By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.
If you take vitamins and nutritional supplements to support your health, you’ve probably wondered if vitamins may be good for your dog or cat, too. After all, our pets face some of the same issues of aging that we do…right?
The answer here is both yes and no. Our pets absolutely can benefit from a nutritional boost, there’s no doubt in my mind. But it’s wrong to assume they need the same kind of broad vitamin and mineral support that we do. Dogs and cats have evolved eating different types of diets than we have, which means their nutritional needs are also different. So it just makes sense that their vitamins should be, as well.
Here are some guidelines to help you choose the right ones…
Pet Vitamins Should Mirror the Natural Diet
The first step in choosing vitamins for your pet is to understand your pet’s most basic, natural diet (sometimes you’ll hear this referred to as a “nature diet”). If we’re talking about cats and dogs, that means what a wild cat or wolf would hunt for and eat in the wild. These are the foods – and nutrients – that your pet needs, and that your pet is most likely to benefit from if given in vitamin or supplement form.
Take cats, for example. As “obligate carnivores,” cats need to eat meat in order to meet their nutritional needs. That’s why they instinctively hunt small birds and rodents. However, they don’t eat just the meat of their prey – they also eat the bones, skin, some feathers, and internal organs, and each additional part adds more nutrients. Cats need all of them for optimal health.
Like cats, dogs also thrive on meat, as wolves they’re descended from are well known for hunting large, hooved animals. Unlike cats, though, dogs can also survive on plant foods, which increases the range of nutrients that support their health.
Once you’re familiar with your pet’s natural diet, the next step is to compare that with the diet you’re actually feeding them. Where there are nutritional gaps between the two is where you want to focus your attention.
Vitamins Your Pet May Benefit From
In an ideal world, the food you give your dog or cat would check all of the nutritional boxes. But unless you’re giving them actual, live prey, that’s probably not the case! Even the next best option, a homemade diet, is likely to come up short in some areas. And commercially made dry or wet foods – they’re going to have deficiencies too.
You can help make up these differences with vitamins and supplemental nutrition. Here are a few that you’ll probably find you need:
We know omega-3s as the fatty acids we get mostly from fish, squid, and other marine oils. In nature, dogs and cats get a lot of omega-3s from the brain of the prey they eat. Since brains aren’t part of a typical pet’s menu, you’ll have to find other ways to make sure they’re getting enough. One option – and the one that’s best for cats – is to feed your pet sardines (make sure they’re packed in water, not oil). If you have a dog, you have the additional option of adding some flaxseed or walnut oil to their food. It’s also perfectly okay to give your pet an omega-3 supplement. Just make sure that it’s derived from fish if you’re feeding a cat, since plant-based omegas won’t work for them. Dogs can benefit from both plant and animal sources of omega-3s.
Organ meats are especially nutrient dense, so it’s important to make sure your dog or cat gets enough of these. Compared with muscle meat and bone, organ meats are particularly rich in B Vitamins and Vitamin A (the liver especially), as well as Coenzyme Q10 (coQ10), a nutrient that’s crucial for cellular energy (ATP) production. Pound-for-pound, organ meats are far superior than muscle meats when it comes to nutrition.
How do you make sure your pet is getting organ meat nutrition? A holistic vet I consulted on this recommends baking beef liver in the oven until it’s firm and then cutting it into pieces for your pet. I love this approach for a couple of reasons. One, if you buy the liver at your grocery store, you know that it’s safe for human consumption and safe for your pet. Second, I always felt great emotional satisfaction when I cooked for my own dogs. That was as good for my health as it was for theirs! If you need to maximize time (and cut down on the mess), another option is to give your pet freeze dried beef or bison liver treats. I’m partial to bison because it’s grass fed and doesn’t contain GMOs or added hormones.
Bones can be controversial as far as feeding goes, but it’s important to remember that they’re another component of prey that dogs and cats eat as part of a natural diet. They’re also rich in nutrients, so you need to consider them – just be mindful of your animal and the type of bone you choose.
Cats are careful eaters and not likely to choke on a bone. Dogs, though, are notorious for “wolfing” down their food because in the wild, they ate as a pack. The slower a dog ate, the less food it got. For that reason, it’s best to avoid bones that are prone to splintering and breaking, like the long, hollow bones in chicken and turkey (pelvis, ribcage, and neck are okay, wings and legs are not). As far as bigger bones go, it’s best to feed knuckle and femur bones. Femurs, especially, have marrow that dogs like to gnaw on, plus it can help keep teeth tartar under control.
Just make sure, if you’re giving femurs, to only provide your dog the ends of the bone where the red marrow is found, and avoid giving him the central shaft – the center part of the bone is very dense, and chewing on it could result in cracked teeth. Plus, the red marrow at the end of the femur is more nutritious than the fatty white marrow in the central shaft. Additionally, since the red marrow is interspersed between thin plates at the end of the bone, gnawing helps scrape the teeth, and remove plaque and tartar, all the while exposing fresh marrow as incentive to keep chewing.
Should You Give Your Pet Vitamins Based on Age?
Thanks to the labels on a lot of pet foods, many people think that pets have unique nutritional needs based on their life stage. This isn’t necessarily true.
A holistic veterinarian I consult with explained it this way: Would a mother dog or cat go hunting for a different kind of prey for her babies than she would for herself? No. She’s hunting the kind of food that that’s nutritious for them regardless of age. The foods I just discussed – omega 3s, organ meats, and bones – are appropriate (and necessary) at any age.
Other Vitamins for Dogs and Cats
So far, I’ve talked about nutritional support that helps round out your pet’s basic needs. Now let’s talk about some additional vitamins that may be of help, depending on your pet’s specific needs.
Probiotics work the same way in dogs and cats as they do in humans, by helping balance bacteria in the GI tract. The benefit of this, obviously, is healthy digestion. The healthier their gut, the better your pet will be better able to break down and absorb all of the great nutrients in his or her food, and the less prone he or she will be to constipation and diarrhea. This can be especially important if you have a dog that likes to eat anything and everything it finds. Probiotics may also be able to help tame the dreaded “dog breath.”
Dogs and cats can have anywhere between 500 and 1,000 different strains of bacteria in their GI tract, depending on genetics, diet, and what they’re exposed to. When choosing a probiotic, it’s best to go with a product that has the widest variety of strains and also contains prebiotics (i.e. fiber food for the probiotics). If you have a cat, you can also try feeding plain yogurt – again with as many strains as possible.
I’ve already talked about omega-3s as a basic part of pet nutrition, but I want to bring them up again because of their anti-inflammatory properties. While it’s good at any age to limit the amount of possible inflammation your pet experiences, this is especially important for aging joints. If your dog or cat is having more trouble getting around than they used to, adding more omega-3s to their diet may help.
Another reason to consider increasing omega-3s is issues with the skin and/or coat. Omega-3s are also a good source of support here, so if your pet scratches a lot – and you’ve eliminated other underlying issues like fleas – a few extra omega-3 may be in order.
Glucosamine, Chondroitin, and Turmeric
I’ve written before about my dog, Chewie, and how she used to come to my office with me. When I noticed she was having a harder time than usual getting in and out of the car, I took that as my sign to start giving her vitamins to help support her joints – lots of omega-3s (often in salmon) and glucosamine and chondroitin, too, to help keep her aging bones limber. It’s important with joint vitamins to keep your expectations in check, since only about half of dogs respond to glucosamine and chondroitin. For the best outcomes, look for glucosamine and chondroitin products made with shark cartilage – they seem to work better than other blends. Turmeric is another joint support option. Make sure it is oil- or fat-soluble for best absorption.
Learn more about supporting joint health in cats and dogs.
If there’s one nutrient that I do think should be given on an age-related basis, it’s this one – my favorite supplement for both man and domesticated beast, coenzyme Q10 or CoQ10. All pets at this age will benefit from CoQ10, and it’s a supplement I’ve given all of my own dogs. Like people, dogs and cats naturally produce CoQ10 but that production tapers off with age. Vitamins can be a good way to help offset that decline.
CoQ10 offers a lot of support as an antioxidant, but older pets – especially those with heart or kidney concerns – will also benefit from CoQ10’s ability to support energy production. Organ meats are one of the best food sources of CoQ10, followed by muscle meats. You can also supplement your pet’s diet with liquid CoQ10 drops that you add to your pet’s food.
Cat people, this one is just for you and one to pay attention to if your pet is prone to urinary tract (UT) issues. A lot of UT problems are directly related to dehydration, so the first line of defense in this situation is adding a little water to your cat’s food – especially if it’s dry food, and the cat has had urinary crystals or a blockage. If the problem is infection (E. coli, in particular), you can also mix some D-mannose into their food to keep the UT healthy.
The last thing I want to mention are calming products. These products are generally used to help ease pet fear during times of stress: trips to the vet, long car rides, bringing new people into the household, and stormy nights, are just a few examples. These are often formulated as chews, and they’re fine to use as needed. Just follow the prescribed instructions.
2 More Rules for Giving Your Pet Vitamins
Before I wrap up, I want to touch on a couple more things that are important when it comes to choosing the right vitamins for your pet.
The first is to never forgo veterinary care. Making sure your pet gets the best possible nutrition is the number one way to keep them healthy, and vitamins can certainly help with this. But no vitamin, or combination of vitamins, can substitute for professional medical care. If your pet is acting funny or experiencing something unusual, get it checked out. Don’t try to go it alone. Let your veterinarian make a diagnosis and then determine together the best course of care – which may include both nutritional interventions and prescription meds.
Finally remember to always keep your vet informed of any vitamins you’re giving your pet, and approach him or her as a partner in its care. It’s the best way to make sure your dog or cat – and you – gets the most out of any vitamin or supplement taken.
This blog has been reviewed and approved by Holistic Veterinarian Stephen Tobin, D.V.M.
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