Dog Supplements 101: A Detailed Beginner’s Guide

Supplements for dogs are a huge money-making industry, with manufacturers offering a range of products that claim to benefit your canine. But with so many dog supplements to choose from, how can a dog owner know which products actually work, and which ones are pure hype?

Some supplements for dogs can improve their overall well-being, but just like with humans who take supplements, some can have an allergic reaction, and in extremely rare cases, some supplements for dogs can cause a toxic reaction, leading to death.

This article takes a comprehensive look at supplements for dogs, including what they are, if your dog actually needs them, the types available, and the potential dangers. According to our experts, it’s important that you speak to your veterinarian before giving your beloved dog any kind of supplement.

Do All Dogs Need a Supplement?

Absolutely not, according to Dr. Brandon Heikes, a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine and Medical Director at Buena Vet in Ventura, California, whose family includes three dogs: Jane, Carl, and Waffle.

However, with the trend of home-cooked meals for dogs and the trending towards raw diets, “the majority of these dogs are not getting a well-balanced diet, so they often need something supplemental,” Dr. Heikes advised. “The best thing to do is check with your veterinarian to see.”

Janet McNeil, a veterinarian since 1994 in Southern California, agreed that “generally no” in regards to all dogs needing a supplement, adding that canines who do need supplements are “under stress, working hard, or have a medical problem that requires the supplement to support another treatment or make up a deficit.”

A dog’s complete and balanced diet has the nutritional components needed for a dog as met by the Association of American Feed Control Officials – AAFCO – which is a voluntary membership association of local, state and federal agencies charged by law to regulate the sale and distribution of animal feeds and animal drug remedies, noted Neil Thompson, vice president of sales for Pets Global.

When people ask Dr. Heikes for recommendations about dog food, “I have a personal opinion if it’s AAFCO-certified, I’d be comfortable feeding my dog that.”

“If you insist on feeding a home-cooked meal because your dog is picky or has specific needs, those dogs will be the likely candidates for supplements,” Dr. Heikes added.

The best way of knowing if your dog needs a supplement is to first talk to your veterinarian or a holistic veterinarian about their health needs, Thompson advised. If your dog, for example, is having a hard time getting around and walking, it’s best to talk with your veterinarian or a holistic veterinarian to see which supplements would be best for your dog's joints. 

How Do I Know If My Dog Needs a Supplement?

Most foods nowadays are well supplemented and balanced, said McNeil, adding that over-supplementing will throw off the balance and may be harmful.

The best thing to do is ask and research, she advised, further emphasizing: “please do not buy into fads.”

“If your dog has an obvious problem, like itching, you may need a fatty acid supplement to help a flea prevention work better or sooth inflammation,” said McNeil.

“If your dog is looking and feeling fine, but you are not sure all is well or if you anticipate something changing in your dog’s life, ask if anything is needed.”

How Do Dog Supplements Work?

Supplements can have many functions, depending on what they are designed for, McNeil said. A joint support supplement, for example, can work to lessen damage to cartilage surfaces in a joint or fight inflammation. It really depends on the ingredients.

Supplements are anything intended for a specific purpose to increase your dog's health and well-being, said Thompson, adding that there are a wide variety of different supplements that serve multiple purposes, such as biotin, which is a Vitamin B supplement that supports a dog's shiny coat and healthy skin, and also helps to promote the healthy function of the dog’s nervous system.

The technical definition of supplements are products that are used in addition to the dog’s diet, Dr. Heikes explained. This can include a broad spectrum of things, like vitamins, herbs, amino acids, and minerals.

“This is where the supplement market gets a little tricky, because there is no regulatory body for the manufacturing, so it’s difficult to see the quality of that product,” Dr. Heikes said. “The FDA doesn’t mandate specific manufacturing standards. And with supplements, anybody can jump into the supplemental market because it’s a lucrative field.”

The AAFCO defines supplements as a feed used in conjunction with another feed “to improve the nutritive balance or performance of the total feed.” It’s important to remember that animal feed supplements are not like human dietary supplements, and human dietary supplements should not be used for drug purposes in pets, according to the AAFCO.

What Types of Dog Supplements Are Available?

There are prescription supplements and general supplements, McNeil said, adding that the more specialized the supplement, the more specific instructions and possible precautions may be needed.

Examples of dog vitamins and supplements are Vitamin A, Vitamin E, Omega 3 Fatty Acids such as Salmon Oil, Thompson said.

“There are a wide variety of dog supplements available on the market today,” according to Thompson, who added that what’s great about Zignature and Essence Pet Foods, for example, “is our recipes already come with vitamins and minerals that other people may have to seek individually otherwise.

There are dietary supplements like Omega 3 and 6, which are fatty acids, “and just like in people, we’re hearing the benefits of those types of supplements for skin health,” Dr. Heikes said. Then there are other types used for specific diseases, for instance, Vitamin E can potentially help with skin disease, “but this is where consulting with a veterinarian comes into play to make sure the dog needs it.”

With a liver supplement, “you don’t necessarily want to give your dog this, because it can cause an upset stomach,” Dr. Heikes further warned, adding, “you don’t want to use things that are unnecessary if it’s not warranted.”

Are Dog Supplements Effective?

This is always a loaded question, McNeil said, noting that some supplements are based on actual research that is backed up by studies. However, not all studies are the same, so a claim of “based on research” may be a tenuous one. 

“There are so many supplements and ingredient that this question is impossible to answer easily,” added McNeil, advising that a rule of thumb is to not assume it is safe just because it says natural or organic.

According to Dr. Heikes, “the big thing is when we’re dealing with which ones work: does it do what it claims? And the bioavailability component is important – does it get to a concentration to the site it needs to be? Are there studies that show this, and not just testimonials? Testimonials are what we see on infomercials with people claiming it works, but there are no clinical studies.”

Similar to dietary supplements marketed to humans, a lot of the commercial distribution of dietary supplements for an animal’s use “is contrary to animal-feed regulations,” according to the AAFCO, which states that many of these products “claim or imply that they will mitigate, treat or prevent diseases.”

These claims are drug indications, the AAFCO notes, and the same products may also include a disclaimer regarding the drug indications on their containers. “But unapproved drug indications, overt or implied, misbrand and adulterate animal feed products.”

Just like with people, every dog is different, Thompson emphasized. “With that said, supplements can only bring added benefits to dogs’ overall diet, health, and well-being.”

Generally, according to the AAFCO, healthy dogs that are fed a complete and balanced diet appropriate for their life stage do not need supplements, noting that the first question a dog owner should consider about supplements is whether the canine really needs them in the first place.

Dangers of Dog Supplements

In the worst case scenario, death can be a big side effect, warned McNeil, adding that dangers can range from gas to nausea to permanent organ damage. “Over supplementing non-water-based vitamins can cause toxicities, for example.”

According to the AAFCO, supplementing a dog’s complete and balanced diet “risks exceeding the upper limits of certain nutrients.” For instance, nutrients such as selenium, a mineral found in the soil, can be toxic when overused. Another example is Vitamin D, a nutrient “that has a fairly small difference between what’s needed and what’s toxic, particularly for dogs.”

To effectively incorporate a supplement into a dog’s diet, the AAFCO advises that owners should know the baseline nutrients provided in the canine’s normal diet, the level of nutrients added with the supplement, and the safe use level for those specific nutrients.

Certain studies have shown that unregulated products will contain heavy metals, toxins, molds, bacteria and other types of impurities, Dr. Heikes warned, and depending on the contaminate component, “you can get side effects.”

“This has to do with how the product is commercially produced, how the products are sourced,” Dr. Heikes explained. Some side effects can include gastrointestinal upset, and “we’ve seen seizures happen,” and in very rare extreme cases, “they can have a reaction which can lead to death. Just like people with an allergy, it can get to the point where it’s life-threatening.”

Thompson added that “it’s best to assess your dog, and his/or specific health needs to determine the best supplements for them.”

When it comes to supplementing a dog’s home-cooked meal, for example, Dr. Heikes refers his clients to Balance IT®, which provides tools, recipes, and supplements for a pet’s balanced nutritional needs. These recipe settings were created by veterinarians who are board certified specialists in nutrition and who also hold graduate degrees in nutrition, “and work with people who want to do home-cooked meals and they create the appropriate supplement.”

How to Buy the Right Supplement for Your Dog

Money doesn’t always equal a better product, and sometimes cheap products will source from a different place, like a lower-quality facility.

Therefore, it’s important to do your own due diligence through research, Dr. Heikes advised, noting that spending a little bit of footwork and doing quick research is the best way to proceed.

Also, ask questions like:

  • Have there been research studies done?
  • What are the goals in treatment?
  • What sort of ingredients does it contain?
  • What does it claim to do?
  • Has it been demonstrated to be absorbed?

“What are our goals?” Dr. Heikes said. “Is it because we love our dog and want to do everything we can and give them supplements? Or do they actually need it?

Also, be wary about testimonials and recommendations, whether you find them online or through word-of-mouth.

“We’ve all met someone a the dog park or the pet store who was given a product and say their pet bounced back and is doing great, but that goes back to testimonials,” Dr. Heikes added.

“There’s a lot of anecdotal and strong opinions in this field, and it’s important to remember when it comes down to it, we need to look at the objective things, the research that’s being done. If things have been studied, I feel a lot more comfortable recommending it.”

When you know what you need, look for a reputable source, McNeil added. “Products that have a National Animal Supplement Council logo are worth looking for.”

McNeil advised avoiding dog supplements that are over-hyped, such as things that are purported to cure a condition that is only represented by a picture and not a veterinarian diagnosis.

“There is no oversight on most supplements, so you could put anything in a bag,” she warned. “Remember all the snake oil products in the 1800s? Be suspicious.”

Dr. Heikes recommends that dog owners consult with their veterinarian for a variety of reasons.

“I don’t want them to spend a ton of money on something they don’t need or is potentially harmful,” he said, adding “I’m happy to chat with people over the phone and give them advice on food or supplements because it’s important to get that input.”

If anyone has any concerns or questions about the best supplements to give their dog, Thompson agrees they should talk with their veterinarian or a holistic veterinarian.

Doing your own research, and talking to your veterinarian or a holistic veterinarian, “is the best way to know for sure the best supplement to buy for your dog is a great direction to take,” Thompson emphasized. “Also, observing your dog’s health and assessing what his needs are is a great start in first seeing what you need the supplements to support in your dog's health and well-being.”

In other advice, the AAFCO recommends that dog owners should always talk to their veterinarian before introducing supplements, use the vet-prescribed dosage, and follow the directions on the supplement label.

When in doubt, always ask, McNeil added. “Having a good relationship with your veterinarian can save money and lives.”

Can Dog Supplements Also Be Used for Cats?

Check the label always, said McNeil, adding: “Cats are not dogs.”

Supplements like fatty acids, and liver supplements, “we use in both dogs and cats,” Dr. Heikes said. “But if it’s not labeled as such, consult with your veterinarian.”

Thompson added that supplements can also be used for cats, and cat food brands such as Fussie Cat and Essence for cats has a wide variety of different vitamins and supplements, such as Vitamin E, Vitamin A, and Vitamin B12, among others.

The Bottom Line

Supplements are not meant to “cure” any health-related issues your dog may have, Thompson emphasized, adding they can only bring additional health benefits to your dog's health and way of life.

“Nutrition is key to your dog's health,” he added. “Finding the right food that fits your dog's health and dietary needs is very important to the overall function of your dog's life.

Vitamins and supplements are a great added support to ensure that your dog is getting their daily intake of important vitamins and minerals so that they are never deprived of essential nutrients.”

We all want to have the best for our dogs, McNeil emphasized. Therefore, having a good working relationship with your veterinarian will give you a source of information about supplements. 

“A little research will save you money and may save a life,” she said. “If it is a supplement your veterinarian is not familiar with, provide them with as much information as you have and ask if they can evaluate the product. There is an endless number of products out there. Be careful.”

HighYa Editorial Team

The HighYa Editorial Team objectively evaluates various products, services, and subject matters in order to provide you with practical advice that will help you make the right decisions.

Dog Supplements 101: A Detailed Beginner’s Guide