The Five Supplements Every Pet Needs
By Douglas Knueven, DVM
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We've all heard the old adage, "You are what you eat." It certainly is true that the body can only build tissues (muscle, bone, brain, etc.) with the raw materials we provide. This same concept is valid for our canine and feline companions as well. Sometimes even the slightest deficiency in a key nutrient can have devastating results. It behooves us to be certain to provide our pets with the best possible nutrition. In order to understand the need for nutritional supplementation we must first find out the basics of companion animal nutrition.
So who should you turn to for dietary advice, your veterinarian? Not so fast. According to a recent survey published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, nutrition training in veterinary schools is inadequate and the quality of continuing education on nutrition is inferior. While in veterinary school, I remember having only a single, one-hour lecture on pet foods and it was sponsored by a major food company. In school we were basically told that the food companies know what they are doing, "Just recommend a quality pet food." After a time in practice I began to ask the question, "Do the pet food companies really have it all figured out?" I decided to research the issue, and this is what I discovered.
The contents and labeling of commercial pet foods is governed by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). This group is made up of people from the pet food industry -- talk about the fox guarding the henhouse. It is up to AAFCO to determine that a given pet food is "100% complete and balanced." There are two methods AFFCO uses to accomplish this.
The first, a feeding trial, involves feeding the food to as few as eight animals for 26 weeks. The pets are weighed and given a physical exam before and at the end of the study. Also at the end their blood is tested for hemoglobin content, red blood cell count, a liver test and the albumin level (and the taurine level in cats). Based on this meager data, a food can be deemed appropriate as the only food source for the life of an animal.
The second way AAFCO determines the fitness of a pet food is called a food analysis. For this, a sample of the food is tested for the nutrients in the AAFCO nutrient profile. The profile list includes protein, fat, fiber, ash, vitamins and minerals -- thirty-six ingredients in all. This looks pretty good until you realize that there are over forty known nutrients and hundreds more are currently being investigated. And, what about nutrients yet to be discovered?
According to Dr. David A. Dzanis, the veterinarian in the FDA's Center for Veterinary Medicine, "The formulation method does not account for... the availability of nutrients. Yet the feeding trial can miss some chronic deficiencies or toxicities." Dr. Quinton Rogers, professor of physiological chemistry at the university of Cal., Davis adds, "Although the AAFCO profiles are better than nothing, they provide a false security." Finally, Dr. Tony Buffington, the nutritionist at the Ohio State Veterinary College had this to say, "The recommendation to feed one food for the life of an animal gives nutritionists more credit than we deserve."
These comments are not very reassuring for the pet-owning public. In fact, you do not have to look far for evidence that "100% complete and balanced" diets have had deficiencies. Many cats died of heart failure until it was discovered in the late 1980's that the deadly disease, cardiomyopathy, was caused by a diet deficient in the amino acid taurine. Current research is even more intriguing.
In 2004, the Iams Company released a study that explored the effect of dietary fish oil on canine intelligence. The theory was that since 5% of the brain is composed of DHA (one of the essential fatty acids found in fish oil), this could be an important nutrient. This study focused on the developing brain.
For this research, pregnant dogs and (after whelping) their puppies were divided into two groups. The study group was fed Iams diet plus fish oil, while the control group was fed just Iams diet. At nine weeks of age, the offspring were started on a one-month training/testing period designed to gauge the individual's intelligence. Incredibly, the training performance index for the fish oil group was double that of the control group. This led the researchers to conclude, "When you consider that the number one killer of dogs is euthanasia due to behavior problems, we should be recommending high-DHA diets."
I agree with this conclusion; however the researchers did not acknowledge an important point. Since the control group (the less intelligent dogs) was fed Iams diet -- which according to the label is 100% complete and balanced -- then it follows that dogs are inherently stupid but with this "new" nutrient we can make them smart enough to keep alive. On the other hand, perhaps this study points to the fact that commercial foods are not complete and balanced, and it is our arrogance about nutrition that has led to the deaths of dogs whose behavior problems stemmed from malnutrition.
It is likely that many other canine and feline health conditions are actually due to dietary deficiencies. Let's face it; even the experts don't know everything. Obviously, pets need supplements. But, before I go into my top five, we need to look at the pitfalls of purchasing supplements. The major issue is reliability. Because there is little federal oversight of nutritional supplements, you cannot be sure that you are getting what the label says.
For example, a study published in June, 2000 showed that only 6 out of 24 store-bought glucosamine supplements met label claims -- some contained as little as 25% of what the label said. The same study showed that 26 out of 32 health food store Chondroitin supplements had less than 90% of label claims and that 14 of them had less than 10%. Standards for supplements do not match those for medications and you cannot trust the labels. If you buy the bargain brand you are probably wasting your money. So who or what can you trust? Experience!
This is where your holistically-minded veterinarian comes in handy. There are certain brands of supplements and particular products that I have discovered through trial and error over the years that I know I can trust. I am not saying that all other supplements are inferior, just that I know that these work. Your local veterinarian will have his or her own favorites. So here are my top five supplements that all pets need, in order of importance.
SUPPLEMENT NUMBER ONE -- A Balanced Multivitamin/Mineral
Vitamins and minerals are nutrients the body needs to function properly and cannot manufacture on its own. As we have seen, nutritional deficiencies have been found in commercial diets. Although the deficits are corrected as they are discovered, more are possibly lurking in the next bag. Besides, the vitamin and mineral content of pet diets is based on "average" animals. Stresses such as surgery or illness and athletic performance such as agility cause a need for extra nutrition.
Additionally, the nutrition in pet foods is linked to calories. For example, if the food bag says that, based on his weight, a particular dog needs 3 cups of food, then that is what he needs to get the required vitamins and minerals. If the dog gains too much weight on this quantity of food (a very common situation) and the owner cuts the amount fed, then the animal's nutrient intake will likely be deficient. For these reasons I recommend that all pets get a good multi-vitamin/mineral supplement.
To understand my specific choice of vitamins, you need look more closely at the vitamin industry and research. Most vitamin supplements consist of synthetically made chemicals. However, if you listen closely to the reports on nutrition you often hear statements like, "Researchers have found that people eating foods high in such and such nutrient have such and such health benefit." Many times when studies are done using the same nutrient from a synthetic source, there are no health benefits. It is difficult to improve on Mother Nature so supplements made from whole foods are best.
My personal favorite multivitamin/mineral supplement is the Standard Process products, Canine Whole Body Support and Feline Whole Body Support. Standard Process is the oldest human supplement company in the US and for several years now has offered animal products. Their claim to fame is that instead of making synthetic vitamins, their products are made by concentrating the nutrition in whole foods, most of which are grown on their own organic farms. I've seen great responses to their products.
SUPPLEMENT NUMBER TWO -- Fish Oil
Due to the Iams study quoted earlier plus much more research, all pets need fish oil. Part two of this article will focus exclusively on this amazing supplement and why it is the best source for omega-three fatty acids for animals.
SUPPLEMENT NUMBER THREE -- Digestive Enzymes
Digestive enzymes are substances made by the pancreas and excreted into the intestine to further break down food particles so they can be absorbed into the bloodstream. Ample enzymes are essential for the body to absorb all the nutrients from food. Even healthy animals need extra digestive enzymes.
A closer look at enzymes reveals that every living cell contains enzymes that help it function. When an organism dies, the cell enzymes are released and begin a self-digestion action called autolysis. So food, whether plant or animal, begins the digestion process on its own. Unfortunately, heat destroys the cellular enzymes so cooked and processed foods require extra digestive enzymes on the part of the consumer.
Also, it has been shown that animals are able to produce fewer and fewer digestive enzymes as they age. This can be a major cause of the wasting seen in elderly pets. Besides, extra enzymes increase the absorption of many nutrients. In fact, essential fatty acids, like the ones in fish oil, have a 71% increase in assimilation when digestive enzymes are taken concurrently.
Animals simply thrive when their diet is supplemented with digestive enzymes and my product choice is Prozyme.
SUPPLEMENT NUMBER FOUR -- Glucosamine/Chondroitin
Glucosamine and chondroitin are components of healthy joints. They help the joint cartilage maintain its 65% to 80% water content. This gives the joint its shock absorbing quality like a wet sponge. Joint cartilage lacking these substances becomes like a dry sponge and develops arthritis.
Throughout an animal's life, there are two competing processes going on in joint cartilage. On the one hand, there are cells that continuously break down joint tissue. At the same time, there are cells that rebuild the tissue. This is how the body refurbishes itself. If the raw ingredients for rebuilding, such as glucosamine and chondroitin, are lacking, then the rebuilding process cannot keep up with the destructive process and the joint degenerates.
Glucosamine and chondroitin support joint health and they not only aid with arthritis, studies show they help prevent arthritis from developing in the first place. That's why all pets can benefit from these nutrients -- especially performance dogs whose joints take a lot of wear and tear. Recent studies have also shown that many older cats also suffer in silence from arthritis.
By the way, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs decrease inflammation and pain but also inhibit the cartilage reconstruction process and thereby worsen the condition they are used to treat.
My choice for glucosamine/chondroitin supplementation is Glycoflex from Vetri-Science.
SUPPLEMENT NUMBER FIVE -- Probiotics
The canine and feline intestinal tracts are teaming with bacteria. In fact there are many more bacteria in the intestine than there are cells in the body! Some of the intestinal microbes can cause disease. Others, called probiotic bacteria are actually beneficial because they keep disease-causing germs under control and help to release more nutrients from what's left of the food. An imbalance in the intestinal flora can lead to diarrhea and/or nutritional deficiencies.
The good bacteria in the intestine can be thrown off by medications (especially antibiotics), dietary irregularities and stress. If your pet gets diarrhea while on antibiotics it is usually because of this effect. In the wild, wolves commonly eat their own stool to rebalance their gut bacteria and this is sometimes the reason our pets resort to coprophagia.
Probiotics are supplements that help to replenish the good bacteria in the intestine. Most pets do not need to be kept on probiotic supplements continuously but all animals need a balancing dose three or four times a year. It is a good practice to give probiotics at the change of seasons and during and after treating the pet with any medication.
My choice of probiotic supplement is another Vetri-Science product called Acetylator. It not only contains beneficial bacteria, it also supplies enzymes and other nutrients for intestinal health.So there you have the listing of supplements that your pet needs. Again, your veterinarian may have his favorite products that will work just as well, but beware of health food store or on line bargain brands. And remember, all the supplements in the world will not make up for a poor diet. Part two of this article, will provide a wealth of information on essential fatty acids and the benefits of fish oil for the health of your pet.
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The Five Supplements Every Pet Needs
Fish Oil (It's not Snake Oil)
By Douglas Knueven, DVM
Fish oil is number two on my list of supplements that every pet needs, running a close second to a good, natural multi-vitamin/mineral supplement. I have seen almost miraculous responses when fish oil is added to the diets of health-challenged pets. To date, over 2,000 scientific studies tout the many benefits of this supplement and more studies are being published every year. The importance of fish oil for dogs and cats will become obvious as we explore the chemistry and biology of fats.
Fat, grease, and oils are made of fatty acids just as meat is made of mostly proteins. Fatty acids are categorized by their chemical structure which dictates their effects on the body. Broadly speaking, all fatty acids are either saturated or unsaturated to various degrees. The saturation of the oil has to do with the number of hydrogen atoms attached to the main molecule. The more hydrogen atoms, the more saturation there is.
Essential fatty acids (EFAs) are unsaturated fatty acids that the body needs for health but cannot make on its own. EFAs must be obtained in foods. The body needs EFAs to make and repair cell membranes. EFAs are involved with producing energy from food substances and moving that energy throughout the body. They govern growth, vitality, mental state, oxygen transfer, hemoglobin production and control the movement of nutrients through cell membranes. In short, EFAs play a part in almost every function of the body.
Omega-6s and Omega-3s are two types of EFAs. Omega-6 fatty acids are naturally found in grains, other plants, and animal-based fat sources such as poultry fat. The normal pet diet is rich in these oils.
Sources of Omega-3s include fish oils and flax seed oil. The most important Omega-3 fatty acids for pets are docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicsoapentaenoic acid (EPA). Unlike humans, dogs and cats lack the enzymes necessary to obtain DHA and EPA from flax seed oil so fish oil is the preferred supplement for obtaining Omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids are sorely lacking in the vast majority of commercial pet foods.
As will be demonstrated below, a balance of Omega-6 to Omega-3 fatty acids is vital to health. Although the exact healthy ratio has not been conclusively determined, researchers believe that a five-to-one Omega-6 to Omega-3 ratio is optimal. Alarmingly, many commercial pet foods may contain ratios of up to and above 50-to-1! This dietary imbalance is leading to many chronic health disturbances for our animal friends.
Fish Oil and Inflammation
The bodies of animals (people included) are set up with competing mechanisms that in the normal, healthy state keep the body in balance. These systems of homeostasis can be thought of as teeter-totters weighted equally on each side. The idea is that as the stresses of life shift the body chemistry, a gentle counterbalance can bring the organism back to normal.
One such teeter-totter system involves inflammation. There are, within the body, complicated chemical pathways that lead to inflammation (pro-inflammatory) and there are counterbalancing pathways that suppress inflammation (anti-inflammatory). In the healthy dog these mechanisms work together in harmony providing inflammation when needed (such as when trauma requires the cleanup up of destroyed tissue) and then turning the process off (as needed when the clean up is complete).
EFAs play a key role in both the pro-inflammatory and anti-inflammatory pathways. Basically, the Omega-6 fatty acids weight the teeter-totter toward inflammation while the Omega-3s are anti-inflammatory. Now the significance of the dietary imbalance of Omega-6 to Omega-3 fatty acids becomes apparent. The typical, commercial pet food promotes inflammation throughout the body of the animal. Research indicates two specific areas of importance of the pro-inflammatory effects of pet foods.
The first area is the skin. The skin is the largest organ of the body and in pets it is the usual place where allergies manifest. Allergies are simply a manifestation of inflammation and are promoted by an inflammatory system that is out of balance. From my clinical experience I can see that our pets are plagued with allergies these days. There is no doubt that this problem is diet related. Recent research has shown that 45% of dogs with inhalant allergies had a good to excellent response to simply changing the diet to one with an Omega-6 to Omega-3 ratio of five-to-one.
The second area of the body influenced by the dietary imbalance of EFAs is the joints. Many of our dogs and cats suffer from arthritis and this problem seems to be affecting younger and younger animals. Arthritis is merely an inflammation of the joints. This condition can be predisposed by many factors such as conformation -- as is the case with hip dysplasia, or trauma. But, research indicates that the lack of dietary Omega-3 fatty acids plays a roll as well. Studies have shown that adding fish oil to the diet can reduce the stiffness, pain and inflammation associated with this debilitating disease. Considering what we know about the pro-inflammatory effects of our unbalanced pet foods, it follows that supplementing fish oil can prevent or reduce the development of arthritis in the first place.
Fish Oil and Cancer
Cancer is the leading cause of death in older cats and dogs. One of the most important areas of research involving the fatty acids found in fish oil (DHA and EPA) is how their supplementation can aid with cancer. According to recent research, adding fish oil to the diet increases the survival time of cancer patients by 30%-50%. It also causes longer periods of remission for cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy and it counteracts the metabolic changes that cancer can cause, such as the characteristic wasting. The study concludes that "the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil are probably the most important nutrients to consider for dogs with cancer."
A closer look at cancer shows that pets produce cancer cells every day. The reason all our pets do not die of cancer is because those with a healthy immune system eliminate the abnormal cells before they get out of control. It makes sense that we should do all we can to balance the scales in favor of eradicating the cancer cells. Providing fish oil in the diets of healthy pets can help to achieve this goal.
Fish Oil and Cognitive Function
In part one of this article I summarized a study showing that supplementing fish oil in the diets of pregnant females and their offspring doubled the learning ability of those puppies. This is no doubt because five percent of the brain is made of DHA. If we do not provide the building materials, then the body cannot construct a normally functioning brain.
Research in people, that I think translates to pets, also shows that high dietary intake of fish oil can help with depression and Alzheimer's disease, and can reduce the risk of strokes caused by blood clots. Omega-3s have even been shown to improve schizophrenia and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorders so it may not be too late for your neurotic Boarder Collie.
Other Health Benefits
There seems to be no end to the research-proven benefits of Omega-3 EFAs. Obese people tend to achieve better control over their blood glucose and cholesterol levels. Diabetics benefit by lowering their triglyceride levels and raising their HDL (good cholesterol) levels. Those suffering from asthma and inflammatory bowel disease profit as well. The bottom line is that all pets and people need more Omega-3 fatty acids in their diets.
Because of the recent research on EFAs, some pet food companies are supplementing certain select diets with fish oil. This is a step in the right direction. The effectiveness of this new development is questionable though because due to their chemical structure, EFA's are inherently unstable and reactive. This means that they easily oxidize (go rancid).
In fact, EFAs are rendered useless by exposure to heat, light and air. So, even if there are plenty of EFAs in the food to begin with, and it withstands processing and sitting around on the store shelf, as soon as you open the bag and expose the food to air, the EFAs begin to deactivate. For this reason, I prefer that my patients be supplemented with fish oil that can be properly stored and applied to the food, fresh with each meal.
It is important to carefully research any fish oil supplement to see how it is harvested, packaged, preserved and tested. To maintain the integrity of the EFAs the oil must be processed with as little exposure to heat, air and light as possible. Also, because fish can be a source of mercury and other toxins, it is imperative that the fish used come from unpolluted waters and that testing is done on the oil to ensure purity.
My fish oil supplement of choice is Grizzly Salmon Oil. This supplement meets the above requirements and has stood the test of time, helping many patients at my office regain health. I am sure there are other fish oil supplements that are good as well and your local veterinarian may have another brand that she prefers.
I do have one caution regarding cod liver oil. Although this form of fish oil is a rich source of the same Omega-3 EFAs as found in fish oil, it also can contain high levels of vitamin D, depending on the brand. Vitamin D is provided adequately in commercial pet foods and it is possible to create a toxicity by over-supplementing this nutrient. For this reason, I prefer to stick with fish oil.
The dose of Grizzly Salmon Oil is marked on the bottle. This is good for the average pet but I will sometimes work up to twice that dose for cancer patients. For those supplementing with fish oil capsules, I would recommend giving one capsule per 20 pounds for normal supplementation and one per 10 pounds for pets with cancer.
There are two rare problems associated with supplementing fish oil, especially at the higher doses. If your pet is prone to pancreatitis (a disease that causes the pancreas to over-respond to dietary fat), then adding fish oil to the diet could aggravate the condition. The other problem that occasionally happens is that the extra oils in the diet can cause diarrhea. To minimize these issues, if your pet has a tendency toward GI troubles, then it is best to start at a low dose and gradually work your pet up to the desired level.Now my list of the five supplements every pet needs is complete. Remember to supplement the diet on a daily basis with a natural multivitamin/mineral such as Canine Whole Body Support and Feline Whole Body Support, fish oil, digestive enzymes such as Prozyme, and glucosamine/chondroitin such as Glycoflex. Periodically rebalance your pet's GI tract with a good probiotic such as Acetylator. A small, regular investment in your pet's nutrition will be rewarded with years of health.
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