The number of oral supplements available seems to be growing by the day. They come in many forms, including powder, pellets, liquid and gel. Many supplements, including joint and hoof varieties, are called “nutraceuticals,” a term borrowed from the human industry. It is neither a feed nor a drug, but considered somewhere in between the two. It is important to note that only a drug can make medical claims. In contrast, these products are marketed as nutritional supplements with implied medical benefits.
Nutraceuticals are comprised of non-toxic food components that are sprinkled or poured on the feed or given as pills or paste. They have a high safety threshold, and because they are not designated as drugs, they can be purchased without a veterinarian. The North American Veterinary Nutraceutical Council describes nutraceuticals as substances that are “produced in a purified or extracted form and administered orally to patients to provide agents required for normal body structure and function, administered with the intent of improving the health and well being of animals.”
When to Supplement
Karen Engel, an equine feed specialist with Southern States, travels to many mid-Atlantic farms to review feeding programs for customers, and she fields many questions regarding supplements. “If you have good forage and a good nutritious feed, you’re not going to need a lot of supplementation unless you are trying to address a specific need.” She cites arthritis and poor hoof wall quality as two common issues. However, Engel often sees the need to add a vitamin and mineral supplement to horses that are easy keepers because they eat so little feed. In that case, she suggests adding a well-balanced vitamin-mineral mix. She also recommends electrolytes for hard-working horses year round. It is common to add electrolytes in the heat of the summer, but it is equally important to do so in the winter to encourage drinking even when the temperature drops.
Further, if the soil is deficient in minerals, such as selenium, they may need to be added if they are not already in the grain. Care needs to be taken to make sure the proper amounts are given. Engel does say that she sees a lot of oversupplementation. It many cases, it will not harm the horse , but just give him “expensive urine.” In other situations, such as over feeding fat-soluble vitamins or selenium, you could end up with toxic levels and even more problems. “Read labels and know what you’re feeding,” says Engel. Even then, it is still advisable to have a veterinarian or equine nutritionist evaluate your current program before making any changes.
While we know the benefits of properly balanced vitamins and minerals, unfortunately, there are many unanswered questions regarding many of the nutraceuticals. One is whether or not they contain what the label states—both in ingredients and amount of ingredients. The answer is not necessarily. The University of Maryland tested 27 glucosamine or chondroitin sulfate products. A number of them didn’t contain the amounts that were listed on the label. In addition, the amounts could even vary from month to month. Manufacturers are not required by law to guarantee the amount of each ingredient or describe the action of the product. Furthermore, “effective” dosage levels of these substances have not been determined in horses, but most of these supplements are relatively safe and harmless with no known side effects.