Osteoarthritis is inflammation of the joint or multiple joints, it is chronic, progressive and degenerative. Huh? What does that even mean to me as an owner? Essentially what it means is that arthritis is a long-term disease that will probably get worse over time; the speed it gets worse is down to a number of factors: some we can control, some we cannot.
Arthritis is actually very common. About 80% of dogs over the age of 8 years old have arthritis in one or more joints. But don’t be fooled, young dogs can also experience it. As we know that this is a lifelong condition, as owners we want to do everything in our power to help slow further damage and make our dogs as comfortable as possible. To do this we enlist medication prescribed by our veterinary team, other therapies, lifestyle and exercise changes and diet changes. Could diet change be a miracle we are after?
Table of contents
Dogs in the UK are fed a wide variety of foods, such as wet, dry, raw or cooked commercial or home formulated; we know that the quality can vary between diets of any description. The most important is feeding a nutritionally balanced diet that is complete and follows FEDIAF guidelines. These guidelines detail the nutritional needs of dogs at varying life stages. They are regularly updated to include the latest nutritional research and are peer reviewed by independent nutrition experts.
There are a number of diets that are made specifically for arthritis. They aren’t actually ‘prescription’ but are formulated for a specific disease. Some are clinically proven to benefit arthritic dogs – for example, they may have been clinically proven to help dogs walk, run, play or climb stairs more easily. These may include weight management formulations, added antioxidants and supplements to support our arthritic dogs. Many prescription brands are made by companies that follow FEDIAF guidelines, are supported by veterinary nutritional experts and have feeding trials. So overall can be a good way to ensure you are getting the right balance of nutrients without overdoing anything.
A huge growing trend in doggy diets is raw feeding. These can be done in a number of ways but is basically the feeding of raw ingredients like meat and vegetables as well as other products to dogs. It has become evident that raw feeding has been suggested to help with a number of health conditions; arthritis is one of those. Owners who feed raw do so because they care passionately about their dog’s health. However at present the evidence for raw having benefits to arthritis management is poor. In addition, there are multiple reasons why raw might not be the best idea for your dog.
There is no evidence that raw meat-based diets provide health benefits over commercial or balanced homemade cooked diets. But there is growing evidence that feeding raw meat can be a health risk both for the pet and the owner; such as bacterial contamination, antimicrobial resistant bacteria contamination, parasites, nutritional imbalances to name a few.
Overall, some dogs do excellently on raw food. Owners who feed raw do so because they care very much about their pet, but it is unlikely to have a great benefit to your pet’s health while potentially causing issues to both your pet and family… So it is worth considerable consideration before making the change to raw from a cooked diet.
Vegan and Vegetarian
Commonly, human health trends filter into veterinary medicine and we are occasionally seeing vegan or vegetarian dogs now. Again, this choice often stems from owner beliefs and is made out of love, because they believe it to be the best option. In human health we hear that veganism helps reduce the body’s inflammation so people may begin to consider that it could help with arthritis in our pets too. Currently there is not enough evidence to support using vegan food in dogs as we don’t fully understand the effectiveness of certain synthetic amino acid and vitamin supplements. So, overall, this is probably not the right choice to move an arthritic dog onto if you think it might help their condition.
Our pet population is overall getting larger, in every sense! In 2020, 78% of veterinary professionals told us that they had seen an increase in pet obesity over the last 2 years. Added to this in 2021, 9% of dog owners reported that their pet had gained weight during the pandemic so the issue is only getting worse.
Obesity is likely to exacerbate osteoarthritis clinical signs, this is down to both physical load through the joints being increased. However, there is some evidence that obesity appears to be linked to increased levels of inflammatory chemicals which could contribute to clinical signs. This basically means that dogs experience more pressure on their sore joints. And adipose (fat) cells produce chemicals that add fuel to the fire and cause more inflammation around the body!
Studies have shown that weight reduction in obese animals can positively benefit our arthritic pets. So controlled weight loss, working alongside your veterinary team, is something you should enthusiastically engage in if your pet has a high body condition score. However, when we live with our dogs daily the weight can sneak up on us. And we can fall into bad habits like excessive treat giving. As owners we are notoriously bad at assessing our dog’s weight well. So it’s very important to go for regular checkups at your veterinary practice to ensure you are keeping your arthritic dog lean and trim.
It is often suggested to supplement dogs with arthritis. In some cases like prescription food the diets have already been enriched with various supplements already. Supplements are a very tricky subject, as they are extremely popular. Some have been shown to increase mobility after just six weeks of use. But the evidence for many is very poor and they are unlikely to be the miracle you initially expect.
The most compelling supplements for arthritis contain omega three fatty acids
These have been shown to help improved ability to rise from a resting, improvements in lameness and weight bearing, and potentially allow for reduction in medication with modest improvements in the clinical signs of arthritis in dogs seen. Omega three fatty acids are usually sourced from fish/marine sources. They can be added to your dog’s diet in a number of ways but we do need to take a few things into consideration.
Firstly, omega threes are found in fish. But giving your dogs a tin of sardines a day might not be the best idea; especially as the supplementation needs to be consistent, not once every so often. They may increase the chance of your dog gaining weight which we already know will have a very negative effect on your dog’s health. So many people turn to omega three fatty acid oils or capsules. Again, these can vary in product quality. So the best thing to do is ask your veterinary team on the best way to incorporate omega threes into your arthritic dog’s management plan.
Dog nutrition advice can be a minefield of information and confusing to decide upon. Your veterinary team is well placed to give nutritional advice. They are able to help guide you to bring in ‘multimodal’ management interventions to help support your arthritic dog. The main aim is to work holistically to bring in multiple changes to help make things easier and more comfortable for your beloved dog. Supplementation with support such as Omega-3 Fatty Acids or using diets specifically made with higher levels of these may help as part of a wider plan. When it comes to diet the most important factors include using a diet appropriate for their age and lifestyle, maintaining a good lean body condition score, and feeding a good quality complete food.
You might also be interested in:
- Impellizeri JA, Tetrick MA and Muir P (2000). Effect of weight reduction on clinical signs of lameness in dogs with hip osteoarthritis, Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 216(7): 1,089-1,091.
- Marshall WG, Hazewinkel HA, Mullen D, De Meyer G, Baert K and Carmichael S (2010). The effect of weight loss on lameness in obese dogs with osteoarthritis, Veterinary Research Communications 34(3): 241-253
- Raw Meat Based Diets – WSAVA January 2021