When it comes to giving a dog a pill, a tasty disguise is often in order—trickery helps deliver the goods. But what if the dog isn’t the only one being fooled?
Sales of pet supplements are soaring, prescription drugs (“no prescription required”) are just a click away, and pharmacies are creating compounds tailored to a dog’s individual needs. Yet, tests keep proving that remedies aren’t always what their labels claim.
Veterinary drugs are federally regulated, but supplements fall into a regulatory abyss. In both cases, critics say, oversight is lacking. While Internet shoppers risk buying fake, unapproved and contaminated products, tainted pills can also be found on store shelves and in pharmacies.
Access to affordable medications is another issue. Can’t find a generic version of that expensive drug? It may be hidden in plain sight, thanks to covert efforts to block it.
Supplements, More or Less
When it comes to their dogs, Americans spend more on vitamins than on either toys or treats. A 2015 survey by the American Pet Products Association finds that annual expenses are $62 for vitamins, $61 for food treats and $47 for toys.
This boom follows a recession-era slump, according to market-research firm Packaged Facts. Riding in on the wave is a stream of “natural” and organic supplements targeting obesity, aging and joint health. But sales of these products still lag behind sales of nutraceutical treats like functional biscuits (which also offer taste appeal), so companies are shaping their ingredients into new liquids, powders, gels and pastes.
All of which suggests that more dogs will be given questionable products.
“It is definitely a buyer-beware situation for pet owners,” says Tod Cooperman, president of ConsumerLab.com, an independent testing company that keeps tabs on health supplements. When the company started in 1999, defective vitamins were making news, but there was little testing. “I realized that consumers needed more information,” says Cooperman, who began the venture with former FDA chemist Dr. William Obermeyer.
In 2003, the lab analyzed its first pet-specific product, the popular joint-care staples glucosamine and chondroitin. “We found two supplements which had no chondroitin despite a guaranteed analysis on the labels showing significant amounts.” While many people think such work is the job of the FDA—or, for pets, the Center for Veterinary Medicine (CVM)—it’s up to manufacturers to test for safety and follow good manufacturing practices. Federal rules don’t recognize pet supplements at all unless companies put them in food or claim they treat illness.
“Government oversight of the manufacture of supplements for people is minimal; oversight of supplements for pets hardly exists,” Cooperman says. “In general, a lower percentage of pet supplements pass our reviews of quality.”
The problem is compounded (no pun intended) by the fact that China, origin of many tainted pet products, is the world’s leading supplier of nutritional raw materials. But issues with ingredients aren’t confined to any one country, and mistakes can occur at various points in the manufacturing process. According to Cooperman, “A pet owner is trusting the supplement maker to formulate a product with the right amount and type of ingredients, and to make it properly without contamination.”
Recently, ConsumerLab tested five kinds of pet supplements: probiotics, joint health products, fish oils, plant-based oils (like flaxseed) and multivitamins.
Tests of three probiotics for dogs and cats found that two had high amounts of the beneficial organisms, more than one billion per daily serving, as claimed. However, Cooperman says, the third contained such a small amount that its efficacy is highly questionable. As with previous testing, products for veterinary joint health fared poorly. None of them had exactly what they claimed. Three contained only 16 to 76 percent of the listed glucosamine. One exceeded its label, packing 36 percent more MSM, an anti-inflammatory compound. Could the excess be harmful?