The human nutraceutical industry is exploding, and people are sharing these new therapies with their pets. But what are nutraceuticals? The American Veterinary Medicine Association defines them as “micronutrients, macronutrients and other nutritional supplements used as therapeutic agents.” This broad definition can include everything from fresh herbs to a single vitamin purchased at a health food store.
Some of these supplements have, over time, been shown to improve pet health. Among these are glucosamines and chondroitins for joint health; some studies suggest starting these supplements early, especially if the dog is one of the large breeds susceptible to arthritis. Also, milk thistle (Silybum marianum) and SAdenosyl methionine, or SAMe, have been established as beneficial for liver support, and are often used together.
Other established nutraceuticals include EPA and DHA, omega-3 fatty acids. We now know that the best source of EPA and DHA are oils derived from bluefish, mackerel and salmon. These very special oils are currently used in the treatment of kidney disease, allergic skin disease, heart disease, osteoarthritis, cancers and cognitive dysfunction (senility) in dogs.
Antioxidants such as vitamin E, vitamin C, carotenoids, flavonoids, selenium, lipoic acid and more scavenge free radicals and are also used in dogs. Their antioxidant properties are active in immune imbalances, tissue damage, cognitive dysfunction, joint disease, cardiac dysfunction, cancers and other pathological states. Unfortunately, we do not know which have the most beneficial effects in specific diseases, and the dosages are not well established. Among the concerns is that using antioxidants during radiation treatment may decrease its effectiveness; be sure to discuss their use with your veterinarian and veterinary oncologist.
Probiotics are supplements containing live bacteria cultures that maintain a healthy gastrointestinal environment. The gut contains many species of billions of beneficial bacteria, which seem to protect the lining of the gut and its immune response to infection or toxins. (Generally speaking, yogurt contains too few bacteria to have any true effect as a probiotic.) Veterinary probiotic products are relatively new, and their exact role in gut therapy is being explored. Again, your veterinarian should assist you in selecting a probiotic when indicated.
What are some of the potential concerns about using nutraceuticals? Like drugs, nutraceuticals are used to treat or prevent diseases, and we need to be aware of short- and longterm side effects, drug interactions, and allergic or adverse responses. “Natural” does not equate to “harmless” —nutraceuticals can be potent therapies with some known beneficial effects, but the possibility of harm still exists and must be taken seriously.
For example, nutraceuticals can potentially create dietary imbalances. Recall that they are micro- and macronutrients, which means they can create an excess or a deficiency of nutrients in your dog’s diet. Some vitamins and minerals have known toxic levels or bind up other nutrients, so when we combine them with diet, we can actually create disease or abnormal metabolism.
Product quality is also a big issue. Unfortunately, the FDA does not closely monitor, inspect or test either human or veterinary nutraceuticals for labeling, quality or content, which means that when using nutraceuticals, it pays to pay attention.
Here are some guidelines. Nutraceuticals sold by your veterinarian are usually formulated and produced by reputable and established companies that do quality control, testing and studies. Before using products from other sources with your dog, get your veterinarian’s opinion; if he/she is unsure, seek out a veterinary specialist in nutrition, who can provide guidance on current research, recommended usage, reputable brands and safe dosing. Integrative veterinarians—those who practice conventional medicine and are certified in alternative therapies such as acupuncture, herbal therapies or chiropractic care—can be another valuable source of information. (To find a provider near you, visit the Complementary and Alternative Veterinary Medicine site)