Thirty years ago, if you’d searched for supplements for cats you would have come home empty handed. But since healthy supplements for people have become all the rage, they’re becoming more popular for pet owners too. That’s what this guide on cat supplements is all about.
Why Buy Cat Supplements?
The first thing you should know is that cats can typically get all the nutrients they need when you buy the best cat food you can find. Both wet and dry food are formulated so that your cat gets a good mix of nutrients, minerals and vitamins no matter what stage of life they’re at. That’s why you can find specially formulated kitten food (which helps them grow during their crucial growth spurt) or food for older cats to help with joint and kidney problems.
However—and it’s a big ‘however’—not all foods are what they claim to be. A recent study in the journal Scientific Reports found that 17% of wet cat food in the UK wasn’t meeting the guidelines set out in law, or their ingredients list. Some had almost none of certain minerals that they claimed to have. Others had mineral imbalances, which are just as bad. Another study found that some commercially available foods in Egypt contained dangerous levels of heavy metals.
What we’re trying to say is that you can’t be absolutely certain what’s in your cat’s food, unless you make it yourself or serve them raw meat! That’s why supplements can be useful. However, not all of them are suitable or as effective for cats. You’ll see that when you look at our list below.
What Cat Supplements are Available?
Cat vitamins and supplements are just as varied as those for people. No matter what the actual problem is, there seems to be a supplement that can help: for joint pain, there’s glucosamine and fish oil for cats. For infections, there’s lysine. But are they as effective as brands and marketing make out? Let’s take a look at some and find out. The first on our list is one that definitely works for us, but can it work for cats?
Lysine Supplement for Cats
Lysine is a popular supplement for people with the herpes simplex virus. It supposedly works by lowering the levels of arginine in the body. Arginine is an amino acid that seems to assist the herpes simplex virus to replicate, and so lowering the levels of it in the body helps you to manage the virus.
Herpes infection is very common in cats. Most cats will be exposed to it at some point during their lives. It can cause inflammation, head colds and flu-like symptoms. Flare-ups are usually triggered by stress, and it’s impossible to get rid of the virus completely. However, lysine can help people manage the condition, so why not cats?
You’ll find all kinds of sites claiming that lysine can manage your cat’s infection, but it’s not true. A study in the scientific journal BMC Veterinary Research found that lysine had no effect whatsoever for cats, and in fact, sometimes made symptoms worse. A lack of arginine in the body, caused by lysine supplementation, can be fatal for cats. The scientists found that…
“There is evidence at multiple levels that lysine supplementation is not effective for the prevention or treatment of feline herpesvirus 1 infection in cats.”
As such, we don’t recommend you buying any.
Joint Supplements for Cats
Fish oil supplements for cats are also a popular cat supplement, for obvious reasons. Fish oil supplements are supposed to help with joint mobility and pain in humans, and several brands claim that it can do the same for cats. Plus, cats love fish, so it stands to reason that they would love cat joint supplements made from fish oil too. And, typically, they do: most cats are happy to eat their food with added fish oil. But the real question is whether it’s worth it or not. Some research points to the fact that cat owners perceive their cats to be more mobile after taking fish oil. So what are the real effects?
The first thing you should know is that your results may vary. Research into fish oil for cats is patchy, and only sometimes offers a clear picture of the benefits of its use. This positive example from Veterinary Immunology and Immunopathology found that both fish oil and flaxseed oil limited the body’s inflammatory response. This promising paper therefore shows that fish oil can have the same effect in cats as it can in humans. So far, so good. Another paper showed that it can reduce joint pain in dogs, which is, again, promising.
The story isn’t all rosy, however. Fish oil can have potential adverse effects too. This paper in the Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine pointed out that fish oil can have adverse effects including:
“…altered platelet function, gastrointestinal adverse effects, detrimental effects on wound healing, lipid peroxidation, potential for nutrient excess and toxin exposure, weight gain, altered immune function, effects on glycemic control and insulin sensitivity, and nutrient-drug interactions.”
This goes to show the importance of doing your research before offering your cat supplements. Fish oil seems to be a little like the pharmaceutical drugs we take: they can really help with a particular condition, but can also have side effects. That being said, if you’re dead set on helping their joint problem, fish oil is your best shot.
Glucosamine Supplements for Cats
Glucosamine is another supplement that’s supposed to help with joint pain. Glucosamine itself is an important building block for most of the fundamental parts of a joint: cartilage, ligaments and tendons. Chemically speaking, it’s an amino sugar: a sugar that’s bonded with an amino acid (amino acids are what make proteins). It’s easily one of the most common supplements here in the U.S.
It would make sense, then, to get some glucosamine supplements for cats if your furry friend was feeling their age. Unfortunately, the case for glucosamine is even less clear than it is for fish oil. There are far too few studies to draw a significant conclusion as of yet. One positive example here tested the compound on dogs, and it did seem to work. Another, however, suggested that it was no better than a placebo.
That doesn’t stop vets from recommending glucosamine on a regular basis. In terms of anecdotal evidence, there are plenty who swear by it. Until more research comes out to prove the case either way, then, glucosamine might be worth a go.
Taurine Supplements for Cats
Taurine is an amino acid which is prevalent in animal tissues, and necessary for the health of many mammals including humans, dogs and cats. It’s responsible for the development and function of the heart, retina, skeletal muscles and central nervous system. As humans, we don’t need to worry about supplementing taurine in our own diets, because our bodies can naturally synthesize it.
However, according to the Journal of Nutrition, cats cannot. This means that a cat’s diet must contain sufficient taurine. According to research by the Candian Veterinary Journal, the Veterinary Clinics of North America and the Journal of Nutrition, taurine deficiency in cats can cause:
- Retinal degeneration, leading to blindness
- Cardiomyopathy (heart disease)
- Altered white blood cell function, leading to a damaged immune system
- Abnormal growth and development in kittens
- Impaired bile production, leading to digestive and GI tract problems
When you’re buying cat food, look out for the keywords “complete and balanced”. According to the FDA, cat foods sold with this statement on the packaging must meet certain nutritional requirements. This includes containing the necessary amount of taurine. If your cat’s preferred food does not have this label, or you make your own cat food, you should seriously consider a taurine supplement for your cat. Even if you believe they’re getting enough taurine, it’s worth supplementing anyway, just in case.
Potassium Supplements for Cats
Cats can suffer from a lack of potassium as a result of their diet. This is called hypokalemia, and it can be serious. According to a study in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association (JAVMA), hypokalemia is associated with chronic kidney failure, kidney infection, general infection and neuromuscular/CNS disease. The problem isn’t as prevalent these days, because more and more cat foods offer a proper profile of vitamins and minerals. But if you feed your cat a raw or homemade diet, there’s a chance that you’re accidentally restricting their potassium intake.
Either way, there’s a clear case for potassium supplementation. Cats have no problem absorbing potassium as a supplement, which is why it can improve and prolong life in cats with kidney failure. Aside from cat supplements, it’s also possible for you to get more potassium into their diet through feeding them the following foods:
Of course, getting your cat to eat vegetables like these might be easier said than done. Be careful, though. High-potassium fruits like grapefruit and orange are toxic to cats. Do your research before adding anything new to your cat’s diet.
Iron Supplement for Cats
Anemia is possible in cats, too. Iron is an essential part of almost every living organism’s diet. Iron deficiency has a number of ill effects, chief among which is the fact that the body can’t produce red blood cells properly. Since red blood cells transport oxygen around the body, this can lead to serious problems.
Thankfully, anemia simply won’t occur if you feed your cat a regular diet. That’s because complete cat food contains all the iron they need. High iron content is found in a huge variety of foods, including most meat, yeast, wheat germ, egg yolks, oysters, beans and fruits. The most common way cats develop anemia is if they’re eating a home-cooked or vegetarian diet without iron supplementation. However, they can also have low iron levels because of major blood loss, for example after an accident.
Iron supplements are a simple and effective way to combat anemia. However, you should know that anemia in cats can either be simply a lack of iron, or a sign of an underlying disease. So if you notice that your cat has anemia, don’t just give them a supplement and be done with the problem. It may be something more serious. Talk to your vet about their anemia to find out what’s causing it.
B12 Supplements for Cats
B12 is also called “cobalamin”. It’s a vitamin which naturally occurs in animal products including meat, fish, eggs and milk. Vitamin B12 is also produced by bacterial fermentation. Most animals, including humans and cats, require a certain amount of B12 in our diets. Herbivorous animals, such as horses, usually obtain enough B12 from bacteria fermenting in their intestines.
Cats and other carnivores, however, rely on consuming B12 as part of their diet. B12 deficiency is called hypocobalaminemia, and it can be serious.
According to a case study in the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, B12 deficiency can lead to encephalopathy (brain damage). This, of course, can cause a variety of neurological and behavioral problems. Hypocobalaminemia is also associated with pancreatic insufficiency and gastrointestinal disease.
Once again, “complete and balanced” cat food should contain a sufficient amount of B12 for good health. However, to be on the safe side, a B12 supplement may be a good idea. It’s almost impossible for your cat to “overdose” on B12 as the vitamin is water-soluble, meaning the body doesn’t store the excess.
In Conclusion: Should I Buy Cat Supplements?
As you’ve now learned, there are many supplements available for you to add to your feline friend’s diet. Some are essential for health, while the benefits of others are questionable. In summary:
- Lysine is not only unnecessary for cats, but also potentially damaging. There is no evidence that it manages or treats infection, and it can even make symptoms worse.
- Fish Oil may have certain benefits, including the potential to help with joint pain. However, it can also provoke undesirable side effects. Supplement if you wish, but consider consulting your veterinarian first.
- Glucosamine may also help with joint conditions, but scientific research is severely lacking. It may be worth a try, though there’s no guarantee you’ll see results.
- Taurine, Potassium, Iron and B12 have all been scientifically shown to be essential nutrients for a cat’s diet. Deficiencies in any of them can lead to severe health problems. “Complete and balanced” cat foods should contain sufficient amounts of these nutrients. However, to be on the safe side, you can easily and safely supplement them into your cat’s diet. This is particularly important if your cats live on incomplete foods, home-made meals or a vegetarian diet.
Cats are our pets. As such, their diets consist only of the food we provide for them. It’s our responsibility as pet owners to make sure that their diets contain all of the essential nutrients needed to live a long, happy life. We’ve shown you the research, and it’s now up to you to decide what’s best for your cat. If you’re still unsure whether you should introduce supplements, speak to your veterinarian.