Dr. Chris Vanderhoof, DVM, MPH
There is a famous saying, often attributed to Benjamin Franklin, that goes: “in this world, nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”
The man whose face graces the $100 bill was a sage and accomplished figure, but we could argue that there are many other additional certainties in life and I would argue that osteoarthritis is one of them.
All of us reading this article will experience the effects of arthritis in our lifetime, some sooner, some later. Our furry four-legged companions likewise will suffer from joint pain and inflammation at some point during their lives with us.
Painful, achy joints cut down on our mobility and our quality of life. But at least we as humans can understand what’s happening. It’s especially difficult to watch our pets, who live day to day, and for who we want little except great life quality and happiness, suffer from the same pain and immobility as us; without a clue as to why or how to fix it.
In this article, we are going to discuss six natural food and supplement ingredients that can be very beneficial for helping to decrease pain and inflammation and to restore some of that lost mobility in your furry four-legged family member.
But before we get to that, it’s important to have a general understanding of what joint pain and inflammation means for pets, and even more importantly, misconceptions that many pet parents can have.
What do joint pain and inflammation mean?
Our joints, human and animal alike, are made of bone, cartilage, and a lubricating fluid called synovial fluid. Cartilage acts as a cushion between the two or more bones of a joint, and the synovial fluid helps to keep that cartilage nice, smooth, and happy.
Osteoarthritis, which is essentially synonymous with the term degenerative joint disease, is a slowly progressive inflammatory condition affecting joints.
Stress on cartilage leads to inflammation, which in turn leads to:
- further breakdown of cartilage
- compensatory thickening of bone
- Changes to the synovial fluid.
This vicious cycle of inflammation and damage that leads to further inflammation, causes stiffness in joints and chronic pain.
How many dogs does it affect?
Many people consider arthritis to be a disease of older pets. But the truth is that this process starts happening much earlier than we realize.
One statistic, provided by the American Animal Hospital Association, states that at least 20% of dogs over one year of age in the United States are affected by osteoarthritis1. That’s already 1 in 5 dogs and this percentage only increases with age.
What causes osteoarthritis?
How does osteoarthritis come about? There are a few reasons in dogs, especially when discussing the causes of early disease. Over time, chronic motion, pressure, and strain wear on joints and initiates that damage/inflammation cascade.
Other than degeneration of healthy joints over time, we’ll discuss three major initiating causes that you can mitigate on your own, from home:
- Athletic injury
- Genetic predisposition
- Increasing weight and obesity in dogs
1. ATHLETIC INJURY
Many dogs are active. They play fetch, go for long walks, and maybe even go on jogs or runs with their owners. With the popularity of doggie daycare and dog parks, it’s more common now to see dogs racing around full-tilt playing games with each other, too.
High athletic activity is healthy in the right amounts, but dogs can overdo it, just like people. In veterinary medicine, “limping” is one of the most common presenting complaints requiring medical care.
But regardless of the type of injury, if it alters the well-oiled machine that is the biomechanics of a joint, you will see chronic inflammation, tissue damage, and pain develop.
Take a cruciate ligament tear for example, which is a very frequent injury in dogs. Commonly referred to as an “ACL” tear (an improper term, but referencing the similar injury in people), this injury can happen suddenly, without warning, and can have lifelong consequences. The cranial cruciate ligament in dogs is a small band of tissue that is responsible for keeping a dog’s knee joint stable. It prevents forward and sideways sliding of the femur over the tibia, and also prevents twisting motion.
When the cruciate ligament tears, the knee joint loses much of this stability. The constant sliding and twisting that occurs, on top of the inflammation that already resulted from the actual tear itself (sometimes with additional injury to the joint cartilage cushion, called the meniscus), leads to perpetual inflammation and damage.
In dogs, genetics plays a big part in joint disease, almost as much as activity level.
Unfortunately, dogs that are genetically prone to joint disease often present with problems at a much earlier age, sometimes even at only 2-3 years.
Hip dysplasia is the biggest genetic joint disease of dogs.
It involves a laxity, or looseness of the ball and socket hip joint, which certain breeds of dogs are simply born with.
Common dog breeds that experience hip dysplasia include:
- German Shepherd Dogs
- Saint Bernards
- American Staffordshire terriers
However, dogs of all breeds and all sizes are susceptible to this inherited condition, including some small breeds, such as pugs, and French bulldogs.2
The laxity of the hip joints lead to excessive abnormal motion, a flattened, blunted femoral head (the “ball”) and a shallow acetabulum in the pelvis (the “socket”). Over time, this excessive motion grinds away at both the ball and socket, leading to recurring inflammation, cartilage damage, and pain, until you reach a point where a pup can be so painful, he looks like a senior dog at only a couple years of age.
Similar types of disease can occur in dogs that are born with other types of joint deformities in the wrists, ankles, or knees.
A final big consideration that has become more prevalent in recent years, is the relationship between obesity in dogs and joint health. According to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, nearly 60% of dogs were overweight as of their survey results last year.3
From a very simple perspective, excessive weight strain on joints is going to lead to further cartilage damage, inflammation, and pain. But excessive fat additionally puts the body into a pro-inflammatory state, and this also contributes.
Thus, we always see overweight and obese dogs develop arthritis and joint pain that much sooner, regardless of genetics.
What do we do about it?
So now that we understand a little more about joint pain and inflammation and some causes of it in dogs, we arrive at the obvious question: what the heck can I do about it?
Well, as you guessed given the title of our article highlighting 5 natural ingredients that assist with pain and inflammation in joints, we’re going to focus most on how those ingredients are beneficial.
But before we do, it’s important to briefly discuss prescription medical therapy for joint pain.
The potential dangers of NSAIDs and conventional drugs for treating hip + joint issues
Treatment of osteoarthritis with non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAIDs) medication is very common. NSAIDs interfere with certain inflammatory pathways that perpetuate that vicious cycle, and as a result, many dogs can see relief from pain and subsequently increased mobility.
Pain medications, like tramadol and gabapentin, do nothing to address the underlying inflammation, but can sometimes alleviate some of the discomfort caused by the process.
But the reason we’re discussing natural ingredients further in this article is that there are problems with these conventional drugs that can really put a snag in our efforts to relieve pain and increase mobility.
The problem with NSAIDs is that they simply are not selective enough for joint pain, and we can see side effects ranging from:
- Decreased appetite
- Damage to the liver and kidneys
Because dogs have such a high degree of sensitivity to NSAIDs, even the ones developed specifically for dogs, like carprofen, these drugs have such a narrow range of use.
If a pup starts having digestive upset or starts to develop liver value abnormalities on bloodwork, decreasing the NSAID dose could help with side effects, but may no longer be of benefit for helping with joint pain. Likewise, if we don’t see significant improvement in joint pain with NSAIDs, we can’t simply increase the dose, because the risk of side effects goes up.
In fact, there are times when we simply can’t continue NSAID therapy in some dogs, and then we are left with a few medication options.
Are conventional drugs even that effective?
The pain medications we use in dogs generally have a good safety threshold, but the problem is that they seem to be minimally effective as relievers of joint pain.
In fact, a 2018 study published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medicine Association, found that a 10-day course of tramadol had no clinical benefit for arthritis in a population of 40 dogs.4
When you also consider that the opioid crisis in America has led to a stringent increase in regulatory rules for how a lot of pain medications are dispensed, there can be a lot of headaches involved in prescribing these medications.
This is why many pup parents are understandably wary of traditional medical therapy for joint pain and inflammation. They may also have found that their dog either can’t be on an NSAID, or they see no benefit with pain medication.
This has led to a lot of interest in alternative therapies for joint pain, including joint supplements.
Six Natural Ingredients That Can Help With Joint Pain
This now gets us into the meat of our article, where we will discuss the following five natural ingredients that can help with joint pain, inflammation, and decreased mobility.
IMPORTANT: First, we’ll tell you the compounds responsible for promoting our desired positive effects on our furry four-legged family members, and then we’ll tell you (scroll to the bottom if that is all your interested in) which foods you can feed your dog that contain these compounds!
Glucosamine is a natural component of cartilage that helps to regulate the synthesis of collagen. Collagen is a protein that is, in turn, the main component of many connective tissues in the body, including cartilage in joints. Glucosamine also contributes to the synthesis of proteoglycans and glycosaminoglycans, which are big words for two types of building blocks for cartilage formation. Glucosamine has also been found to have mild anti-inflammatory effects.
There are several forms of glucosamine out there but glucosamine HCl, which is more concentrated than other forms, is the most often used in pet supplements.
The goal of supplementing glucosamine is to help stimulate collagen production, reinforcing cartilage in joints to provide extra cushion and even encourage some rebuilding with collagen and our two “glycans” friends.
The best, natural source to harvest this essential nutrient from are shells of shellfish!5
Chondroitin and glucosamine essentially go hand in hand. Chondroitin is the major glycosaminoglycan found in cartilage. It promotes water retention and elasticity in the tissue, which like glucosamine, also helps with cushioning and shock absorption.
Chondroitin sulfate is the most common form and is often found paired up with glucosamine in supplements both for humans and pets.
An additional benefit for chondroitin is that it also helps to replenish the glycosaminoglycan layer that protects the mucosa of the intestinal tract. This means that for some dogs who are already on NSAIDs, chondroitin may help to protect the digestive tract against ulcerations, which is a side effect sometimes seen with those medications.
The most common source from which chondroitin is manufactured from is cow cartilage!6
When sulfur comes to mind, we often think about a rotting eggs smell or the toxic nature of hydrogen sulfide gas. But the truth is that there are many sulfur compounds in existence and naturally occurring organic sulfur is required by all living organisms.
Methylsulfonylmethane (MSM) is one such naturally-occurring organic sulfur compound. It is created through the earth’s sulfur cycle when phytoplankton and algae in the ocean die and decompose, releasing sulfur compounds into the atmosphere. The simple sulfur compounds released are converted to another sulfur compound called DMS.
With some extra sun and ozone exposure, DMS becomes DMSO and MSM. These products eventually become part of the water cycle, wind up in vegetation, and are consumed by animals.
MSM in supplement form must be manufactured because MSM occurs naturally in amounts too small to be harvested and utilized on any kind of grand scale.
MSM has been touted for many health benefits for several years now, both in humans and in animals. We do know that it has the ability to act as an anti-inflammatory by blocking parts of some key inflammatory pathways, including the COX-2 pathway, which is commonly implicated with joint inflammation.
Through its actions in blocking some of these pathways and reducing inflammation and oxidative damage from free radicals, MSM also thereby acts as an antioxidant and modulator of the immune system.
Our next ingredient may very well be one that you could find in your own spice cabinet at home. Turmeric, also called turmeric root, is a yellow-orange spice very closely related to ginger. It hails from India, Asia, and Central America.
Turmeric’s primary active ingredient, curcumin, is not only what gives the spice it’s telltale yellow-orange color, but is also responsible for most of turmeric’s purported benefits.
In the human arena, there is much evidence that turmeric and more specifically curcumin, has numerous health benefits. The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), a division of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), states several findings in preliminary studies.
These findings revealed the following:
- reducing the number of heart attacks
- reducing skin irritation after radiation treatments for breast cancer
- most importantly for our purposes, controlling knee pain from osteoarthritis on a similar level with ibuprofen.7
A review of several human clinical trials that was released in 2016 in the Journal of Medicinal Food showed really promising results. In humans, there are two scoring systems used to evaluate arthritis. One is called the Pain Visual Analogue Score (PVAS) and the other is called the Western Ontario and McMaster Universities Osteoarthritis Index (WOMAC). Of the 8 clinical trials reviewed, 3 demonstrated a reduction in PVAS score when compared to a placebo when using turmeric/curcumin. Four showed a decrease in WOMAC. Even more interesting is that in 5 cases, there was no significant difference in PVAS between turmeric/curcumin and pain medicine.
Okay, so it may help people, but what about dogs?
P54FP is an extract of turmeric. In 2003, a group study was conducted looking at P54FP’s effect on osteoarthritis in dogs where dogs were given the P54FP supplement for 8 weeks. The investigators did, in fact, see a statistically significant difference in the effect of treatment in favor of turmeric, supporting its use in dogs and the need for further clinical studies.
5. VITAMIN C
You may be aware that most animals are able to make their own Vitamin C. This excludes guinea pigs, humans, and other primates. But dogs can certainly make their own. So why the heck would supplementing additional Vitamin C be beneficial and what does it have to do with joints?
Vitamin C, or ascorbic acid, as you will also see it listed, is a water-soluble vitamin that dogs and most other mammals can synthesize from their own glucose utilizing a special enzyme the rest of us lack. Vitamin C acts as an antioxidant. Antioxidants help to eliminate from the body the dangerous free radicals that can cause damage to cells.
But during times of stress or in disease states, dogs can see decreased Vitamin C stores, just as with humans. We could, therefore, see an increased need by the body compared to its ability to produce Vitamin C.
Vitamin C is also involved in the formation of collagen, which is a component of cartilage. As a result, there has been a keen interest in whether or not supplementing Vitamin C in cases of arthritis could, just like glucosamine, help to rebuild cartilage in dog joints as well as reduce oxidative stress on joints from free radicals.
A 2018 review of 10 scientific study articles involving both humans and animals in the Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine concluded that:
Vitamin C had the potential to do the following with no reported adverse effects:
- accelerate bone healing after a fracture
- increase collagen formation
- reduce oxidative stress on tissues
While it’s a water-soluble vitamin and generally very safe, extremely high doses of Vitamin C given for long periods of time have led to diarrhea in dogs, making it important to utilize a dietary supplement formulated just for them.
6. FISH OIL
Fish oil is another important component in managing hip and joint pain, inflammation and improving mobility.
It’s important because of the omega-3 fatty acids present in fish oil - specifically acids Eicosapentatonic acid (EPA) and decoxahexaeonic acid (DHA).
These particular acids help reduce inflammation in joints and limit the production of certain negative proteins that exacerbate certain types of arthritis.
How to get these ingredients into your dog’s diet
Now that we have a baseline of ingredients and nutritional building blocks that your dog’s hip and joint health can really benefit from, the question becomes, “How do I get this stuff into my dog’s diet?”
Unfortunately, the majority of dog food (even stuff that poses as “wholesome”) is nutritionally empty of key nutrients your dog needs for overall health and to keep their joints healthy.
GLUCOSAMINE AND CHONDROITIN
While these two elements are essential structural components of good joint cartilage8 and performance, they’re nutrients that are hard to come by in foods. Supplementation is therefore usually the best way to get these crucial nutrients into your dog’s diet although if you can get your hands on bone gristle or meat cartilage (and are ok with handling it!) that’s also a good way to give your dog at least some minimal amounts of Glucosamine and Chondroitin.
Papayas contain antioxidants that can help prevent cell damage including high levels of Vitamin C. An added benefit is that papayas are also lower in citric acid than other antioxidant containing fruits which makes them easier to digest and more gentle on your dog’s stomach!
Another tasty and great source of Vitamin C and antioxidants that help fight inflammation and free radicals.
Though expensive, incorporating a good quality salmon into your dog’s diet is a good way to provide them with the fish oil and omegas they need to help reduce joint inflammation and increase mobility. Haddock and sardines are other more cost-effective ways to get fish oil into your dog’s diet.
We’ve already talked about all the amazing properties and benefits of Turmeric in this article for hip and joint health, reducing inflammation and helping increase mobility! It really is a natural wonder ingredient!
Although it’s a common spice that you already probably have in your kitchen cupboard, it’s unfortunately not as simple than that. Turmeric is not easily absorbable by your dog’s body so sprinkling it on their food won’t do the trick. Instead, combining it with a healthy fat source will help increase nutrient uptake. To help administer Turmeric to your dog you can make a “paste” according to Dogs Naturally Magazine by combining the following ingredients
1/2 cup - Turmeric powder (make sure your powder is organic and filled with curcumin. Not any Turmeric powder will do the trick!)
1-1.5cups - Water
1.5 teaspoons - Freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup - Organic coconut oil
Dogs Naturally Magazine also says “the recommended dose of turmeric for dogs is 1/8 to 1/4 tsp per day for every 10lbs of your dog’s weight.”9
If you’d like to learn more about what different fruits and vegetables you can feed your dog that will promote a healthier and more qualitable life, check out this great article: Fruits and Vegetables: The Best Ones to Feed Your Dog
The easiest way to deliver optimal hip and joint nutrition
When combined together, these ingredients have the potential to produce some really amazing results. With the cartilage-building and protective effects of glucosamine and chondroitin combined with the anti-inflammatory effects of turmeric and MSM, joined with the antioxidant and cartilage building potential of Vitamin C, you have one heck of a hip and joint protector and arthritis-busting combination.
You can find this combination of ingredients in PetHonesty’s Advanced Hip + Joint soft chews for dogs that have removed all of the legwork and guesswork out of assembling these nutrient powerhouses together yourself.
Instead of having to buy separate sources and measure out the effective amounts of fish oil, glucosamine, turmeric, chondroitin, Vitamin C on a daily basis, Advanced Hip + Joint combines all of the right ingredients, in the right amounts, into one easy to give treat!
You may be very eager to add these ingredients to your dog’s daily regimen after hearing about all of their amazing benefits, Though I’m a veterinarian with years of experience, I encourage you to speak with your dog’s veterinarian first (especially if they’re on medication) before adding a supplement to their daily health routine!