The Truth about Vitamin C
Every so often, old arguments resurface and writers try to change public perception about some particular topic. They may be based on well-thought-out scientific studies, or on poorly designed experiments, or on hot air. For years, Vitamin C (also known as ascorbate or ascorbic acid) has caused great controversy, mostly because of extreme and unfounded claims but also on fairly accurate studies with different conclusions because of the design of those experiments. Are most or any of the conclusions valid? There are many things we know or think we know about vitamin C, especially its role in human nutrition, but man is not able to synthesize his own ascorbates (nor are other primates, fish, or guinea pigs), while the dog and most other animals are. So, for canines, it has been considered a nonessential vitamin and the basis for its prescription is the belief that in certain stress conditions the natural synthesis is insufficient to take care of peaks and elevations in demand. Because of a few ads and articles by people marketing vitamin C, scores of dog owners have placed unwarranted faith in the vitamin to cure or prevent hip dysplasia, jaundice, distemper, heart disease, and an almost endless list of viral and bacterial disorders. A few of these may be helped but most are extremely unlikely to be affected much if at all by the vitamin therapy. In fact, a study at Cornell University showed that vitamin?C?treated dogs actually had less vitamin C in their adrenal glands than did the control dogs that had not been fed any extra. The more the vitamin was given in nutrition/medication, the faster the dogs seemed to expel it through the urine. Stress depletes the body of this vitamin, but also stimulates the healthy dog to increase its production. In the health-challenged dog, however, faster recovery is likely if supplementation is temporarily used rather than reliance on the sick dog making enough. In short, it won't hurt for you to temporarily share your vitamin C with your dog, especially under very stressful conditions, but don't expect miracles. It has absolutely no effect on hip dysplasia.
C is widely known as “the wound-healing vitamin” and “the stress vitamin,” and I used to give my dogs about a gram or two a day if they had surgery, injury, or illness, until the condition was corrected. But I could not tell any difference, so I have discontinued that practice. Cooking tends to destroy it, and fresh sources may not have adequate shelf life or palatability that dogs appreciate, so if you want to try it on a short-term basis (up to a couple weeks, for instance), the tablet is the easiest way to administer it. In spite of the hoaxes and charlatans’ claims, it will not cure every ill in the world, but for humans especially, it may be the nearest thing to the long-desired “magic pill” that we have. Maybe that’s why the Creator made sure our carnivorous canine companions can biologically manufacture their own, since they do not normally eat citrus fruits, tomatoes, or cabbage, or have much opportunity to find other sources.
One of the chief of many beneficial functions of ascorbate involves the manufacture of collagen, a protein of the white connective tissues and cell walls, frequently called the “glue” that binds all cells and tissues and organs together. It is also the primary component of cartilage, ligaments, and tendons, and even makes up a large part of the bones. Hard work is a form of stress, so such dogs as you’d find on sled dog teams are frequently fed diets high in natural sources, like seal liver. Sailors used to get scurvy because of two factors: no foods containing vitamin C, and very hard work with every muscle in their bodies.
Although usually an excess of one vitamin does not seem to reduce the effect of another, excessive amounts of A and D can be toxic. A friend of mine had been dosing her litter of puppies with more and more vitamins A & D and getting worse and worse symptoms until I saw the staggering pups and told her about the cause. I know of a very few humans who have mild to moderate reactions to a specific vitamin and I have not seen the same reaction in dogs except for a great abundance of these two vitamins, plus a very minor reaction to excess choline or niacin. There are many positive synergistic effects between vitamins C, A, and E, with some enhancing of the B vitamins also reported. But let the dog get at least the C and A from a normal balanced diet.
Antioxidants vitamins E and C are synergistic; i.e., they work together better than they do separately. While dogs produce their own vitamin C, those with DM (degenerative myelopathy) may need more than they can manufacture, according to one researcher. In excess, it also can cause flatulence. In the case of a permanent, chronic disorder like DM, it’s possibly useful to continue usage, but ask your vet to diligently research the latest studies on this in his/her veterinary journals. In any case, there seems to be benefits to the Vitamin E-supplemented dog in regard to utilizing C.
Minerals, on the other hand, can be very touchy regarding their absolute quantities as well as rations; the most striking is the calcium/phosphorus relationship. We may well add vitamin D to this triangle because this vitamin, which is synthesized or activated by the influence of sunlight, is needed for the body to assimilate calcium. Dogs apparently do not manufacture vitamin D as easily as other animals, such as humans. If the mineral ratio is upset, the more prevalent mineral tends to prevent the other one from being used by the body, and in some doses the body seems to react negatively to excess, refusing almost all of whatever it is, not just the excess. If the diet contains significantly more than about one percent of each of these two minerals (Ca & P), they may affect additional nutrients. Zinc, for example, may have its benefits blocked by too much calcium, and the same effect on manganese and iron has been identified as a cause of lethargy and drowsiness. Too much calcium and phosphorus in the diet, whether by supplementation or (less common) overeating a balanced food, seems to cause symptoms of hypertrophic osteodystrophy (HOD) and other forms of osteochondrosis, and contributes to torsion. This is treated in more detail in my book on Canine Hip Dysplasia and Other Orthopedic Disorders.
In more than one study on joint and bone disease as related to nutrition, it was found that pups allowed as much food as they wanted exhibited abnormal bumps and knobs on some joints, and had weak pasterns, backs, and hocks compared to those pups on restricted amounts of food with the same ideal ratios of calcium to phosphorus. Likewise, the tendency toward hip dysplasia increases when pups genetically prone to it have been fed too much. Calcium supplementation is definitely not indicated for growing dogs and is possibly harmful to most adults as well, even if phosphorus is increased in proportion. “Not indicated” is medical lingo for “Don’t do it!”
Most dog food ingredients, as well as most table scraps, are richer in phosphorus than calcium. Red meat is especially high, with Ca/P ratios running from 1:12 for well?marbled chuck roast to 1:44 for liver. To compensate for the meat in high?BV dog foods, mills may add bone meal (2:1) and beet pulp (7:1). (BV stands for “biological value” and is discussed further in my book.) A fast?growing German Shepherd puppy needs the same ratio of phosphorus to calcium as does a toy?breed adult and every dog in the spectrum between, and the same or less percentage of total ration in the analysis, which you will find on the bag. Growing pups of large breeds do not need more per pound, although they will eat more food and thus get more per pound of body weight than a sedentary lap dog. If the dog eats the proper amount of food, he will not only get enough of these minerals, he will probably get too much, but most of them will be excreted as long as they aren't over supplemented.
Working dogs in high stress situations may require more energy than is found even in high?fat commercial dry foods. There is also some evidence that vitamin C is useful in stressful situations. Since late pregnancy and lactation fall into this category and are probably as stressful as injury repair and disease resistance, vitamin C supplementation will not be harmful unless there is a kidney problem, and may truly be beneficial at this time. If you are really working your dog hard for a period of time, you may wish to add vitamin C supplements until that maximum stress period is over. But remember, you diminish the canine body’s ability to make its own ascorbate, the longer you supplement.
What to Believe?
P. T. Barnum said “There's a sucker born every minute,” so there will always be opportunists making money or boosting their egos. I've met many doctors (vets, M.D.s, Ph.D.s, etc) who are “certifiable,” and I don't mean by a board of their peers, either! There is much good to be said for the efficacious use of herbs, but most extremist-holistic herbalists and healers are on another planet, pulling nonsense out of thin air and marketing or preaching it as gospel. A thread of legitimacy is frequently woven into the whole cloth of fraud or fantasy. Dr. Pauling was a fellow chemist, and much misquoted. The unorthodox crowds who grabbed his “othomolecular” term and made it a flag and cause to rally around have perverted his intent and meaning. The major proponent and salesman of vitamin C has been thoroughly debunked, and only the willfully blind continue to follow his unscientific conclusions and schemes (They hang on like a leech in websites and correspondence). My life's work has been science; I have a background in organic chemistry (my major field), I minored in physics, studied atomic & nuclear physics, biochemistry, and other sciences, and have both worked in the industrial sector and taught at the college level in many branches of science. Having much understanding of and no tolerance for pseudo-science peddlers and misguided mystics, I am appalled by the heretical and unscientific nonsense that travels with most of the holistic practitioners and snake-oil salesmen. If I were inclined to be a disreputable charlatan, I could also make money over widows and poor gullible souls by practicing phrenology, reflexology, aura analysis, Chen Fueng, conversing with Eleanor Roosevelt or Jean Dixon, curing cancer by waving my hands over the patient, curing cripples by selling them prayer hankies, and inventing even more ridiculous schemes. I have a relative in California who used to prey upon the gullible and the desperate, and the difference between him and the fringe element in the world of cures and concoctions, probably, is that he does not believe the garbage he sells. Some apparently do. Which is worse, I wonder? I feel sorry for both his victims and those of the peepers and mumblers of the arcane.
“Test everything.” …Paul, in 1 Thessalonians 4:21
Having given such a strong warning about being bamboozled, I must say that I am a big believer in getting as close to nature as is comfortable, feasible, and economically viable. I have benefited from vitamin supplements, I make my own caffeine-free herbal tea, I recycle, conserve, eat healthful foods, exercise, avoid alarm clocks and smoke, and I keep an open mind as to the real or possible benefits of massage, acupuncture, and other concepts and practices. If I can see a benefit in myself or my dogs, and test that against scientific controls, I might accept something not yet universally proven. As long as, based on valid evidence instead of just anecdotal testimony, you are sure that what you are doing to or for your dog is the best for him, you are doing no damage. And since you are your dog’s primary-care physician (practicing animal husbandry), you must also follow the medical doctor’s slogan: “First, do no harm.”
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