Giving Joint Supplements To Older Dogs With Arthritis


Are joint supplements right for your older arthritic dog? His limb stiffness and atrophied muscles betray his pain, even if he’s too stoic to tell you. As you might expect, a single “big gun” approach to treating the pain and inflammation of his joint disease is rarely the best one. A “multimodal” treatment plan is better, and runs the gamut from simple environmental aids like a memory foam dog bed and nonskid flooring, to gentle exercise, massage, and acupuncture, or even full-blown joint replacement. Whatever “cocktail” of modalities your vet suggests for your aging canine, dietary joint supplements will probably be an ingredient.

Increasingly, dog food preparations targeting populations with osteoarthritis include supplements, for example fish oils and glucosamine/chondroitin, to help address joint inflammation in dogs. But these additives are rarely enough: your dog will probably need joint supplements above and beyond his routine diet if he’s to enjoy any marked benefits. And unlike pharmaceuticals—analgesics and steroids, for example—joint supplements don’t typically have side effects when they’re used correctly; read on to learn more.


Canine Joint Disease Defined

Broadly, the two categories of joint problems or osteoarthritis in dogs are developmental, where a joint does not develop properly (for example, hip or elbow dysplasia), and degenerative, where the ligaments wear over time and cause instability or secondary arthritis in a dog. The latter of these, called degenerative joint disease (DJD), is commonly age-related and ubiquitous among older dogs.

As your dog ages the cartilage surfaces within his joints begin to thin and his cartilage cells die, releasing enzymes that cause inflammation in the joint capsule and creating excessive fluid within the joint; extra bony growths called osteophytescan also develop. As the cartilage thins the space between the bones in the joint narrows, and the bones themselves begin to deteriorate. This sets the stage for ongoing pain, lameness, inactivity, and muscular atrophy.


Truths About Dietary Supplements For Older Dogs

Giving dietary joint supplements can be an effective, “drug-free” piece of an overall strategy to manage inflammation and pain in an older dog with DJD, with good science to support their efficacy. These supplements, also called nutraceuticals, are considered safer than drugs, and are rarely toxic when administered in the proper amount. There are some caveats:

  • Dietary joint supplements are not a cure. No amount of consumed nutrients—through food or dietary supplements—will correct structural damage to your dog’s joints. Calcium deposits, scar tissue, cartilage tears and dissolution, and contour changes to the bones at the joint surface from long-term wear, will remain and will continue to affect him. But supplements can help treat the symptoms of arthritis in a dog and thus improve his overall quality of life. These and other treatments can make a dog more comfortable, even if his range of motion remains compromised.
  • Supplements don’t work instantly. By far the two most common supplements used to treat DJD are glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate. These supplements have little or no side effects, but unlike pharmaceuticals take longer to work, sometimes as long as weeks or months.
  • Supplements won’t help an obese dog. No supplement will help a dog on a poor diet, or whose obesity is affecting his joints. And before you give supplements, look at how many calories they’ll add to your dog’s daily intake: instigating weight gain in an arthritic dog is counter productive.
  • Supplements alone won’t help. There’s no “one size fits all” solution to managing pain and inflammation in your dog’s joints. Instead, dietary joint supplements should be viewed as one piece of a non-surgical or postoperative treatment plan to slow the progression of DJD. Your dog’s overall treatment plan is likely to include more than a single medication, along with other treatment modalities, for example massage and physical therapy. Your vet will help you figure out the best possible approach for managing your dog’s joint pain.
  • Choose a product from a reputable manufacturer. Look for science to support the manufacturer’s claims, and always consult your vet before giving any supplement to your older dog.


Fish Oil Supplement And How It Works

Fish oil is a natural anti-inflammatory, one of several oils referred to as an Essential Fatty Acid, or EFA; omega-3 in particular is the EFA that comes from cold water fish and provides many therapeutic benefits for dogs, including managing chronic inflammatory disorders like colitis, obesity, inflammatory bowel disease, joint pain from arthritis, and allergic skin problems.

While the effectiveness of omega-3 fatty acids has been documented, a dog’s body can’t manufacture them for itself. Omega-3s are occasionally included in dog foods formulated specifically for canine arthritis, but higher levels given via supplement are probably indicated if your dog is to reap any measurable benefits, unless you routinely give him fish. The best kind of supplement is a soft gel capsule that keeps the oil from meeting the air, which breaks down the product. While your dog also benefits from omega-6 fatty acids, which come from meat products, whole grains, and vegetable oils, omega-3s are the most important for him.

A fish oil supplement can help inflammation in cells and joints when given in the correct dosage. Be advised that an overdose can lead to prolonged bleeding, vomiting and diarrhea, and other problems. Breeds predisposed to pancreatitis are especially vulnerable, including Schnauzers and Yorkies. Dogs with certain chronic digestive conditions, and also pre-existing platelet and bleeding conditions, are also susceptible to these problems. If your dog is in a vulnerable population, consult the vet before you add fish oil to his diet.

What To Look For In Your Dog’s Fish Oil Supplement

Is there something fishy about the fish oil supplement you’re giving your dog? Some fish oil manufacturers make big claims on the label. Here are the things that matter:

Purity – A Certificate of Analysis (CoA) on the label verifies the product meets international standards for heavy metals, PCBs, dioxins, and other contaminants. Also look at the country of origin to see where the fish was caught.

Freshness – A gel capsule helps protect the fish oil from oxidation, which turns the oil rancid. Freshness also depends on the CoA, the size vessel that caught the fish, how the fish is kept once it’s caught, and the length of time from the catch to the processing.

Potency – Look for both docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) in the fish oil, both of which come from cold water fish; a superior product should contain more DHA than EPA.

Bioavailability – Look for natural oil, not a synthetic version.

Sustainability – Look for certifications from an organization like the Global Organization for EPA and DHA Omega-3s (GOED) to avoid products made from endangered fish species.


Glucosamine Supplement And How It Works

Glucosamine is a naturally occurring compound made of a sugar and an amino acid, tied to the body’s production of lubricants and shock absorption for healthy joint function. Glucosamine is made in your dog’s cartilage; it’s also a building block for arterial cartilage and helps rebuild damaged cartilage. Glucosamine benefits lots of body parts, including:

  • Nails
  • Tendons
  • Skin
  • Eyes
  • Synovial fluid
  • Bone
  • Ligaments
  • Heart valves
  • Mucous secretions in the digestive, respiratory, and urinary tracts

Glucosamine as a nutritional supplement for dogs is extracted from crab, lobster, or shrimp shells, and comes in three forms—look for the sulfate form because it’s easiest for him to absorb and use. Choose a product sold by a reputable, well-established company; ask your vet.


Chondroitin Sulfate Supplement And How It Works

Like glucosamine, chondroitin is produced in your dog’s body but diminishes with age. A chondroitin sulfate supplement may help hydrate your older, arthritic dog’s cartilage and keep it from breaking down, cushioning some of the impact on his joints. Unlike conventional medications, chondroitin helps alleviate joint pain by addressing the disease process itself and by restoring some integrity to the joint.

Clinical evidence suggests that glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate, typically given together, are effective dietary supplements for an older dog who suffers from arthritic pain, still more effective when given with fish oil. This “trinity” of supplements, goes the thinking, not only reduces inflammation but also helps repair the damaged cartilage in joints. Most vets advise starting with a “loading” dosage and then dropping to a “maintenance” dosage for the duration of the dog’s life.


Other Dietary Supplements For Older Arthritic Dogs

You might also encounter these ingredients when you investigate supplements to give your arthritic pooch:

  • The green-lipped mussel called Perna canaliculus is a source of chondroitin and other good nutrients.
  • The sea cucumber is thought to help relieve joint pain in dogs.
  • Another supplement called methylsulfonylmethane (MSM) provides sulfur compounds that may help inhibit pain.

Countless supplements include varying combinations of glucosamine, chondroitin, MSM, green-lipped mussel, and others. Veterinarians and dog owners have found a small number of these products seem to help. Consult your vet for advice on which ones to try.

Finally, where degenerative joint disease is a problem, the first order of business should be a comprehensive exam for your senior dog at the vet’s. If your dog is overweight his veterinarian will suggest a weight loss regimen first, because throwing supplements at an obese dog is ineffective. But ultimately your aging dog may benefit from supplements given as part of the bigger overall treatment strategy your vet recommends.

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