By Dr. Luke D. Peterson, DVM, MS
I am not a big fan of nutritional supplements. For the most part they are unnecessary unless treating a specific medical condition. I do have a general exemption to that opposition – Joint Supplements. They can really benefit your hound and keep them performing well into their later years. Traditionally joint supplements have consisted of glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate. Both of these are complex molecules naturally expressed on the service of chondrocytes that make up the cartilage in joint spaces. The best analogy for how these compounds work is that of a tree. The chondrocytes are the trunk, glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate are the branches and leaves are the water. These molecules have numerous hydrogen groups that attract and hold water which provides the majority of the cushion in the cartilage.
More recently, many joint supplements now contain a myriad of other compounds all directed toward providing control of inflammation. Methylsulfonylmethane (MSM), Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA), Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA), Phycocyanin, Boswellia, and surely others will come along. These compounds have been found to have some improvement in human clinical trials in reducing pain levels associated with osteoarthritis and in canine studies; however, the studies are limited in scope.
Effectiveness and Comparison studies:
In dogs, there have been two methods for evaluating the effectiveness of these products. The first is subjective and is based on providing a treatment group and a placebo group, and surveying owners about noticed reduction in lameness or improved mobility. More sophisticated studies have been done in which a pain scoring system is performed by trained individuals to assess the dogs in either the treatment or control group (the assessors are unaware of which dogs have been treated and which are receiving the placebo). The second and more objective method for evaluating improvement in arthritis is force plate testing. Essentially, dogs walk or step on a plate that measures the downward force applied. More pain equals less force applied. These tests have some limitations as well but overall provide raw data that can be better compared between treated and placebo group dogs.
The biggest thing to remember about all these products is the end goal of the companies that produce them is to make money. That’s not an accusation of villainy but merely a reality that affects the degree to which companies will spend their own money to show how well their product works. Essentially, no company has ever done head to head comparison of their product with that of a competitor because the risk of their product being inferior is too great. So, when asked what product is best, I cannot provide a clear answer. What I do advise is to try a product that has at least done some effectiveness studies with force plate testing. Many businesses have realized the market opportunity that exists in the world of dog arthritis and have tried to capitalize by marketing products they have not spent the money on to evaluate their effectiveness (that is an accusation of villainy).
When to Start Supplementing:
The ideal time to start adding these supplements is earlier than you may think. Many veterinarians, myself included, used to recommend these products when dogs started showing signs of arthritis. If you remember how these molecules work, they attach to the surface of cells in cartilage. Arthritis by its nature is inflammation in the joints which causes loss of these cells. In essence, the longer arthritis exists, the fewer chondrocytes remain for these molecules to adhere on. We are now recommending starting these products earlier in life which will help better preserve cartilage and may help delay the onset of arthritis, or at least decrease the severity. For breeds at higher risk of developing arthritis, many are recommending to start as early as a year of age or sooner. For those of you having a dog with less than ideal skeletal confirmation (I don’t judge, my favorite beagle fits in this category), you may want to consider starting them before middle age. If you have an older dog that already exhibits signs of arthritis it’s not too late to start.
I will say these molecules are very large and complex and to me, it is somewhat of a miracle that they can be absorbed intact from the digestive tract and transported to joints. I believe one of the reasons some products are less effective is due to them not being as digestible, or, for some dogs, it may not be possible for them to digest and transport these molecules to the joints. Once you do start supplementing, you need to do it for at least one month before you decide whether it is helpful.
A list of products I recommend are the Cosequin® line, Phycox®, TRP-Tri-COX®, or Synovi G3® (Disclaimer: I do not receive any compensation from these companies). If you price these items compared to some others you’ll probably find they cost a little more. I cannot claim they are better than less expensive products, only that they have data to support their effectiveness whereas less expensive products forego testing to assure quality.
If you are looking for ways to keep your dogs running well into their later years you should really consider adding a joint supplement into their daily regimen of care.