I’m a dog person. I always wanted a dog as a child, and while my extended family all had dogs, we never had one in our home. I finally got my wish just over a decade ago. My wife and I were referred to a breeder with an excellent reputation for raising healthy, family-friendly Labrador Retrievers. Within moments of meeting a tiny black lab, we immediately put a deposit down. When we took Casey home a few months later she was healthy – a ball of kinetic energy. The breeder offered us a health guarantee – free of hip and elbow dysplasia, supported by certifications from the dog’s parents and grandparents. The breeder recommended we use a specific brand of food (which we ignored), and other than vaccinating her and promising not to breed her, there were few conditions for the guarantee. We were excited “parents” and that first year was a lot of fun.
At about 12 months of age, Casey started limping. At first we thought it was a temporary consequence of boisterous play. It was initially subtle, but then became very obvious – she started walking differently, and it didn’t go away. The x-rays confirmed what we feared: elbow dysplasia. Our breeder was deeply apologetic – consistent with the guarantee, she offered to replace our dog. Giving up our pet was out of the question, so we started looking at treatment options. The veterinarian offered surgery, but even he wasn’t enthusiastic, citing the very real likelihood it would do nothing. Knowing the toxicity of anti-inflammatory drugs, I wasn’t optimistic that would be tolerable for the long run. Instead we went the supplement route.
Around 2002 or so, there seemed to be guarded optimism about the potential of glucosamine and chondroitin to help with joint pain. We obtained a pharmaceutical (human) supply and started giving it three times daily. The limping seemed to improve. At best, it definitely didn’t worsen. Casey was still stiff after exercise, and the limp never went away. But she was happy and we were relieved. We gave glucosamine and chondroitin consistently for at least five years. Her health was fine until she started putting on weight – almost 20 pounds over one year – which is a lot for a 60lb dog. The pain increased, and limping was much more noticeable. The veterinarian suggested we test her thyroid. Sure enough, she was hypothyroid. After several months of levothyroxine and a switch to a calorie-reduce diet, her weight dropped, her limp improved, and life went on. It was about this time I started wondering about the effectiveness of the glucosamine and chondroitin. The evidence in human trials was increasingly conclusive that the supplements were ineffective. Was it doing anything at all for Casey? Had I fooled myself? After reading a very critical article (it may have been this one) I finally decided on a stopping trial: I’d look for signs of pain or worsening mobility, and I’d restart the supplement if I spotted it.
You can probably guess what happened: After I discontinued the supplement, there was no objective difference in her mobility. I’d fooled myself for almost five years, and while the supplement probably didn’t cause any harm, I had wasted hundreds of dollars. Unless I’d read the evidence and conducted my own trial, I’d probably still be an advocate today, influenced only by my own pet and my anecdotal evidence.
If human supplements are the “Wild West” of regulation, pet supplements seem to be an order of magnitude worse. Not only are there effectively no limits on claims, there’s even less evidence to evaluate. Breeders may lack science literacy, and even veterinarians seem to have varying commitments to science-based medicine. The entire system (at least from a consumer perspective) seems to place the anecdote as the most credible source of information that exists. Never mind the evidence, just read the testimonials. Credible sources of information like SkeptVet seem to be the exception, rather than the rule.
A fellow dog owner and skeptic recently asked me about a supplement called NuVet that his breeder had insisted he purchase with his dog. Like my breeder, his dog came with a “health guarantee” – but this one came with a condition: His “health guarantee” would be void unless he purchased NuVet for several years. To prove he purchased it, he had to phone in his order (it’s not sold in stores) and quote a specific breeder number. He was told this process was necessary “to confirm it is being purchased.” Smelling a kickback scheme, I did some digging.
What is NuVet?
Nuvet Plus Canine (there’s also a feline version) is a vitamin supplement labelled as containing specific amounts of vitamins A, C, E, the minerals potassium, zinc, calcium, selenium, and phosphorus. It also contains an unlabelled amount of the following: blue-green algae, brewer’s yeast, cat’s claw, evening primrose oil, shark cartilage, oyster shell, alpha amylase, beta carotene, pine bark, papain, L-methionine, alfalfa, chicken liver, vitamin B1 (thiamin), vitamin B2 (riboflavin), vitamin B3 (niacin), vitamin B5 (pantothenic acid), vitamin B6 (pyridoxine), vitamin B12, vitamin D, vitamin K, manganese, magnesium, iron, copper, amino acids (tryptophan, threonine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, cystine, phenylalanine, tyrosine, valine, arginine, histidine, alanine, aspartic acid, glutamic acid, glycine).
There’s also a NuJoint Plus supplement that contains glucosamine, chondroitin, MSM (methylsulfonylmethane) and vitamin C.
What is the rationale for the ingredients in NuVet?
According to the manufacturer, NuVet Labs:
NuVet Labs® has spent over 8 years to create a product designed to attack the causes of disease instead of just covering up the symptoms. To do this we put together a team of top scientific, medical and pet industry professionals that shared our desire to find real solutions to an ever growing pet health dilemma.
There’s no information provided on how the ingredients were selected. The dose is the same for dogs 6lbs to 99 lbs: 1 wafer per day.
What claims are made about NuVet?
The statements made on the NuVet website are typical of human dietary supplements, with vague promises and scientifically meaningless marketing statements like:
- “ground-breaking formulas”
- “designed to fight illnesses at their root source”
- “strengthen immune systems”
- “focuses on the root cause of illness and disease while simultaneously boosting your pet’s immune system and overall health”
- “a precise formula of vitamins, minerals, enzymes, herbs and antioxidants that performs synergistically”
- “compounded to maintain their integrity and bio-digestibility for complete cellular infusion”
- “these crucial elements can help your pet overcome illnesses, allergies and diseases”
- “there are more free radicals actively destroying the cell membrane than our body can defend against” …”there is a boosting of the immune system and a decrease in the ravages of free radicals”
- “Formulas that contain high quality minerals, a full range of amino acids, proteins and antioxidants – help to detoxify the blood stream.”
The manufacturer claims that NuVet can benefit the following: allergies, cataracts, colitis, diabetes, fleas, hot spots, infections, itching and scratching, kidney [sic], mange, seizures, tear stains, tumors.
What is the evidence supporting the claims made about NuVet?
There is no published information made available or cited on the manufacturer’s website to demonstrate that NuVet has ever been subjected to any rigorous or controlled clinical studies. While the manufacturer refers to “over 8 years to create a product designed to attack the causes of disease”, none of that research is cited or appears to have been published. The CEO notes:
An independent laboratory tested several dogs and cats, varying in age, size, and health conditions, under the direct supervision of a team of veterinarians. The results were better than we ever could have hoped for and now we are proud to be able to produce a nutritional pet supplement that is second to none.
At best this product appears to have been given to a small number of animals. No information is provided to describe how the product was tested, or how it was found to be effective against the long list of “ailments” for which it is claimed to be effective. There is no safety data provided.
Examining the list of ingredients directly, I could located no published evidence to demonstrate that any of the ingredients, when administered as supplement to pets, as a supplement to nutritionally appropriate pet food (e.g., meets Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) requirements) can meaningfully address any of the “ailments” cited by the manufacturer. The amounts of most of the ingredients are not stated, and given the dosage form (a wafer) it’s unlikely to contain enough per dose to be meaningful. From a biochemical perspective, there is no reason to expect any of the ingredients will offer any benefit to pets that eat a regular diet. And as has been now definitively established, glucosamine and chondroitin appear to be clinically useless supplements – for pets and humans.
Is there any evidence dogs need NuVet, or any supplements?
No. NuVet is an example of the “one true cause” disease claim – in this case, NuVet seems to believe that the “one true cause” of disease is a lack of dietary antioxidants. Yet there’s no evidence to demonstrate that the numerous “ailments” mentioned are caused by a lack of dietary antioxidants, or can be treated with antioxidant supplements. The arguments made by the manufacturer are simplistic to the point of absurdity – there is no obvious understanding of pet physiology or biochemistry. I have seen more sophisticated science at public school science fairs. Based on what’s know about animal medicine it is absurd to think a vitamin supplement will prevent conditions like kidney disease, cancer, or epilepsy. Importantly, as I have noted in humans – antioxidant supplements may actually do more harm than good. Consequently, before we give any supplement, we should be fairly certain it will do more good than harm. With NuVet, the evidence of benefit hasn’t been demonstrated with good scientific studies.
But what about the hundreds of testimonials?
I fooled myself giving my dog glucosamine and chondroitin. When we give a medication or supplement, we want to see a benefit – and often we do. It could be our own perception fooling us, or it could be the normal waxing and waning of the underlying condition, where the condition improves on its own, yet we attribute it to the supplement. It doesn’t mean the improvement is real, or that it’s due to a supplement. It’s easy to find hundreds of claims of effectiveness for NuVet online. Objective, conclusive evidence is completely absent. Testimonials are a poor form of evidence, and don’t provide any assurance that NuVet does anything meaningful.
What about the health guarantee?
There appears to be a close financial relationship between breeders and NuVet labs, with so many breeders using the same terminology and making the same purchase demands. It is even embedded into the ownership contracts you can find online:
The buyer agrees said puppy will receive Nu Vet Plus tablets for a period of AT LEAST (1) one year from date of this contract and a boosted immunity builder to whatever his environment might be during his critical growth stages. Nu Vet Plus tablets supplements are required as to ensure that said puppy will have optimum protection part of your pet’s health guarantee. SEE ATTACHED ADDENDUM. Once you, the buyer, see the beneficial effects and wonderful results from this mineral supplement, we hope that you will continue the program for the rest of your dog’s life to ensure he/she has a long, happy one. ALL of the breeding dogs at SOUTHERN CHARM MINI AUSSIES are taking Nu Vet Plus tablets as a part of the health guarantee we give you that we take the best possible care of the dogs we choose to reproduce.
Some breeders require NuVet to be purchased for a year, and others expect you to give NuVet for much longer – sometimes for life. And perhaps not surprisingly, those breeders are all using very similar wording when making claims about the product. It’s not surprising that breeders link the supplement to a “health guarantee”: it gives breeders an additional reason to refuse to stand behind the quality of their breeding. Moreover, I suspect that very few owners want to return their pets, meaning the kickbacks (that are widely assumed to be going to the breeder) give the breeder a steady, reliable secondary source of income.
Is NuVet a scam?
One of the signs a supplement might be a scam is the manufacturer has a web page entitled “NuVet is Not a Scam“. The other sign your supplement might be a scam is a link to a web page entitled Testimonials yet no similar page labelled Evidence.
It’s important to note that breeders that insist on the use of NuVet supplements are doing so in the absence of any credible or persuasive evidence. They are simply parroting the claims of NuVet Labs, and perhaps incorporating their own observations and personal experience. There is no published evidence that shows NuVet supplements are superior to other vitamin supplements. All that exists are anecdotes. Facts and objective evidence are lacking.
NuVet is a heavily marketed pet supplement that contains a mix of vitamins, minerals and other ingredients without any coherent scientific justification. The manufacturer appears to believe that NuVet treats a universal underlying cause of disease – a lack of dietary antioxidants. This is a claim that is not supported by credible evidence. A large number of animal breeders appear to derive a secondary income by requiring the purchase of NuVet supplements as a condition of animal sale. Despite the claims made by both manufacturers and breeders, there is no convincing or persuasive scientific evidence to suggest NuVet supplements offer any benefits to dogs whatsoever. This is supplement snake oil, and potential pet owners may want to think carefully about the credibility of any breeder who insists on NuVet purchases as a condition of pet sale.