How They Work and How They Help
Americans spend a great deal of money on supplements for their pets. Hundreds of millions of dollars every year in fact.
But why? What makes these products so necessary?
We can probably sum up this need with just a couple of simple statements.
- We love our pets
- We want to help them with something “safe” that can’t “hurt” them
- We need them to live forever (and we’ll use any preventative option to that end!)
There’s a little tongue in cheek humor here, but really, if you think about it, these statements are pretty true. Over the decades, our pets have become less like “pets” and more like family members. Wouldn’t you do just about anything to help keep your family member healthy for as long as possible?
And in no category of supplements is this more true than with joint health supplements. Joint supplements for dogs are one of the top supplement categories that pet parents use. We equate our pets’ happiness to two main things: food and play. A pup that has lost interest in his favorite food or treat is a pretty sad pup. But just as hard to see is a pup that can’t get around on his four furry feet like he used to.
Joint health supplements can help with comfort and mobility, sometimes long before prescription medications are needed. But there’s so many out there with so many ingredients. What are these ingredients and how do they help your pup?
In this article we’re going to discuss 8 of the most common ingredients in joint supplements for dogs, where they come from, and what their benefits are, so that you can be more knowledgeable when choosing the appropriate supplement for your pet and discussing these options with your vet.
What it is and what it does
Glucosamine is a natural compound found in joint cartilage. Cartilage cells use glucosamine to produce components called glycosaminoglycans that keep joint fluid viscous and functional as a lubricant and shock absorber. Because joint fluid is the main source of nutrition for cartilage, this keeps the cartilage healthy.
Glucosamine also has a couple more functions. It regulates the production of collagen and proteoglycans, the two main components that make cartilage what it is. It also has some mild anti-inflammatory effects as a scavenger of free radicals, which are lonely, needy atoms, often oxygen atoms.
When oxygen free radicals bind to other molecules in cells, this causes damage, also termed oxidative damage. Glucosamine can help act as an antioxidant to bind up these aberrant atoms and deactivate them. In this way, glucosamine can reduce inflammation and damage in the joints and throughout the rest of the body.
Given its natural presence in the joint and vital action, it makes sense that we’d consider supplementing glucosamine to help slow down inflammatory conditions in the joint, like osteoarthritis.
Glucosamine found in supplements is typically sourced from shellfish which is a renewable source, as long as sustainable practices are used.
Glucosamine, often paired with chondroitin which we’ll discuss next, has been recommended for decades as a supplement to help both provide some comfort and relief for arthritic pets, but also to slow down the inflammatory process in degenerative joints.
If a dog experienced any kind of orthopedic injury, like a fracture or cruciate ligament tear, or if he suffers from a degenerative disease acquired early as a puppy like hip or elbow dysplasia, luxating patellas (loose kneecaps) or any of several other conditions, we know he’s going to be prone to developing arthritis earlier than most other dogs.
When glucosamine is supplemented early on, before these signs of arthritis develop, it can help to keep cartilage healthy, keep the joint lubricated, and thereby slow down the inevitable progression of disease.
And if a dog already has arthritis? There was a study published back in 2007 in The Veterinary Journal that showed statistically significant benefits for dogs with osteoarthritis when glucosamine (and chondroitin) were supplemented.
Now, mind you, these results can take some time, so you have to be patient. The average time to response is 4-6 weeks. And if you have an asymptomatic pup that you’re providing glucosamine to as a preventative, you may not see any visible changes at all. But that’s the catch with preventative care. We often have to trust that what we’re doing is helping and that if we didn’t do it, we’d be seeing problems sooner.
What it is and what it does
Along with hyaluronic acid and a few other compounds, chondroitin is actually one of those glycosaminoglycans mentioned earlier that’s found in cartilage and joint fluid.
Like glucosamine, chondroitin is a natural compound found within cartilage, and is the main structural component that makes cartilage a good shock absorber and provides most of its resistance to compressive forces.
Chondroitin also helps to inhibit destructive enzymes within cartilage and joint fluid, helping to prevent arthritic changes, and stimulates further production of glycosaminoglycans like itself, as well as other structural components that make up cartilage.
As mentioned above, chondroitin is often used in conjunction with glucosamine, as they are both found in the joint and research has suggested they have a synergy together. That is, when used together, we may be able to see better benefits than if either is used alone.
Chondroitin can only be derived from natural sources, often from bovine (cow) or porcine (pig) cartilage and sometimes form poultry. Shark cartilage is sometimes used, but generally discouraged, as overfishing of sharks around the world has become a global concern, with several species on the endangered list.
The benefits for chondroitin are similar to glucosamine. It helps to slow down and possibly even reduce inflammation through its action of destructive enzyme inhibition. As the chief shock absorber in cartilage, supplementing it can help support a pup with his daily activities, whether it be walks, running, or playing.
One added benefit, which makes it a good fit for using with dogs already on non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) for arthritis, is that it can help replenish the glycosaminoglycans layer in the intestinal tract, reducing the chance of digestive upset side effects from NSAID use.
Glucosamine and chondroitin can be found in almost all joint supplements and are the typical starting point and mainstay for any joint support regimen.
What it is and what it does
Since methylsulfonylmethane is a real mouthful, we’ll just keep using the abbreviation MSM. MSM is a sulfur compound. We all associate sulfur with a “bad eggs” smell and think of it more as some kind of nasty byproduct. But the truth is that there are many sulfur compounds in existence and naturally-occurring organic sulfur is needed by all living organisms.
MSM is one such naturally-occurring organic compound. Just like there’s a water cycle that helps to nourish the earth, there is also a sulfur cycle. This largely involves algae and plankton in the ocean dying, releasing sulfur into the atmosphere. With some sunlight exposure, this sulfur is eventually converted to a couple of other compounds, including MSM.
These compounds, including MSM, actually become a part of the water cycle, end up in plants, and are consumed by animals.
Because it occurs in such small amounts naturally, MSM is generally manufactured, not harvested from an animal source.
MSM as a natural component has been touted to have many health benefits in both humans and animals. Studies have shown that it actually has the ability to block a key part of an inflammatory pathway in the body, called the COX-2 pathway, which is also what our NSAIDs target. But while NSAIDs can also affect the beneficial COX-1 pathway that protects our organs and digestive tracts, MSM does not affect it.
While it hasn’t been definitively shown to rival the potency of NSAID therapy, its COX-1 sparing nature has made it an attractive alternative for pet parents that find their pup has digestive difficulty with NSAIDs and are looking for ways to discuss reducing dosage or frequency with their vet.
Omega Fatty Acids
What they are and what they do
Fats are much maligned in our society as unhealthy, and well, fat--that stuff that makes us and our pets gain weight, slow down, and feel chronically ill.
But as with most nutritional components like carbs, protein, and fiber, ours and our pets’ need for fat is very complex and requires a delicate balance.
Without getting into too much chemistry, fatty acids are basic fat-based nutrients that our bodies require for a lot of reasons. And in the right balance, they can excel at fighting inflammation, nurturing brain health and development, keeping the heart healthy, and even aid in weight reduction. With the wrong balance and types of fats, they certainly can be detrimental to our furry friends’ health and our own as well.
There are two fatty acids we’ll talk about that are termed “essential fatty acids” because our bodies (including our pets) cannot make them and they must be acquired in the diet.
The first and most important are omega-3’s. There are a couple types of omega-3 fatty acids, which you may see listed separately on supplement labels.
DHA: an extremely important omega-3 for brain function and support, as it comprises nearly 10% of brain tissue.
EPA: produces compounds called eicosanoids, which help to reduce inflammation.
ALA: a precursor for EPA and DHA, ALA on its own has anti-inflammatory effects and protective effects for the heart and brain
Omega-6 fatty acids are also important, but too much in the diet can be a bad thing. The primary omega-6 fatty acid is called arachidonic acid. It also produces eicosanoids like EPA does, but these eicosanoids are far more pro-inflammatory.
Pro-inflammatory eicosanoids are necessary and used by the body’s immune system. However, in high amounts, omega-6 fatty acids can lead to too much inflammation occurring in the body, leading to actual damage. This is where the right amount of omega-6 is a good thing, but too much is definitely a bad thing.
And according to a 2017 article in Healthline, the Western world consumes far too many omega-6 fatty acids. The normal ratio should be about 4:1 omega-6 to omega-3. The average Western diet runs anywhere from 10:1 to 50:1. In humans, this has increased the risk for heart disease, diabetes, and inflammatory disease.
Dogs may also have an imbalance, just like we do. Omega-6 fatty acids are far more abundant in food sources and less expensive to include for manufacturers, so without good omega-3 supplementation, an improper ratio may still exist even in otherwise good quality commercial foods. Supplementing omega-3s to get as close to that 4:1 ratio as possible, is always beneficial.
The most prolific sources of omega-3’s come from oily fish, with mackerel, cod, and salmon being the top fish sources. They can also be derived from krill, a small shrimp-like creature, and marine algae. As we’ll talk about next, green-lipped mussel has also been found to have a high level of omega-3’s. ALA is found mostly in plant-based sources, like flax seed.
When it comes to supplementation, we’re really talking about adding the omega-3’s DHA and EPA, and sometimes ALA, to the diet.
For the joints, adding EPA and DHA has been associated with reduced inflammation and pain. While typically on their own they are relatively weak anti-inflammatories for joint health, when combined with other supplement ingredients like glucosamine and chondroitin, we can see an additive benefit.
For additional whole-body benefit, a plant-based source of omega-3’s like flaxseed, will also provide ALA. While beneficial on its own, it can also be converted into both DHA and EPA. When choosing supplements, look for those with both marine and plant-based sources to get the best omega-3 coverage.
Green-Lipped Mussel (GLM)
What it is and what it does
GLM is one of the strangest but also one of the most beneficial ingredients found in today’s joint health supplements.
This aquatic shellfish is a unique species of mussel, scientifically termed Perna canaliculus, which is found only in the pristine Pacific waters off the coast of New Zealand. For generations, the native Maori have included GLM in their diets because of the known health benefits, but it has only recently, within the past few years, been introduced as a nutritional supplement to the Western world.
The health benefits for GLM are many as it is considered a nutritional superfood, but lay mostly in two areas. One is the amazing omega fatty acid profile that it has and the other is its ability to counteract the COX inflammatory pathway, similar to MSM.
GLM contains EPA and DHA, the two omega-3 fatty acids we just discussed in detail. But in addition to those two, it also has its own unique omega-3 fatty acid called ETA. ETA in itself is unique from other omega-3 fatty acids, because it has the ability, similar to MSM, of selectively blocking the COX-2 inflammatory pathway, while preserving the protective COX-1 pathway.
There is some decent research out there to support GLM’s benefits. In 2002, a study published in the Journal of Nutrition evaluated using GLM powder in dogs with osteoarthritis. A 30% reduction in arthritis scores was seen in about 80% of the dogs, while no change was seen with the placebo group.
Another study published in 2007 in Evidenced-Based Complimentary and Alternative Medicine focused on supplementing 45 dogs with x-ray evidence of arthritis a GLM supplement for 8 weeks. About 70% of these dogs showed improvement, and GLM even tied the NSAID carprofen in the Veterinary Mobility Index that is used to assess improvement in mobility.
GLM is a very sustainable source of omega-3 fatty acids, bringing solace to folks that have concern about global overfishing. GLM has been sustainably farmed in the waters of New Zealand for nearly 50 years. And because New Zealand is far more eco-conscious than many countries and is fairly isolated in the Pacific, its waters are very clean, reducing concern for toxin accumulation that can be found in marine sources elsewhere in the world.
As mentioned, GLM has research-supported anti-inflammatory benefits for dogs with osteoarthritis. This is most likely due to the unique combination of the EPA, DHA, and ETA omega-3 fatty acids.
But as also mentioned, GLM is a nutritional powerhouse. Besides the omega fatty acid profile, it is also rich in antioxidants for targeting those annoying free radicals, plus it has vitamins, minerals, and amino acids, the building blocks of proteins and necessary components for many body processes.
GLM is not found in every joint supplement, so keep an eye out for supplements that include it in the ingredient label. In many cases, you’ll find it in combination with other beneficial joint health supplement ingredients as a higher end product for pets showing active symptoms of osteoarthritis or who are at a high risk.
Hyaluronic Acid (HA)
What it is and what it does
Hyaluronic acid is another one of those glycosaminoglycans, just like chondroitin. Its natural presence in joints adds viscosity to the joint fluid, improving shock absorption and resilience. With degradation of cartilage that occurs through the process of osteoarthritis, the joint fluid can become thin, leading to more of that bone-on-bone grinding, pain, and further damage.
By supplementing HA, more viscosity can be added to the joint fluid, improving shock absorption and reducing further damage.
While rooster combs are a natural source of HA, it can also be made synthetically in a lab or derived from plant sources.
Hyaluronic acid comes in two main forms: injectible and oral. When injected directly into the joint space, HA has been shown in many studies in both people and dogs to reduce symptoms of arthritis and joint pain.
According to a 2016 article in Evidence-Based Complimentary and Alternative Medicine, a majority of studies in dogs have shown an improvement in pain scores of 30-50% when intra-articular HA is used.
What about oral HA? Veterinary surgeon Dr. David Dycus and Veterinary Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation specialist Dr. Deborah Canapp state in an article they authored for Clean Run that while intra-articular injections of HA have known benefits, many studies looking at oral HA supplementation show much lower absorption, but there is promise on the horizon.
They mention that a 2014 article from the Journal of Veterinary Science did show statistical benefit to an oral HA supplement. This study looked at about 100 Labrador Retrievers and their development of genetic elbow dysplasia.
When fed to these Labs, a significantly lower number of them developed elbow dysplasia compared to the dogs being fed a placebo.
While other ingredients besides HA were included in the product used in the Labrador study, the study did establish a possible additive effect when these ingredients are used together, and a great safety profile for these ingredients. No side effects were seen in any of the over 50 dogs involved in the study that received the supplement.
So while we’ll hopefully see more evidence to back up HA use on its own, we can safely say that it’s very safe and has benefit for arthritis when used in conjunction with some of the other ingredients we’ve discussed.
What it is and what it does
Yucca schidigera is a shrub-like plant native to Mexico and found in arid regions. It has been used for generations by native peoples for its anti-inflammatory properties.
According to a 2006 article in the Journal of Inflammation, Yucca is thought to derive its anti-inflammatory benefits from saponins, which are steroid compounds found in many species of plants.
Yucca also contains compounds called phenols that have a number of anti-inflammatory properties. In addition to inhibiting NF-kB, our molecule that turns on inflammatory genes, these phenolic compounds also act as free radical scavengers and antioxidants.
Because of the combination of compounds found in Yucca that have anti-inflammatory properties, it is thought to be beneficial for reducing symptoms of arthritis. And since saponins are steroid compounds, some anecdotal reports have suggested that its benefits can be comparable to NSAIDs.
Despite its benefits, we do have to be careful with Yucca. The ASPCA Poison Control website does list Yucca as a toxic plant that can cause signs of mild vomiting in pets. However, yucca extract appears in many supplements and should be considered safe when dosed correctly. That’s why it’s important to choose a supplement with good quality control and oversight with the National Animal Supplement Council (NASC).
What it is and what it does
Frankincense is probably something you think about as one of the gifts of the three wise men at Christmas, along with gold and myrrh. But did you ever think about why it was considered to be such a special gift?
Frankincense is a term for the sap of trees of the Boswellia family, which are native to several countries on the African continent and in India. When the sap is dried, it is burned as incense and used for its medicinal properties. Its use for anointing and healing made it a very fine gift in biblical times.
When we talk about frankincense when used for canine arthritis, we’re typically talking about Boswellia serrata extract specifically. According to doctors Dycus and Canapp, the benefits come from boswellic acids that have the ability to decrease the inflammatory response.
According to doctors Dycus and Canapp, Boswellia does have some proven benefit. When added to glucosamine and chondroitin, an increased response of about 30% is seen compared to just glucosamine and chondroitin used alone. This implies its benefit in a quality combination product.
And according to DVM360, a 2004 study did show a statistically significant improvement and reduction of osteoarthritis signs in dogs after 6 weeks of use of a Boswellia extract.
Make note that Boswellia extract in supplements is not considered the same thing as using frankincense oil. While it’s true frankincense oil is used by oncologists both on the human and animal sides for treatment of certain types of cancers, this is under specific and controlled conditions.
Many essential oils are considered toxic in pets, especially if large amounts are ingested as the liver in dogs and cats does not have the same enzymes to metabolize them as in people.
Thus frankincense oil, or any essential oil for that matter, should only be considered under veterinary advisement. Even using topically on the skin carries the risk that a pet may lick off and ingest liberal amounts. Aromatherapy with some essential oils, for example, may be far safer and still provide some benefits.
A Supplemental on Supplements
Supplements to assist with joint health are very promising, especially when used in combination with each other. But remember that supplements are intended to be supplemental, or in addition to, other medical therapies. NSAID’s, steroids, pain medications, or even surgery may still be primary medical options to be discussed depending on the nature of your dog’s injury or joint condition.
There are easily a half dozen more supplements beneficial for the joints but we simply don’t have time to cover all of them. If you have questions about an ingredient in one of your pet’s supplements or want to know if adding something to your pup’s diet might be helpful, run it by your veterinarian to make sure it will be a safe and beneficial addition.