Your dog’s joint bones are cushioned by cartilage, which is strong connective tissue that keeps the bones from rubbing or rubbing together. It is the cushiony area that absorbs impact when bones and joints are moved. When this cartilage wears thin or is damaged, it is extremely painful when the bones rub together during movement and too much of this bone-on-bone contact can cause bone erosion and extremely painful outgrowths to form. Healthy cartilage allows your dog a full range of movement and flexibility.
Cartilage contains cells called chondrocytes, which produce the “matrix” that is cartilage. These calls can die off and calcify when they don’t receive nutrients or waste diffusion is blocked. Because it does not have its own blood supply, cartilage must be “maintained” by the motion of the joint to move nutrients in and out. The cartilage and bones are surrounded by synovial fluid, which is essentially a lubricant. Arthritis weakens the cartilage and causes the breakdown of synovial fluid by slowing or halting the exchange of nutrients in the cartilage matrix. This causes inflammation and eventually, the cartilage will be worn away.
Just like humans, dogs need to stay active for both mental and physical health. It can be extremely depressing for a once active dog to experience joint pain and some dogs will continue to run, jump, and play, even when it hurts because they just don’t understand they shouldn’t. This puts them at high risk for added injury or additional health problems aggravated by chronic pain or decreased mobility, such as a dog harming himself because he is no longer able to jump onto a bed or over a hurdle. Inactivity is also dangerous for dogs who slow down too much due to pain and the snowball effect is that their muscles, joints and bodies atrophy.
Osteoarthritis is not the only culprit that can break down your dog’s cartilage but it is one of the most frequently diagnosed health problems in mature dogs.
Some dogs such as performance, hunting or service animals experience higher levels of strain on their joints. Some breeds are just more susceptible to joint issues through heredity or poor breeding- consider the rampant hip dysplasia in German shepherds. Degenerative diseases and inflammation in your dog’s body can also break down cartilage. It’s important to stay vigilant and pay close attention to your dog’s health but also to take a preventative approach. If your dog has had surgeries or regularly performs at a high level of activity you will want to keep a close on eye on his joint health. Common areas of injury or pain include their hips, back, knees, shoulders, and elbows. Even something as simple as the wrong kind of food or an allergy can cause inflammation in your dog that will manifest itself in the weakest points of his body.
Dog joint supplements can help relieve joint pain but also increase mobility, assist in recovery from injuries or trauma, and help your dog maintain a level of activity that will maintain his muscular and skeletal system. Some veterinarians even recommend beginning joint therapy supplements before the problem begins in some breeds and professions, and some dogs begin taking these supplements as soon as they reach adulthood. It is a decision you should make with the help of a medical professional. Before starting glucosamine supplement therapy be sure your vet has thoroughly examined your dog to ensure there are no other health concerns that could be causing his joint pain or stiffness. A diagnosis of arthritis can be tough but you may be surprised at how easy it is to alleviate. Many dogs respond well to glucosamine therapy.
Glucosamine is an amino sugar that occurs naturally in the cartilage matrix but for supplements, is typically derived from shellfish. It can also be synthesized from plant-based material. The most commonly used glucosamine in pet supplements used is glucosamine sulfate. The sulfur in this substance is the component that is believed to help stimulate cartilage. Glucosamine hydrochloride is less effective but does not contain sulfates. And finally, there is N-acetyl-glucosamine which is a derivative of glucose. Some products contain chitosan, which is an altered form of N-acetyl-glucosamine. It’s not going to be as effective as glucosamine sulfate but is reported to help with gastrointestinal and immune system issues.
It is thought that chondrocytes within the cartilage matrix are stimulated by glucosamine. Studies have shown both an anti-inflammatory response helps relieve pain and protects against further degradation of the joint structure.
While your dog may respond well to pain medications that also have an anti-inflammatory effect, the side effects of long term use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) on dogs is something to consider. Common side effects include irreversible damage to their urinary and digestive systems.
Glucosamine does not have nearly as long a list of potential negative side-effects but because it is a sugar-based substance you should be careful about using it with dogs who already have diabetes.
All supplements are not made equal. Unfortunately, the pet supplement market is not well-regulated as these are not considered drugs. Consequentially, there are a lot of snake oil grade products out there manufactured by questionable companies using even more questionable ingredients. Dog food is not the only thing that may be made in facilities that do not care about the health of your animal.
It is critical to read your ingredients and understand what’s in the supplements before you give them to your four-legged family member. Many of them are harmless and just contain filler material or are basically an overpriced, overhyped dog treat with trace amounts of vitamins or other ”healthy” substances, but some contain ingredients that could make your dog sick or at the very least put him at a higher risk for health problems down the road. Many supplements are loaded with sweeteners and sugars, preservatives and fillers such as soy, that is difficult for your dog to digest. Some major ones to avoid are propylene glycol (PG), BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole), BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene), ethoxyquin, and food dyes such as Blue 2, Red 40. The supplement should have all ingredients and quantities clearly labeled.
A good supplement will pair glucosamine sulfate or glucosamine hydrochloride (HCl) with other nutrients and substances to maximize the effectiveness for your dog. Glucosamine is commonly paired with chondroitin, which helps retain water in the joint area. Methylsulfonylmethane (MSM) is also a great ingredient for reducing inflammation. Some supplements also include vitamins, minerals, and other substances to enhance the supplement. Hyaluronic acid is good for the synovial fluid around joints and elsewhere in the body. Turmeric is also growing in popularity for pet supplements due to its strong anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.
While glucosamine supplements come in multiple forms, consider how easy it will be for your dog to digest and his body to absorb what’s in the supplement. Does he easily take pills or would you struggle to get him to take several pills or chewable tablets a day? Some older dogs are on soft or wet food only and it may be difficult for them to take a chewable that’s hard to chew.
Most glucosamine supplements come in one of the following forms:
Chewable style: A soft or hard chewable tablet that you can give the dog directly without pill pockets or having to hide in his food
- Usually meat flavored like a treat
- More expensive as dog will need to take more of them for appropriate dosage
- Some chewables may be too hard for dogs needing a soft texture
Pill style: A pill taken orally with higher concentrations of the compounds
- Not all dogs easily take pills
Powder style: Powdered form that can be added to pet’s food or treats
- May make dog reluctant to eat their food if they don’t like the flavor
- May not blend well with dog’s food or water
- May have bitter or unpleasant taste
Liquid style: Liquid that may be added to dog’s food or water
- May not absorb as slowly as other forms and can cause adverse reaction
- Some dogs will not drink water or eat food with added supplements
- May not blend well
Finding a supplement that is right for your dog may take time and trial-and-error. Always pay close attention to your dog when making any changes in his diet, adding supplements or other medications and be sure there are no potential interactions or adverse effects.