A few entries back I posted a cursory look at supplementation for canines – dividing them into Essential, General and Targeted. I find a great number of my clients present with (on the Intake form) a list of supplements they are adding, but often they’ve missed the Essentials, and focus on Targeted (for a health condition) or Supportive ( for overall support, things like probiotics and green foods). That article can be found here:
I’ve stressed many times the importance of adding essential nutrients that cannot be obtained, in adequate levels, from food alone, so I won’t go over that again here. What would like to address is a few problems with the popular supplements in use with dogs. Some are inappropriate for specific dogs with health conditions, some are dose-sensitive, some are ineffective and a few are actually quite problematic. To be clear – most of these are useful in the correct situation, form and dosage – with the exception of the last group, which I never use. This entry is not to scare people off using supplements, but to raise awareness that they should not be used generically, and some have contraindications you will be better off knowing about, than not.
For clarity’s sake I’ve used groupings as follows:
1) Dose sensitive/diet appropriate
2) Careful of the source!
4) Conditionally contraindicated
5) Avoid- risk outweighs potential benefit
The first group includes supplements that can be useful at the right dose but may be problematic if too much is used. Group two highlights a few supplements that, while source is always an issue, can suffer from serious contamination. In the third group, just a couple of popular herbs that should be either given separate from medication or not on an empty stomach. The largest grouping here refers to supplements that may be fine for some dogs, but shouldn’t be give with specific conditions. The last group – Avoid – is simply a case where the risk outweighs any potential for good – AND, there are better, safer alternatives.
Missing from these groupings is Drug Interactions, but that is such a large category I feel it deserves a post of it’s own. Look for that one in a week or so, or whenever I can get time! I’m going to post one group per day, because otherwise I will never get this finished. Here’s the first grouping.
Group One- Dose/diet dependent
The main supplements in this group include cod liver oil, VitaminA, Vitamin C, D3, selenium, multi-vitamins, bone meal, coconut oil and zinc. Most of these are added to the diet to complete the nutritional requirements when for whatever reason (often food intolerance or allergy) an individual can’t obtain them from diet. In the case of a home cooked diet, calcium for example will always need to be added. Zinc, iodine, VitaminD3 and selenium are a few nutrients that are most often low in cooked diets (and sometimes in raw as well, especially zinc and D3). So I’ll start by pointing out the obvious – if the diet is already supplying adequate levels of Vitamin A, D3, selenium etc you don’t need, nutritionally speaking, to add more. (Absorption may be an issue to consider too, but we’re speaking here about a healthy dog with good digestion and absorption of nutrient). With absorption issues, healing the underlying problem is of utmost importance.
Many holistic vets will recommend increasing VitaminA and selenium as part of a cancer-prevetion strategy, or therapeutically in cases of active illness. I’ve seen them use very high doses of A, intravenously,with no ill effects or toxicity. That said, I strongly believe the average owner should not try this at home. I use supplemental selenium in the case of heart disease, but always calculate the dietary content and the dog’s SUL (safe upper limit) before recommending a dose. Therapeutic levels of zinc may be called for with some genetic diseases, and a little boost for a dog who hasn’t been getting enough if fine too, but for the home-feeder I strongly suggest calculating how much your dog needs, and then comparing that goal amount to what’s really in the diet. Do the same for D3, and selenium. VitaminA is a bit trickier, but my rule is, if you are looking for the anti inflammatory effects of fish oils, stick with fish BODY oils, not the liver product which contains a high amount of A ( 4- 6000 IU, per tsp,in my experience and some commentators report much higher). There is a place for cod liver oil in a raw diet where no organ meat is tolerated and no beta-carotene is provided for with vegetables; but I am able to supply ample A in a recipe without CLO – and never add it to kibble. The short version about VitaminA is that experts disagree on toxicity, but as long as there is the possibility of overdoing it, don’t take that risk. At the very least, excess A will negatively effect your dog’s VitaminD3 levels. I recommend feeding a premium kibble supplemented appropriately (fish oils, green tripe, probiotics, etc) or a properly formulated home made recipe with Vitamin A from fish and from beta-carotene in orange and leafy vegetables. (It’s true that dogs don’t convert efficiently from beta carotene but they do convert some as needed, and in case of concern we can add a D3 supplement).
Bottom line with zinc, selenium, Vitamins A and D – know what your dog needs and what is in the diet; know the dangers of excessive consumption. Stick to the recommended allowances. If considering these very potent nutrients therapeutically, work with a professional. You can support the immune system in myriad ways (I’m thinking herbally) without the risk of toxicity or unbalancing the diet. Play it safe and use wisely.
Next: bone meal. I wasn’t sure where to put this because the source of bone meal is as big an issue – perhaps moreso – than its phosphorus content. I’ll discuss the contamination issue in the next segment, but insofar as bone meal is often added “for calcium” please bear in mind it is also loaded with phosphorus – a nutrient already plentiful in foods and in most canine diets. Phosphorus needs to be kept to the Recommended Allowance too – and restricted in cases of kidney disease. I never use it – in growth diets I will use di-calcium phosphate to supply the very high needs of puppies, but that’s it.
There have also been issues with contamination in many bone meal products – another reason to give this one a pass. We’ll talk much more about calcium in the entry on minerals.
Lastly, the ever popular Coconut oil. Far from being a cure-all (no food or supplement is, unless you are suffering from an overt deficiency, and even then all it ‘cures’ is the deficiency!) coconut oil is a problem food for many dogs. There is a tremendous amount written on the merits of coconut oil; and it does have many; first let’s look at it’s composition, quoting here the ever-popular Dr.Mercola:
“Nearly 50 percent of the fat in coconut oil is of a type rarely found in nature called lauric acid, a “miracle” compound because of its unique health promoting properties. Your body converts lauric acid into monolaurin, which has anti-viral, anti-bacterial and anti-protozoa properties. Coconut oil is also nature’s richest source of medium-chain fatty acids (MCFAs), also called medium-chain triglycerides or MCTs. By contrast, most common vegetable or seed oils are comprised of long chain fatty acids (LCFAs), also known as long-chain triglycerides or LCTs. LCTs are large molecules, so they are difficult for your body to break down and are predominantly stored as fat.
But MCTs , being smaller, are easily digested and immediately burned by your liver for energy — like carbohydrates, but without the insulin spike. MCTs actually boost your metabolism and help your body use fat for energy, as opposed to storing it, so it can actually help you become leaner.”
Proponents of coconut oil list myriad health benefits, including support for skin, digestive issues, and the symptoms of a low thyroid ( for us and for dogs). I could write a whole entry on this(and probably will at some point) but again,the bottom line is I feel we shouldn’t get carried away. Flax was a miracle food, fish oil cured cancer – let’s stay in balance and consider that adding any fat to a dog’s diet may be a good thing and it may not. Some dogs are very sensitive to fats, and will develop loose stool with enough coconut oil added to achieve the therapeutic effect. In those cases, you might want to try lowering the dietary content (by changing the recipe if you’re using home made, or trying a kibble with a lower content) so the oil can be added without placing stress on the system. In other words, you might replace some of the existing fat with the oil – don’t always just add it in.
Dosing is extremely important; Karen Becker, DVM, suggests” 1/4 teaspoon per 10 pounds body weight, twice a day“. That meant for MY fat-sensitive dog, who weighs 80 pounds, we would be using 2 teaspoons twice a day. But he had diarrhea on half that. If you do use it, consider it carefully and dose conservatively. Always, as with any supplement – ask yourself what it is you’re trying to achieve? If it’s help for a dull coat, assess the fat content and all nutrients in the diet – could be caused by something that more fat, even a good fat, won’t be able to fix. If your dog has a low thyroid, for heaven’s sake see a specialist! There is no solid scientific evidence I know of that supports the claims made about hypothyroidism. See a veterinarian well-versed in endocrinology, or a specialist for yourself if you suspect low thyroid function.
For a really good look at coconut oil in the human diet, check this out:
and note, again, I feel there are benefits and possible drawbacks to adding it to a canine diet. Don’t buy into the hype; see what works.
In closing, I would advise you to know the essential nutrient; vitamins, minerals fats and fatty acids, protein and amino acids, and then evaluate what is already in the diet before adding any extra. Learn the safe upper limits of these additions and what effect they can have on other nutrients – some, like calcium and phosphorus or copper and zinc, should be kept in a specific ratio or absorption issues may arise. I do add coconut oil. selenium and zinc, often a Bcomplex, and almost always natural VitaminE to a canine diet, but that’s with precision knowledge of what the diet contains and how I’m using them. More is not necessarily better – if there’s a takeaway message for this group? That would be it.
Back shortly with Groups Two and Three. 🙂