With the advent of social media has come a new resource for horse owners. I can’t tell you how many equine-related pages I belong to on Facebook that someone asks about the best way to treat a medical condition and there is an outpouring of opinions on various treatments they have heard of or tried that worked wonders. So how do you pick out the good information from the bad?
The biggest thing to remember is that there is a HUGE difference between pharmaceuticals and nutraceuticals. While both are intended to help, one is proven and one is not. The dictionary defines a pharmaceutical as “a compound manufactured for use as a medicinal drug” while it defines a nutraceutical as “a food containing health-giving additives and having medicinal benefits,” neither of which is very helpful in telling us which is which. The thing to remember is that a pharmaceutical is a drug while a nutraceutical is a supplement.
In order to be labeled a drug, a compound must go through a rigorous testing and approval process set down by the FDA. These compounds must be PROVEN to work well and correctly for a specific disease with few side-effects before they can be approved for selling. If any little thing is changed, the drug must go through the approval process all over again. And when I say the approval process is rigorous, I mean RIGOROUS. Each drug must go through 12 steps before it is approved by the FDA. It must first go through animal trials, and then be proposed for human trials, and then there are three phases of human trials: those involving 20-80 people, those involving 80-hundreds of people, and then those containing hundreds to thousands of people. Only then can an application be submitted to the FDA, where the application must be approved so the studies can be reviewed for effectiveness and safety. The FDA then looks at the packaging and the information provided with the drug such as how to use it and what it’s for. Then the drug can be manufactured, but a final approval must be given before it is allowed to be marketed and sold.
Nutraceuticals require no such testing, and do not go through an approval process by the FDA. While the FDA does govern nutraceuticals, specific products don’t need to be evaluated before they can be sold. What the FDA does do with these is regulates the manufacturer to make sure they comply with food safety protocols and employee safety protocols. Companies that manufacture nutraceuticals are required to do their own testing to make sure it works, it’s safe, and to ensure that they comply with the ground rules set forth by the FDA. Only if something goes wrong does the FDA step in. This is because a nutraceutical is only meant to provide nutrients, not treat a specific disease. They may not claim that they can diagnose, treat, prevent, or cure a specific disease. In other words, it’s just food.
So how does this come into play when we are working with horses? The most common way I see these two things confused is in ulcer treatment and lameness treatment. So let’s talk about the easiest one to distinguish pharmaceuticals from nutraceuticals: ulcers. There are only three pharmaceuticals that work on ulcers, one of which is the best. These include omeprazole, ranitidine, and cimetidine. You may know them as Gastrogard® or Ulcergard® (Merial), Zantac 75 (now off the market due to cancer concerns), and Tagamet (now mostly sold as a generic drug). Omeprazole has been proven to keep acid from being produced while cimetidine neutralizes acid. Now there are a PLETHORA of nutraceuticals that “help” with ulcer symptoms, the first one being alfalfa hay. But then there are products like U-Gard (Smart Pak®), aloe vera, Neigh-Lox, etc. None of these can claim they “treat” ulcers, only that they help alleviate symptoms.
If you’re going to put your horse on a nutraceutical, consider using the “ACCLAIM” method:
- A company name you know: have you heard of it before?
- Clinical Experience: does it seem to work when YOU use it?
- Contents: what are the ingredients?
- Label claims: don’t use those that make statements like “cure” or “prevent”
- Administration Recommendations: how do you give it?
- Identify lot and expiration date: is this information clearly on the label?
- Manufacturer information: can you contact the company?
If you can answer each of these questions confidently from the label of the product or from your own experience, you may have better results with this supplement.
The bottom line is to look at the label. If it’s a pharmaceutical, it will say FDA approved. If it’s a nutraceutical, there may be a “not FDA approved” written on the label. If you really want to know how to TREAT a problem, please ask your veterinarian. Your horse will need an exam and then your veterinarian can prescribe the needed medication. Beyond that, they can recommend different supplements that may help to alleviate the symptoms. And this goes for ANY disease, not just ulcers. If you aren’t sure, always feel free to call your veterinarian and ask questions.