Supplements are often a very beneficial part of the medical care of our patients.  Conditions such as joint disease or injury, skin irritation, heart disease, and urinary issues are just a few of the conditions that can benefit from the proper veterinary prescribed supplement.   When you walk down the aisle of your favorite pet store, you are likely to come across dozens of choices for joint support alone.  I am sure that many of you have your pet on a glucosamine/chondroitin supplement for joint health.  Looking at all of those bottles can be confusing – are they all the same, which is the right one?  Perhaps you go for the lowest cost, or even the highest price point, assuming high price means high quality.  Unfortunately, in the supplement world, the quality of the products varies significantly, and you may be paying for a product that actually is not benefiting your pet at all!

One of the things that many of us like about supplements is that they are not a “drug.”  However, this is where the problem of choosing an over the counter supplement lies. Because a supplement is not food or a drug, the manufacturing of supplements is not controlled, monitored, or regulated by the FDA.  That’s right – you could whip up a concoction in your kitchen, bottle it as a joint supplement and your product would not need to be tested in any way before it is sold at a pet store.  In fact, a Consumer Reports study done in 2013 tested 15 human joint supplements from the shelves and found that only 7 of those actually contained the ingredients listed on the bottle!! Consumers pay for ingredients that weren’t even present!  No wonder sometimes people didn’t see a benefit from taking the supplement.

Without FDA regulation, the quality and dosage of the ingredients also are not controlled.  Did you know that chondroitin (a supplement that inhibits cartilage breakdown) comes in many forms and is only beneficial if it is a certain molecular weight?  This beneficial size of chondroitin is much more expensive than other forms, so many of the over-the-counter products use the cheaper form of chondroitin even though it will not benefit your pet. Also, supplements need to be given at a precise dosage in order to have a positive effect.  I rarely have seen two over the counter products have the same listed amount of glucosamine or ASU or even the same types of fatty acids.  Many over the counter supplements don’t have enough of the ingredients to be effective at the bottle dose, and the pet would need 3-4 pills instead of one to be effective.  That certainly doesn’t help your pet or the bottom line.

These facts make the use of supplements sound pointless or even scary, but there is good news.  Several very reputable companies that also make medications recognize the need for good quality supplements that support health.  These companies guard their reputation and their patient’s health by using the medication protocols and standards to develop and test their supplements.  These supplement products are available to veterinarians, are high quality and tested to be safe and effective without containing drugs.  As a veterinarian, when I am choosing a supplement, I want the company to be able to prove absorption of the active ingredients in your pet’s system and the safety of the product and stability of the ingredients. I want the manufacturer to also have in place a system for reporting adverse effects (side effects when given to the animal) and proof of label accuracy.  When these requirements are all in place, I often find supplements to be a large portion of my long term care for many patients.  Their quality of life can improve with the right choices of supplements. Two of my own dogs and my mother’s cat are living proof.  So, don’t be afraid to use a supplement recommended by your veterinarian, but, if you are at the pet store considering starting your pet on a supplement – just ask your veterinarian what product they recommend first.  Your money will be better spent, and your pet will feel like a million bucks!

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