics, it's definitely best to ask your veterinarian for specific product recommendations.
  • Joint supplements. Too often I see clients who accept arthritis as simply part of the aging process in their pets. While it's true that most pets will develop arthritis with age, they shouldn't have to suffer through it, and joint supplements can go a long way in helping arthritic pets feel better and stay active. Pets with documented arthritis and many other orthopedic conditions can benefit greatly from a long-term joint supplement.

    Joint supplements are available in many forms: chewable tablets, powder and even treats. Sticking with a veterinarian-recommended product will ensure your pet will reap the most benefits, but if you do choose to strike out on your own, look for a product that contains both glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate (two ingredients that are essential in maintaining joint structure and preventing further cartilage breakdown). Be sure to check with your veterinarian for specific dosing for your pet. Please note, joint supplements can take up to 4-6 weeks to take effect, so if your product doesn't seem to work right away, don't lose heart.
  • Liver supplements. Pets who suffer from certain liver conditions or are on long-term medications metabolized by the liver may benefit from supplements that support the function of this vital organ. Products you might encounter will likely contain a combination of ingredients such as silybin, S-Adenosylmethionine (SAMe), milk thistle and vitamin E, which work together to provide antioxidant benefits and functional support to the liver. Product dosages for liver supplements will vary depending on your pet's specific health needs, so be sure to check with your veterinarian before starting these supplements.
These are just a few categories of supplements you'll encounter in your quest to improve your pet's health. There are many more miscellaneous supplements, such as natural remedies, hairball control and more. My best advice when it comes to these products is to consider each one on an individual basis and treat them like a medication. That means not assuming they're safe and always checking with your veterinarian.

What Should I Look for When Selecting a Pet Supplement?
Look for companies whose products display the NASC seal to help ensure quality. (A comprehensive list of companies that have met NASC standards may be found here).

Be wary of any product that claims it can cure or prevent a specific illness or provide complete nutritional support. These claims tend to be over the top and are likely false.

Purchase from companies that can back their products with scientifically proven evidence of safety and efficacy. Often, you can request these reports directly from the company by calling or visiting their website. If they don't have proof of their products or their proof doesn't seem convincing, move on to a different company or supplement. Of course, ask your veterinarian for his or her preferred products.
If you choose to shop online rather than purchasing a product sold directly from your veterinarian's office, be sure to ask your veterinarian for the specific ingredients he or she recommends so you can compare labels when shopping around.
There are many pet health supplements on the market. As with humans, a well-balanced diet is the primary foundation for good health. While supplements can be helpful in specific situations, it's best to consider each pet on an individual basis. As with any purchase, be sure to do your research to avoid spending money on unnecessary products. Lastly, always check with your veterinarian, who is an important resource of knowledge and has an established relationship with you and your pet.
Benyacoub J, et al. "Supplementation of food with Enterococcus faecium (SF68) stimulates immune functions in young dogs." J Nutr 133 (2003):1158-1162.

Hand, et al. Small Animal Clinical Nutrition, 4th Edition. (Marceline, Missouri: Walsworth Publishing Company), 116-117.

McCluggage, David, D.V.M. "Essential Fatty Acids," C.V.A., J Am Holisitc Vet Med Assoc 24(2006) 38-39.

National Animal Supplement Council,, accessed on July 1, 2013.

U.S. Food and Drug Administration, "Update on Animal Dietary Supplements,", accessed on July 1, 2013.