Podcast: What's up with Pet Supplements

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fish oil supplements

If you've been curious about putting your dog or cat on supplements, this is the episode for you! It turns out, they can help with a variety of ailments, skin issues, and anxiety.

Dr. J and I talk about different supplements to give for proactive/preventive measures vs. reactive/diagnostic. Plus, some of the things to look for when choosing a supplement, particularly because there isn't a lot of regulation.

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Paws & Play What's Up with Supplements for Cats and Dogs

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Transcript below

Mia: Welcome back to another episode of Paws and Play with Dr J. I am your co-host, Mia, and I am here with the good doctor. How you doing?

Dr. J: I'm doing great, Mia, how are you?

Mia: I am doing pretty well. I'm excited for today's topic because, I think that this is something that a lot of people have been curious about, or getting into lately, not just for themselves but for their animals: supplements.

First of all, are supplements, I know it's a general question, but something that might be recommended, generally, from a veterinarian?

Dr. J: Yeah, I mean, supplements, it depends. It depends on which supplements we're talking about, which animal, and what health conditions they might have, and what diet they're eating, and their lifestyle. So, you know, generally speaking it depends and I'll, and I'll start with that.

Mia: Okay, sounds good. So one of the biggest questions that I have, you know, Marshall is starting to, I don't like to talk about it, but he is getting up there in age. He'll be 11 in January. And so I'm wondering is there a point that I started him on a supplement, because he is starting to show some signs of arthritis and, he's had some back and knee issues in the past.

So I'm just wondering, when do you decide, I guess to administer a supplement from a proactive or preventive place, versus waiting to be diagnosed with something and then taking action?

Dr. J: Well, I think if we're speaking specifically about — let's start speaking specifically about supplements for joint disease, for arthritis, and that sort of pain.

Because as dogs — and cats are unfortunately highly under-diagnosed with arthritis, lots of cats out there walking around with it.

I think there was a study that showed cats over eight years old, about 30 percent of them had arthritis. And most pet owners, cat owners don't realize that by the time they get to 12 years old. And then they found that 90 percent of them actually had an x-ray evidence of arthritis.

So it's a huge issue for cats that most people don't recognize. So we can address that both with supplements and diet changes and different exercise things. And then medications, as necessary, as well.

But if we're speaking specifically about supplements for joint disease, you know, if we're talking about a large breed dog, it might be different than say a small breed dog.

But in general, as our dogs and our cats age, getting them on something that might help with inflammation and might help to protect the joints is a good idea. And so, again, depending on the size of the dog, starting a dog on glucosamine chondroitin based joint supplements, which can help to protect the joints, can take a little while to get up to therapeutic levels. Starting them, you know, at about five, six years old might not be a bad idea.

You may not notice a marked benefit immediately, but it may help down the line. And then for giant breed dogs, maybe even earlier, just depending. And then dogs that have what we would call angular limb deformities. So these little dogs that walk around like Charlie Chaplin, with their little front legs pointed out, maybe getting them started even earlier because those abnormalities in their joints are causing abnormal pressure there.

And so helping to protect them with a glucosamine chondroitin based joint supplement might be quite good.

But fish oils can also be anti-inflammatory and help with arthritis. So maybe that's when you start a little bit more proactively as well because you can also get some benefit. I guess if we're gonna think about it, get some benefit with the skin, gets some benefit potentially with the heart, with the kidneys, with the brain.

And another thing we're talking about in aging pets is cognitive dysfunction. So basically doggy dementia, and cats have it as well. It doesn't roll off the tongue quite as well with kitty dementia I guess, but, but fish oils can, can potentially be beneficial there as well.

Mia: Well, it sounds like, as far as supplements go, fish oil, it seems kind of like the multipurpose go-to for preventive measures at least.

Dr. J: It can be quite helpful. There are some contraindications to it, so you'd want to just double check with your vet if your cat or dog has an existing bleeding disorder, or if they've potentially got diabetes or if they've suffered from pancreatitis in the past. But generally speaking, fish oils can be well tolerated. And it's the omega three fatty acids that we're really after. So it's really fish oils more so than things like flax seed oil.

Mia: Okay. Yeah. I don't think I've ever heard of anybody giving flax seed oil, but I mean there's so many different oils to choose from these days. Okay, so fish oils for skin, joints, cognitive, kidneys, hearts.

From a preventive measure, I feel like all of us are just kind of like, okay, how can we prolong the lives of our animals right from the beginning. So is there a time to not give them? Like an age that it would be too early to start them on something like a fish oil?

Dr. J: I think that most of them wouldn't need it in the first several months of life and maybe even the first year or two of life. But it depends. I mean if they've got, if they're showing signs of allergies and skin inflammation that might benefit from fish oils, then you know, age may still be a factor.

But you've got to also consider what they're dealing with health wise. So it really, it really depends. I don't know that there's a clear cut answer, unfortunately, for that question, as far as is there an age at which you shouldn't give it.

Mia: All right. So, uh, what about multivitamins? I still do like the kids gummy kind.

Dr. J: For yourself or for Marshall?

Mia: For me!

Dr. J: Well, I think, I think the situation there really is as similar as it is for people. You know, I've got two little girls, and so I talked to the pediatrician about multivitamins. And I think most of the recommendations typically are, if they're eating a healthy, well-balanced diet, then they typically don't need a multivitamin.

But it depends. I mean, we live here in the Pacific Northwest, so vitamin D perhaps is a little bit more important. So even with pets, I think if they're eating what you know to be a healthy, well-balanced diet.

So really, I mean here I'm talking about the AAFCO statements on the commercially available diets. So I think for people who are home preparing their diets for their pets, that's awesome if you've got the time.

Mia: Let's back up for a second. Can you explain the AAFCO statements?

Dr. J: Yeah. So AAFCO, I forget exactly what it stands for, but it's French. Something Animal Feed Control something or other. I like the acronyms.

Mia: That sounded like it was in English.

Dr. J: Yeah. Well No, my French is just so good it sounds English. No, but it's basically an organization that helps us set the, in essence, the dietary guidelines, based on what we know from scientific studies and what not, to say that, generally speaking, dogs and in this age range, lifestyle, life stage, need this level of carbohydrates, protein, different vitamins, minerals, things of that nature.

aafco formulated labelAnd then a company, when they make a new diet, they ideally are saying they're looking at those requirements, those standards, and saying either one of two things: this has been formulated to meet these standards, the AAFCO standards for sustaining life and health and whatnot of dogs in this certain life stage. And that's the one where it says basically it's been formulated to AAFCO standards.

affco testing statementThe one that's a little bit higher up that some companies strive for, is to say that this diet has been tested and shown to meet AAFCO standards. So they've actually done feeding trials to show that pets can thrive and do well on those diets.

Mia: Okay, so these would be found somewhere on the back?

Dr. J: The label. Yep, typically on dry food, on the back of the bag typically. And then on canned food also on the label you should look for an AAFCO feeding statement to say that it's a complete balanced nutritional diet for your species, and life stage of your pet.

Mia: Okay, cool. All right. Sorry, I didn't mean to interrupt you.

Dr. J: No, no, it's ok. Because there's a lot of people who don't know what the AAFCO statement is or the importance of it, so. So if you're feeding a commercially available diet that is has got an AAFCO statement, from the standpoint of vitamin and mineral supplementation, most pets typically won't need a vitamin or mineral supplement.

But there may be some that will, depending, again like if they're pregnant or if they're, you know, they've got certain diseases, things of that nature. There might be an additional need now for people who are preparing their pet's food at home, whether they're cooking it or doing raw feeding. That's where risk comes in.

That potentially, vitamin mineral balance is out of whack. So either they're under-supplemented on certain vitamins or minerals, or potentially even over-supplemented, which can be a problem.

And I know, not even talking about home prepared diets, but there's a recent study that a group of veterinary cardiologists did, that showed that with the whole grain free craze, where everybody is trying to feed their pets grain free, there are dogs now getting a condition called dilated cardiomyopathy at a higher rate than they had been previously because these diets are relatively deficient in an essential compound called taurine.

And so, this is where we kind of start winding up with some of these difficulties. And they tend to jump to the forefront even more when people are preparing their pet's meals at home, because depending on the recipe you're following, it might not be perfectly balanced.

And especially things like calcium and phosphorus need to be in pretty close balance to make sure that we're not having problems with, the soft tissues in the body, of the heart, the liver. And then also the bones.

So you know, if you're going to home prepare your pet's food, working with a board certified veterinary nutritionist, working with your veterinarian. There's a service out there called BalanceIT.com and I think that's a service from, I believe of the University of California Davis Veterinary Nutrition Service. So exploring that a bit more because you may need to focus more on a supplement if you're home preparing your pet's food.

Mia: Yeah, I feel like that would have to be so specific in terms of the percentages and the vitamins and everything that would be necessary in your animal, in your pet's diet.

Dr. J: Yeah. I mean some of the water soluble vitamins, if you over-supplement they tend to just pee them out and then you know, worst case scenario is you're wasting your money.

Though, there's vitamin C, which you know, a lot of people supplement that can also potentially increase the risk for bladder stones potentially. So I guess that would be a worst case scenario more so than just pissing away your money. Pun completely intended as you might imagine.

But the fat soluble vitamins, if you're over supplementing, that can be really problematic because those are fat soluble. That means that they're stored in the body's fat stores and so they can actually have an excessive level of those and that can cause problems that can be quite significant.

Mia: Just lots to think about here. And it's, it's numbers which are all scary to me. Percentages and all of that is like, I don't even want to think about it for myself.

Dr. J: So I guess the short answer is that most pets probably don't need a multivitamin. How's that?

Mia: That's great, short, and to the point. I love it. So we touched briefly on the glucosamine and chondroitin — is that always connected with glucosamine?

Dr. J: Typically, they're in the same compound together because they can work synergistically, so glucosamine can help to build the cartilage. It's a building block for healthy cartilage and then chondroitin can help inhibit the enzymatic breakdown of the cartilage. So together they kind of help build it up and protect it from being degraded. So typically they're found together.

Mia: Okay. So it sounds like that would be definitely great for both preventive and diagnosed treatment.

Dr. J: I mean, they can, for some dogs, they can make a very significant difference. In fact, I think there have been some studies that show that dogs that are receiving, glucosamine chondroitin based joint supplements at appropriate dosages, can actually sometimes come down on their dosages of medications, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications, they can work together.

Mia: So is, is that a supplement that would just be for, for joints or other?

Dr. J: Predominantly for joints, for orthopedic conditions.

Mia: Okay. So like hip dysplasia, things of that nature?

Dr. J: Yeah, those could potentially. We've got little dogs that have their little trick knee caps, what we call, luxating patella, and that can set them up for arthritis and that can damage the cartilage. So that may be beneficial there. And then arthritis, especially before arthritis sets in. Ideally.

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Mia: Yeah. So definitely good as a preventive measure. Cool. What about probiotics? That's something that, there's been a huge craze on the human side of things, and I've seen a lot of people giving it to their animals. But what do you feel about probiotics?

Dr. J: So I think probiotics can be useful, especially with pets after they've been on a, especially extended course of antibiotics potentially.

And then also certain conditions like inflammatory bowel disease, or small intestinal bacterial overgrowth. Sometimes a medical condition will warrant probiotics potentially on a daily, lifelong basis.

And then also dogs or cats just suffering from what we would call acute intestinal distress. So if they've eaten something that they shouldn't have and now they're dealing with some diarrhea, potentially some probiotics can help.

So yeah, they can be useful. But kind of the same way as with people, it can be difficult to know which probiotic, if one's going to work, which one is going to work, and which one's going to work best. So there I typically tend to aim for the veterinary ones, and the species specific ones for cats and dogs. Especially if they've got some study and testing behind them.

Mia: Right. Yeah, that's always probably better. Speaking of some things for the gut. What about fiber supplements? Or like sometimes I'll give Marshall some pumpkin, or sweet potato or something like that. Are there uses for that?

Dr. J: Yeah, I mean definitely. So on a daily basis, I actually mix some fiber with my dog, with Wendy's food, just to bulk up her stool and make sure she's deficating normally on a regular basis.

Mia: Mmmm, bulk up her stool.

Dr. J: Yeah, there you go. And then also it can help to ensure that your dog's anal glands are being expressed on a regular basis, because typically a normally formed stool will naturally express the anal glands as it comes out.

Read: Anal Glands — Why Do Dogs Have Them?

So for dogs with chronic anal gland problems, that could potentially be beneficial. And then cats that suffer chronic constipation. A lot of times we'll get them on a daily fiber supplement or put them on a prescription diet that has additional fiber to help ensure that things are more likely to be, moving along, shall we say.

Mia: Moving right along. Um, random question. Do cats have similar anal gland issues as dogs?

Dr. J: They can do. It's probably less often diagnosed, one, because sadly, cats don't come into the vet as frequently for wellness exams. And two, because the main way of checking anal glands involves a glove, lube, a finger...I'll just leave it there.

Cats tend to be even less of a fan of it than most dogs. So we probably don't check cat anal glands as frequently as we should because we tend to be kindhearted people and value the flesh on our own bodies.

Mia: Right? So let's be honest, it's really all about saving your beautiful hands.

Dr. J: Right. Well, and OSHA probably appreciates it because they don't want to be paying out in insurance claims or workplace injuries.

Mia: Um, obviously like the pumpkin and stuff like that, when I'm serving it myself and reading the ingredients, obviously very carefully — that's something that is human grade, that I feed. But when it comes to these other supplements, what I guess are the rules around giving...can a pet have the human grade supplements or should we really be looking for dog specific, cat specific.

Dr. J: I typically recommend going with the veterinary formulations, just because you know that you're less likely to run into problems with ingredients that shouldn't be there. So one of the ones that jumps to my mind, because it's so prevalent and still too few dog owners are aware of it, is xylitol.

Learn About the Dangers of Xylitol

So some supplements can contain xylitol, especially if they say "sugar free" or something like that. So by going with formulated supplements, you're less likely to encounter xylitol.

Also, typically the concentration of the supplement is more appropriate for the wide range of sizes of, particularly dogs. I mean, most cats are in the roughly 9-12 pound range. So we do get, obviously some of the bigger cats, either bigger in terms of obese or bigger in terms of breed, like the Norwegian forest cat and things of that nature that are in 20-ish pound range.

But I mean dogs basically range from 3 pounds to potentially a 175, 200 pounds. And there's far less variation in people, aside from obviously when we're talking about children up to adults.

But in the veterinary formulations, that concentration of the supplement is often times easier to dose than it would be if you find a human produced one, produced for people.

That said, there are plenty of supplements that maybe aren't available from veterinary providers. And so going over the counter, human grade if you will, is fine. And fish oils would even be one of those potentially.

There are some good fish oil products out there for people just as there are for pets. And so it really just depends on formulation and how easy it is to dose. Again, making sure it doesn't have xylitol, making sure it doesn't have additional vitamin D, because you don't want to be over supplementing with that. So they can have human grade if need be, if you can find the right product.

Mia: Okay, great. What about the vitamins that, that I've taken in the past, vitamin C or iron supplements? Do they have any place in our medicine cabinet for our animals?

Dr. J: Well, so iron supplements we'll sometimes have to have people be giving their pets if they are anemic for certain reasons, like if they have a flea anemia or something like that, because iron is involved in making and sustaining the health of red blood cells.

But you know, that will be something that your vet would recommend because they would have diagnosed your pet with anemia. And so they may or may not recommend iron because not all anemias require iron.

You mentioned vitamin C — I guess I mentioned it earlier — an interesting thing about vitamin C is that, guinea pigs, humans, and nonhuman primates, so gorillas and things of that nature, we're pretty much the majority of the species that don't produce our own vitamin C. So vitamin C is essential for us.

Mia: Wait, humans, guinea pigs, and gorillas?

Dr. J: Yeah, like nonhuman primates, so gorillas.

Mia: Guinea pigs. I just think it's funny that guinea pigs are part of the group.

Dr. J: Yeah that they're lopped in there? Yeah, so we need dietary sources or supplemental sources of vitamin C. I mean that's what happened with scurvy back in the day with all the sailors. They'd go out to sea and their teeth would start falling out, and their collagen would not be healthy and they'd wind up with scurvy.

And then when they started supplementing with citrus lime juice and whatnot, I think it was an excuse to drink more rum, but it also did save lives. Not the rum, but the lime juice. Although the rum probably did as well.

But cats and dogs actually synthesize their own vitamin C, so they typically don't need a vitamin C supplement.

Now there are certain conditions, like dogs or cats that are suffering from acetaminophen, which is the active ingredient in Tylenol, so if they're suffering from acetaminophen toxicity, they may benefit from a vitamin C supplement to help protect their liver.

So there are some times where we need to use it for medical causes, but generally speaking, most cats and dogs do not require supplemental vitamin C because they can actually make it on their own.

Mia: Well, that's lucky for them. That's nice to know that Marshall and Mazel and Wendy won't get scurvy.

Dr. J: That's right.

Mia: What about, I've seen a lot of people talking about using cranberry supplements.

Dr. J: Yeah, it's become a big topic.

Mia: What's the deal with that?

Dr. J: So, cranberry for urinary health is a big, big topic. On the human side, a lot of women take it for cystitis, for bladder inflammation and I think it's recommended for women when they have a urinary tract infection.

I know on the animal side, really where it comes down to, is that there are studies that show that if you're dealing with, specifically an E. coli, urinary tract infection, so a specific type of bacteria, specifically E. coli, it can help to prevent the stickiness of that E. coli bug to the lining of the bladder.

And so it can help in treating, and or preventing and keeping at bay, E. coli urinary tract infections, which tend to be the most common type. But it's not always E. coli and that same benefit has not been shown with other bacterial infections of the urinary tract in cats and dogs.

So for for a pet that's dealing with chronic or recurrent E. coli urinary tract infections, a cranberry supplement may well be beneficial.

Mia: And you said that that was usually the most common

Dr. J: E. coli infections are typically the most common because they are a — hope nobody's eating while they're listening to this— but it's a fecal bacteria, typically, so it's usually a contamination of fecal material that gets into the urinary tract and

Mia: So somebody's wiping from back to front.

Dr. JExactly. Or, and unfortunately, female dogs in particular tend to get them more commonly than male dogs just because anatomically, the part that leads to the urinary area is right below the bit that leads from the gut in female dogs. And in male dogs they're a little bit protected just from a larger distance between the two areas.

So it could even be from sitting on ground that's been contaminated by feces from another animal that walked by. Or if your dog has had diarrhea, then they're probably at increased risk of getting a urinary tract infection in particular, often with E. coli.

Mia: Yummy. Well that leads to my next thing, which is great because, that gave me a little bit of anxiety. Uh, let's talk about some anxiety moments.

Dr. J: There you go. Perfect lead in.

Mia: So, I mean there's a lot of different things that are out there, products for anxiety — I've bought a bunch and once again, Marshall didn't like any of them, like the thunder shirt or the DAP diffusers or whatever. So, you know, what are, I guess some other things that people are using that are, that you would recommend as an anxiety supplement and calming supplement?

Dr. J: Yeah, I mean, you know, a lot of people swear by lavender, as one thing to kind of help calm cats and dogs. There are some good veterinary supplements that are based on an active ingredient that's found in green tea that also people use, it's called L-theonine.

And so there are some supplements that contain L-theonine, and even some that contain milk proteins like whey protein. So there are definitely some products out there that can be quite useful for pets that are good anxiety-reducing, calming supplements.

Again, what's going to work for an individual pet is always difficult to know until it's tried. One thing that people kind of talk about and are excited about potentially, is cbd for anxiety and a bunch of other things. And I think the jury is still a little bit out on that, obviously because it's difficult to research it because of the federal laws. But that is—

Mia: Explain that a little bit. The federal laws.

Dr. J: Yeah, unfortunately marijuana and its derivatives, including cannabinoidals, cbd are schedule one drugs. So basically the federal government says there's no medical use for them and so they can't be researched and they're highly addictive.

And so fortunately there are some universities that are starting to study those in pets. So Colorado State University is doing some studies specifically more looking at arthritis, seizure treatments. And the University of Pennsylvania Vet School is doing some studies and I believe University of California at Davis I think is doing some studies. So hopefully these things are starting to change and I think we're going to do potentially in the, in the not so distant future. Hopefully we'll do a podcast on CBD.

Mia: Yeah, that'd be great because I know that it's something that our audience has, has already proven to be incredibly interested in and it's definitely something that I'm interested in learning about further.

I mean there's definitely been some warnings to go along with the positive statements that I've seen. But I've seen some videos on YouTube that are pretty remarkable. Not that you can trust everything on the Internet...

Dr. J: Unless it's on preventivevet.com, then you can.

Mia: Exactly. But I'm really excited about that. Okay. So what would you say, if there is anything that you can specifically say, that we could look for, should be looking for when we are going ahead and getting a supplement?

Dr. J: Well, I think one of the biggest things is, talk to your vet. You should have a good close working relationship with your veterinarian and they should know your pets and so they can make recommendations for which supplements to use and potentially which ones to avoid.

NASC quality seal

Along with that, there's an organization called NASC, which is the National Animal Supplement Council. And so that's an organization that created some pretty rigorous standards as far as the labs and the facilities that are gonna be making animal supplements.

And so a company that wants to make a supplement can agree to adhere to those standards and also be subjected to visits and inspections to confirm that they are, in fact, adhering to those standards and then they can display the NASC quality seal.

So looking for that on the supplement that you're considering can be good. Obviously reading labels to know that you're avoiding things like xylitol and to also know that it's actually got the ingredients you're looking for. But that said, I think it's called, Mia, and correct me if I'm wrong, I think it's Consumer Lab — I don't think it's Consumer Reports.

Mia: It's Consumer Lab.

Dr. J: Consumer Lab I think will occasionally test different supplements to confirm that they actually contain the ingredients and in the concentrations that they say on the label.

And, unfortunately, the supplement industry is very highly otherwise unregulated. And so it's not uncommon for things to either contain too much of what they say they do, or not enough of, or sometimes none of.

So going with a reputable company is important. And looking for a quality seal and checking the reports that Consumer Lab has, if there's one in particular that you're curious about.

Mia: Awesome. Well I'm glad to know that. You had sent me the link to Consumerlab.com, I'll link to it in the blog post for this podcast, but it's got not only animal, but human tests for lots of different things. So I think it's just probably a good website to have bookmarked in general.

And you actually just answered one of my last questions, which was if it was possible to overdo it on the supplements, but it sounds like, yes.

Dr. J: Yes, I mean with the fat soluble vitamins and stuff. And then also some supplements can work antagonistically with each other. So by giving one, you actually make the other one not work as well.

And then sometimes the combination of different supplements or medications can actually be dangerous. So again, talking with, having a good working relationship with your vet to know that your pet is on supplements, medications, diet, all that stuff, that's going to be the best for their health possible, and then watching them closely.

Mia: Awesome. Well thank you Dr J. That's all the questions I have, but is there anything that I missed that our audience should really know about diving into the supplements...

Dr. J: World? It can be scary and it's unchartered territory. No, really. I think the main thing is just really knowing that it is, generally speaking, quite highly unregulated, so making sure that you are looking for supplements produced by a reputable company.

Don't believe everything you read on the Internet in terms of miracle cures and miracle this and that. So I think, there and hopefully some of what we covered here today will help people navigate the supplement aisle at their local store online or what their friends are telling them at the dog park or on Facebook.

Mia: Awesome. Well thanks again Dr J. always appreciate your advice and uh, we'll talk to you all again soon.

About the author

Profile picture for Mia Horberg

Mia Horberg

Mia Horberg is a Digital Strategist at Preventive Vet, and when she's not working she is watching Jeopardy! with her wife, planting flowers and veggies, and hanging out with her senior rescue pug Mabel Petrillo, and exotic shorthair kitty, Mazel von Schmear Visage. A lover of all animals, Mia is also lucky enough to volunteer at a rescue where she gets to hang out with goats and sheep every week.

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