Is your senior dog slowing down? If so, you may be considering adding a supplement to help keep them comfortable. And while you may enjoy researching and learning about health supplements for dogs, deciphering truth from marketing hype can be a challenge. Integrative veterinarian Dr. Julie Buzby helps navigate the world of senior dog supplements to provide accurate and up-to-date info you can trust.
Delving into senior dog supplements can be like navigating a foreign marketplace during rush hour. You don’t know the language. You don’t understand the culture. You don’t know who to trust.
Although it can feel overwhelming, you persevere because you believe the right supplements could be beneficial for keeping your aging dog comfortable. And you’re correct to have hope — I’ve seen first hand the value of supplements for older dogs.
But right from the start, I have a confession to make. Even though I’ve been a veterinarian for decades—I regularly attend veterinary conferences, and I live in the world of veterinary medicine, acupuncture, and animal chiropractic—sifting through the facts about senior dog supplements is daunting for me, too. You’re not alone. I’m happy to share a few things that I’ve picked up along with way.
My purpose in this article is not to give you “fluency” on the topic, but rather to invite you on a little tour through the world of senior dog supplements. Together we’ll visit the language, the culture, the landscape, and a few landmark ingredients found in my favorite dog supplement products. Hopefully, this information will provide a foundation to help steer you in the direction of choosing the best supplement for your senior dog.
Ready? Buckle up and let’s get going!
1. Senior dog supplement terms
Before looking at the landscape of senior dog supplements, it’s important to get an overview of “supplement language.” This way you’ll understand what terms mean when you see them in your reading and research.
Unfortunately, sometimes the language associated with supplements and medications is not very straightforward. Understanding what different terms mean—and don’t mean—can help you choose the right product for your pup.
What exactly is a supplement?
A supplement is just what its name suggests—a substance such as a vitamin, mineral, herb, amino acid, or a combination of them used to supplement the diet. Supplements are typically administered in pill, capsule, tablet, soft chew, or liquid form.
Here’s where the confusion begins: In 1984, the U.S. Federal Drug Administration (FDA) got involved in the fast-growing dietary supplement industry. They officially defined supplements in the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1984 (DSHEA). But they didn’t specify whether the regulations applied only to human supplements or also included dog supplements.
Finally, 12 years later, the FDA clarified that the 1984 Act only applies to human supplements. This meant that FDA oversight and regulation excluded supplements for dogs.
What does this mean for senior dog supplements?
It means the term “dog supplement” is nonexistent, at least by government standards. And while the FDA does have a Center for Veterinary Medicine, the Pet Nutrition Alliance explains clearly their function: “The FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine regulates [only] two classes of animal products: food and drugs.”
So what about dog supplements? Where do they fit in with “food and drugs?” It all depends on the supplement’s intended use. There is no separate category for animal supplements. And since the government doesn’t recognize pet supplements as its own category, they are classified as foods—so long as product labels don’t make medical claims.
What does the term “nutraceutical” mean?
If you’ve stumbled across the term “nutraceutical” in your research, you might be confused as to how that term fits into the supplement landscape. Coined in 1989 by Stephen De Felice, founder of the Foundation for Innovation in Medicine, “nutraceutical” is a portmanteau combining the words “nutrient” and “pharmaceutical.”
De Felice defined the term as a “food, or parts of a food, that provide medical or health benefits, including the prevention and treatment of disease.” If you think that sounds similar to a dietary supplement, you’d be spot on. For our purposes, the terms “senior dog supplement” and “senior dog nutraceutical” are interchangeable. Both are food-related products used to promote health.
Beware of supplement buzz words!
If you do any research into supplement options, you will soon stumble upon a veritable gold mine of buzz words—”natural” is the big one for me. With the level of regulation supplements are held to, the term “natural” only means derived from nature. This does not necessarily imply that product is appropriate or healthy for your dog.
Most of these types of buzz words are designed to make you think those products will help your dog, but they are often little more than a marketing scheme. Empower yourself to dive deeper into the ingredients and discuss with your vet which products will be the best supplement choice.
2. The culture surrounding senior dog supplements
Now that we have an overview of terminology, let’s take a look at the supplement marketplace.
Two words sum up the culture surrounding senior dog supplements: Buyer beware. Here’s why…
I remember attending a veterinary continuing education conference years ago where the speaker said something that made me ask her to repeat herself. She referred to a study done by an American pharmacy school which concluded that a large percent of nutraceuticals had different contents and concentrations in the bottle than what they claimed on the label. Other more recent studies point to the same problem.
This is not only concerning from the standpoint of companies skimping on active ingredients, but it also means products may contain toxins, heavy metals, mold, and bacteria due to lack of accountability and regulation.
Keep in mind, these studies were conducted on human supplements! Supplements for dogs are under even less scrutiny. And if you purchase human dietary supplements for your aging dog, it’s doubly crucial that you’re aware of the facts.
Safety is up to the manufacturers
According to the FDA, “Under DSHEA, a firm is responsible for determining that the dietary supplements it manufactures or distributes are safe and that any representations or claims made about them are substantiated by adequate evidence to show that they are not false or misleading.”
Translation: Dietary supplements do not need approval from the FDA before being sold to the public. Supplement manufacturers are tasked with regulating themselves. Unfortunately, not all manufacturers are trustworthy, and the patients and consumers are the ones who take the fall.
In summary, the FDA doesn’t regulate supplements the way they do drugs. Unlike drugs and vaccines, which go through rigorous testing before approval, the FDA considers supplements safe until proven otherwise. See the difference? Considering there are maybe 50,000 supplements on the market today, this should be a red flag for dog owners.
Be as discerning about supplement quality as you would about eating raw sushi sitting in the sun at an outdoor market.
3. The landscape of senior dog supplements
The landscape of senior dog supplements is expansive and growing exponentially year over year. The pet food sector, which we’ve discussed includes dog supplements, was worth $42.3 billion in 2021, and is projected to be a $53 billion industry by 2028. Senior dog supplements are big business, and not all companies are created equal. Quality matters.
Companies selling supplements for senior dogs make a wide array of claims, including:
- Maintaining healthy joints
- Supporting immune system function
- Improving cognitive function
- Helping to support healthy skin and coat
- Reducing anxiety
- Promoting gut health and aiding digestion
While many supplement manufacturers make honest claims and can improve your dog’s quality of life, other companies are predatory and sell inferior products for the sake of making profits.
Your veterinarian is the best resource to guide you in these product decisions.
4. The landmark ingredients in senior dog supplements
Just like senior citizens, senior dogs face unique health issues. Joint pain, brain function (or dysfunction), digestive problems, dental disease, and skin and coat issues are all common concerns. I’m confident quality supplements can be a worthwhile way to address these issues and improve your dog’s quality of life.
As an integrative veterinarian, I do use drugs to help my patients. But what I love about supplements is that they can work well with minimal side effects. For my senior patients, I often prescribe supplements first and then add medications as needed.
For example, clients often ask me if their senior dogs have arthritis. I commonly reply that it’s impossible for them not to…somewhere in their body. Dogs are so stoic; sometimes they are hurting without showing us.
Therefore, senior dog joint supplements containing glucosamine and chondroitin are often a first step in treating my older patients. (As an aside, green lipped mussel for dogs is one excellent source of glucosamine and chondroitin.)
Additionally, because inflammation can contribute to cognitive decline, I’m also vigilant about recommending supplements that reduce inflammation.
To learn more about canine arthritis, please read: Is it Canine Arthritis or Aging? Learn 7 Signs of Arthritis in Dogs.
How to choose a supplement
Now that you have the information you need to navigate the marketplace, how do you choose which supplement is best for your dog? If I were to create a list of “must-have” supplements for aging dogs, it wouldn’t be black and white. There would be a whole lot of grey—because every senior dog is an individual with different needs.
However, one thing that I do recommend to my clients is to choose a supplement specifically made for dogs (or animals in general). A dog’s body may not have the same digestive enzymes, or the same ability to digest and absorb nutrients as a person’s. Therefore, human supplements may not have the expected benefits in dogs.
I often advise my clients to become label readers. Your vet may recommend a specific supplement or brand that would be best for your dog, or they may leave it up to you to find the best fit. Now you can be armed with the ability to be a discerning consumer, knowing just what to look for to choose the best supplements for senior dogs.
While, as mentioned above, every senior dog is unique, many of our grey-muzzled companions can benefit from supplements that include ingredients such as:
- Omega-3 fatty acids—reduce inflammation in the dog’s body and promote joint health in dogs
- Green-lipped mussel—an excellent source of glucosamine and chondroitin
- New Zealand deer velvet—a natural source of glucosamine, chondroitin, collagen, and proteins (don’t worry, no deer are harmed to collect velvet from their antlers)
You can read about these natural supplements for dogs and why they are often tools in my senior dog toolkit.
Speak with your veterinarian about senior dog supplements
By sharing an overview of what to look for in senior dog supplements, I hope I’ve helped guide you along your journey to choosing the best supplement for your senior dog. Remember to always consult your veterinarian before starting any new supplement or over-the-counter medication! And while your dog doesn’t need every supplement out there, I’m confident there might be one or two on the list that can boost your dog’s quality of life—increasing happiness at both ends of the leash!
Have supplements helped your senior dog?
Share your experience in the comments below.