Do you give your dog vitamins or supplements? If so, you’ve got company. Estimates show that around 30% of pet parents give their dogs at least one dietary supplement to help with conditions ranging from itchy skin to diarrhea to joint pain. But are vitamins and supplements necessary? And even more importantly, do they sometimes do more harm than good?
Let’s take a look at which dog vitamins and supplements are safe and effective, and how to make sure your pup gets what they need.
Dog Vitamins and Supplements 101
First, some definitions so that we’re all on the same page...
Dietary supplements are the broadest category we’ll address. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), dietary supplements are “products taken by mouth that contain a ‘dietary ingredient.’ Dietary ingredients include vitamins, minerals, amino acids, herbs, or botanicals, as well as other substances that can be used to supplement the diet.” Omega-3 fatty acids and glucosamine are examples of dietary supplements that are not vitamins or minerals.
On the other hand, vitamins are a distinct type of nutrient. They are organic compounds, meaning they contain the element carbon, but unlike protein, fat, and carbohydrates, which also contain carbon, vitamins aren’t a source of energy for dogs. Different vitamins play specific roles in the body, but as a group, they are essential for growth, metabolism, and fighting off disease. Like vitamins, minerals are necessary for a dog’s body to function normally, but they are inorganic nutrients (i.e., they don’t contain carbon).
Vitamins and minerals can be dietary supplements, like the multivitamin you may have taken this morning, but they're also found naturally in food. By combining high-quality ingredients with any necessary supplements, good commercial dog foods should contain all the vitamins and minerals most healthy dogs need to thrive.
How to Know If Your Dog Needs Vitamins
Which dogs need extra vitamins? Any pet who eats primarily homemade dog food must take vitamin and mineral supplements. These should be included as part of the recipes for the foods you prepare, but if not, ask your vet to recommend an appropriate product. If your dog will only eat the canine equivalent of junk food, supplementation might also be beneficial.
Some health problems are managed, at least in part, by giving dogs extra vitamins or minerals. For example:
B-vitamin supplements are often given to patients with gastrointestinal diseases
Vitamin A and zinc are used to treat certain skin conditions
Iron may be prescribed for some types of anemia
Vitamin E and selenium can reduce inflammation
Vitamin K is used to treat dogs after they’ve eaten certain rodenticides
Vitamin D, in the form of calcitriol, may be given to dogs suffering from chronic kidney disease
Choline may help dogs with seizures or canine cognitive dysfunction
On the flip side, if your dog is healthy and eats nutritionally complete and balanced, high-quality commercial dog food, adding a vitamin and mineral supplement could do more harm than good. Sometimes getting too much of something can be just as bad as getting too little. Talk to your veterinarian or veterinary nutritionist before giving your dog a vitamin or mineral supplement.
Natural Ways to Include More Vitamins in Your Dog’s Diet
If your veterinarian has diagnosed your dog with a vitamin or mineral deficiency or a health problem that responds to supplementation, by all means, give your dog what the doctor ordered!
However, if you have concerns about your dog’s vitamin or mineral intake, it’s safer to make sure your dog is eating high-quality dog food. You can also give healthy people food from your kitchen as treats. Lots of fruits and vegetables — like carrots, cooked sweet potatoes, green beans, and apples — are safe for dogs and rich in vitamins, minerals, and other important nutrients.
Which Vitamins Do Dogs Need to Stay Healthy?
While supplements aren’t always necessary, vitamins and minerals themselves are! Deficiencies can cause a variety of health problems depending on which nutrients are involved. The first symptoms that develop are often non-specific and can include weight loss, a poor-quality coat, and low energy levels.
Here’s a list of vitamins and minerals that are an important part of a healthy diet and a few of their roles in the body:
Vitamin A for skin and eye health
Vitamin D to keep bones and teeth strong
Vitamin E as an antioxidant
Vitamin K for normal blood clotting
B vitamins (thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, pyridoxine, pantothenic acid, and cobalamin) to catalyze chemical reactions needed for dogs to harness energy from food
Other B vitamins, like folic acid and biotin, to help with cell growth and cell maintenance
Choline, often classified as a B vitamin, for fat transport, the transmission of neurologic signals, and as a part of cell membranes
Vitamin C as an antioxidant and for immune system support. Dogs can make all the vitamin C they need in their liver but extra may be added to some foods.
Calcium and phosphorus for bone growth and maintenance
Magnesium for a healthy metabolism
Sodium and chloride as electrolytes
Iron to carry oxygen
Zinc for healthy skin and immune function
Copper for normal coloration and red blood cell formation
Selenium as an antioxidant
Iodine as a part of thyroid hormones
Chromium for energy production
Common Symptoms Supplements Can Help With
Most dogs don’t benefit when extra vitamins and minerals are added to an already healthy diet, but the situation can be different for other types of supplements. Some of the most useful dietary supplements for dogs include:
Glucosamine, chondroitin sulfate, methylsulfonylmethane (MSM), avocado and soybean unsaponifiables (ASU), and hyaluronic acid for inflamed and painful joints
Omega-3 fatty acids to improve the skin and coat and to reduce inflammation
Common probiotics for digestive health
Specialized probiotics to relieve stress
Herbal remedies for liver support
Antioxidants for canine senior citizens or dogs in poor health
While supplements like these are available over-the-counter, it’s still best to speak with your veterinarian before giving them to your dog. They are generally quite safe but can have a negative effect when used in the wrong situations or at the wrong doses.
An Example: Joint Supplements
Approximately 30% of pet parents give their dogs joint supplements to help with such problems as hip dysplasia, elbow dysplasia, and arthritis or simply to optimize joint health. Joint supplements often contain several active ingredients (glucosamine, chondroitin sulfate, MSM, ASU, and hyaluronic acid, for example) that can protect and heal cartilage, improve the amount and quality of joint fluid, and reduce inflammation and pain. Veterinarians also often recommend that dogs with arthritis or other joint problems take omega-3 fatty acids or vitamin E because they can further reduce inflammation.
But keep in mind that supplements, including joint supplements, usually work best in combination with other forms of treatment. For arthritis, this might include other dietary supplements, weight management, anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving medications, acupuncture, therapeutic laser treatments, massage, physical rehabilitation, stem cell therapy, platelet rich plasma injections, and surgery. Your veterinarian can recommend just the right combination of treatments based on your dog’s unique situation.
Tips for Shopping for Dog Vitamins and Supplements
Under the right circumstances, dog vitamins and supplements can play important roles in your dog’s health care. Use them carefully, though. Dogs should get just what they need, no more and no less. For example, dogs who have been diagnosed with zinc-responsive dermatosis should be on a zinc supplement, not a multivitamin that contains zinc as well as a laundry list of other vitamins and minerals.
And again, never give your dog vitamins or other supplements designed for people without first talking to your vet. This can't be stressed enough: Human nutrient requirements are different from canine nutrient requirements. If your vet has recommended a specific vitamin, supplement, or diet, don’t make a change without first running it by the doctor.
You might think that your work is over once you and your veterinarian have come up with a detailed plan to help your dog, but that’s not the case. The quality of supplements varies tremendously. Some have been shown to provide much less of their active ingredients than their label claims. Others contain potentially dangerous contaminants. Your veterinarian can recommend trusted supplements from reputable manufacturers. Also, look for products that are labeled with the National Animal Supplements Council (NASC) Quality Seal. The NASC is a nonprofit industry group that sets standards for pet products.
A Wellness Plan Can Help You Pay for Vitamins and Supplements
Now, are you ready for some good news? You can get help paying for the vitamins and other supplements your pet needs to stay healthy. Pet insurance often covers products that your veterinarian prescribes if your dog is sick or injured. In addition, some pet insurance companies offer wellness plans that will help reimburse you for vitamins and supplements that fall under the category of preventive care.
So don’t delay. Talk to your veterinarian if you think your dog could benefit from supplements of any kind.