I take three steps when selecting a dog vitamin or supplement for one of my patients. The first is to identify a medical problem a nutraceutical, or nutritional supplement, can help. The second is understanding the science and studies supporting its use. The third is choosing a manufacturer or brand I trust.
Nutraceuticals aren’t magic bullets or miracle cures, yet that’s how many are advertised. I view these treatments as an adjunct or “supplement” to a multimodal disease prevention and treatment approach. Some common canine medical conditions proven to benefit from nutraceuticals include:
- skin allergy
- intestinal disorder
- behavioral issues
- weight management
- helping the immune system.
There are many (many) other indications with varying degrees of scientific evidence, but that is an excellent place to start.
And before you start any dog vitamin or supplement, consult your vet. These products may contain active ingredients that could interfere with your dog’s medications or worsen and even cause illness. That’s why understanding the science of “doggie vitamins” is essential before giving them to your pooch.
Evaluating dog vitamins and supplements
Evaluating scientific research on nutraceuticals can be tricky. Many studies are limited by a small number of dogs, some extrapolate data from other species, and others are conducted by the manufacturer. None of these necessarily disqualifies a dog vitamin or supplement from consideration but must be considered when assessing validity and applicability. I generally assess as many studies as possible (thank you literature reviews and mega-studies) and form an opinion before recommending a dog vitamin or supplement to my clients.
Keeping up with nutritional science can be challenging when there’s so much work in a busy vet clinic. You can do your veterinarian a favor by sharing information on a nutraceutical you’re considering. Don’t bother sending unpublished studies from websites, personal anecdotes or endorsements. Your vet will probably ignore it if it’s not published in a peer-reviewed journal. As a professional courtesy, I encourage you to email these links or copies before your visit. Plopping down a folder of printouts and demanding an immediate appraisal during an exam can be a mood-buster.
Are dog vitamins and supplements safe and effective?
Once you’ve determined your dog has a condition that an evidence-based supplement could help, it’s time to get it. But with so many choices, how can a dog parent decide what to give? How do you know if a supplement is safe and contains what it claims?
Start by asking your veterinarian for specific brand recommendations. If he or she can not offer guidance, look for third-party validation, such as the National Animal Supplement Council (NASC), ConsumerLab.com and United States Pharmacopeia (USP). Certain products may be fine without these validations as long as they’ve gone through the rigors of testing and continuous quality control.
If NASC or USP doesn’t verify a nutraceutical, look for a branded ingredient on the label, such as “DHAgold omega-3 fatty acid” or “FCHG49 glucosamine HCl.” For manufacturers to trademark or patent an ingredient, they must conduct more extensive research and quality control, allowing dog parents to trust the ingredient’s safety and efficacy.
And don’t think the most expensive supplements are always the best. Studies show that even the priciest products can lack in the active ingredients they promise. That’s why it’s crucial to work with your veterinary healthcare team to find the best products for your pup’s needs.
11 canine nutritional vitamins and supplements
Here are some of my favorites:
Omega-3 Fatty Acids The omega-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA have been recognized as powerful brain fuels for nearly a hundred years. The best sources are oils from algae and fish. If you’re curious, fish get their omega-3 from algae, making it my preferred source whenever possible.
Omega-3 supplements may improve learning, preserve memory and cognition, aid eyesight and the nervous system and combat harmful inflammation. DHA/EPA is also helpful in treating arthritis, allergies and many skin conditions.
Dogs eating dry commercial diets rich in omega-6 fatty acids may benefit from daily omega-3 supplements. Adding DHA/EPA to your dog’s diet helps restore a healthier balance of omega-6 to omega-3. Dosage may vary widely and depends on the dog’s age, weight, diet and medical condition. I typically use pet omega-3 formulations and avoid supplements with added vitamin D.
Glucosamine: Every year, joint supplements, most containing glucosamine, top the list of most-used dog nutraceuticals. TV and print ads boast miraculous claims, pet store shelves overflow with choices, and social media stories are abundant.
Where there’s hype and hope, there’s also hoax. I’ve advocated glucosamine supplementation for decades, but I’ve become increasingly wary of some of the products dog parents share with me. How can you tell the difference between fake and functional?
The National Animal Supplement Council (NASC) seal is one of the first criteria to look for in a joint supplement. Next, is the company reputable and trustworthy? Can I speak to someone about ingredient sources, research and quality control? Finally, is there evidence to support its usage? Most veterinary glucosamine formulations have been well-researched, verified, and earned my trust.
Probiotics: I’ll never forget attending a nutritional conference on probiotic research for humans and dogs about 10 years ago. A parade of Harvard scientists impressed the audience with an overwhelming number of studies proving probiotics’ positive health impacts on humans and animals. Improved digestive health, enhanced immunity and prevention of many diseases were just a few of the potential benefits. I left feeling validated in promoting probiotics for my canine patients, especially those boarding, stressed, undergoing anesthesia or with GI problems. I advise using a veterinary formulation or whole-food probiotic containing at least one billion CFUs (colony-forming units).
S-Adenosylmethionine (SAMe): SAMe is an anti-inflammatory supplement used primarily in dogs with liver disease, cognitive decline and arthritis. In humans, SAMe is also used to improve mood and combat depression and Alzheimer’s, and some veterinarians use it in certain behavioral conditions. I recommend SAMe for older dogs with early signs of declining mental function, liver problems, toxin exposure and as part of my arthritis treatment protocol. I only recommend veterinary formulations proven to be adequately absorbed. These products have a special coating that prevents stomach acid breakdown and allows SAMe to be utilized.
L-carnitine: I’ve recommended carnitine to my canine patients for years to aid in weight loss and heart disease and support brain function in older pets (I also take it.). Dosing can range from 100 mg to 2 grams per day, based on the dog’s individual needs. Before prescribing this supplement, I always check for hypothyroidism due to carnitine’s potential to impair thyroid hormone function. When treating obesity or heart disease, I often combine carnitine with omega-3, coenzyme Q10 and taurine.
Turmeric: Another of my favorite natural supplements is turmeric. Medicinal turmeric’s active ingredient is curcumin, and it has been shown to possess antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-infective and even anticancer activities. I recommend giving it two-to three-times daily with food. Formulations containing piperine (a black pepper extract) may further enhance bioavailability.
Other supplements to consider
There is an expanding list of canine nutraceuticals shown to benefit a wide variety of medical conditions, prevent or mitigate disease and alleviate symptoms. I encourage all dog parents to remain vigilant for advances in nutritional science that could help their dogs.
Mushroom extracts: Over the past decade, mushroom extracts have become one of my top recommendations for dogs suffering from various illnesses, especially cancer. My preferred medicinal mushrooms are Reishi, Shiitake, Maitake, Turkey Tail and Cordyceps. If your dog is diagnosed with a chronic illness, ask your vet about incorporating medicinal mushrooms into its treatment plan.
Superoxide Dismutase (SOD): Reduce oxidative stress associated with liver and kidney disease, cognitive decline, spinal injuries and obesity. If you’re wondering, much of the healing power of honey is thought to be related to its SOD.
Coenzyme Q10 (ubiquinone): CoQ10 helps protect against free radical damage, may promote oral health and is used for heart health in dogs.
Astaxanthin: One of nature’s most potent antioxidants, astaxanthin gives salmon their pink color and is thought to be the key to its health benefits. I use it in dogs suffering from chronic skin allergies, those with dry, flaky coats or any inflammatory condition.
Does my dog need a multivitamin?
In my opinion, as long as the dog is eating a complete-and-balanced diet and doesn’t have a condition inhibiting the absorption or metabolism of nutrients, your dog probably doesn’t need a daily multivitamin. I prefer a targeted supplement approach utilizing specific nutrients rather than an assortment of vitamins and minerals. In addition, many compounds proven to benefit a particular illness need to be in concentrated dosages, meaning most “multis” simply don’t contain enough of the ingredient to be beneficial.