I struggle with these same questions myself with my own senior dogs. I know that dog supplements can do wonders. I would bet that each of you have read or heard at least one story where a dog has become like a puppy again, which is the hope we need to feel when our dog is struggling with the challenges of old age - making it hard to resist the urge to grab every bottle and give it a go.
The challenge is that not all supplements are created equal and in some cases they can do more harm than good, so being informed is an absolute necessity to ensure the well-being of your dog and to give him or her the best options for better health.
The area of dog supplements is one that has garnered a significant amount of attention from consumers, from vets and from the FDA. The issue at hand is that unlike the pharmaceutical industry, nutraceuticals better known as supplements, is an unregulated industry and that has many people concerned. "Without FDA regulation companies can make all kinds of claims about the presence and quality of the ingredients they have and no one is there to enforce their integrity. Not only are the quality of nutrients (bioavailability, absorption capability in the GI, nutrient sources etc) not scrutinized by any official governing body, no one outside of private consumer advocacy groups is even sanctioned to ensure that the ingredients are there period," warns Dr. Roger Welton, DVM with Maybeck Animal Hospital in Florida and creator of The Web-DVM TV, Radio and Blog.
Adding to this Dr. Kate Zimmerman, DVM with Tri-County Veterinary Hospital in Tennessee explains, "Even if the supplement contains something with potential usefulness like Omega3, there is little way for a lay person or even a vet to determine if the supplement has any active ingredients in it or whether it may or may not contain dangerous contaminants like heavy metals (a naturally occurring risk) or non-naturally occurring things like factory or processing based contaminants. This really complicates things for pet owners."
Being able to make an informed decision is not an easy one, but there are a few key things that pet owners can do to ensure that they make the right choices when it comes to dog supplements. First of all please don't grab the first bottle of supplements you see. Marketing promises does not mean results, and it certainly does not mean that your dog is getting the proper treatment. Not only do you have to be concerned with the quality of the products and companies that provide them, but you also have to be aware that even though a supplement is considered "natural" it can cause reactions. If your dog is on medication there are risks associated with how the supplement's ingredients will react with what your dog is already taking. Not only is your dog at risk of intestinal or allergenic reactions, but the supplements can potentially cancel out the drug's impact or amplify it, putting your dog at serious risk.
Dr. Jessica Waldman, VMD, CVA, CCRT with California Animal Rehabilitation (CARE) describes, "Risks of supplements include gastrointestinal upset due to rapid introduction or intolerance of certain ingredients within supplements, and allergic reactions to sources of the ingredients. Some supplements interfere with and/or interact with medications the pet may be taking concurrently. Dosages of some medications may need to be adjusted if a pet is going to start on specific supplements."
I know what you are thinking - this is scary. There are risks caused by not knowing enough about the product or the company producing it, and risks in terms of possible medical reactions - so how in the world can you help your dog without putting them in harm's way? To help senior dog owners find the right supplements it is recommended that you first consult with your vet. They are aware of your dog's medical condition and can advise the best approach and dosage based on their in-depth knowledge. They can make suggestions on which products and companies to consider and many times can give you insight into how other patients have responded. If you have done your homework and have questions on specific supplements on the market, you can ask your vet if they have any additional information. They have access to many databases and sources of information and can often provide a solid opinion on the supplements in question.
You can also do your own homework - look for companies and products that have scientific studies, peer reviews and research validating the effectiveness of the supplements. Companies that have been around a while and have established a solid reputation around the medical community are preferable.
Dr. Duffy Jones, DVM with Peachtree Hills Animal Hospital in Atlanta, Georgia describes, "Most supplements do not have good data backing up their label claims so I look for thoroughly tested products from manufacturers that I know. Some of the better products do have efficacy and safety studies while many of the lower-grade products do not."
Dr. Waldman advises, "It is important to know what to look for on a label and how to verify its validity in order to not fall victim to crafty marketing. Third party testing of products is the best way of determining whether a supplement has met it's label claims for each ingredient. If third party testing is unavailable, a good quality product will be able to provide quality assurance/quality control data from intra-laboratory testing. Any good quality product should list the amounts of all active ingredients, and should also list a website and/or phone number for additional information. Very few pet products and human products undergo clinical trials but the ones that do would be much preferred."
Dr. Bruce Silverman VMD, MBA from Chicago's Village West Veterinary adds, "Credible clinical studies are the gold standard for any medicine or supplement. Unfortunately, the supplement market is highly unregulated, unlike the market for prescription drugs, so the vast majority have reached the shelves with very little or no testing. Therefore, all products available over the counter are not created equally. Some may be of good quality, and some may be of poor quality, yet have wonderful packaging and great testimonials, even from a veterinarian paid to have their face on the label. The supplements that I carry in my hospital are from credible companies that have undergone superior testing and get regular feedback from all the animal hospitals that prescribe their products."
Some companies mentioned as making the grade include: Nutramax, Vetri-Science, Thorne, and Virbac. Once you know you have the right company behind the supplements your work is not over yet. Dog supplements cover a wide range of conditions including help for joints, bone, digestion, overall wellness, skin and coat, weight-loss as well as heart, liver and brain health. However, with most senior dogs facing multiple issues, where do you begin?
"It is best to ask your veterinarian what your pet's issues are in terms of priorities. Although there may be concurrent issues, prioritizing them in terms of which issue is causing the most pronounced symptoms is helpful in narrowing down which supplements to administer. Supplementation if used properly can decrease the need for medication," describes Dr. Heather Oxford, DVM, MPH, CVA, CCRT with California Animal Rehabilitation.
Dr. Babette Gladstein, VMD and acupuncturist cautions, "Never start a new supplement at full dosage. You need to start slowly and bring to full strength over a 3 week period. Any unusual behavior should be noted and discussed with your veterinarian."
Dr. Lori Teller, DVM, DABVP (canine/feline), CVJ from the Meyerland Animal Clinic in Texas adds, "It is important to identify the specific areas where supplements may help, and then to add them in one at a time. This way the dog can be monitored for areas of improvement and potential side effects, and your veterinarian will know if the supplement caused them. If you start several supplements at one time, you won't know which ones are really working, or which one has led to a nasty complication."
Key Benefits: Despite the challenges of sorting through the endless companies and products, as well as working with your veterinarian to minimize risks and increase chances of success, the reason the effort is worthwhile is because the benefits that dog supplements can bring to help our aging four-legged family members can be tremendous. They can compliment and even reduce the reliance on pharmaceuticals and can give our seniors the boost they need to continue to enjoy life. A key advantage is that supplements allow us to target very specific ailments in our senior dogs.
"Fatty acid supplements can benefit cardiovascular function, including helping the kidneys, as well as joint function, neural health, skin condition, allergies, and many other inflammatory conditions because they shift the body's prostaglandin levels away from those that feed the body's natural inflammatory response. Joint supplements help increase joint fluid viscosity for those dogs already suffering from arthritis, and can even reduce the future likehood of injury in dogs more prone to joint damage. Liver supplements can help with the detoxifying function when the liver is struggling from other disease. Urinary health can be influenced by supplements, as can overall musculo-skeletal body condition be benefited by supplements. Other new developments have even led to supplements benefiting cognitive slowdown, like when a person gets Alzheimer's disease, and to intestinal and nutritional health by focusing on prebiotic and probiotic dietary supplements," describes Dr. Silverman.
Help is within reach so do your homework, work with your vet and you'll be able get the most from the supplements you choose for your older dog.