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Supplements for pets: Do they provide any advantage?
I was recently reading about new supplements designed to give high level college and professional athletes an edge. I am not talking about the "supplements" that Lance Armstrong claimed to take before his Oprah confession, but actual supplements. These included Deer Antler Spray, negatively charged water and special chips designed to counteract the effect of electric and magnetic fields (associated with electrical power).
I decided to consult a veterinary specialist in alternative medicine and she informed me that yes, these modalities can be used in veterinary medicine but no controlled studies have been performed to prove or disprove their efficacy. What is one to do?
Before discussing which supplements improve performance we should review supplement safety and efficacy. All supplements (both human and veterinary) fall into the category of nutraceuticals. The term "nutraceutical" was first coined by human physicians in the 1980s and referred to any oral compound that is neither a nutrient — "nutra" — nor a pharmaceutical — "ceutical."
At that time nutraceuticals were limited to a few vitamins and minerals, but now the term includes nutrients, dietary supplements, functional foods, genetically engineered designer foods, phytochemicals (herbs, etc.) and pharmafoods.
Before 1994 the FDA used strict controls to regulate nutraceuticals. In 1994 human nutraceutical interest groups sought leniency and were able to get Congress to pass the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act. This act restricted the FDA's ability to regulate these products by no longer requiring premarket safety evaluation. What this means is the nutraceutical company is able to decide what constitutes an assurance of safety.
A second concern is product labeling and efficacy. Technically, no human or veterinary supplement can claim to diagnose, prevent, mitigate, treat or cure a particular disease. However, general claims that can be made that link a particular supplement to the prevention of particular diseases are allowed.
In a study performed at the University of Maryland in 2000, one particular supplement (chondroitin sulfate) was mislabeled in 9 of 11 products (about 84 percent of the time). The range of 0 percent (could not find any of the product as compared to what was labeled) to 114 percent (there was more than labeled) was found. The products that were the cheapest were the worst of the bunch with 10 percent or less of what was actually on the label. In this case the saying, "You get what you pay for," could never be more true.
Now we can review two types of supplements that have been proven to improve both performance and relieve discomfort.
• Glucosamine and chondroitin are precursors to compounds produced by the body to maintain synovial cartilage. Synovial cartilage is a thin layer of cartilage that lines the bone at the joints. Synovial cartilage not only acts as a cushion to allow bones to slide easily against each other, but also produces joint fluid. Joint fluid lubricates the joint, as well as has natural anti-inflammatories in it. Arthritis (no matter what the cause) damages synovial cartilage. In both human and veterinary studies patients report up to 80 percent improvement on glucosamine and chondroitin supplements as compared to patients on placebo.
• Essential fatty acids are natural anti-inflammatory agents. When cells in the body (for whatever reason) are damaged they release certain chemicals into the system. This is known as the inflammatory cascade. Short-term, this is helpful to the body because they send signals to the body to fight infection, kill precancerous cells, compensate for trauma, etc. Chronic inflammation, however, is responsible for decreased quality of life. Essential fatty acids have been proven to partially block this cascade and act as natural anti-inflammatories. In multiple studies, owners were able to either lower or eliminate prescription-strength NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) by supplementing their dogs with high quality essential fatty acids.
I truly am grateful that supplements exist for both humans and our pets. I would also recommend taking the time to not only discuss with your veterinarian what supplements are effective for your pet, but also what brand-name supplements are of high enough quality to be effective.
Dr. Kearns has been in practice for 14 years.