Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Nutra-What? Unraveling the World of Pet Dietary Supplements and Nutraceuticals


Pet Column for the week of July 19, 2010


Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Anne Rivas
Information Specialist

In any supermarket, consumers can find aisles of vitamins and supplements. Similarly, an increasing variety of supplements and nutraceuticals is available for pets. Pet supplements claim to aid everything from liver health to arthritis to behavioral problems. The sheer number of such products can be overwhelming, and without guidance it can be difficult to determine which, if any, of these items might benefit your pet.

Dr. Kelly Swanson, an associate professor of animal sciences who lectures at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine, defines a nutraceutical as “a food component with a functional property beyond nutrition.” Examples of nutraceuticals include vitamins, omega fatty acids, antioxidants, and probiotics, though Dr. Swanson stresses that there is definitely a gray area when it comes to classifying these compounds.

One of the challenges with nutraceuticals and supplements is that “pet supplements are not regulated the same way pet foods are,” Dr. Swanson explains. “There is not much known about safety, efficacy, bioavailability, dosages, and potential drug interaction.” As a result, there is a lack of clarity about how these products work.

Recently independent groups, such as the National Animal Supplement Council (NASC), have begun to provide voluntary regulation of animal supplement products. More than 100 companies participate in NASC, which offers scientific review of ingredients, independent mandatory audit programs, an adverse event reporting system, and labeling guidelines. Dr. Swanson recommends choosing a product from a company that belongs to a group like this and gives increased scrutiny to its products.

Before giving a supplement to a pet, it is important to determine whether your pet actually needs that product. “If your pet is on high quality, life-stage-appropriate commercial pet food, your pet already receives adequate levels of vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients,” explains Dr. Swanson. In fact, it is possible to over-supplement an animal by giving additional levels of some diet components. For example, too much fiber can lead to diarrhea.

Of course, before starting your pet on any new food item or supplement, it is always important to speak with your veterinarian.

“Your veterinarian will have a better idea which products are safe and necessary for your pet,” says Dr. Swanson. “He or she can help you determine if dosing is correct for your pet based on the product’s concentration, and whether any of your pet’s other medications might react with an additional supplement.”

For further information on pet diets and supplements, contact your local veterinarian.