Stephanie Duncan is communication coordinator at the Veterinary Hospitals Association.Read Articles Written by Stephanie Duncan
The popularity of supplements such as glucosamine, calcium and probiotics is increasing in human medicine as consumers become more aware of preventive health care. According to a report published by Zion Medical Research, the global dietary supplement market was valued at $132.6 billion in 2016 and is expected to nearly double — or better — by 2022.
While these numbers show the trend in preventive human medicine, they’re also a sign of what’s to come in preventive animal medicine. The research firm Packaged Facts reported that one-third of dog-owning U.S. households and one-fifth of cat households purchased nutritional supplements for the pet in 2017 — a market estimated at nearly $1.5 billion. Pet supplement sales are growing by about 3 to 5 percent annually.
It’s safe to say that consumers of all kinds have growing awareness of the health and financial benefits of preventive medicine. But how often do clients come in to your practice and tell you, “I looked it up online and Google told me …”?
To be sure, some of them are researching pet supplements and nutraceuticals. Then they travel to the nearest retailer or click online to purchase a product they think will do the trick for their dog or cat.
While their intentions are good, clients who self-prescribe their pet’s supplements could cause more harm than good. If the pet is on a balanced diet, introducing extra minerals and vitamins might be a problem. And then consider the potential interaction between a prescribed medication and a new supplement.
Teri Skadron, DVM, who practices at Skadron Animal Hospital in West St. Paul, Minnesota, urges clients to be cautious.
“It’s so important for pet owners to ask their veterinarian which supplements to give,” Dr. Skadron said. “For example, melatonin is a widely used human supplement that has been utilized as animal supplements. However, chewable melatonin has xylitol in it.
“So, while it’s safe for humans to consume, even a small amount can be deadly for their dogs.”
To help safeguard their patients, a practitioner should be proactive and ask clients about any non-prescribed supplements or nutraceuticals being given to the pet. The query also creates an opportunity to educate the client about supplements and encourage them to buy from the practice. The veterinarian will know exactly what the patient is being given, will be able to monitor any interactions between a drug and supplement, and will be able to provide sound advice about future supplement purchases.
The Role of Supplements
A 2015 Packaged Facts survey of pet owners revealed the most commonly purchased condition-specific pet supplements support joint health, followed by heart health, skin/coat health, and digestive health or hairball prevention. Dog owners are more likely to utilize joint health supplements, while cat owners are partial to probiotics, senior formulas and omega fatty acids.
How can you determine which supplements to carry in your practice? In short, use a combination of review and research:
Review a patient’s health issues to see if any of them can be treated preventively. Would an arthritic pet, for example, benefit from glucosamine supplements? Once the needs are understood, you can begin to assess which supplements would work best.
Research your options. Examine case studies, talk with peers, and consult online information sources.
Look for Assurances
Maria O’Connor Vetscher, CVT, a veterinary practice consultant with the Veterinary Hospitals Association, has advised hospitals about which supplements would best meet their clients’ needs. She recommends ensuring that the product is made by a reputable company and that both the manufacturer and product have a proven track record. Also, she said, look for a guaranteed analysis of the supplement.
“The guaranteed analysis signals the company has paid for additional testing in order to guarantee that what is on the label is in the product and that each batch is tested to ensure the highest quality,” Vetscher said.
Carissa Williamson, DVM, the owner of Oakwood Pet Clinic in Plymouth, Minnesota, recommends reviewing the membership list of the National Animal Supplement Council, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving and standardizing the animal health supplement industry. Member companies must successfully complete a quality audit.
“Through the NASC, the companies are volunteering to be regulated and believe in the importance of regulating the supplement industry,” Dr. Williamson said.
The Role of Supplements in Business
Merriam-Webster dictionary defines supplement as “something that completes or makes an addition.” This is what supplements and nutraceutical treats are to the approach one takes when treating a patient: as a preventive measure or to complement a prescribed pharmaceutical or established treatment plan.
Supplements are not a major source of income at Dr. Skadron’s hospital, nor does she want them to be.
“We want to be known as the place where clients can come ask about supplements and have it become part of the whole patient care service we provide,” she said.
Dr. Williamson’s team is very knowledgeable about supplements.
“They support the sales process by showing clients the products we carry and talking with them after the appointment about the benefits of supplements,” she said.
Promoting and Selling Supplements
One of the biggest sales hurdles is the notion that over-the-counter products sold at a veterinary practice are going to be more expensive than what’s offered at a nearby retailer and that a human version can be found for less.
Consider melatonin. Should the supplement be recommended and the pet owner told it’s available down the street, there’s no guarantee the client will select the safest, most effective product. They might base their purchase decision on price or convenience alone.
Sending clients to a retailer for a supplement isn’t always safe, nor is it beneficial to the practice. Instead, educate clients using a four-prong approach:
- Connect: Ask clients whether they or anyone they know are taking supplements for a specific health reason. It’s an excellent way to get a client to understand how supplements can help people and their pet. Also, point to similar cases you have handled and explain how supplements made a difference for the pet.
- Simplify the benefits: It’s one thing to say a specific supplement is formulated to alleviate a specific condition, but it’s another for the client to understand what makes the supplement work and what it’s working on. Dr. Skadron, for example, breaks down how glucosamine works at a high level. “I talk about its mechanism of action and share that it slows down the enzymes that break down cartilage that leads to arthritis,” she said. “It’s a simple statement that is understandable and still educational.”
- Keep it safe: Remind clients that while they might find a similar supplement sold for a few dollars less at a retailer, there is no guarantee the product possesses the same purity, formulation or active ingredients as the one offered at the practice.
- Manage expectations: While prescription medicines can bring fast changes, supplements take time. Clients aren’t going to see a pet’s dry skin cured overnight by one dose of fatty acids, so be sure to explain that supplements are designed to deliver gradual improvement.
Supplements provide a practitioner with the opportunity to support both the physical health of the patient and the financial health of the business. Understanding a patient’s needs and researching the products best suited to meet those needs will help determine what should be sold.
As you become more comfortable with the products and begin to see the results in your patients, consider what other conditions might be treated with supplements, and then scale your product line.