The Scoop on Supplements

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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.

Supplemental Issues

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.

When it comes to joint supplement theories, most were established first in humans and then transferred to horses. However, an ingredient that is approved to sell for humans isn’t necessarily approved to sell for animals. C.W. McIlwraith, DVM, PhD at Colorado State University, published a review on, in part, nutraceuticals that was presented at the 50th Annual Convention of the American Association of Equine Practitioners in 2004. According to McIlwraith, “many nutraceuticals or nutritional supplements marketed for the horse are illegal because the manufacturer has not complied with FDA ingredient-recognition processes, not completed ingredient-definition applications as described by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), not followed state licensing requirements and/or made false claims on the product label.” Medical products fall under the FDA and must undergo rigorous testing, be properly labeled and show effectiveness. Nutritional products do not need to meet these same requirements. Some companies use unsupported but vague claims that are outside the regulatory arena. However, probably little can be done about the situation. Since the FDA pays little attention to the equine nutraceutical market, there is no incentive for a manufacturer to get a license.

In an effort to help promote proper practices by manufacturers and standardize the animal supplement industry, the National Animal Supplement Council (NASC) initiated a Quality Seal Program. This seal lets consumers know that they are buying from a reputable manufacturer that has gone through an independent audit and has implemented specific standards and conformed to quality system requirements. It is one step the consumer can take to make sure they are buying a quality product. This is a volunteer program on behalf of the companies, but Engel feels it is an important one. “It speaks a lot to those companies that participate,” she comments.

What the Research Shows

McIlwraith states that to prove efficacy of a substance, you need either a controlled experimental study with a consistent level of disease or a double blind controlled study with appropriate numbers. And, researchers need a large enough sample for reliable statistics. Randomized, controlled and blinded clinical trials are difficult in horses, and observational and anecdotal studies do not prove efficacy.

There have been various studies, utilizing small numbers, that have shown some supplements to be effective and their ingredients absorbed into the horse’s system. Still, in many cases, it becomes an individual situation based on clinical evidence, and Engel reminds us that all horses are different. In her experience she has seen a product work well for one horse, but not for another. So, there may be some trial and error involved. You also have to give products time to work through the system. It may take 60 to 90 days to begin to see improvement with many types of supplements, and hoof supplements may take up to 9 months. Often people don’t allow enough time to truly see a difference.

The Bottom Line

Horse owners can spend a great deal of money on products they feel are helping their horses. McIlwraith concluded, “It is to be emphasized that when equine veterinarians use licensed medications, the patient gets the best care in that an accurate diagnosis is made. It is an unfortunate reality that many instances of lameness and joint disease are presented after client-prescribed periods of oral nutraceuticals have failed to yield results.” On the other hand, there are many people that believe various oral supplements are helping their horses. The best course of action is to talk to your veterinarian or nutritionist about a complete treatment regime. Likely a combination of management practices, that may or may not include oral supplements, will be your best chance of making the horses in your care healthy and comfortable.