Veterinary medicine is evolving almost as quickly as human medicine and the increased use of nutritional supplements for pets has sparked a lot of controversy. Canine joint supplements have grown in popularity as a common treatment and preventive measure for senior pets, but its use is permeating even to younger animals and those with a genetic history of joint issues.
The debate continues on whether joint supplements are even beneficial at all, and if so, which ingredient works the best? Find out more about the basics of joint anatomy, the most commonly used supplement ingredients in pets, and which ones are coming to the forefront as the best choices in joint health.
A joint is typically any place where two bones meet to form a movement area for that body part.
The joints are usually a lubricated, cushioned surface that prevent the two bones from rubbing together during movement (a very painful thing that anyone who has had a joint injury knows all too well.)
While the joint itself doesn’t move the body, the joint is useful in creating pivot or motion points as well as providing stability to the body during standing and movement.
The joint itself is comprised of the Articular Cartilage (that tissue that lines the edges of the bone), the Bursa (which helps to cushion between ligaments connecting to the bones and the Joint Capsule (a fluid filled “pillow” of synovial fluid and lining in between the bones).
These three structures provide the cushioning, support and decrease in friction to allow the joint and bones to move smoothly.
In arthritis and other joint conditions, these structures begin to break down or can shift into incorrect positions.
The articular cartilage may deteriorate causing pain and inflammation, the joint capsule may tear or become displaced causing pain and increases in friction, and the joint itself may become inflamed in an attempt to repair and protect the area. All of these issues can lead to pain, stiffness and difficulty moving around.
Joint supplements are special blends of ingredients and chemicals used to help keep the joint and surrounding structures healthy. Joint supplements work in a multitude of ways, and some may work on just one function or on multiple.
Joint supplements can be placed into three categories: supplements that prevent further damage to the joint, supplements that help recover or repair damaged joints and supplements that help provide nutrition and support to the joint and bones.
Many ingredients will work on several of these categories or can often be combined with other ingredients to create a supplement that acts on all of these processes.
Here are some of the most common joint supplements used in the pet industry.
Most supplements on the market for pets involve using a combination of the ingredients listed below. There are several studies available that show combinations of supplements, rather than just the use of one or two can help increase overall efficacy and reduce pain .
Glucosamine is one of the most popular, and most heard of supplement choices. Glucosamine is designed to help reduce enzymes in the body that may break down joint cartilage (the parts on the end of bones where they meet on either side of the joint) as well as aid in the reuptake of materials to rebuild that cartilage.
This supplement has seen the greatest progress in combination with anti-inflammatory and pain medications such as carprofen, where a 2007 study saw that this combination was more effective than glucosamine alone .
Most every joint supplement and many foods designed for healthy joints such as large breed or senior diets now contain glucosamine in some form, however, some studies suggest that this form of glucosamine is not enough to allow for repair or even reduction of inflammation as explained in Dr. Narda Robinson’s 2011 Veterinary Practice News article .
Chondroitin is the second most popular ingredient in joint supplements. It is another ingredient that works directly on joint cartilage, and helps rebuild the cartilage to slow degeneration.This ingredient is more common in products geared toward osteoarthritis, or arthritis of the bones and joints that leads to their inflammation and degradation over time. Chondroitin is usually seen in combination with glucosamine or other joint supplements where it can help increase efficacy as seen by both a 2007 and 2014 study [5 & 6].
Collagen is an up and coming source for joint health and repair, and has seen successful results in human and animal trials .
While there are many types of collagen in the body, such as that which makes up your hair, skin and joints, the collagen used for joint repair is undenatured type-II collagen.
Collagen is being considered a more “broad spectrum” type supplement in the treatment of osteoarthritis due to its increased bioavailability in its type-II form .
It works by helping repair the body on a more cellular level, and has been shown to help reduce pain and inflammation in affected joints better than other supplements as seen in a 2009 comparison of type-II collagen and glucosamine/chondroitin .
Green Lipped Mussels are a popular, yet lesser known joint supplement. This ingredient is often seen in many of the newer joint health and preventive type supplements and has been used as a natural remedy for years, especially in its native New Zealand.
The University of Michigan cites several studies that show an improvement of symptoms in up to 45% of patients who took the supplement . The mussels naturally contain Hyaluronic Acid, which helps to reduce pain and inflammation in the joints as well as reduce joint stiffness, allowing for better mobility.
Hyaluronic acid is a natural product of the body, and has been used in an injected form to treat osteoarthritis in humans. It helps to replenish joint fluid and lubricate the joints, allowing for better mobility and a decrease in stiffness and pain.
Hyaluronic acid has also been shown to help slow the progression of joint-related diseases. In combination with other supplements such as collagen and glucosamine, a 2014 study saw that there was a 14% reduction in the progression of elbow dysplasia in Labradors when compared to control groups . This supplement is a great natural choice with low side effects compared to other supplements.
A relatively unknown supplement, MSM is a natural sulfur that has been shown to help with joint regeneration and inflammation reduction.
MSM is also very low in side effects, and has even been shown anecdotally to reduce pain and inflammation in other parts of the body as well as in joints when taken orally; however the use of MSM is still a “fraction of the business led by glucosamine-chondroitin combos” as noted by Jennifer Grebow in her 2011 look into popular joint supplements .
Omega-3 fatty acids are the sort of “panacea” of supplements. Omega-3s show some promise for treating osteoarthritis when used in combination with other supplements such as glucosamine, as suggested by a 2009 study explained in Jennifer Grebow’s 2011 article .
Found naturally in fish oils, omega-3s work in the joints by reducing inflammation and pain and by helping to keep the joints better lubricated, allowing for increased mobility.
When to begin a supplement greatly depends on your individual dog. Large breed dogs or breeds predisposed to joint issues such as arthritis and hip and elbow dysplasia may benefit from starting a joint supplement as a puppy to help the joints grow properly, prevent breakdown early on, and to keep the joints healthy in adult and senior life.
Breeds with very rapid, very large joint growth such as the Great Dane and other giant breeds may benefit the most from early supplementation.
Adult dogs with a genetic predisposition to joint issues, or those experiencing early arthritis may also benefit from joint supplements. Adding in a daily supplement to the food or as a separate pill or treat can help increase mobility and function and slow the breakdown of the joints before they begin.
Very active dogs in sporting or other physical activities may also benefit from supplements to prevent injury to the joints.
Senior dogs and dogs currently experiencing osteoarthritis benefit greatly from joint supplements and many owners have reported a vast improvement in mobility, pain and inflammation.
The supplement can be given by itself or is sometimes given in combination with an anti-inflammatory medication to boost the function of both. Owners have reported improvements such as a dog barely able to get up improving to the point of running and playing again, so if your senior dog is showing signs of arthritis adding in a supplement may help!
While the many supplements available can be a great benefit to your dog, knowing which one to choose and when to give it can be hard. Working with your veterinarian is best in determining what supplement to try. Your vet can examine your dog thoroughly, and may even recommend radiographs to take a look at the joints and determine if there are any issues.
Your vet can then recommend a supplement with ingredients that may help prevent problems from occurring, such as with omega-3 fatty acids, green mussel or chondroitin, or a supplement that helps repair already affected joints, such as with collagen, glucosamine or MSM.
As your dog ages, annual veterinary visits in addition to supplementation become more important. It is recommended by the veterinarians at WebMD that puppies and adult dogs have a check up at least once yearly, and senior dogs a checkup every six months to watch for aging related health issues .
Seven years is the average age of a dog becoming a senior, however smaller dogs may become seniors at an older age, and giant breeds at a much younger age. Dogs that have known joint problems such as hip and elbow dysplasia may also benefit from more frequent checkups to monitor joint progress.
No matter the choice in joint supplements, knowing what each ingredient is, how it works, and how the joint works will help owners make the best choices for themselves and their pets. Supplementation is a great way to prevent joint issues in younger dogs and to help repair it in those already affected. With the vast array of choices available finding the right one can be daunting, but trying out the one that is best suited for your dog can help him to live a longer, happier, and pain free life!
Hip Dysplasia in Dogs
All Photos Courtesy of Creative Commons.
 Crowley, David et al. “Safety and Efficacy of Undenatured Type II Collagen in the Treatment of Osteoarthritis of the Knee: A Clinical Trial.” International Journal of Medical Sciences. Ivyspring International Publisher, 9 Oct. 2009. Web. 1 Dec 2015. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2764342/
 Grebow, Jennifer. “Joint and Bone Health Dietary Supplement Ingredients: From All Angles.” UBM, 11 Nov. 2011. Web 1 Dec 2015. http://www.nutritionaloutlook.com/delivery-systems/joint-and-bone-health-dietary-supplement-ingredients-all-angles
 “Green-Lipped Mussel.” Green-Lipped Mussel: Uses. University of Michigan, 24 Mar. 2015. Web. 4 Dec. 2015. http://www.uofmhealth.org/health-library/hn-2860000
 Formichelli, Linda. “How Often Should Your Pet See a Veterinarian?” WebMD-Healthy Pets. WebMD. Web. 4 Dec. 2015. http://pets.webmd.com/features/your-pet-veterinarian
 Marti-Angulo, Simon et al. “Efficacy of an Oral Hyaluronate and Collagen Supplement as a Preventive Treatment of Elbow Dysplasia.” Journal of Veterinary Science. The Korean Society of Veterinary Science, 15 Dec. 2014. Web. 1 Dec. 2015. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4269601/
 McCarthy, G. “Randomized double-blind, positive-controlled trial to assess the efficacy of glucosamine/chondroitin sulfate for the treatment of dogs with osteoarthritis.” National Center for Biotechnology Information. U.S. National Library of Medicine, 17 July 2007. Web. 1 Dec. 2015. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16647870?dopt=Abstract
 McKenzie, Brennen. “The Top Ten Pet Supplements: Do They Work?” Science-Based Medicine, 19 May 2011. Web. 4 Dec. 2015. https://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/the-top-ten-pet-supplements-do-they-work/
 Robinson, Narda. “Glucosamine: Some Value, Little Risk.” Veterinary Practice News. I-5 Publishing, 14 Feb. 2011. Web. 1 Dec. 2015. http://www.veterinarypracticenews.com/February-2011/Glucosamine-Some-Value-Little-Risk/