We all want our pets to remain happy and healthy. If you own an older pooch, or an active large-breed dog, you may have some concerns about their joint health and what that might mean for their future activity levels and general wellbeing. Joint supplements are becoming a common and popular choice for concerned dog owners wanting to protect their pet’s mobility.
But are they worth the hype? And if so, how do you choose from the plethora of options available?
Table of contents
- What is a joint supplement?
- What’s in a joint supplement?
- How do you choose a joint supplement?
- Joint supplements: final thoughts
What is a joint supplement?
Nutraceuticals, or supplements, are foods or additives which are thought to have health benefits – either in promoting good health or (potentially) preventing disease. Joint supplements are specifically marketed at maintaining joint health and preventing joint disease such as arthritis. Nutraceuticals can be bought over the counter, or online, with no need for a veterinary prescription.
However, the supplement market is not regulated as the pharmaceutical industry is, and therefore there is often no robust evidence to prove the various claims made. A joint supplement manufacturer can make statements such as “improved joint health” without any evidence to support the claim.
What’s in a joint supplement?
The type of ingredients, as well as their amount and concentration, all vary between supplements.
Here are some common ingredients, their use and the evidence behind them.
Glucosamine and chondroitin
These two common ingredients often come as a pair in joint supplements. Glucosamine is an amino sugar which stimulates cartilage growth and protects the cartilage layer in the joint. Chondroitin also protects cartilage by preventing enzymatic destruction.
Do they work?
Both ingredients need to be given in the correct formulation (for example, glucosamine hydrochloride penetrates the joint well, but glucosamine sulphate does not) and dose, and they take time to build to a useful concentration in the joint. A study of 35 dogs found that the glucosamine/chondroitin combination improved pain scores and weight-bearing in dogs with arthritis by around day 70 of use1. However, a more recent review found a distinct lack of evidence that glucosamine/chondroitin products are at all effective7.
Omega-3 fatty acids
Omega-3 and omega-6 are both essential fatty acids. Omega-6 fatty acids are pro-inflammatory, whereas omega-3 are anti-inflammatory. Increasing the ratio of omega-3 fatty acids in the diet through supplementation can shift the balance towards anti-inflammatory effects, slowing the progression of inflammatory joint disease such as arthritis, and reduce pain.
Do they work?
Studies have found improvement in pain scores of arthritis dogs supplemented with omega-3 fatty acids, and that supplemented dogs required less anti-inflammatory pain relief medication2,6,7.
This is a substance derived from the Boswellia tree, which is thought to have anti-inflammatory effects.
Does it work?
The evidence is very weak. One study found improvement in 17/24 dogs who took a Boswellia supplement3, but the study design isn’t perfect, as there is no placebo control or blinding, and the data collected is subjective rather than objective.
Green-lipped mussels contain high levels of omega-3s, as well as glycosaminoglycans, which are integral to cartilage structure.
Does it work?
Possibly. There are some studies which show that it has a positive effect on pain and mobility scores in arthritic dogs4. There are some doubts as to how the mussels are harvested, and the high dosage required.
Avocado and soybean unsaponifiables (ASUs)
A relative newcomer on the supplement scene, this ingredient is made from certain oils from avocados and soyabeans. It is supposed to reduce inflammation and work to repair cartilage.
Does it work?
There is some evidence of effect in human and equine studies. Research in dogs is fairly lacking, but there is some evidence that ASUs may provide a minor effect in early arthritis5.
There are varying other ingredients…
In fact, too many to list! But the evidence becomes thin and the studies weak. The Canine Arthritis Management group has a fuller list of supplements available.
How do you choose a joint supplement?
There is a huge choice of joint supplements available, all with differing ingredients, concentrations of ingredients and varying claims as to their efficacy. There’s no point in spending money on a supplement which doesn’t have the correct ingredients, a digestible formulation or the correct concentration of an active product to be effective.
So how do you choose which one will suit your pooch?
The Canine Arthritis Management group recommended using the ACCLAIM system when looking at potential supplements.
A – a recognisable company name, a reputable and established company.
C – clinical evidence, with research and trials published in recognised journals.
C – content and ingredients should all be clearly labelled.
L – label claims should be believable, and preferably based on science.
A – administration of the supplement should be clear, accurate and easy to calculate.
I – an identification number indicates surveillance of product quality.
M – manufacturer information should be clear.
If this is all a bit much to take in, speak to a veterinary professional about joint supplements. If you think your dog may have a joint problem, it is always recommended to seek veterinary advice. Your pet may need x-rays or further examination, and many joint conditions are painful and require pain-killing medicine as well as joint supplements. Your pet may also benefit from weight management and environmental modification.
Joint supplements: final thoughts
Joint disease is common in dogs, and many owners turn to joint supplements to help prevent and manage various orthopaedic conditions in dogs. Due to a lack of regulation, there is a large variation in both quality and efficacy of these products. The strongest evidence appears to be for omega-3 fatty acids, in fairly high doses, for their anti-inflammatory effect. If your dog has joint problems, discuss a medication plan with your veterinary surgeon.
- McCarthy G, O’Donovan J, Jones B, et al. Randomised double-blind, positive-controlled trial to assess the efficacy of glucosamine/chondroitin sulfate for the treatment of dogs with osteoarthritis. Vet J 2007 174(1):54-61
- Fritsch DA, Allen TA, Dodd CE, et al. A multicenter study of the effect of dietary supplementation with fish oil omega-3 fatty acids on carprofen dosage in dogs with osteoarthritis. J Am Vet Med Assoc 2010 236(5):535-539
- Reichling J, Schmökel H, Fitzi J, et al. Dietary support with Boswellia resin in canine inflammatory joint and spinal disease. Schweiz Arch Tierheilkd 2004;146(2):71-79
- Rialland P, Bichot S, Lussier B, et al. Effect of a diet enriched with green-lipped mussel on pain behavior and functioning in dogs with clinical osteoarthritis. Can J Vet Res 2013;77(1):66-74
- Boileau C, Martel-Pelletier J, Caron J, et al. Protective effects of total fraction of avocado/soybean unsaponifiables on the structural changes in experimental dog osteoarthritis: inhibition of nitric oxide synthase and matrix metalloproteinase-13. Arthritis Res Ther 2009;11(2):R41
- Vanderweerd J M et al (2012) Systematic Review of Efficacy of Nutraceuticals to Alleviate Clinical Signs of Osteoarthritis. J Vet Intern Med 2012
- Barbeau-Grégoire M, Otis C, Cournoyer A, Moreau M, Lussier B, Troncy E. A 2022 Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Enriched Therapeutic Diets and Nutraceuticals in Canine and Feline Osteoarthritis. Int J Mol Sci. 2022;23(18)