Pet Supplements vs Drugs: are they safe and do they work?

Are natural products safe for pets?  Are they actually better than drugs in some cases?  Well in this article I'm going to discuss what natural remedies for pets are, how they are different from drugs, whether they are safe and can they be used instead of pharmaceutical drugs.


What are natural remedies?

I want to start by discussing what natural remedies for pets are.  Natural remedies are products whose active ingredients come from natural sources that have not been processed too heavily.  This source may be animal, plant or mineral.

What does this mean though?  Well it's not always clear.  The actual amount of processing that has gone on can vary hugely from not much in some cases to a huge amount in others with complex processes needed to obtain a very particular extract from whatever the original product was.

So natural product definitely does not mean that no processing has gone on.

Are dietary supplements the same thing?

How then do natural products and dietary supplements differ?  In many cases they are probably thought of as the same thing.  Dietary supplements contain things like vitamins, minerals, herbs, amino acid proteins or enzymes.  They are given to replace any deficiency in the diet or to provide additional levels of substances found in a diet.  They can be classed as natural remedies but the reverse isn't always true.  If a natural remedy is not something that would normally be eaten then it can't be classified as a dietary supplement.

Why give our pets supplements?

Lets consider then why we would consider giving our pets natural remedies or dietary supplements.  Some dietary supplements can help assure that your pet gets enough of the vital substances the body needs to function.  This might be because their diet is not otherwise complete.  It could also be because a dog or cat has a condition meaning that they need more of a particular substance that the diet can not provide enough of.

Other dietary supplements and natural remedies might claim to help reduce the risk of disease.

This is important.  They might CLAIM to help reduce the risk of disease.  Supplements are not controlled by the FDA in the United States.  The law is such that the manufacturers do not need to prove all of the claims they make before going to market.  Things are different in Canada and Europe where supplements are starting to come under greater scrutiny.

natural remedies and dietary supplements for dogs and cats may not have as much evidence to back up claims they work as you might be led to believe

But the fact is that the claims made by many of these natural remedies and dietary supplements may not be as much of a sure thing as their marketing would have you believe.

How are drugs different to supplements?

So how do natural remedies and dietary supplements differ from drugs, or pharmaceutical drugs?  The first difference is how they are made.  They will generally be manufactured artificially through chemical processes in a laboratory.

Drugs need clinical trials

The next clear difference is that drugs need to go through clinical trials and show evidence both of the claimed benefits as well as safety before being released for general use.  These trials will typically take place over a number of years.

Some dietary supplements will have a similar standard of trial data behind them but this can't be assumed or guaranteed.

One thing to mention with respect to drugs given to our pets is that these trials may actually involve a relatively small number of patients, certainly when compaired to human drug trials.  This has it's draw backs, which I plan to discuss in a future video, but none the less before a drug can go to market it needs to prove it does what is claimed and is safe.  I'll talk about this safety in just a minute.

For the time being though, this trial work allows a drug to claim to be used to treat, diagnose, prevent or cure a problem which is something that natural remedies and dietary supplements are not allowed to do.

Are pet supplements and natural remedies safe?

I said I'd discuss safety and I'll start with natural remedies and dietary supplements.  I think most of us think of these things as perfectly safe.  Even if we are not entirely convinced of their benefit, surely there can be no harm in giving them a go?  Well yes, many may be and are, completely safe.  But natural in itself is by no means a guarantee of safety.

You've probably heard something similar to this but as well as as fish oil and glucosamine and green lipped muscle being natural, Snake venom, cyanide and ricin are also natural.

This may be extreme but some supplements may be dangerous if a dog or cat has a certain condition or is taking another supplement or drug.  Alternatively some supplements may be dangerous or poisonous if overdosed.

These things may be more of the exception than the rule but be sure that natural doesn't always mean safe.

Are pet drugs safe?

The clear opposite to the thought that natural remedies are always safe is the thought that pharmaceutical drugs are inherently dangerous.  This is clearly not true.  As I've already said, drugs need to go through clinical trials that need to prove safety as well as treating the condition as claimed.  In many cases this safety is proved at many times the dose that the drug will be given to patients.  In effect the trial patients are given big overdoses and the side effects are monitored for.

Just because a supplement is natural doesn't mean it is safe and just because something is a drug doesn't mean it will cause side-effects

That is not to say drugs are without risk.  These trials may only involve a low number of patients and these patients may otherwise be well.  This is not always the case, especially if the drug is to treat a disease of elderly animals.  Real life is more complicated in many cases and a patient may have several diseases at the same time which may make side effects more likely.

That said, all drugs have the potential to cause side-effects. In the vast majority of cases though, significant side effects requiring extensive treatment are rare.

Which are better: supplements or drugs?

So the final word then, are natural remedies and dietary supplements better than drugs for dogs and cats?

In some cases yes, they will be more appropriate.  Think of conditions like very mild arthritis or cystitis in cats.  Supplements, along-side environmental management may be enough to successfully manage the disease present.

In many other cases though drug treatment should not be replaced by natural remedies.  In most cases there will be little proper evidence that a supplement will do the same job meaning you may effectively simply be wasting your money.  Alternatively these supplements may provide a small benefit and could still be given but alongside rather than instead of drugs.  Denying them this will mean your pet won't be being treated as effectively as possible.  In other cases, the supplement itself could be dangerous for your pet.

In all cases you should talk to your vet about any supplements (or drugs) you are thinking of giving your dog or cat.

If you are interested in natural remedies, a separate topic to consider is homeopathy.  These are often thought of as the same, or at least similar.  This is quite simply not the case and you can read all about homeopathy in pets here.

I'd love to hear what supplements you give your dog or cat in the comments below!

Our Pets Health: because they're family