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Just like people, animals need certain nutrients for optimal health and it's now common to see nutrition highlighted on pet food packaging, and even whole lines of supplement products developed specifically for pets. So if you live with a beloved cat or dog, should supplements be part of their care? The answer depends on your pet's specific needs and what supplements are considered safe. As the benefits of fortified foods, supplements, and other products are not well demonstrated, here's an overview of the types you may encounter and why.
Pet supplement "cat"egories (for dogs too!)
When it comes to administering natural treatments to pets, consider the words of veterinary behaviorist, Dr. Vint Virga, author of The Soul of All Living Creatures, What Animals Can Teach Us About Being Human, regarding use of herbs: "By and large, the uses and doses of psychoactive herbal remedies have been uninvestigated in animals. I recommend the decision of which psychoactive herbs to use be made by a veterinarian who is well-informed with the animal's health, their behavioral diagnosis, and the nuances of herbal therapies." While some science has shown benefit for certain natural therapies, it's still best to consult with a qualified veterinarian before you try the following:
Vitamins & Minerals: While most pet foods are carefully formulated to provide necessary nutrients, some animals require extra support in the form of multivitamin-mineral combinations or individual nutrients, such as bone meal which may be added to cat and dog food as a calcium source, or
glucosamine, which is frequently administered for joint problems. Never supplement an animal's diet with higher-than-recommended doses of any nutrient. For example, fat-soluble vitamins like vitamins A and D can cause problems if they build up in the body.
Herbs: Catnip, goldenseal, and cat's claw appear to be safe for cats. Ginger, milk thistle, and slippery elm may be used to safely treat various ailments in dogs. Avoid giving pets black walnut, chaparral, pennyroyal, or comfrey, as these herbs can be toxic.
Homeopathic Remedies: Homeopathy is a system of medicine based on the principle that a substance that causes certain symptoms in large doses may alleviate the same symptoms when taken in infinitesimally small doses. Homeopathic remedies are generally free of side effects and safe to use in animals.
Flower Essences: Flower essences are prepared by infusing purified water with the "essence" of different flowers. Specific flower essences are chosen based on the symptoms and personality of the individual animal. Flower essences are also safe for animals and have no known side effects.
Health goals for your furry friends
Most pets receiving a food formulated for their needs probably don't need a multivitamin, though some might benefit from extra nutritional support, including pregnant or lactating animals, sick or convalescing animals, or animals receiving homemade food.
As with products developed for humans, pet multivitamin formulas generally contain common vitamins: Vitamins A and C may help support a healthy immune system and protect the body from free-radical damage. Vitamin E may provide antioxidant support and ease pain in animals with arthritis. B vitamins play a range of roles in animals' bodies, from supporting red blood cell production to enhancing cellular energy production. Vitamin D works with calcium to support healthy bones and teeth.
They may also contain minerals such as magnesium, calcium, iron, zinc, and copper. Iron is known to support red blood cell formation and immune system functioning, zinc helps keep skin healthy, magnesium is needed for proper nerve transmission, and copper helps maintain healthy connective tissue.
Joint Health & Pain Relief
Studies have shown that glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate may help alleviate arthritis pain in animals, presumably by providing the body with the building blocks of joint cartilage.
Boswellia (frankincense) is an herbal extract given to decrease pain and other symptoms like lameness in animals with arthritis.
Bromelain, an enzyme derived from pineapple that inhibits inflammation and decreases histamine in the body, is sometimes given to animals suffering from conditions like arthritis or allergies.
Breath & Digestion
Chlorophyll, a pigment that lends plants their green color, is derived from spirulina, chlorella, and cereal grasses and in humans is prized for its alkalinizing effects on the body. It's frequently added to dog and cat treats to help freshen breath. Chlorophyll is also available as a powder or liquid to put in the pet's food or water.
Probiotics are beneficial bacteria that live in the intestines. Antibiotics can disturb the balance of bacteria in the gut, and veterinarians may recommend giving animals a probiotic supplement to help counter this effect. Probiotics are often the first line of treatment in animals with intestinal upset with diarrhea.
Milk thistle supports healthy liver function in humans and may also be recommended by veterinarians for animals with liver disease like hepatitis or cirrhosis.
Skin & Coat Health
Omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil are thought to help improve the coat and soothe irritated skin in cats and dogs. Since these supplements help decrease inflammation, they make a good choice for animals with other conditions with an inflammatory component like allergies or heart disease.
Brewer's yeast is derived from Saccharomyces cerevisiae, which is a natural source of B vitamins and selenium that help maintain healthy skin and coat. It's often combined with garlic in supplements to help repel fleas.
Neem oil may be used to help repel fleas and ticks on dogs. The oil can be applied directly to dogs' coats, diluted for dogs with sensitive skin, or used as a spray or shampoo. Cats may be sensitive to neem oil, so check with your veterinarian before using neem oil on cats.
Stress & Anxiety
Chamomile may relieve anxiety in animals when it is accompanied by digestive upset. It's also used to treat inflammatory bowel disease in cats and dogs. Chamomile tea is sometimes applied to wounds to help decrease inflammation and prevent infection.
Passionflower may soothe animals with separation anxiety and those who exhibit aggression as a result of their nervousness.
Valerian has mild sedative effects, making it a good choice for animals who need to "take it down a notch" in order to relax or travel.
Dog-appeasing pheromone (DAP) is a synthetic hormone that mimics the hormone produced by lactating female dogs. When applied to a nervous or anxious dog's environment (in the form of sprays or plug-ins), it may have a calming effect.
Combination flower essences may include helianthemum, clematis, and impatiens. They are used as a spray or alcohol extract (a couple of drops is perfectly safe) to help ease nervous tension.
Vet your pet care
To be on the safe side, always check with your veterinarian before giving your pet any type of dietary supplement. What you may think is one condition may turn out to be another entirely, and it's important to get to the cause of the symptoms before attempting treatment.
Finally: Remember that many common over-the-counter pain relievers like ibuprofen and acetaminophen are very toxic to cats and dogs. Never administer medications to an animal without a vet.
Kimberly Beauchamp, ND, received her doctoral degree from Bastyr University, the nation's premier academic institution for science-based natural medicine. She co-founded South County Naturopaths in Wakefield, RI, where she practiced whole family care with an emphasis on nutritional counseling, herbal medicine, detoxification, and food allergy identification and treatment. Her blog, Eat Happy, helps take the drama out of healthy eating with real food recipes and nutrition news that you can use. Dr. Beauchamp is a regular contributor to Healthnotes Newswire.
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