Cat Vitamins and Supplements: Do They Work?
Cat supplements spark a big debate. Find out if your feline really needs them.
By Kelli Miller Stacy
WebMD Pet Health Feature
Reviewed by Drew Weigner, DVM
July 16, 2009 -- You or someone you know probably takes a daily multi-vitamin. Does your cat need one, too? Turn on Animal Planet or flip open Cat Fancy, and chances are you'll be bombarded with ads for cat supplements that promise to keep your feline companion in tip-top shape.
“The interest in nutritional supplements for people and pets has exploded into a billion dollar industry over the past several years,” says Bernadine Cruz, DVM, chair of the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) Council on Communications.
Unfortunately, the pet supplement industry is fueled by the Internet, which is basically unregulated. “Anyone, regardless of their expertise,can set up a web site and claim that their product can make your pet feel younger and have increased energy,” Cruz says.
So, do cat supplements live up to their claims? And, does your cat need supplementation? Well, that partly depends on who you ask.
Are Cat Vitamins and Supplements Necessary?
Cat supplement manufacturers and advocates say such products should be seen as an extension of a cat's diet, adding that they can help the pets live longer, healthier lives.
Others, including Cruz and members of the Pet Food Institute, say if your cat is generally healthy, a good, quality cat food is all that's needed. Giving your cat more vitamins or minerals could cause more harm than good.
Supplements may be recommended if your cat is sick. “There are some circumstances where a cat has an underlying condition that may warrant a supplement, but many supplements are untested and unproven in veterinary medicine. The key point is that most cats consuming a complete and balanced diet probably have a better balanced diet than most humans,” says Sherry Sanderson, DVM, PhD, of the University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine.
Supplements are meant to correct deficiencies. For example, your cat may need a supplement if she has a medical condition that makes her unable to absorb a particular nutrient. Small intestinal disease can cause an inability to absorb the B vitamins folate and cobalamine.In this case, the cat would require injections of those two supplements, as oral supplements won't be absorbed either. Cats that are pregnant and breastfeeding may develop nutritional deficiencies that require supplementation, particularly if the cat becomes pregnant before age 10-12 months, Cruz says. Your vet can direct you to the appropriate product.
Types of Cat Supplements
- General vitamins and minerals: A variety of single or multi-vitamin products are available for cats. Most cat foods contain all the necessary vitamins and minerals that a cat needs.
- Essential fatty acids: Omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids are touted for their ability to keep a cat's coat shiny and to prevent shedding. They also protect a cat's immune system, liver, eyes, brain, and joints. And, just like in humans, omega 3s boost heart health and fight high cholesterol. Cat foods contain a lot more omega 6 than omega 3, so some think supplementation is needed. But not everyone is sold on the idea. Lisa Brickson's vet recommended the omega-3-based product Wellactin to boost her cat's kidney function. She pays about $18 a month for the product, but she says she's seen no difference in her cat's health so far. “I love my current vet but feel they are always trying to ‘pack products' when I take my pets in,” she says.
- Probiotics: Probiotics are “healthy” or “good” bacteria that help improve digestive health. They contain microorganisms such as Lactobacillus acidophilus or Lactobacillus casei
(also found in some yogurts), which control the overgrowth of “bad” bacteria in the large intestine. FortiFlora is a probiotic supplement available for cats.
Cat Supplements vs. Nutraceuticals
Nutraceuticals are herbal or natural remedies that fall in a bit of a gray area where supplements are concerned. Advocates for pet nutraceuticals say such products simply supplement the cat's natural diet. They've referred to them as “more than feed additives but less than pharmaceuticals. “But the Pet Food Institute's Nancy Cook says “nutraceuticals are intended to treat or prevent a disease and are therefore a drug, not a supplement.” The AVMA defines nutraceutical medicine as “the use of micronutrients, macronutrients, and other nutritional supplements as therapeutic agents.”
Like herbs and supplements made for people, the FDA does not regulate pet nutraceuticals. That means there's no real proof that they are safe. “It is necessary for the consumer to be aware that natural does not always mean safe or effective,” Cruz says.
Types of Nutraceuticals
Nutraceutical products are found in the supplement section in pet stores and online. Some of the most popular-selling ones for cats are:
- Glucosamine helps bones move smoothly and is often touted as a treatment for arthritis, although Cruz says it does not relieve its pain.
- Chondroitin is also for healthy bone and joints. It is often found with glucosamine.
- Milk thistle extract helps remove toxins from the cat's liver. It may be used for cats with hepatitis.
Cat Supplements to Avoid
Experts say there are a lot of unsafe supplements, but the biggest ones to avoid include:
- Garlic: destroys red blood cells, leading to anemia
- Onion: destroys red blood cells, leading to anemia
- Calcium: too much can be toxic
- Vitamin D: too much can be toxic
- Vitamin C: too much can cause overly acidic urine, which can lead to crystal formation and a life-threatening blockage
Where to Buy Cat Supplements
Before buying a supplement, ask your veterinarian which kind, if any, is best suited for your cat's life stage and medical condition. “It is best to keep your vet in the loop on any supplements you are thinking about giving to your cats,” Sanderson says. She recommends asking your vet about a reputable seller of cat supplements, adding that she would not buy them online unless she had confidence in the company selling them.
Cruz says, “Don't believe everything that you read on the Net.” Cruz says she has seen some great nutritional breakthroughs in the past 20 years, but she's also seen an abundance of fad supplements.
More Is Not Always Better
It is important to remember that you can harm your cat by giving her too many supplements. Cats of different ages and lifestyles have very different dietary needs. Do not use different supplements together, as they may contain the same or similar ingredients. Always talk to your vet before giving your cat any type of supplements. “Over-supplementation can have ill side effects,” Cruz says. “Remember, more is not always better.”
ASPCA web site, “Cat Care”.
The Pet Food Institute web site, “Pet Nutrition”.
AVMA web site, “Frequently Asked Questions About Caring For an Older Pet”.
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