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Flax for Fido and Seaweed for Spot: The Growing Market for Herbal Pet Care in the United States


Health-conscious consumers are not only using botanicals in record numbers for their own well-being but, increasingly, they are also turning to herbal supplements for their pets. “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander,” and many herbs that show up on the supplement aisle, such as chlorophyll/chlorella (Chlorella vulgaris, Chlorellaceae) and flax (Linum usitatissimum, Linaceae), are being marketed for companion animals, mainly cats, dogs, and horses.

According to the labeling used by Chicago-based marketing firm SPINS, the market for “pet supplements” comprises two broad categories: supplements, which deliver the botanicals in what is usually a solid dosage form, and treats and snacks, which include the botanical or blend of botanicals as a part of a baked biscuit, cookie, or other tasty reward. The market so far shows uneven growth: for the 52-week period that ended August 9, 2015, SPINS recorded total aggregate sales of $43,044,385 across both categories, a 25% decrease from the same time period in 2014. However, the market in 2014 grew by 12% over 2013. These data include products sold in the natural, specialty/gourmet, and mass-market channels in the United States. They do not take into account sales from Whole Foods Market, which does not report its sales to marketing firms, or direct sales from businesses that sell solely on the Internet.

Natural Medicine Practice for Pets

While complementary and integrative therapies for animals, including herbal supplements, are gaining popularity and visibility in the United States, they are not new practices. Traditional Chinese veterinary medicine (TCVM), along with traditional Chinese medicine for humans, has been practiced for thousands of years, using both herbal remedies and practices such as acupuncture, nutritional therapy, and therapeutic massage.

Far and away, I use Chinese herbal formulations most often because that is where most of my training lies,” wrote Clay Bernard, DVM, head veterinarian at Even Flow Veterinary Herbal and Acupuncture in Austin, Texas (email, October 28, 2015). “I see great results from them…. Many pet owners come to me looking for another option for treatment when conventional options have either been exhausted [or] unsuccessful.”

The United States has several professional societies and training programs for the practice of integrative veterinary medicine, including the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association, Veterinary Botanical Medicine Association, and the American College of Veterinary Botanical Medicine. “I think there are still a few skeptics among clinicians and pet guardians,”  Bernard admitted, “but the number seems to be shrinking. I think most people have seen results first-hand, or know someone whose animal has benefitted from acupuncture, herbs, food therapy, chiropractic, or other means of natural healing.”

The market is responding. In October 2015, the second annual Petfood and Animal Nutrition Conference was held in Chicago, Illinois. Exhibitors and speakers from all aspects of the animal nutrition industry, including natural supplements, were represented. In 2015, natural supplement brand NOW Foods released its own line of pet supplements. In 2009, former HerbalGram Managing Editor Courtney Cavaliere examined the pet supplement market from a regulatory perspective in issue 82.1

According to Bill Bookout, president and chair of the board of directors of the National Animal Supplement Council (NASC), an industry trade organization, little change has been made regarding the regulatory status of animal supplements (oral communication, November 3, 2015). The Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA) applies only to products intended for human consumption, and no parallel law creating a “dietary supplement” category for animal products exists. Therefore, products for animals are classified as either a “food” or a “drug.” Legally, most animal supplements are food additives, said Bookout. Since they are not dietary supplements, they cannot be labeled with or advertise a structure/function claim.

Long-term solutions pertaining to the regulation of supplements for animals have been debated since the passing of DSHEA and still are being sought at the state and federal levels. However, “the industry has been able to operate very successfully under a framework of enforcement discretion, provided companies act responsibly,” said Bookout.

The Herbal Pet Supplement Market in the United States

For the past three years, chlorophyll/chlorella supplements have taken the first spot in both the supplement (Table 1) and treats/snacks categories (Table 2). These ingredients primarily are used to support immune system function in humans, and have similar benefits for animals, including support of the digestive tract and oral health. Other ingredients that are popular across both categories include flax seed and/or oil, parsley (Petroselinum crispum, Apiaceae), and chamomile (Matricaria recutita, Asteraceae).





Flax seed and its oil contain alpha-linolenic acid, linoleic acid, and omega-3 fatty acids, which aid in the development and maintenance of the brain, liver, and heart. Animal models have shown that these compounds are vital to the healthy development of young animals and may also improve their skin, coat, and nails.2,3 Flax can be administered in supplement form or the ground seeds and oil can be added directly to the animal’s food.4 The consumption of parsley can improve gastrointestinal and urinary symptoms, as well as joint disorders, such as gout and arthritis. Chamomile can be used in the diet as a tea or tincture, or applied as a salve or ointment, for a multitude of benefits. Given orally, chamomile acts as a mild sedative and gentle digestive tonic. Applied topically, chamomile preparations can relieve mild inflammation due to insect bites, allergies, or bacterial or fungal infections.5

SPINS data identified new or more robust sales for several ingredients in the supplement and treat market in 2015. The latest botanicals considered beneficial for pets include slippery elm (Ulmus rubra, Ulmaceae) bark and skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora, Lamiaceae) supplements, and cranberry (Vaccinium macrocarpon, Ericaceae) has been added to treats. Slippery elm is commonly used in pets for its mucilaginous and anti-inflammatory properties, and can be administered in cases of gastrointestinal distress, such as diarrhea and constipation.4 Skullcap, considered a nervine tonic, can benefit animals as an analgesic and anti-spasmodic for jittery conditions. Cranberry is a source of proanthocyanidins, antioxidants that give cranberry its dark red color. This makes it a useful addition to pet treats, which generally are given daily and can help maintain urinary tract health.

As with the human supplement market, consumers have concerns regarding the quality and purity of the products given to their animals. Bookout acknowledges the need for vigilant oversight and accountability to ensure consumer confidence. He called product quality “not a destination, but a journey,” and said that the NASC “supports a philosophy of continuous improvement.”

In an effort to ensure a trustworthy supply chain for manufacturers, the NASC has recently instituted its “Preferred Supplier Program,” in which interested parties must provide the NASC with an ingredient profile sheet for each botanical, vitamin, or other product they produce. The standards are stringent, but manufacturers who qualify for the Preferred Supplier Program will be available for viewing to NASC members, along with their ingredient profiles, testing data, and regulatory inspection audits. Bookout said that the NASC consults with leaders in the supplement industry to determine what tests are necessary to maintain high quality and purity standards.

Off-Market Considerations: Cannabis

With a growing number of states legalizing medical and/or recreational marijuana (Cannabis sativa, Cannabaceae) use, products containing marijuana are becoming an increasingly popular — and dubiously legal — option for pet owners. Even in states with legal medical marijuana use, however, veterinarians cannot by law prescribe or recommend cannabis for animals. However, in Nevada, that may soon change. A bill, SB372, which was introduced to the legislature in March 2015, has a provision called “pot for pets.”6

Other options for the cannabis-minded pet owner are hemp and hemp products. Industrial hemp farming has been legal in Canada since 1998, and to date, 22 US states have legalized hemp production, as well.7,8 Unlike marijuana, hemp contains a negligible amount of the psychoactive compound tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannot be used to produce psychoactive effects. Hemp can be processed as a source of fibers for rope, cloth, and paper, and its seed is a nutritious food product that contains protein, vitamin E, and the essential fatty acids omega-3 and omega-6.

Because of marijuana’s strict Schedule I classification in the United States, research into its efficacy for humans is minimal, and efficacy for animals even more so. However, anecdotal evidence from owners who used marijuana or marijuana products to ease their animal’s end-of-life care, joint pain, or degenerative condition (including cancer) indicates the possibilities for future research.9 “I get asked about it at least weekly, so the demand is there,” Bernard noted. “I’m all for ‘pot for pets’ and anything natural that can [facilitate] healing and eliminate/minimize pain or discomfort. I think there is still much to learn, however, about its use in the animal world…. To not explore that further would be a shame.”

But pet owner beware: cannabis pet products have no regulatory oversight from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and marijuana does not always present a safe, non-toxic treatment option. Though no lethal human overdoses have been recorded, marijuana ingestion can be injurious or fatal to animals. States with legalized medical marijuana have seen increasing reports of marijuana toxicosis in pets. According to one study, it was responsible for the death of two dogs.10


The practice of herbal medicine for animals has a millennia-long history, especially in the Chinese tradition. In the United States, the market for herbal pet products is so far uneven, but points toward a trend of growth overall. Pet owners increasingly are seeking out alternative therapies for their companion animals, embracing holistic practitioners and natural medicines — including medical marijuana. The growing mainstream interest and introduction of new products indicate that the US market for animal-oriented herbal remedies, though unstable at the moment, may be at the start of an impressive upswing.


  1. Cavaliere C. The expanding market and regulatory challenges of supplements for pets in the United States. HerbalGram. 2009;82:34-41. Accessed September 28, 2015.
  2. Bourre JM, Dumont O, Clement M, Durand G. Fatty acids of the alpha-linolenic family and the structures and functions of the brain: their nature, role, origin, and dietary importance — animal model. Corps Gras Lipides 2. 1995;2(4):254-263.
  3. Merchant S. Advances in veterinary dermatology. Compendium. 1994;16:445.
  4. Wulff-Tilford ML, Tilford GL. All You Ever Wanted to Know about Herbs for Pets. Irvine, CA: BowTie Press; 1999.
  5. Budgin JB, Flaherty MJ. Alternative therapies in veterinary dermatology. Vet Clin North Am Small Anim Pract. 2013;43(1):189-204.
  6. Rindels M. Nevada Bill Would Allow Medical Marijuana for Sick Pets. The Huffington Post. March 17, 2015. Available at: Accessed October 21, 2015.
  7. Industrial hemp. Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada website. October 1, 2013. Available at: Accessed November 2, 2015.
  8. Lempert P. Do you really know the differences between hemp and weed? Forbes. April 20, 2015. Available at: Accessed November 2, 2015.
  9. Nolan, RS. Veterinary marijuana? JAVMANews. June 15, 2013. Available at: Accessed October 21, 2015.
  10. Meola SD, Tearney CC, Haas SA, Hackett TB, Mazzaferro EM. Evaluation of trends in marijuana toxicosis in dogs living in a state with legalized medical marijuana: 125 dogs (2005-2010). J Vet Emerg Crit Care (San Antonio). 2012;22(6):690-6.