Supplements from A to Z

There are a number of dietary supplements available that retailers can recommend to their small-animal-owning customers.


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These days, there are diets for almost all small pets, and these products include all the proper amounts of vitamins and minerals. Most of the time, these diets do not need to be supplemented. However, illness, injury, stress, pregnancy and aging can increase an animal’s need for certain nutrients. Supplementation is also necessary if a fortified diet is not available or if the animal refuses to eat all of it. For these reasons, the market also offers a wide array of dietary supplements for small animals.

Dietary supplements for small animals can be divided into three 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. Digestive aids help maintain the proper operation of the digestive system. They are usually designed to stay in the digestive tract rather than be absorbed into the bloodstream like a nutritional supplement. Lastly, special purpose dietary additives are often formulated to reduce an annoying by-product of pets, such as shedding or waste odors.

The best-known dietary supplements are vitamins and minerals. Vitamins come in two forms: water-soluble and fat-soluble. The water-soluble vitamins—C and B vitamins—are stored in the body only in limited amounts, so they must be ingested frequently for optimal health. They are easily eliminated from the body in the 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. They are much harder for the body to eliminate, and high doses of these vitamins, especially vitamin A, can be toxic. Beta-carotene is a water-soluble nutrient that is converted to vitamin A in the body, and it is non-toxic even in high doses.

Fatty acids are nutrients used by the body to create fats necessary for the proper functioning of the skin. Essential fatty acids cannot be formed in the body but must be obtained from the diet. A nutritional supplement containing essential fatty acids can be helpful for animals with a dry coat or skin.

For an animal losing weight due to illness, stress or pregnancy, a calorie supplement product can be helpful. These 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, along with vitamins and minerals. There are a variety of calorie supplements on the market for carnivores. Although there is a special diet for herbivores, it is available only through veterinarians. I have found that an excellent calorie supplement for rodents is powdered human infant formula reconstituted with water.

Digestive aids for small pets include supplements to treat diarrhea, improve digestion and prevent hairball blockages. Stress or illness can create an imbalance in the intestinal flora, causing diarrhea in small animals. This can be treated with probiotics, which are good intestinal bacteria. Probiotics are especially recommended for animals on antibiotic treatments. 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 the absorption of nutrients.

Ferrets and rabbits are both prone to developing hairballs, and this is aggravated by the fact that they cannot vomit them up like cats can. Some anti-hairball supplements contain psyllium, a natural fiber, and some contain petrolatum. Both products are meant to help the hairball pass. Rabbits can also be given papaya tablets, which contain a natural enzyme that can help dissolve the hair.

Guinea pigs are one of the few animals that need supplemental vitamin C in their diet. The best way to supply this is with chewable vitamin C tablets. Guinea pigs love them, and they are definitely more fun for both the pets and the owners than putting liquid vitamins in the water bottle. I recommend that all retailers give out samples of chewable vitamin C tablets to customers who own guinea pigs. Once the owners see how much their pets love the tablets, they are an easy sale.


Debbie Ducommun has a B.A. in animal behavior and has worked in the animal field since 1982. She is 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.

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