Giving supplements to heavily-worked, high-performance or older horses is similar to following a vitamin and mineral regimen in a human. Many people take nutritional supplements to improve their health, so trying to improve an animal’s performance is a natural step.
For the most part, the supplement industry is self-regulated, so it is up to consumers and their veterinarians to research and choose products that match their needs. Veterinarians are being taught more about nutrition than in years past, so they are in a better position to help clients, says Phil Brown, DVM.
“Look at supplements as fine-tuning a horse’s health,” says Dr. Brown, senior vice president of research and development at Nutri-Vet LLC of Boise, Idaho. He says most supplements go beyond multivitamins and are condition-specific. Joint dysfunctions, as well as performance conditioning, can be helped by supplements, he says. “Supplements, or nutraceuticals,” he says, “can help prevent problems, though they can’t treat a disease.
“I would tell veterinarians to tell horse owners to do their homework when choosing supplements,” Brown says. “Science-based research is imperative.”
Equine practitioner David Pugh, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACT and ACVN, agrees.
“Equine supplement products may be very good, but you need to look at the research behind them,” says Dr. Pugh, of Waverly, Ala.
“The research must be from an independent study, not based on anecdotal evidence, and be published in scientific journals. Look at the bibliography and make sure the research is on horses, not humans or rats or chickens.”
Robert E. Devlin, DVM, of Nutramax Laboratories in Edgewood, Md., says the quality of the formulations is critical. “Make sure that what is on the label is in the bottle,” Dr. Devlin says. “Each batch needs to be consistent. Ingredients must be high quality. Supplements should carry an expiration date.
“Many ingredients lose their stability over time. Consumers should select supplements that have undergone quality testing of their ingredients over time so the product you purchase meets the label claim from date of production to its expiration date.”
The stability of key ingredients is paramount, Devlin says.
“Some ingredients may be stable in a powder but can degrade quickly if placed into a liquid solution,” he says. “It is easy to formulate a product to contain an ingredient but harder to show it remains stable in the formulation.”
Most supplements are water-soluble, Brown says. Unneeded supplements, anti-oxidants and water-soluble B vitamins, for example, usually pass through the system to be excreted as feces or urine with few complications. Excessive vitamin D can build up in the liver, he says, and too much can affect the absorption of calcium.
“Few nutraceuticals can be made into a liquid without breaking down and altering the ingredients,” says Trish Hanson, chief financial officer for Response Products. The Broken Bow, Neb., company manufactures human, dog and horse joint supplements.
“It is difficult to make a supplement palatable in a liquid,” she says. “High heat and pressure used to pellet the nutraceutical ruin the ingredients. Produced without heat, granular forms are easy to feed with all types of grains and are very palatable.”
Seal of Approval
Hanson suggests that veterinarians look for the National Animal Supplement Council seal when choosing a supplement.
The council is a nonprofit industry group that works to improve and standardize the animal health supplement industry. The seal indicates that the company has been audited to ensure conformance with quality system requirements. Details are available online at NASC.cc.
Supplements have been used with pharmaceuticals for polymodal support to joint health, Devlin says.
“For instance, supporting an older horse with joint supplements may help it feel better and move easier, but after times of heavy exertion or increased activity, the horse may very well need an NSAID pain reliever for acute support,” he says.
Keith Manfred, vice president of organic supplement maker Mushroom Matrix in San Marcos, Calif., says prevention and care are as important as the reaction to a problem.
“Even healthy horses can benefit from preventive measures to stay that way,” Manfred says.
In cases of equine osteoarthritis, Shawn Madere of GLC Direct says, “Glucosamine and chondroitin have been clinically evaluated to help alleviate symptomatic responses and physiological changes in the progression of the disease. Many veterinarians recommend their use for existing cases and for those horses at risk for developing the disease.”
GLC Direct manufactures human, canine and equine joint supplements.
The most expensive supplement is not necessarily the best, nor is the least expensive the worst.
“Customers will pay a premium for perceived superiority,” Madere says. “In the supplement industry, it is advisable to look for independent testing and clinical data, rather than simply buying by price.”
“Many ingredients have perceived effects,” says Mushroom Matrix’s Manfred. Manufacturers should be able to “show the science behind the formulation,” he says.
Administer It Correctly
Madere has found a great deal of misinformation about the delivery methods for supplements.
“Specifically as it pertains to glucosamine, stability of the active glycoprotein is vital to ensure delivery of an efficacious product,” he says. “Pure glucosamine is stabilized by one of three salts: chloride, sodium and potassium. These binders preserve the activity of the glucosamine and provide a wonderful carrier. When exposed to the moisture of the digestive juices, the salt dissolves and releases the glycoprotein for the body to utilize.
“Unfortunately, many pellets and liquids are manufactured using high-moisture environments that remove the stabilizing salt and subject the glucosamine to oxidation and significant losses in potency,” Madere says.
Carey Williams, Ph.D., an equine extension specialist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., says many supplements contain more than one ingredient.
“If you are feeding four or so supplements, there is a chance you are feeding some of the ingredients in more than the recommended amounts,” Dr. Williams says. “Things like selenium, magnesium or vitamin A can become toxic more quickly than others.”
Watch for Conflicts
She says herbal products could have certain drug interactions. Veterinarians can avoid adverse reactions to a medication by asking owners which supplements are being used. They might instruct a horse owner to discontinue a supplement’s use while the animal is being medicated.
If vitamins or minerals are packaged as injectables, they’re no longer considered a supplement and must be prescribed by a veterinarian, Williams said.
University of Maryland equine specialist Amy Burk, Ph.D., recommends that horse owners try to get the animals on one supplement only rather than several that may have the same ingredients.
“If a healthy horse has good quality forage and you add grain to his diet it’s unlikely the horse needs supplements unless you have poor quality hay,” she says.
Burk suggests that veterinarians or equine nutritionists work with horse owners to develop a feeding plan in difficult cases. She also recommends that veterinarians read “Nutrient Requirements of Horses, Sixth Edition” (National Research Council, 2007).