It’s a question I hear every day. “But I found this supplement online, Doc, and it says it’s great for curing ‘insert malady here.’ What do you mean it’s dangerous for my dog?”
Illustration by Tamara Rees
Like so many other disappointing things in life (those “Sea-Monkeys” you ordered from the back page of the comic book that turned out to be brine shrimp or the X-Ray Spex that did not let you glance through walls), those supplements touted on the Internet and on television as “natural, organic cures” may not be what they appear. Even more frustrating, the label on the bottle of your favorite supplement may not reflect what’s actually inside those magic little pills.
As a fellow dog crazy who actually cooks for her furry buddy, I understand the deep desire to give only the best of the best. And do you know who else knows this? The supplement industry! Of course they do. Some estimates put annual gross sales for dog supplements alone at over $1.7 billion.
Advertising companies also spend money, but they spend it on labels and product packaging designed to manipulate you into buying their product. Products such as “Nature’s Cure” (what’s a fake cure, anyway?) “Nourish Pharmaceuticals,” and “Life Source Medicines” are everywhere, but what do these labels actually mean?
Frankly, not much.
The FDA’s own website states: Congress defined the term "dietary supplement" in the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) of 1994. A dietary supplement is a product taken by mouth that contains a "dietary ingredient" intended to supplement the diet. The "dietary ingredients" in these products may include: vitamins, minerals, herbs or other botanicals, amino acids, and substances such as enzymes, organ tissues, glandulars, and metabolites… Whatever their form may be, DSHEA places dietary supplements in a special category under the general umbrella of "foods," not drugs, and requires that every supplement must be labeled a dietary supplement.
So what does that even mean? It means “Dr Kwako’s Miracle Skin Restorative” is not a medicine or a drug, it’s considered a food. Dietary supplements do not need approval from the FDA before they are marketed and are exempt from the FDA’s strict approval process for prescription drugs.
Again, from the FDA’s own website: By law (DSHEA), the manufacturer is responsible for ensuring that its dietary supplement products are safe before they are marketed. Unlike drug products that must be proven safe and effective for their intended use before marketing, there are no provisions in the law for FDA to "approve" dietary supplements for safety or effectiveness before they reach the consumer. Under DSHEA, once the product is marketed, FDA has the responsibility for showing that a dietary supplement is "unsafe," before it can take action to restrict the product's use or removal from the marketplace.
Okay, let that sink in for a minute. Regulating agencies are relying on the manufacturer to monitor the safety and effectiveness of their own product. What could possibly go wrong?
As it turns out, plenty.
Human physicians have seen a sharp increase in ER visits due to supplement toxicities. It’s estimated that supplements landed at least 23,000 people in emergency rooms last year. Consumer Reports did a great write up on the “dirty dozen” dangerous supplements that are all out there, still for sale.
So how on earth is this happening? Where’s the FDA? Besides running a tepid disclaimer, you know the one: “this product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease"), the FDA can recall products if they are notified of a hazard.
But a recently published study revealed about two-thirds of products recalled not too long ago were back on the market less than a year later with the same illegal ingredients. It appears that regulatory laws regarding dietary supplements are so toothless that some manufacturers just disregard them.
Even worse, there is little data regarding how many dogs and cats are harmed by sketchy supplements, leaving us in the dark as to how many possible poisonings may be going on out there.
And this isn’t the only problem. So let’s be generous and say the purported “miracle cure” really works. You’re excited to find it on your favorite holistic store shelf (Dr. Oz has been talking about it for weeks and you’re dying to try it,) except, did you really find it?
How would a consumer know if that’s really Ginkgo biloba they just purchased - crack open the capsule and taste it? Fortunately, there’s a new method to test supplement purity, and unfortunately its yielding even more concerning results.
Recently, the New York State Attorney General’s office conducted an investigation of 78 bottles of human herbal supplements from a dozen Walgreens, Target, Wal-Mart, and GNC stores. The supplements were analyzed by looking for tell-tale DNA markers, a sophisticated, accurate method to find out if those little green pills really do contain the next remedy for memory loss or will make you a lion in the bedroom.
Unfortunately for all the self-treating Casanovas out there, four out of five of the products did not contain any of the herbs on their labels. Instead, the pills were filled with nettles, shredded newspapers, rice, houseplants and other assorted yummies. Some contained risky or even illegal ingredients - including prescription drugs - that were not listed on the bottle.
In short, the Attorney General's office accused all four major retailers of selling fraudulent and potentially dangerous herbal supplements and demanded that they remove the products from their shelves.
So where does that leave you and your furry buddy? Confused? Upset? No need for that, trust your vet!
Ask your veterinarian what supplements they recommend. I guarantee they want their own pets to get the safest and best of what’s out there. Most veterinarians have extensive experience with supplements and supplement companies, and know who is reputable and who is not. Tell your veterinarian about all of the supplements you might be giving your friend, even if you think it’s only “safe and natural.” Better yet, don’t ever give your buddy a supplement you’ve purchased over the counter or online without checking with them first, especially one designed for humans.
Remember, leeches are a natural cure too. Don’t get fooled by a snake oil marketing ploy; use your veterinarian’s knowledge to help you be a safe and savvy advocate for your friend.
Valerie Hertzler, RVT
March 25, 2016
December 18, 2015
December 16, 2015
VIN News Service commentaries are opinion pieces presenting insights, personal experiences and/or perspectives on topical issues by members of the veterinary community. To submit a commentary for consideration, email firstname.lastname@example.org.