Retailers who have a good understanding of dietary supplements are in the best position to make sales to small pet owners.
Dietary supplements for small animals can be divided into three general categories: nutritional supplements, digestive aids and special-purpose dietary additives. Nutritional supplements include vitamins, minerals and other digestible metabolic compounds meant to boost the nutritional content of the diet. A digestive aid is a substance meant to help the proper operation of the digestive system. A special-purpose dietary additive is meant to help with pet-related issues like shedding or waste odors.
From A to Z
The best-known dietary supplements are vitamins and minerals. Vitamins come in two different forms: water-soluble and fat-soluble. The water-soluble vitamins–C and B–are stored in the body in limited amounts, so they must be ingested frequently for optimum health. These vitamins are easily eliminated from the body in urine if too much is consumed, so they are safe when given as a supplement. The fat-soluble vitamins–A, D and E–are stored in the body. These are harder for the body to eliminate and can be toxic if given in high doses. Beta-carotene is a water-soluble nutrient that is converted to vitamin A in the body and is non-toxic, even in high doses.
In addition, vitamins C and E are antioxidants that scavenge and destroy free radicals that can cause cancer. A nutritional supplement containing essential fatty acids can be helpful for animals with a dry coat or skin. Calorie supplement products can help animals that are not eating enough calories because they are sick, stressed or pregnant. Calorie supplement products are usually high in fat, to make it easier for an animal to take in a high amount of calories with a minimum amount of effort.
Today, there are commercial diets for almost all small pets, which include the proper amounts of vitamins and minerals. Most of the time, these diets do not need to be supplemented.
Digestive Aids & Dietary Additives
Digestive aids for small pets include supplements to treat diarrhea, improve digestion and prevent hairball blockages. An imbalance in the intestinal flora can cause diarrhea in small animals. This can be treated with probiotics, which are beneficial intestinal bacteria. Probiotics are especially recommended for animals on antibiotic treatment. Aging, stressed or ill animals also might not secrete the proper amount of their own enzymes for digestion. Adding digestive enzymes to their food can ensure better digestion and absorption of nutrients.
Ferrets and rabbits may have a problem with hairballs, but they cannot vomit them up like cats. Some anti-hairball supplements contain psyllium (a natural fiber) or petrolatum, which help the hairball pass. Rabbits can also be given papaya tablets that contain natural enzymes, which can help dissolve the hair.
Supplements produced for small animals are generally in the form of a liquid or paste. Paste products are designed to be eaten directly by the pet. Liquid vitamin products are usually meant to be put in the drinking water. Some animals refuse to drink water that tastes bad or different than normal, and vitamins are much less stable in liquid form. It is more effective to give supplements directly to pets, or to mix them in food.
Debbie Ducommun has a B.A. in animal behavior and has worked in the animal field since 1982. She’s the author of the book Rats!, the booklet Rat Health Care and, her most recent book, The Complete Guide to Rat Training: Tricks and Games for Rat Fun and Fitness.