How joint supplements can help with orthopedic conditions

Hip dysplasia, arthritis and other orthopedic problems can range from annoying to painful and debilitating.

While there is no cure for arthritis, joint supplements target it by helping rebuild cartilage and by increasing flexibility in the joint. Some supplements also reduce inflammation in the joints.

Many supplement manufacturers built their ingredient lists and marketing claims on information from a few original research studies, mainly done by other manufacturers. However, this is gradually changing, and we’re learning more every day with an increasing number of good studies.

“Most supplements are relatively safe and can be started in hopes of reducing the progression of osteoarthritis, or the signs and symptoms of osteoarthritis,” says Dr. Christopher Frye, assistant clinical professor and section chief of sports medicine and rehabilitation in the Department of Clinical Sciences.

Some evidence shows these products may be even better at preventing arthritis than they are at slowing its progression. But here’s the thing: If you want to try these products, you need to know what’s wrong with your dog. For example, many people use the terms “hip dysplasia” and “arthritis” interchangeably, but these problems are not the same.

Arthritis is a gradual, inflammatory disease that affects nearly every dog. With arthritis, the cartilage — the cushioning material found at the ends of bones — begins to wear away until eventually it’s gone, and the bones are painfully rubbing against each other. Many dogs benefit from the use of joint supplements to combat arthritis, although sometimes in combination with an anti-inflammatory or pain-relieving drug.

Hip dysplasia is an inherited deformity that results in looseness in the joint. As the dog moves, that laxity causes wear on the joint and cartilage. As the wear increases, the joint becomes painful. Frye says, “Some studies show these supplements may help reduce the effects of hip dysplasia, while others show they are of minimal to no help.”

The gold standard for hip dysplasia is hip-replacement surgery. If that’s not possible, your dog will need weight management, exercise, physical therapy and anti-inflammatory medications.

“I recommend that families consult a veterinarian before beginning supplementary treatment, so you know exactly what problem you’re dealing with,” Frye says.

Industry regulation

If your dog is diagnosed with arthritis, your veterinarian may suggest a joint supplement. The idea behind most joint supplements is to reduce inflammation and support cartilage regeneration.

But supplements are not regulated like medications, and products may not contain what they state on the label. To add to the confusion, there’s no universal recommendation on how much of these ingredients your dog needs to consume daily to make a difference. Reputable manufacturers are more likely to include the levels of ingredients that show efficacy.

We advise using a brand recommended by your veterinarian or one that bears the National Animal Supplement Council (NASC) seal. The NASC monitors its members to ensure that the ingredients in approved products match what is on the label.

“The supplement with the most support in the literature currently is omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil,” Frye says. “Dosing has been fairly well-studied and a recommended daily dose of 1 teaspoon per 20 pounds of ideal dog weight is recommended.”

Because products containing omega-3 fatty acids vary in concentration, read the instructions on the product label and consult with your veterinarian about the specific product you plan to use.

Omega-3 fatty acids, or fish oil, should generally be given as a separate product to get the optimal dose for joint health (some chews contain omega-3s, but usually not much because the moisture causes chews to break down into mush). If your dog doesn’t like the product you’ve chosen, keep experimenting. Products are available in many different flavors and textures.

Be aware that fish oil may not be a good fit for every dog. “I never recommend this supplement in overweight dogs or for patients on the verge of being overweight, since oil is high in calories,” says Frye.

For overweight dogs, weight loss alone often provides significant pain relief from joint disease. Fish oil can be added in later, if needed, when the dog is at a healthy weight.

Where to start

“The problem with joint supplements is that few other than fish oil have been definitively proven to help slow the degeneration, but we think that things like glucosamine and chondroitin may help slow the progression,” says Dr. Joseph J. Wakshlag, professor of clinical nutrition and of sports medicine and rehabilitation in the Department of Clinical Sciences.

“Currently, we recommend fish oil and Dasuquin rather globally as things that might help slow progression,” he says.

Dasuquin is manufactured by Nutramax, an industry leader and pioneer in joint supplements for animals.

Many owners report that their dogs experience less discomfort and better quality of life from taking
joint supplements either alone or in conjunction with anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving drugs, or other therapies. Joint supplements can be given to your dog along with pain medications such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) for extra benefit.

Wakshlag says, “Using fish oil may help in reducing the necessary dose of NSAIDs for pain relief.”

Few veterinary naysayers remain

Some veterinarians claim joint supplements don’t work because there are not enough studies supporting their efficacy. While it’s true that research is lacking compared to studies of pharmaceuticals, there’s a reason for this discrepancy. Drugs must be approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which requires manufacturer-paid research that unquestionably proves the product’s efficacy. Supplement manufacturers do not have to meet these same requirements.

The 1994 Dietary Supplement and Health Act allows manufacturers to sell dietary supplements without FDA approval, provided they follow good manufacturing practices. Plus, the stuff is already flying off the shelves. The Expert Market Research (EMR) website states that the pet-supplement market is anticipating a growth rate of 7.5% by 2026, based heavily on the growing number of veterinarians who now recommend supplements for their clients.

The reason? Both increasing research and strong anecdotal evidence are changing minds. At a 2022 veterinary conference, Dr. Matthew Brunke ‘00, medical director of Veterinary Surgical Centers, discussed the available research for three nutraceuticals that are commonly touted for osteoarthritis relief for dogs.

Avocado and soybean unsaponifiables (ASUs)

ASUs are oil extracts that are thought to inhibit and reduce inflammation. In a study on the usefulness of ASUs, 16 dogs had anterior cruciate injuries created. Half the dogs got a placebo while the other half got ASUs. When the injuries were examined histologically, the dogs who were treated with ASUs had less damage evident and a smoother recovery.

Green-lipped mussels

The extracts from green-lipped mussels from New Zealand are the only mussels that work in similar ways to omega-3 fatty acids and chondroitin to support cartilage and reduce inflammation. You may see this ingredient listed on a supplement label as “Perna canniculus.” Multiple studies have verified that this substance helps dogs with arthritis. A dose of 77 milligrams per kilogram of body weight per day is required for beneficial results.

Undenatured type II collagen (UC II)

This less-commonly used ingredient is collected from chicken sternums. Basically, this ingredient acts to prevent damage to cartilage. It is sometimes combined with chondroitin and glucosamine but is most efficacious if given separately, i.e., at a different mealtime.

The bottom line

Discuss with your veterinarian at what age to begin giving joint supplements. Some evidence points to these products being more preventative than curative.

Some veterinary experts advise owners to start when the dog is around 1-year-old, which is when dogs generally stop growing. Others base their decision on the dog’s activity level, the development of arthritis and other risk factors.

If you have a highly active dog who is rough on their body or have a dog who is already showing signs of joint disease, then adding a joint supplement might help — particularly one that contains omega-3 fatty acids. However, while joint supplements are unlikely to harm your dog, it is possible to overdose, so treat these products like drugs and keep them out of reach.

Remember the importance of keeping your dog at a lean weight throughout their life — since excess weight contributes to the onset and progression of joint disease.

This article has been reprinted with permission from the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine’s DogWatch newsletter, published by Belvoir Media Group. When you become a member of the Riney Canine Health Center, you will receive a free subscription to DogWatch.