How much do you worry about your dog’s joints?
It is a sad fact that we often take our dogs’ joint health for granted — until something goes wrong.
But if you’ve experienced the misery of a beloved dog limping bravely along on arthritic legs, this is something you’ll be keen to avoid with a new pup.
Protecting Joint Health
There are ‘big picture” ways of helping you plan ahead for healthy joints. These include sourcing a puppy from a breeder who screens the parent dogs for hip or elbow dysplasia, and keeping the dog’s waistline trim. You should also be respectful of a growing dog’s joints and avoid over-tiring or high-impact exercise.
But what about another popular suggestion for promoting joint health, namely nutraceutical supplements? Are they beneficial or a waste of money?
Evidence-based medicine (EBM) is what vets base treatment recommendations on. But do joint supplements stand up to analysis?
Until recently, most of the evidence was inconclusive or, at best, anecdotal. Most joint supplements fell under the “They may or may not help, but they won’t do any harm” banner. But for people concerned about joint health, the possibility of joint supplements being beneficial is often enough to seize that chance.
Joint supplements are many and varied, with the most common ones being green-lipped mussel, cod liver oil and glucosamine with chondroitin (affiliate link). It’s the way of the world that something “Granny” took for her bad knee, such as cod liver oil, seemed to help, and so she gives it to the dog as well.
To try and beef up knowledge about nutraceuticals, the Royal Veterinary College in London gave some dogs a supplement (Yumove) under the same strict conditions set for clinical trials of medication. The end result of the study was positive, and it was proven the dogs’ mobility did indeed benefit by their taking Yumove.
However, in this article, I want to address some basic issues about what to expect from a joint supplement, such as:
- Why do some cost more than others?
- Are treats containing glucosamine worth considering?
- Is a supplement something that would benefit your fur-friend?
Joint Supplements 101
Different types of joint supplements have different actions. However, they tend to work in broadly similar ways and have broadly similar properties, including:
- Joint supplements are not painkillers and offer no direct pain relief.
- They may help reduce inflammation, encourage thicker joint fluid and provide the raw materials for joint repair.
- They have a protective function and slow joint deterioration.
- They work slowly, with a 4–6 weeks’ loading dose required before any change can be appreciated.
- They may be required for life in order to maintain the benefit.
Price Versus Quality
It might be your vet recommended a joint supplement, but the cost was eye-watering. Lo and behold, you found a similar product at a health food store for a fraction of the price.
The cynics among you will say this is because everything from the vet is expensive … but, actually, there’s a price differential because the nutraceutical market is not regulated. What does this mean?
OK, let’s look at the example of medications. Pharmaceuticals are heavily controlled and must go through rigorous clinical trials to verify claims about effectiveness. This costs a ton of money.
However, nutraceuticals are unregulated and not required by law to go through such trials. They’re looked at as food supplements, and what goes on the label doesn’t have to be provable. Indeed, the bargain bottle of glucosamine 1,000-milligram tablets from the chemist, when analyzed, may contain nothing approaching 1,000 milligrams per tablet. You pay the money and take a gamble about the strength and purity of the ingredient.
Which is where vet-approved products come in. These have usually been through a voluntary testing system to guarantee the amount in each tablet matches what it says on the label — hence the bigger price tag. The supplement has been through more tests (involving considerable cost) and is of a higher quality. A 1,000-milligram tablet is going to be just that.
We’ve all seen them on the pet superstore shelves: treats with added chondroitin and glucosamine, or omega-3 oils for improved joint health.
Feeding these treats gives us a rosy glow of self-satisfaction; after all, giving a healthy treat has to be good, doesn’t it? Well, yes, but largely no, if the aim is to make a real difference to the dog’s joints. (Actually, the biggest help here is to keep their weight down and ration the treats, but that’s another story.)
As it happens, nutraceutical treats are more about making you feel good than the dog, and here’s why: Joint treats contain micro amounts of active supplement, and the dog would need to eat a ton of them (and become overweight in the process, undoing all the good) to benefit at all.
Don’t believe me? Let’s do the math.
Omega-3 can help ease joint stiffness, but only at high doses. Experts recommend the dose for arthritic dogs in 310–500 milligrams per kilogram body weight.
Let’s say you have a trim but arthritic Labrador, weighing in at 30 kilograms (66 pounds). Taking the lower end of the recommended dose range, this means they need to take 310 milligrams multiplied by 30 kilograms, which equals 9,300 milligrams per day in order to have a clinical benefit.
OK, so let’s give the dog an omega-3 chew treat. A typical maximum-strength omega-3 chew treat contains 300 milligrams, which means to reach a therapeutic dose, your 30-kilogram dog needs to consume around 31 each day. That isn’t going to last long!
Now bear in mind that most fishy treats contain such low levels of omega-3 that the amount isn’t even listed in a meaningful way on the pack. But hold on a minute! Did you spot the hidden problem? Yes, that chew isn’t regulated, so it’s fine to claim it contains 300 milligrams per chew, but in truth, the levels may be nowhere near as high.
The takeaway? Don’t fool yourself — if you genuinely want to do the best thing by your dog’s joints, by all means, give a joint supplement, but look for one that your vet recommends. And if your dog has painful joints, ask about pain relief while the supplement is clicking in because the latter is going to take at least 4–6 weeks to get to work.
That said, yes, there is a place for joint supplements, but do the math before dosing and know a supplemented treat is more about making you feel good than your dog’s health.
This pet health content was written by a veterinarian, Dr. Pippa Elliott, BVMS, MRCVS. It was last reviewed March 23, 2018.