Supplements & Fresh Food Diets
Whenever possible, the nutrients your dog requires should come from unprocessed or minimally processed fresh whole foods.
Compounds in food - all the vitamins, minerals, healthy fats, amino acids, fiber and phytochemicals - have an amazing synergistic action. They strengthen each other when needed and act as a check-and-balance system where necessary. The body metabolizes nutrients that come from food better than those that come from isolated lab-made sources. Although not impossible, there's a greater chance of overdosing on a particular nutrient or supplement when it's in an isolated form than when it's in food.
But (you knew this was coming, because nutrition is never that straightforward), sometimes it is just not possible to supply every nutrient that a dog needs through food alone. There are many situations where well-chosen supplements become an important component of a dog's diet. Supplements include vitamins, minerals, amino acids, fats, and compounds found in plants.
When I choose food for a dog I take into account everything about him - age, breed, health status, environment, lifestyle, current food, food preferences, owner preference and budget - and often, adding supplements to the diet is what's best.
Reasons Why Supplements Make Sense in a Dog's Diet
Low calorie intake or high fat diets: Dogs who need fewer calories might have low nutrient intake and so supplements become necessary, otherwise there is a risk of vitamin or mineral deficiency. Likewise, diets that provide a lot of calories from fat may also fall short in certain essential nutrients and require supplements. It's important not to add vitamin or mineral supplements "just in case", otherwise you risk oversupplying certain ones or continued undersupply of others. It's best to analyze the diet first, find out what's needed and how much, and then make targeted choices.
Food intolerances or picky eaters: Dogs with food allergies or dogs who will only eat a limited number of foods may have diets that require supplements in order to fill in any missing nutrients. As an example, dogs who either can't or won't eat any kind of fish will most likely need a Vitamin D3 supplement and an alternate source of omega-3 fats. A dog who eats a primarily poultry-based diet may need supplemental iron, zinc, copper, and D3, at a minimum, depending on what else is in the diet.
Inability to consume enough of a food-soured nutrient: Sometimes a dog simply can't be fed enough of a certain food to get the specific nutrient he needs - either due to digestive upset, cost, dislike, safety concerns, or impact to the overall diet. Let's consider canned oysters as an example. Oysters are the richest source of zinc - and while I use them sparingly in diets, I would be concerned about using canned oysters as a primary source of zinc due to potential contamination issues, copper level if beef or lamb liver is already in the diet, and cost. Plus, some dogs refuse to eat them. I'd much rather see an excellent zinc supplement used, if needed, than reliance on canned oysters.
Health conditions & seniors: Some health conditions in dogs are managed through specific nutrients: marine sourced omega-3s, joint support products, nutraceuticals, herbal compounds, mushroom powders, plant extracts, concentrated amounts of amino acids, liver and cancer supportive products - the list goes on. Senior dogs tend to need additional B vitamins, omega-3s, antioxidants and joint support supplements. When a therapeutic dose of a nutrient is required it's next to impossible to supply enough of it through food alone, and supplements are the wisest choice in this situation.
Availability issues: Supplements are necessary when an essential nutrient that's only supplied by handful of whole food ingredients is not available. For example, manganese is an important trace mineral that is needed for cartilage maintenance, joint health and reproductive health. If a pet parent cannot access food sources of manganese (blue mussels, raw green tripe, and certain grains) then a supplement is needed. It's better to use a supplement than risk a deficiency and create a health issue.
Proactive health benefits: Once a dog's diet is optimized and all essential nutrients have been supplied, pet parents may want to use certain supplements to support their dog's body as they age, or try to prevent or delay progression of breed-related health conditions (even though there are no absolute guarantees of success). A qualified nutritionist can identify which supplements may benefit a particular dog.
Depending on the dog, supplements can be extremely useful. They can make a fresh food diet even better by supplying essential nutrients where needed and by providing nutritional support for dogs who have certain health conditions. The best diet is one that the dog enjoys eating, is tailored specifically to him and provides all the nutrients that will support him throughout his life.