Vitamins are practically a household term. Many of us take some kind of vitamin, like a multivitamin, everyday. Without question, they’re considered a staple of good health. But what is a vitamin? And more importantly, which vitamins are essential for dogs in order to stay healthy?
In this article, we’re going to narrow down the definition of a vitamin. We’ll also discuss the most essential ones needed by dogs for their basic health needs, as well as natural food sources where they can be found.
We’ll also chat about situations where you might need to consider supplementing a multivitamin for your pooch and factors to take into account when you’re selecting one.
What’s a Vitamin?
The term vitamin can have a pretty broad connotation. The “vitamin” aisle of pharmacies contains a wide assortment of supplements ranging from minerals to omega fatty acids, to actual vitamins, like Vitamin D.
But while the term vitamin is sometimes used in a more general sense to describe a health supplement (which may contain one or more actual vitamins), vitamins themselves have a more specific definition.
True vitamins are always organic compounds (as opposed to a mineral like Copper), are essential for normal growth and nutrition, and are required in small quantities in the diet because they can’t (in most cases) be made by the body. Most vitamins have a letter designation +/- a number with it, like A, D, E, and B12.
Vitamins fall under the category of dietary supplements. So you might ask, how is a supplement different from a drug? Well, the FDA considers drugs to be something other than food that affects the structure or function of the body. Drugs are also intended for diagnosing, treating, or preventing a disease.
Dietary supplements by contrast, can’t be labeled as treatments or cures for specific diseases, and can’t claim to alleviate symptoms of a particular disease process.
We’ll chat about this a little bit later on, but supplements also cannot legally be reviewed or considered as drugs. As such, supplements don’t require prescriptions and can be purchased just about anywhere.
Thus, vitamins are not considered drugs, especially since you are kind of adding to or bolstering a natural nutrient the body already needs for some basic functions, and because many of them can be acquired through a proper diet.
The 12 Essential Dog Vitamins
Now we’ll review all of the specific vitamins considered essential for dogs. Details of vitamin function, as well as natural foods containing them was sourced through the National Institutes of Health.
Our vitamins fall into two main categories, fat soluble and water soluble.
The difference simply refers to fat soluble vitamins being stored in fat. This does mean that they cannot be easily excreted by the body and so while they are essential for body functions, they can reach toxic levels if there’s too much of them.
By contrast, there is almost no limit on water soluble vitamins, because any excesses in the body simply get passed out with urine.
Fat Soluble Vitamins
Ever heard that eating carrots is important for vision? It’s true! At least mostly. While eating carrots and sweet potatoes won’t give you superhero vision, they both contain Vitamin A, which is essential for light absorption by the retina at the back of the eye. It’s also important for skin regeneration and for the normal function of the heart, lungs, kidneys, and other organs. Spinach, fish oil, eggs, liver, meat, and dairy are also sources of Vitamin A.
Also called the sunshine vitamin, we can all synthesize Vitamin D to some degree when UV rays hit our skin. Vitamin D is a vital part of calcium regulation, which in turn is important for bone and teeth development. It helps the body absorb both calcium and phosphorus from the digestive tract, which are essential minerals for bone. Dietary sources include fish oil, egg yolk, beef, and cottage cheese.
Vitamin E is best known as being a powerful antioxidant. An antioxidant is a molecule that binds up substances called free radicals, which are essentially unstable atoms that roam the body, causing damage to cells. Vitamin E is best found in leafy green vegetables like kale and spinach, whole grains, liver, and eggs.
Vitamin K is needed for bone metabolism and the body’s normal blood clotting mechanisms, without which spontaneous bleeding would occur. This is best illustrated by the concerns about dogs eating rat poison. Certain rat poisons work by binding up Vitamin K in the body, leading to bleeding and death. In dogs suffering from rat poison ingestion, supplementing Vitamin K reverses the effect. Vitamin K can be found naturally in leafy green vegetables, cabbage, and fish.
Water Soluble Vitamins
Vitamin B1 (Thiamine)
There are several different B vitamins. Our first one, thiamine, is required for basic cell and neurologic function. It helps generate energy for cells and is needed for moving sensory impulses between neurons. It can be found in meat, fish, and whole grains.
Vitamin B2 (Riboflavin)
Riboflavin plays a major role in cell function throughout the body and in the production of energy, especially from fats. Look for it in yeast, liver, eggs, and dairy products.
Vitamin B3 (Niacin)
Niacin is important for skin health and for helping to break down sugars and fats into more useful components. It can be found in meat, fish, and cereal grains.
Vitamin B5 (Pantothenic Acid)
The “pan” in pantothenic acid is a root word that means “all”. True to its naming origins, pantothenic acid plays a huge role in nearly every metabolic reaction in the body, as well as the creation of energy for cells. It can be found in meat, eggs, and dairy products.
Vitamin B6 (Pyridoxine)
Amino acids are the building blocks of all proteins in the body. Pyridoxine acts as a coenzyme in metabolism of amino acids. It also plays a crucial role in cognitive development by helping to make neurotransmitters. Natural sources include dairy products and cereals, with lower levels found in yeast, wheat germ, and meat.
Vitamin B8 (Biotin)
Similar to Niacin, Biotin is important for skin health. It’s also needed for breaking down glucose, fatty acids, and amino acids, all building blocks of important nutrients our bodies need. It can be found in yeast, liver, eggs, and sweet potatoes.
Vitamin B9 (Folic Acid)
Folic acid is a pretty crucial B vitamin, as it helps to synthesize DNA, the basic building block of life. As such, it’s vital for multiplication of cells throughout the body. Folic acid can be found in the highest levels in spinach, liver, asparagus, and brussels sprouts. It can also be found in fruits, eggs, dairy, meat, poultry, and grains.
Vitamin B12 (Cobalamin)
Cobalamin is necessary for the creation of new red blood cells, and similar to folic acid, DNA synthesis. Look for it in fish, meat, poultry, eggs, and milk.
The Long-Lost B Vitamins
You might have noticed some breaks in the numbers of B vitamins. Notably, we’re missing B4, B7, B10, and B11. This is because, while adenine, inositol, PABA, and salicylic acid were once considered vitamins, they technically don’t fit the strict definition anymore. While these nutrients are no longer considered true vitamins, they still serve some important functions in the body.
To Be Essential or Not Essential: Vitamin C
Known by many as the immune-boosting vitamin (as well as the cause of scurvy if you’re a person deficient in it) ascorbic acid has many crucial functions for health. According to NIH, it’s needed for protein metabolism, synthesis of the connective tissue component collagen as well as for certain neurotransmitters.
Vitamin C can be found plentifully in fruits, as well as vegetables like green beans and zucchini. But while it may be worth supplementing sometimes for its immune-boosting and antioxidant properties, it’s one water soluble vitamin that’s actually not essential for dogs and not necessary to provide in a dog’s diet. That’s because dogs, as well as most animals, have a distinction from we humans (and, as it turns out, guinea pigs too), as most animals can synthesize Vitamin C on their own.
When Should I Consider a Vitamin Supplement?
One of the prerequisites for being a vitamin is that it can only be obtained through the diet. And diet is a main area where humans and pets often differ.
Humans take supplements because our diets are very variable depending on our personal tastes, preferences, or beliefs. We all know someone among our friends or family that has a very selective palate. Take them to an all-you-can-eat buffet and they’ll pile their plate with chicken fingers and nothing else.
Or, take vegetarians, vegans, and other folks with selective diets. Whether for nutritional needs or personal beliefs there may even be many readers out there that fall into one of those dietary categories, and I respect those needs and choices.
However, the reality is that restricting meat, fish, dairy, or a combination of them also restricts sources you can get essential vitamins from. Depending on how narrow dietary options are, including a daily multivitamin might be necessary to get the needed levels of these essential nutrients.
But now, let’s consider dogs. A large majority of pups are on commercially prepared diets. There are so many now available that a pet consumer can select almost any kind to fit their pet’s dietary needs or their own personal dietary beliefs.
Fortunately, although there can be a lot of variability in ingredients, many commercial diets are formulated to be balanced and supplemented with the correct ratios of essential vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and fatty acids needed. To know if your own pooch’s diet meets basic nutritional needs, look for the statement from the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO).
The nutritional adequacy statement, as it’s called, is typically found on the back or sides of the food packaging. This statement looks to answer three questions. First, does a diet contain all the essential nutrients a pet needs? Second, how was this determined? Third, for what age pup or life stage is the diet appropriate?
Look for a statement indicating the food is complete and balanced as determined by AAFCO nutrient profiles as well as feeding trials.
A majority of US states follow AAFCO and FDA regulations, meaning that many commercial diets, in order to be legally sold across the country, are required to meet these nutrient profiles. But this isn't the case for all and there is some flexibility in how this is done, so make sure to have a keen eye on your pet's food label.
Pet food labels can be confusing. To help you suss out the most important information a little bit better, make sure to check out this article on pet food labels from the Clinical Nutrition Service at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University.
Dogs may not require a vitamin supplement if they’re eating a well-balanced diet. And supplementing certain vitamins, especially the fat soluble A, D, E, and K, when there’s no need, can be problematic. Excess Vitamin D can lead to dangerously high levels of calcium in the bloodstream. Too much Vitamin A can lead to changes in the skin, bone, and vision.
But for many reasons, not all dogs are on well-balanced diets. I have patients that are extremely picky eaters and refuse to eat anything other than boiled chicken, beef and maybe some eggs, much less kibble.
Home-cooked diets are also gaining popularity. As folks become more conscious of what they eat themselves, they want more control over what their pets eat. But while well-intentioned, a majority of home cooked diets have at least one or more nutritional deficiencies. This is why home-cooked diets are best developed by a board-certified veterinary nutritionist, especially if there are any additional health issues a home-cooked diet is supposed to address.
But in cases where, for whatever reason, a well-balanced diet isn’t present and you have to go it alone, a multivitamin like Four-In-One may be beneficial to include.
There can also be specific situations where supplementing a particular vitamin may be needed or beneficial. If you have questions about the nutritional adequacy of your pup’s diet, or if you’re not sure if a vitamin supplement may be beneficial, make sure to have a chat with your veterinarian.
How Do I Choose a Vitamin Supplement for My Dog?
There are a multitude of dog vitamins out there, but it’s important when selecting what one is best for your pup to understand how vitamin supplements are regulated.
The main government body involved with policing supplements is the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The Federal Trade Commission has a smaller but very important role in reviewing the validity of any televised or broadcast advertisements.
Now, unlike drugs, supplements don’t require government approval to be made or sold. And this is an important point we’ll return to. The law doesn’t require that supplements be considered safe prior to release into the market and it also doesn’t require label claims to be proven accurate or truthful prior to release. But this changes once a product is released. The FDA then has authority to review the product, its label claims, and review any adverse events that have been reported.
Now while the government itself cannot control how supplements are manufactured and released onto the market, there is a non-governmental body that helps promote quality control. The National Animal Supplement Council (NASC) is established for the purpose of maintaining the integrity of the animal health supplement industry. It promotes safety, accuracy, and quality of pet supplements.
NASC members like Healthy Solutions for Pets, are subjected to very high standards, including independent audits of production facilities. Supplement manufacturers are not required to be NASC members or to comply with NASC standards. This is why you should always look for supplements bearing the NASC Quality Seal, because it means the manufacturer has gone above and beyond to make sure they are providing a quality product.
And always make sure to select a vitamin made specifically for dogs. Human multivitamins, especially flavored ones, may contain harmful additives like artificial sweeteners that can cause toxicities in pups. The ratios and amounts of certain nutrients in human multivitamins may also be inappropriate for pets.
What Other Things are Essential?
As mentioned, most multivitamins contain other nutrients besides just actual vitamins. We don’t cover these in great detail, but what are some of them?
Minerals like calcium, phosphorus, potassium, and iron are needed in certain amounts and ratios for multiple processes throughout the body. It’s important to be careful about excessive supplementation of these however, as excesses can cause toxicities.
For example, some folks may wish to supplement their large breed puppy’s diet with extra calcium for bone growth. However, this has been known to be unnecessary as long as the puppy is on an appropriate large breed puppy diet with the right ratios of calcium and phosphorus. Supplementing excess calcium can lead to developmental bone abnormalities.
Similarly, some well-meaning pet parents may consider supplementing their senior dog’s diet with calcium for fear of osteoporosis. After all, osteoporosis affects millions of people every year. However, true osteoporosis as a disease is very rarely seen in pets, and so the extra calcium being supplemented is only likely to cause problems without providing much benefit.
A Delicate Balance: Omega Fatty Acids
Omega fatty acids are pretty vital nutrients. Omega-6 fatty acids are pro-inflammatory, which is actually important and needed by the body, but excesses can be problematic. Because omega-3 fatty acids are generally anti-inflammatory, a roughly equal balance of the two is necessary to keep things in equilibrium. But while omega-3’s are found in only a few select dietary sources, omega-6’s are found in abundance, shifting that special balance for many dogs to one of pro-inflammation.
Fish oil is very rich in omega-3 fatty acids. With anti-inflammatory properties, fish oil can be beneficial for a healthy skin and coat, as well as joints. While human fish oil supplements are safe for dogs, fish oil comes in many formulations just for dogs too, like Salmon Oil Soft Chews. Because dosing can vary depending on the reason for use, always make sure to discuss this with your vet before starting.
The Dynamic Duo: Glucosamine and Chondroitin
You may find, especially in a senior multivitamin, glucosamine and/or chondroitin. These nutrients are both natural components found in joint cartilage. While it’s true that evidence-based studies are up and down about glucosamine’s efficacy for arthritis, enough anecdotal reports of benefit are out there to make glucosamine/chondroitin one of the most frequently recommended dog supplements, especially for senior pups who are more prone to the effects of arthritis.
Always Ask Before Adding
As mentioned before, always make sure to first discuss with your vet any new multivitamins or supplements you might consider adding to your pet’s daily regimen. Sometimes, folks make assumptions about their own pet’s health based on their experience with their own health or that of another family member.
And sometimes this makes sense, but in other cases, it simply doesn’t. Take the example of the well-meaning pet parent who is concerned about osteoporosis in their senior dog and decides to start a calcium supplement, leading to an eventual hypercalcemia and associated health problems. A simple discussion with their vet would have revealed that osteoporosis is rare in dogs and supplementing extra calcium could be causing more harm than good.
Before starting a multivitamin, discuss first with your vet if there’s a dietary need for one. If you cook for your pet at home, get some recommendations from your pup’s doc on what vital nutrients might be missing and how to supplement them either with additions of whole food components, or an appropriate multivitamin.