Aging Golden Retriever

As people get older, I’ve noticed that they become more interested in supplements. Seems as soon as you get your AARP card, you start gulping down vitamins like there’s no tomorrow, in the hopes, I suppose, of making sure you get as many tomorrows as possible, while keeping your brain and your body functioning well.

Some of these supplements — they’re often called “nutraceuticals” — have clinical research to support their use, while for others, anecdotal evidence paired with clever marketing and celebrity endorsements is all they have to offer.

As a “veteran veterinarian” — and, yes, I have my AARP card! — I’m certainly not going to advise you on what’s good for your own aging body. That’s up to you and your own doctor to discuss. But I can offer some guidance about what supplements might work for your older dog or senior cat.

Should Aging Pets Get Supplements?

With nutraceuticals so popular among people 50 and up, we veterinarians are often asked about them for aging dogs and cats as well. (Or if we’re not asked, we often open the discussion ourselves.) I personally recommend a handful of these products fairly routinely, albeit after or at least in conjunction with a discussion about proper nutrition and weight management. In other words, what you put in your pet’s mouth needs to be considered as a whole: All the supplements in the world won’t help a pet on a subpar diet or with a body so fat his joints are begging for mercy.

Talk with your veterinarian about what your pet does and doesn’t need, because individual care is important. But in general, here are the three supplements I find myself recommending often to my patients, and why.

Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs): Omega-3 and Omega-6 are known as essential fatty acids because our pets’ bodies cannot manufacture them — they must take them in along with their food, or as supplements. We’ve long known that adding “oil” can make a pet’s coat shinier, which is why there have always been products in pet stores to squirt into food dishes. But EFAs are about more than shine. These substances may aid the body in performing and maintaining critical brain function, which is why they’re part of many proprietary “anti-aging cocktails.” They also have been shown to help boost the immune system, and their anti-inflammatory effects make them natural for pairing with other supplements meant to help lessen the pain of arthritis.

Glucosamine with Chondroitin Sulfate: Everyone seems to know about this combination, which is very popular for people and pets alike. Some product blends also have ASU (Avocado Soybean Unsaponifiables). There’s some clinical evidence to back up the use of these products, particular in conjunction with EFAs. The anti-inflammatory effects of these products may help pets with arthritis, while the ingredients (especially those derived from cartilage) provide the body with what it needs to help repair damaged cartilage in joints. This type of supplement is typically started at a “loading dose,” then dropped to a maintenance level for the life of the animal.

Probiotics: We’re just beginning to fully understand the value of the bacteria that share space with our own cells. We’ve long been acquainted with bacteria that cause disease and fought them with antibiotics, our “silver bullet” (now tarnished by the rise of resistant bacteria). But now it’s not just enough to fight “bad” bacteria with the judicious use of antibiotics; we need to encourage the “good” bacteria as well. In fact, we can’t live without our internal bacteria, in large part because they break down our food into nutrients our bodies can use. Probiotics are doses of those “good” bacteria and they’re gaining acceptance in veterinary medicine. Supplementing probiotics (and “prebiotics,” which is food the “good” bacteria eat) can help older pets with digestion, fighting off disease and even the effects of stress. But be sure to use probiotics designed for pets, not humans — ask your veterinarian for a recommendation.

Don’t Waste Your Money

While the clinical and anecdotal evidence have made me bullish on these supplements, I am always looking to get the most bang for the buck when it comes to preventive treatments for my patients. In the case of some problems old pets have — most notably arthritis — the best and first thing you should do is get a comprehensive senior-pet examination, which in more than half of all cases will be followed by a plan to reduce your pet’s weight. As I’ve written before, having your pet at or slightly below ideal body weight can extend the animal’s life and help improve the quality of that life. In other words, throwing supplements at a fat pet isn’t very effective.

That’s why the best money you can spend on your pet is not on supplements but on that comprehensive senior exam, and on whatever diagnostics your veterinarian may recommend to help her get a good picture of your pet’s overall health. When you know what that picture is, you can work with your veterinarian to improve it. That’s where supplements come in. Because yes, these nutraceuticals really can make your pet healthier and more comfortable as he or she ages, but only when they’re part of an overall wellness strategy.