Getting A Boost From Supplements

Supplements go beyond aiding patients, veterinarians have found, they often can aid the entire practice itself.

Isabelle Francais

When the sign is a general absence of vitality, Ava Frick, DVM, recommends supplements she trusts.

For the patient, yes, but also for the practice.

“There are times in a veterinarian’s career when you’re just going along and you start asking yourself, ‘Am I having as much fun?’ and ‘What is my purpose?’ ” says Dr. Frick, who owns and operates the Animal Fitness Center in Union, Mo.

“This is an opportunity to see that turn around.”

Veterinarians who research the effects of supplements and make them available to clients say the benefits go beyond aiding patients.

Supplements can help improve the financial health of practices and sometimes even the outlook of practitioners.

“If you like nutrition and you’re interested in how the body works from a nutritional perspective, integrating supplements into your practice can be very rewarding,” says Frick, who has three decades of experience in veterinary practice and who recommends and promotes Standard Process supplements. “For me, seeing the results is both enjoyable and rejuvenating.”

Interest in supplements appears to be at an all-time high these days. Many clients use them to safeguard their own health and are eager to add them to their pets’ regimens. But for practitioners considering the leap into new recommendations, the first step can be overcoming old trepidations.

How to get started and what to carry? Those with extensive supplement experience offer some advice.

Research the Research

It should come as no surprise that the Internet is rife with misinformation on supplements, practitioners say. In most cases, unsubstantiated claims outstrip those supported by evidence.

“The phrase ‘spin doctor’ comes to mind,” says Kim Vanderlinden, president of Hope Science Inc., which makes Emulsified Fatty Acid Complex (EFAC) for dogs.

A lot of companies can provide testing that shows their products are safe, but it’s harder to demonstrate effectiveness, Vanderlinden says. Ask to see peer-reviewed research that backs up claims, he suggests.

The American Veterinary Medical Assn. and the North American Veterinary Conference are good sources of information, adds Roger V. Kendall, Ph.D., vice president of research and development at Vetri-Science Laboratories of Vermont.

He suggests working with companies that are members of the National Animal Supplement Council, which he serves as a scientific adviser.

The NASC is an industry organization that works to improve and standardize issues of labeling, dosage, risk assessment, quality assurance and the reporting of adverse events, Dr. Kendall says. Its website is NASC.cc.

A foundation of understanding built on research helps practitioners gain confidence before they integrate supplements into their practice, he adds.

Start Slowly

Holistic practitioner Jean Hofve, DVM, recommends that those learning to include supplements begin with just one. Study it, achieve a level of comfort with it and then try another.

“Maybe it’s probiotics, which is probably the easiest thing,” says Dr. Hofve, co-author with nutritionist Dr. Celeste Yarnall of “The Complete Guide to Holistic Cat Care: An Illustrated Handbook” (Quarry Books, 2009). “Once you learn about [the effects on digestion], you see the happy faces and hear clients say, ‘Can I get more of that?’ then branch out.”

The good news: Clients who think “more is always better” really can’t overdo it, Hofve says. Toxicity isn’t a concern.

“The worst that can happen is the animal won’t eat it.”

Consult With Colleagues

It pays to pick the brains of peers during continuing education sessions, state VMA meetings or at any other opportunity, says Robert Silver, DVM, owner and operator of Boulder’s Natural Animal in Colorado as well as chief medical officer and formula designer for Rx Vitamins.

There are few better, more efficient ways to learn which products work well and are appropriately priced, he says. Like consumers, veterinarians need to ask the right questions of colleagues—and of companies, to get certificates of analysis, adds Dr. Silver, who like Kendall is a scientific adviser to the NASC.

Speak From Experience

As you gain confidence and experience recommending supplements to clients, don’t be afraid to share anecdotal evidence illustrating clinical successes, Silver notes.

“I speak widely with veterinarians, and what I hear many times is that they have their own health problems that are not necessarily well addressed by conventional medicine,” he says. Silver encourages them to use supplements themselves and on their pets.

“There’s no better sales talk than from your own experience,” Silver says.

Use Therapeutic Indications as a Guide

Start with an end point of a therapeutic goal—relieving itching and dry skin, for instance—and then identify a supplement, such as fish oils, that research indicates has proved effective, Vanderlinden says.

That way you can target conditions that are the most common among your patients, he adds.

Fish oil as a source of Omega-3 fatty acids is a supplement that should be a staple of veterinary medicine, experts interviewed for this article say. Beyond its history of success mitigating a range of skin and other problems, fish oil has an anti-inflammatory effect, and research indicates a benefit in combating renal disease, Silver says.

The experts also recommend:

• Glucosamine as a joint lubricant for patients suffering from osteoarthritis and dysplasia as well as to shore up weak ligaments, aid the repair of anterior cruciate ligament injuries and help with certain bladder issues.
• Probiotics for inflammatory bowel disease, constipation, vomiting, diarrhea and other digestive concerns as well as for hot spots, allergies and other conditions related to immune-system response.
• Antioxidants including vitamins A, C and E to support immune-system function and to temper the risk of chronic degenerative conditions.

Supplements such as these are not magic elixirs but tools to be integrated with those of traditional veterinary medicine as well as other researched alternative therapies, experts say. 

And those benefits to the practice? They include financial rewards, says Frick, who notes that 30 percent of the gross income generated by her physical rehabilitation practice comes from nutrition.

There also are also the prestige and perception factors.

“Clients see the veterinarian as being kinder, gentler—more tuned-in,” Silver says.

Frick says she has been tuned into recommending supplements for 22 years, and the rewards keep growing.

Her recommendation to veterinarians who want to build a practice? Build a skill in clinical nutrition.

“In a time of money cutbacks,” Frick says, “it may be the very thing that helps you thrive.”

This article first appeared in the December 2009 issue of Veterinary Practice News

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