My husband and I love to watch The Big Bang Theory on TV. The show is set mostly in a pair of apartments across the hall from each other. Penny is a basically normal person who finds herself neighbors to a group of genius physicist types. They communicate in scientific jargon and think themselves somewhat superior to others, including Penny.  The antics are amusing and the characters worm their way into your psyche. It is almost like you love them despite all the idiosyncrasies. Sheldon is a particularly odd bird who truly has an opinion about everything. He feels that he is an expert on all subject matters, despite his narrow field of study. He tagged along to the grocery store with Penny in one episode. He was berating her for her purchase of a multivitamin, saying that all she would get was “expensive urine”.  He raises a valid question. Even though his doctorate is in Theoretical Physics and not nutrition, does he have a point?

As our population ages and our knowledge grows, more and more people are taking vitamins and supplements and giving them to their pets.  Are they necessary? Are they helpful at all? Can they be dangerous?

What is “necessary”? Necessary is defined as essential or required. Most commercially available pet foods are balanced for all stages of life for pets and so supplements are not truly necessary, at least not for survival. But is survival enough? Not to me, it isn’t. I want more from my life and for my pets. But I don’t want to kill them with love and good intentions.  I do not want to throw money away that I could spend on other things to make all of our lives better. 

There are areas where I think we can do a little better for our pets.  I suggest premium prescription diets for many of my patients because they already contain some substances that are thought to be beneficial in certain disease conditions. 

If I find on examination that a pet has a high likelihood of developing osteoarthritis, for example, I might suggest joint supplements.  I saw a Great Dane mix today with very poor rear leg conformation and I suggested joint supplements for her.  Her owner elected to try a prescription diet with additives already present so she could minimize the mixing and remembering and because our diets are palatability guaranteed.  In her case, the supplements (if given the way I suggest) won’t hurt and might help, so it was a gamble she is willing to take.

Beware, joint supplements designed for human patients may or may not be beneficial for pets. Also noteworthy is the fact that supplements or “neutroceuticals” are not regulated by the FDA and can be an area where a consumer could be taken advantage of.  It seems that there are always fads and trends that wax and wane on the internet.  These types of things have been around since the traveling “snake oil” peddlers in olden days.   Ask your vet if he or she has seen legitimate studies for the supplement you are considering. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is and some things can even be harmful.  Your veterinary team is an excellent resource to help you wade through the info. 

Do I think that some supplements are like lighting piles of money on fire? Yes. Do I think that there are charlatans and snake oil salesmen that will capitalize on our love of our pets? Yes.  Do I think that there is a place for certain supplements? Yes. They are not necessary for life. They may be beneficial for quality of life.  They can certainly be harmful if not chosen and administered thoughtfully. 

The true balance lies in the partnership with your veterinary team.  It is my job to read all the studies and sort through all the information to be able to help my clients find the perfect equilibrium between reality and hope. The supplements that we carry and recommend have already passed my own personal standards evaluation.  I do give select supplements to my pets. I do take select supplements myself, but I tailor these choices to personal needs and I balance cost and safety with the potential benefit.   Feel free to comment about your experiences or ask me about mine. 

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Dr. Kathryn Primm is a veterinarian and author. Her first book is Tennessee Tails: Pets and Their People, and you can visit her author site at http://www.drprimm.com/