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.

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