Supplements every pet needs

No matter what type of pet food you recommend to your clients, these supplements will complement and improve every diet for every animal.

Many doctors graduate from veterinary school thinking that processed foods have all the nutrients dogs and cats need for good health. As they begin to realize that cooking and processing produce inferior nutrition, they may recommend better quality or fresher food (homemade, raw, freeze-dried, etc.). But even when such diets contain a full complement of vitamins, minerals and other required nutrients, there is still plenty of room for improvement. In fact, no matter what type of pet food you recommend to your clients, a few specific supplements will complement and improve every diet for every animal, and provide a major boost to diet quality.

1. Omega-3 fatty acids

Polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) play many roles in the body, but only two fatty acids are considered essential: linoleic acid (LA, an Omega-6) and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA, an Omega-3). All others can, at least theoretically, be produced in the body from those two precursors.

The Omega-3s that get the most buzz are eicosapentanoic acid (EPA) and docosahexanoic acid (DHA). Neither is considered essential, although DHA is needed during growth in puppies and kittens, so it’s a required ingredient in commercial puppy and kitten foods. But the only meat that contains any EPA/DHA (and even then, perhaps not enough) is 100% grass fed meat. All the rest is feedlot finished or grain-raised, and therefore contains virtually zero EPA/DHA.

The vast majority of plant-based oils are in the form of Omega-6 fatty acids, which are typically over-supplied in our pets’ diets. Flaxseeds and a few other seeds and nuts also contain Omega-3 alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). ALA has beneficial effects of its own, particularly on skin and coat health. However, even though ALA is technically a precursor of EPA and DHA, dogs and especially cats have an extremely limited capacity for converting it (no more than 1% to 2% for EPA and virtually 0% for DHA after weaning). Only marine-sourced oils (fish oil, cod liver oil, krill oil, green-lipped mussel oil, and some algae oils) contain the pre-formed EPA and DHA that our carnivorous animals can absorb and utilize. Cats and dogs must receive EPA and DHA directly.

• EPA is important for cell membrane fluidity, circulation, skin health and immune system function. It has powerful anti-inflammatory effects, is helpful for many inflammatory and degenerative conditions, and is specifically beneficial for chronic kidney disease, arthritis, feline asthma, dermatitis and cancer.

• DHA is the most abundant fat in the brain, and the main component of myelin. It is crucial for nervous and visual system development. Research suggests that DHA deficiency may even play a role in anxiety, hyperactivity and aggression; supplementation may be helpful in these cases.

Keys to selecting a good Omega-3 product

• Look for products made from wild (not farm-raised) fish that are harvested sustainably, or from clean, cultivated mussels or algae.

• Cod liver oil should be free of added vitamins A and D, which can reach toxic levels in small animals.

• Products should be independently tested for freshness.

• They should be free of toxins such as mercury, PCBs and dioxin, which are widespread in the world’s oceans.

I recommend the Nordic Naturals line of pet products for their freshness, purity, and outstanding veterinary support.

2. Digestive enzymes

Digestive enzymes break down foods so they can be absorbed and utilized by the body. When food is not properly broken down, larger particles can enter the bloodstream and set off an immune response that may lead to inflammation, allergies, and other chronic health problems. Digestive enzymes also improve digestion, reduce gas, help regulate weight, and in the case of proteolytic enzymes, decrease inflammation throughout the body.

Normally, the pancreas supplies these needed digestive enzymes, although production slows as animals get older. Raw foods contain many enzymes, including an array of digestive enzymes within cellular lysosomes.

Cooking denatures enzymes. Supplemental digestive enzymes are especially needed by animals eating processed commercial pet food (in addition to any enzymes listed on the label). Geriatric animals may also benefit, even if they’re on a raw food diet. Digestive enzymes may also be useful in the treatment of parasites such as giardia, and may prevent the pancreatic hypertrophy that can result from eating a processed diet.

Keys to selecting a good digestive enzyme product

• Look for one from a plant or fungal source, in order for it to work in the widest range of pH and temperature.

• It should contain, at least: protease, amylase, lipase and cellulase.

3. Probiotics

Probiotics include beneficial bacteria such as L. acidophilus and certain Bifidobacteria, Enterococcus and Streptococcus species. Probiotics help keep normal gut bacteria balanced and healthy.

The intestinal microbiota is an essential part of overall health. Constant back-and-forth interaction occurs between the gut bacteria and brain through neural, endocrine, immune and humoral links. A balanced gut ecology has implications for not only physical but also emotional and mental health. It prevents pathogenic bacteria from gaining a foothold; produces B vitamins, vitamin K, and short-chain fatty acids; and supports normal immune system function.

Supplemental probiotics have benefits for allergies, including atopy, food allergies, and inflammatory bowel disease. They are also helpful for pets with any type of digestive problem, including vomiting, diarrhea, constipation, IBD, colitis, and even hairballs.

Probiotics are also essential for animals who are, or have been, taking antibiotics (including natural antimicrobial therapies such as herbs, medicinal mushrooms, colloidal silver, etc.). Continue probiotic supplementation for at least two weeks after treatment.

Unfortunately, testing has found that many pet foods and supplements claiming probiotics contain few, if any, live organisms.

Keys to selecting a good probiotic product

• Look for a supplement containing at least Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria.

• There should be a label guarantee of live microorganisms.

• The product should be of sufficient potency (at least 100 million per dose).

Note: Many products combine digestive enzymes with probiotics, and these can be a good, cost-effective choice, especially for fussy pets who are difficult to supplement.

4. Antioxidants

The function of antioxidants is to scavenge and neutralize oxygen free radicals. Cells make controlled quantities of free radicals as weapons against viruses, fungi, bacteria and abnormal cells. However, excess unbalanced free radicals create oxidative stress, which can damage normal cells and create chronic inflammation. Processed pet foods are typically high in pro-inflammatory Omega-6 fatty acids, so supplementing with antioxidants is very important.

Free radical damage is at the root of virtually all degenerative and inflammatory diseases, as well as many we don’t necessarily think of as involving inflammation, such as diabetes, cancer, hypothyroidism, heart disease, and cognitive dysfunction. By reducing oxidative stress, antioxidants likely have value in disease prevention as well as treatment. However, the mechanisms are complex, and robust scientific proof is still lacking. Nevertheless, antioxidants can universally be considered helpful for most inflammatory and immune-mediated diseases.

Keys to selecting a good antioxidant product

• It should contain multiple antioxidants, such as vitamin E, carotenoids (e.g. beta-carotene and lycopene) and fl avonoids (like Vitamin C and quercitin).

• Look for a natural or whole food-derived product, rather than one that’s chemically synthesized. Natural products are typically found in l-form as opposed to d- or dl-form; for example, d-alpha tocopherol is a synthetic product.

• Plant and fungal sources may be more bioactive.

• For cats, avoid products containing alpha lipoic acid, due to toxicity concerns.

Further considerations

Getting supplements – especially multiple supplements – into the patient is always a challenge in veterinary medicine. Palatability can be a real problem. Products formulated for pets are often better accepted, but may have issues with potency and viability. Supplements are poorly regulated, and overblown (if not downright fraudulent) claims are rampant. Clients often come in with lots of ideas from Dr. Google and friends, and it’s hard to judge the validity and value of products you’ve never heard of.

Fortunately, reputable companies back up their products with good research; Thorne, VetriScience, Nordic Naturals and Standard Process come immediately to mind. Products bearing the NASC seal have passed rigorous standards and can be relied on. And knowledgeable colleagues are an invaluable resource that can be reached nearly 24/7 through the CAVM-List, Veterinary Information Network, and other forums.

Incorporating these four supplement categories into your patients’ diet regimes, regardless of what food they’re eating, will help ensure overall optimal health.


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