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Veterinary supplements: a practical summary
Our country is big on supplements. So much so that I commonly hear requests for supplements for pets. The correct term for supplements is "nutraceutical."
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, hypernutritious foods, phytochemicals (herbs, etc), pharmafoods, etc.
Which ones work? Which ones don't? Those are great questions because before 1994 the FDA used strict controls to regulate nutraceuticals. First, before October of 1994 all dietary ingredients not marketed as a supplement were subject to strict premarket safety evaluation to prove the compound did not present a significant or unreasonable risk of illness or injury.
Why did things change? 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, although the manufacturer is still responsible for premarket safety evaluations, the manufacturer is also able to decide what constitutes an assurance of safety.
A second concern is product labeling and efficacy. Efficacy refers to the ability of the supplement to do what the manufacturer claims it will do on the label, as well as has the amount of active ingredient claimed on the label. Technically, no supplement (human or veterinary) can claim to diagnose, prevent, mitigate, treat or cure a particular disease. However, general claims that can be made to link a particular supplement to the prevention of particular diseases are allowed.
Most of the supplements produced are pretty good about their claims. On the other hand, do all manufacturers place the amount of supplement in the product that is on the label? Unfortunately, not always.
In a study performed at the University of Maryland in 2000, one particular supplement (chondroitin sulfate) was mislabeled in nine of 11 products (about 84 percent). 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 to produce (less than $1 per 1200 mg of chondroitin sulfate) 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.
Lastly, product safety is a large concern. The FDA requires companies (before they even test new medications on animals or people) to provide that the raw ingredients are manufactured on an FDA approved site not only for proof of potency, but also for freedom of contaminants. There are some for profit organizations that will evaluate ingredients for both efficacy and safety and then offer a seal of approval, however, this is not required for manufacturing.
My advice is, before buying what is most cost-effective at the supermarket or online, talk to your veterinarian about products that have been evaluated for safety and efficacy. A small difference in price can make a huge difference in your pet's long term health. In the next article I will discuss a few of the supplements that are known to help with certain conditions.
Dr. Kearns has been in practice for 12 years and is pictured with his son Matthew, as well as the newest member of the family, Jasmine, a Labrador retriever.