Health Is a Habit—Is Your Dog’s Diet Deficient?

If your morning routine for yourself involves chasing a handful of multivitamins and supplements with an organic kale and spinach smoothie, you may feel as though you’re cheating your dog when you set down a modest bowl of dry food for them. Are they getting what they need?

If you’re concerned about optimizing your dog’s health, you’re not alone. More than ever, owners are seeking ways to extend their canine companion’s life and improve their wellbeing—at least a third of U.S. households with dogs use pet supplements. But, before you take a trip down the overcrowded pet health aisle, you must know what you’re looking for in a multivitamin—and if your dog needs one at all.

Does Your Dog Need a Multivitamin?

The simple answer for most dogs is “No.” According to the American College of Veterinary Nutrition, “If your pet is eating a complete and balanced commercially available pet food, supplements are not recommended, unless specifically prescribed by your veterinarian.” This means that if you’re feeding a high-quality diet, supplementary multivitamins can actually harm your pet. Most commercial diets are formulated to meet your dog’s precise daily vitamin requirements: To even advertise as “complete and balanced,” the diet must meet the nutrient profile created by the American Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), which includes adequate vitamin levels for adults, or for growth and reproduction life stages.

Most veterinarians will recommend multivitamin supplementation only under limited circumstances, so speaking with your veterinarian before introducing anything new to your pet’s diet is crucial.

Which Vitamins Do Dogs Need to Survive?

Like people, dogs require certain vitamins (i.e., essential vitamins) in specific quantities to ensure proper growth and development, physiological function, and metabolism. These vitamins must be consumed through food, as most cannot be made by the body. Vitamins are classified as fat-soluble or water-soluble, based on how they are absorbed. Essential vitamins for dogs include:

  • Fat-soluble — This vitamin group is absorbed by lipid molecules, and stored in the liver and adipose (i.e., fat) tissue:
    • Vitamin A — Aids in immune system function, eye health, fetal development, and bone repair.
    • Vitamin D — Balances calcium and phosphorus, to ensure proper bone development.
    • Vitamin E — An antioxidant that protects cells against oxidative stress, and maintains cell membrane health.
    • Vitamin K — This vitamin helps to clot blood. Vitamin K deficiencies can cause rapid, uncontrollable bleeding.
  • Water-soluble vitamins — These vitamins dissolve in water (i.e., blood), so are easily transported throughout the body. Because they are not stored, they must be regularly replenished.
    • Vitamin B — This vitamin complex helps provide energy through various biochemical processes, and helps with organ function. 
    • Vitamin C Dogs can create this antioxidant through their liver, but they benefit from food-based supplementation. Vitamin C eliminates free radicals, and reduces inflammation.
  • Choline — Choline is necessary for nerve signal transmission, cell membrane structure, and liver and gallbladder function. Supplementation may be prescribed for dogs with epilepsy.

When Are Multivitamins Appropriate for Dogs?

Under special circumstances, your veterinarian may recommend vitamin supplementation for your dog. Most often, a specific vitamin will be prescribed because of a medical condition or injury (e.g., vitamin K, to correct a clotting disorder caused by rodenticide poisoning). In these instances, the vitamin and dose will be prescribed directly by your veterinarian, and you should adhere to their instructions.

Multivitamin use also may be recommended for dogs who are recovering from illness, have altered metabolism, or who are, or may be, nutritionally deficient. This may include:

  • Senior dogs — Antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties are helpful during the aging process.
  • Newly adopted dogs Rescued dogs may suffer from malnutrition or growth disorders.
  • Certain medical conditions — To boost immune health and response.
  • Homemade or raw diets — To ensure proper vitamin and mineral balance.

Are There Risks Associated with Multivitamins in Dogs?

Vitamins seem harmless, but inappropriate use can actually pose significant risk to your dog’s health. Pet owners are often heartbroken to learn that their pet became ill because of their good intentions to improve their dog’s health. Reasons for vitamin-induced health problems include the following:

  • Poor quality — Pet supplements are unregulated, and products therefore can contain harmful ingredients, preservatives, inaccurate vitamin amounts, or no vitamins at all. Others may contain mercury or lead because of poor or nonexistent quality control. 
  • Dangerous interactions — Supplemental vitamins can cause dangerous interactions with your pet’s current or future medications. Always speak with your veterinarian about anything your pet is taking.
  • Excessive intake — Because fat-soluble vitamins are stored in the body, unnecessary supplementation by multivitamin or vitamin-rich foods (e.g., fruits and vegetables) can lead to toxic levels. Vitamin overdose can cause various complications, including seizures, heart abnormalities, and death. 
  • Diet imbalance — In addition to excessive vitamin intake, homemade diets may contribute to vitamin deficiencies. Consult a veterinary nutritionist to ensure your pet’s homemade diet is balanced and appropriate.
  • Toxicity — Never give dogs human multivitamins or supplements, because human vitamin ratios are inappropriate for dogs and are commonly made with toxic ingredients, such as xylitol, fluoride, caffeine, or ephedra. 

How Do You Choose a Multivitamin for Your Dog?

If your veterinarian recommends a multivitamin for your dog, ask them for a specific product recommendation. This is the best way to ensure your dog receives a safe, proven, effective multivitamin. If you prefer to do your own research, use good judgment and extreme caution. Look past the product’s label promises, and check for the following:

  • Quality control — Find out if the manufacturer uses independent (i.e., unbiased third-party) quality control, and check their production standards. 
    • The brand and product should be recognizable and well-established. Data from studies or clinical testing should be available for public review.
    • Look for products that bear the National Animal Supplement Council (NASC) seal, or list FDA or AAFCO compliance in their product information.
    • Ask your veterinarian for final approval. Before purchasing the product, send them the product information for review.
  • Purchase only veterinary products — Some pharmaceutical companies manufacture human and animal products. Always carefully check the label.
  • Check the ingredients — Look for products manufactured in the United States, with recognizable ingredients and no artificial preservatives or dyes. If your pet has food allergies, read the label closely.
  • Formulation and flavor — Multivitamins most frequently come in capsules, chewable tablets, and soft chews. Chewable vitamins are more readily absorbed, but if your dog is picky, a capsule may be easier to disguise in food.
  • Digestibility — Vitamins can be hard on the stomach. Check the manufacturer’s website and read customer reviews to determine other pets’ response to the product.
  • Cost — While we all think our dogs are priceless, you’ll want to do the math and determine how long one bottle will last. Some large-breed dogs may need multiple chews or capsules per day. 

When you love your dog, you want to do everything you can to ensure his or her health, happiness, and longevity. However, to make the right decision about nutritional products and dietary supplements, always speak to your dog’s veterinarian. While no magic pill can optimize your dog’s health, a trusting veterinary relationship can provide reassurance that your dog is receiving everything he or she needs.