Nutrients and nutraceuticals: What does your pet need?

Nutritional supplements make up one of the fastest growing segments of the pet product industry. It’s estimated that almost one in five pet owners give some kind of nonprescription supplement to their dog or cat.

Are they right for your pet?

“That really depends on your pet’s base diet and medical history,” says Jennifer Bones Larsen, DVM, MS, assistant professor of clinical nutrition for the University of California Davis. “Most commercial pet foods are formulated to be complete and balanced, meaning they provide all the essential nutrients the animal needs.

“So if you’re feeding your dog or cat a commercial pet food, additional vitamins and minerals probably aren’t necessary and, in some cases, could be harmful.”

For example, too much calcium can cause problems with skeletal development in puppies, or zinc deficiencies, according to research cited in a paper published by Larsen.

But if you feed your pet a homemade diet, Larsen says extra nutrients are a must.

“The challenge is to determine what essential vitamins and minerals are missing from the diet and to use a supplement to fill the gap. And for the average consumer, this is hard to figure out just by looking at the label.”

That’s why she suggests you consult with your veterinarian before providing any supplements to your pet.

“Most over-the-counter multivitamins or multinutrients are designed to be safe when added onto a complete and balanced pet food. But we’ve seen some cases of toxicity, so you may be giving your pet ‘too much of a good thing.”

Unlike nutrient supplements, nutraceuticals are extracts from foods, which some claim provide health benefits.

“The most common nutraceuticals are glucosamine and chondroitin which are given for joint health,” Larsen says. “And omega-3 fatty acids are becoming incredibly popular because there’s been so much discussion about them on the human nutrition side.”

Nutraceuticals are not considered drugs, so they don’t have to be proven effective or safe by the FDA. Neither nutraceuticals nor nutrient supplements are regulated by any official agency.

“Glucosamine and chondroitin are pretty safe and there’s some data to suggest they can be helpful. Any adverse side effects are pretty mild, such as diarrhea. This can be remedied by simply backing off the dosage. And omega threes have a wide range of proposed benefits,” Dr. Bones Larsen said.

When buying supplement products that include nutraceuticals, Larsen suggests checking the label to see if the manufacturer is a member of theNational Animal Supplement Council or NASC.

“The NASC has set up guidelines to assure quality control and contaminant control,” she says. “Their focus is on safety, which is good. But whether these products do what they say they’ll do is a whole other question.”

What exactly is a nutraceutical?

Occupying a space somewhere between essential nutrients (those nutrients critical to normal health, such as vitamins) and drugs with defined impacts on specific diseases, nutraceuticals are bioactive chemicals derived from foods but taken as supplements at much higher concentrations than diet alone could provide. Thomas Hayden, “Getting to Know Nutraceuticals,” Scientific American (January 2008).

This article originally appeared in PetsMatter Volume 3 Issue 4, published by the American Animal Hospital Association. Copyright © 2009 AAHA. Find out more.


A microchip for your pet can mean the difference between lost and found. Although tags and collars are important, they can tear or slip off. With microchipping, a veterinarian injects a tiny computer chip—about the size of a grain of rice—just under your pet’s skin, between the shoulder blades. The microchip number is entered into an international database, which can be read by a microchip scanner if your pet is lost and picked up by a veterinary hospital or humane society. If your contact information is up-to-date, the hospital or humane society that found your pet can contact you and reunite you with your pet.

A microchip is your pet’s ticket home. Does your pet have his?


Microchipping myth #1:
It’s going to hurt my pet to get the chip implanted.

The truth:
The procedure is simple, routine, and painless, and does not require anesthesia. Your pet simply gets an injection just under the loose skin between the shoulder blades, much like getting vaccinated. Most animals don’t react at all.


Microchipping myth #2:
My cat never goes outside. He doesn’t need to have a microchip.

The truth:
It’s wonderful that you’re keeping your pet safe inside, but a guest or a repair person could easily leave the door hanging open, or a screen could come loose from an open window. No matter how closely you watch your pet, there’s always a chance he could get out, and if he doesn’t have a microchip, chances for recovery are slim.


Microchipping myth #3:
Eventually, the microchip will wear out and I’ll have to have it replaced.

The truth:
Since there’s no battery and no moving parts, there’s nothing to wear out or replace. The microchip will last throughout your pet’s lifetime. However, you need to update the chip every time your contact information changes so that whoever finds your pet has your updated contact information.


Microchipping myth #4:
The implantation procedure is too expensive.

The truth:
While the price can vary, it is generally a one-time fee of $25 – $40. There may be a fee, generally under $20, to enter your pet’s ID number in a database, and there may be a small fee for changing your address, phone number, or other contact information in the database. Ask your veterinarian for more information.


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Halloween Pet Safety

Halloween can be a frightening time for pet owners across the country. It can be scary for our furry friends too. The American Animal Hospital Association encourages pet owners to protect their four-legged family members this October by being mindful of their F.E.A.R. – food, environment, attire, and recovery.


Halloween means candy and tasty treats are plentiful and easily accessible to young children and pets. Candy, especially chocolate, is toxic to animals and can cause vomiting, restlessness, heart disturbances, and even death. Although grapes and raisins are a healthy alternative snack for humans, they can be potentially deadly for dogs. These fruits contain an unknown toxin that can damage dogs’ kidneys and cause kidney failure.

Candy wrappers can also cause health problems. Animals may eat the wrapper, causing obstruction or irritation to the pet’s digestive system. Candy and wrappers should be kept out of pets’ reach and young children should be taught not to share Halloween goodies with their pet. Seasonal foods such as pumpkins and corn may cause minor stomach irritation; however, they are relatively safe for Fluffy and Fido. Pumpkin seeds may cause digestive system obstruction if consumed by smaller animals.


Due to the increased foot traffic and commotion in your neighborhood, outdoor pets should be kept indoors during the days surrounding Halloween. Unsupervised outdoor animals are susceptible to stress, inhumane practical jokes or theft. Providing a safe, stress free environment reduces the probability of your beloved friend injuring himself or others. Loud and excessive noise created by trick-or-treaters can frighten your cat or dog. Animals should be kept away from the door and out of hearing range of a constantly ringing doorbell and excited children. Fluffy or Fido should be put in a room where they will not be disturbed by noise and activity. A frightened or upset pet may run out the door at the first opportunity and could harm the children in its way.

Be sure decorations are safe from the paws and teeth of curious pets. Crepe paper streamers, fake cobwebs, glow sticks, plastic spiders and cardboard wall hangings can easily be chewed and swallowed, damaging your pet’s digestive tract. Animals can also tip over the candle in a jack-o-lantern and burn themselves or start a fire. Keep decorations out of animals’ reach, and maintain supervision if they play nearby.


Transforming your pet into a superhero, witch, ghost, or goblin can be a stressful and unpleasant experience. Some animals love to dress up, but others dread it. If your furry friend doesn’t mind dressing up, make sure that you select a costume that doesn’t restrict his normal movements, breathing or vision. Costumes that interfere with these things can cause ligament or joint injuries, and animals are more likely to bite if their vision is impaired. Pets are better off left at home during trick-or-treating excursions. However, if they do tag along, it is best to keep them on a very short leash and harness to keep them from fighting with other animals, eating the treats, becoming victims of practical jokes – as black cats often do – or biting strangers they encounter.


It is important to have a plan if your pet becomes sick, injured or lost this Halloween season. Since time is critical during any unfortunate incident, pet parents should always have contact information for their veterinarian and local animal shelters easily accessible. Also, pet owners need to be aware that not all veterinarians are available 24 hours. However, all AAHA-accredited hospitals have access or referral to 24 hour emergency care. It is also important to update your pet’s identification tags and micro chip information each time you move or change phone numbers so that current contact information is always available on your pet. The American Animal Hospital Association wishes all two and four-legged critters a happy and safe Halloween.

Established in 1933, the American Animal Hospital Association is the only organization that accredits veterinary practices throughout the U.S. and Canada for dedication to high standards of veterinary care. More than 3,000 AAHA-accredited practices pass regular reviews of AAHA’s stringent accreditation standards that cover patient care, client service and medical protocols.


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Diet do’s and don’ts for your pets

A healthful, balanced diet is as important to pets as it is to people, but with hundreds of different food brands to choose from, how do you decide what — and how much — to feed your pet?

“Because each animal is an individual, I always recommend beginning with a consultation with your veterinarian,” says Laura Eirmann, DVM, from AAHA-accredited Oradell Animal Hospital in New Jersey.

Your veterinarian will explain your pet’s nutritional needs based on age, breed, medical condition, and activity level. Although many dog and cat food manufacturers market products based on life stages, such as senior or lactating dogs, broad categories are not always appropriate for every pet.

For example, “some pets are physiologically older than their peers (because of disease) even though chronologically they’re the same age. That physiological difference is why it’s important to consult with your veterinarian (before you select a food),” Eirmann explains.

What brand should you buy?

Deciding which brand of pet food to buy can be confusing, especially since hundreds of dog and cat food products are introduced annually.

As you sort through various brands, look for a nutritional statement from the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO).

The AAFCO determines appropriate levels of proteins, fats, vitamins and minerals in growth and maintenance cat and dog foods and it “helps set the standards for the pet food industry,” says Lisa M. Freeman, DVM, PhD, DACCN, who works at AAHA-accredited Foster Hospital for Small Animals in Massachusetts.

Manufacturers frequently use terms like natural, organic, premium or gourmet to appeal to pet owners, but Freeman and Eirmann say “complete and balanced” are the terms pet owners should be most concerned about.

Before a food can be marketed as “complete and balanced,” it must undergo a strict feeding trial under AAFCO guidelines or meet AAFCO nutrition levels.

Cautions about raw food diets

Although raw food diets are popular with some pet owners, professionals from the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) say, “feeding raw meat products carries a risk to human and animal health that is significant” because of food-borne pathogenic bacteria.

The FDA cites published reports of pets becoming sick or dying after eating contaminated raw meat and warns that pet owners may be susceptible to “infection by pathogenic organisms from direct contact with the diet itself” or from contact with diet-related bacteria that passes from meat to pets. Bacteria may also be present in feces.

In addition, the FDA warns that raw meat diets may not provide proper nutrition for your pet. There may too little calcium and phosphorus, too much vitamin A (which may be toxic over time) or inappropriate amounts of other nutrients to ensure a complete and balanced diet.

In 2011, the American Animal Hospital Association passed a position statementopposing the feeding of raw protein diets to pets.

How much food should you give?

“If there’s one thing we know in nutrition, it’s that caloric restriction — keeping pets lean their entire life — helps them live longer,” Eirmann says.

Unfortunately, the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine (CVM) estimates that 25 percents of dogs and cats entering veterinary clinics are overweight and warns that “obesity can shorten a pet’s life by contributing to heart and liver problems, diabetes, arthritis, bladder cancer and skin disorders, and put a pet at higher risk while undergoing anesthesia and surgery.”

Gertie, shown to the right, is classified as obese by Pfizer Animal Health professionals, who provided the photograph. Check with your veterinary professionals to see whether your pet is overweight.

So does all of this mean you have to eliminate treats or the occasional table scraps from your pet’s diet? “There a little bit of leeway,” Eirmann says. “The general guideline is to look at the calories required to maintain ideal body weight. If you don’t exceed that number by about 10 percent of the calories, you’re unlikely to unbalance a complete and balanced diet.”

“My advice is to ask your veterinarian to assess your pet’s individual needs,” Eirmann says. “The amounts of those ingredients may vary by brand. Your veterinarian can determine if the amount (in a particular food) is appropriate for your pet.”

This article originally appeared in PetsMatter Volume 2 Issue 1, published by the American Animal Hospital Association. Copyright © 2009 AAHA. Find out more.