Clearing Up Confusion on Drugs vs. Supplements for Horses

In simplest terms, a supplement and a drug may seem like they belong in the same category. After all, they’re both products that you add to your horse’s program to help him look and feel his best, right? While it’s true that they’re often given the same way, supplements and drugs serve very different purposes. Because there’s a lot of misinformation out there on this topic, we’re going to separate the fact from the fiction and help you understand the unique roles that supplements and drugs play in your horse’s health.

Drilling down: The definition of a drug
Any product that claims to “cure, treat, prevent, or mitigate disease or affect the structure/function of the body in a manner other than food” is considered to be a drug, and must be approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). As part of the approval process, the drug company has to prove that the drug is safe and effective for a specific use in a specific animal species. This is a very expensive, and very lengthy process for the companies, with no guarantee of success. This is why drugs often have to carry high price tags, because the manufacturer has invested so heavily in bringing those products to market. For instance, GastroGard (which contains the active ingredient omeprazole) is a prescription drug that is approved by the FDA for the treatment of gastric ulcers in horses.

Supplements simplified: Their role in your horse’s health
Whether they’re targeted to your horse’s stomach, his joints, or anything in between, supplements are designed to support healthy structures in your horse and/or their normal functions. By “structures” we mean organs and body systems like your horse’s stomach, and by “functions” we mean what that structure does. In this example, the function of the stomach would be assisting in the breakdown of food.

That’s why you’ll never see the words “heal” or “cure” on any of our supplement labels – because a supplement doesn’t prevent a future disease or treat an existing one. If it did, it would be a drug, as we just learned! To provide a parallel example to the one we gave above, SmartGut Ultra Pellets are a supplement designed to help maintain stomach health in horses under stress.

At this point, you may be wondering why you would choose to support your healthy horse with a supplement. It’s because whether your horse lives in your backyard or in a world-class show facility, he’s exposed to some level of unnatural stress that can put his health and well-being at risk. While there are management changes you can make to address these practices, not every area of stress can be minimized or avoided – jumping puts stress on your horse’s joints and there’s no way around it.

However, there are ways you can make sure your horse has what he needs to stay on top of his game. Along with working closely with your veterinarian, starting your horse on a supplement program now is a smart way to provide daily, ongoing support in the areas where your horse is experiencing stress.

Weeding through false claims
Though drugs are strictly regulated by the FDA, that’s not the case for the supplement industry. Because the industry is less strictly regulated by the federal government, horse owners can find a slew of supplements that make unsubstantiated, outlandish claims that they can prevent laminitis, treat arthritis, and even cure cancer. But that doesn’t mean the entire equine supplement industry is engaged in a free-for-all!

In 2001, a nonprofit industry group called the National Animal Supplement Council (NASC) was founded with the goal of improving and standardizing the animal health supplement industry. Before the NASC existed, there were no standards for what a company making companion animal supplements could claim on its labels, no standards for manufacturing practices, and no standards for tracking adverse events (side effects). Since its formation, the NASC has implemented national standards for labeling, manufacturing, and adverse event reporting so that customers will know what they are getting for their supplement dollar.

NASC members must embrace the following:
• Accurate labels with complete ingredient listings
• No unsubstantiated claims on labels or in advertisements
• Manufacturing of products under rigorous quality standards
• Ensuring the safety of the ingredients by tracking adverse events

Because SmartPak is committed to supporting healthy horses with high-quality supplements, we’re proud to be long-standing, founding members of the NASC. However, NASC membership is voluntary, and there are many supplement manufacturers who choose not to conform to labeling and marketing standards. As a result, you will see supplements that claim to treat or prevent diseases and conditions such as ulcers or arthritis. That’s why our general rule of thumb is, if a supplement’s advertising claim seems too good to be true, it probably is.

Putting it all together
When it comes to your horse’s health, we always recommend working closely with your veterinarian to design the appropriate management program for his or her needs. Depending on whether you’re actively managing a disease or you want to provide proactive support for a specific area of your horse’s health, that program could include drugs, supplements, or a combination of both. In some cases, an approach that includes a drug, a supplement, and management changes (such as providing your horse with more turnout), may be beneficial.

If you’re not looking to treat a specific disease or condition in your horse, providing proactive support with the right supplement program is a smart choice for your horse’s health. That’s because due to the challenges of modern horsekeeping, every horse is subjected to unnatural stress. But by making lifestyle and management changes and providing the support your horse’s body needs to cope with supplements, you can help him stay happy and healthy for years to come.