Are joint supplements good for dogs?
an active leaping wire-haired  terrier like this may need joint supplements as it gets older
Does your dog need joint supplements?

As pet owners, we have all become increasingly aware of the dangers of hip and elbow dysplasia, or osteoarthritis for our dogs. Since we all want a long and pain-free life for our canine best friends, this has led many of us down a rabbit hole of looking for the best joint supplements for dogs.

Whether it's glucosamine, chondroitin, or turmeric, we're all on the lookout for the best natural joint medicine for dogs. And with so many companies pouncing to throw supplements our way, it can be hard to know what to choose. Will a dog joint chew do the trick? What about elk antler powder?

To honestly care for our canine's joint health, we need to look at the bigger picture, from diet to exercise, what joint supplements work, and which ones are just marketing.

When and why do pets need joint supplements?

There are two major kinds of joint issues in dogs, those that are developmental and those that are degenerative.

Degenerative issues usually involve ligament injuries such as cruciate ligament tears, which cause arthritis as the pet ages. On the other hand, developmental problems typically include issues such as hip and elbow dysplasia, where the joint does not develop as it should, causing inflammation and pain.

A pet parent needs to understand the problem of joint health holistically before relying only on joint supplements. Any pet parent with a dog with abnormal proportions, such as a Basset, or a larger dog, needs to be aware of the risk.

joint supplements: breed and genetics

a running German Shepherd. Large breeds are often given joint supplements as they are more prone to arthritis and dysplasia
Certain large breeds, like German Shepherds, are particularly prone to joint problems

The first risk factor for musculoskeletal problems in dogs is their size. In general, the larger the dog, the more prone they are to dysplasia or arthritis. But breed also plays a role, indicating that genetics can also be to blame.

In general, certain breeds are more prone to specific problems. For instance,

  • Rottweilers are more likely to have knee or ankle problems
  • German Shepherds are notorious for hip dysplasia
  • Newfoundlands have the highest levels of cruciate ligament problems.

What we know at the moment is that joint problems such as hip dysplasia seem to be partly genetic and partly environmental.

So, it's up to us as owners to do our best to manage our pet's joint health from the moment we get them straight into their senior years. Indeed, this goes beyond supplements.

Diet and joint health for dogs

An overweight Corgi being measured
Being overweight has severe consequences for a dog’s joints

One study on Labradors shows the importance of a calorie-controlled diet for maintaining your dog's overall health as well as joints. A nutritious low-calorie diet might be your first defense against osteoarthritis and hip and elbow laxity, which causes dysplasia.

Labradors fed 25% less than the control group lived longer and had a lower fat body mass. They were also more sensitive to insulin, which made them less prone to diabetes. But more importantly, a calorie-restricted diet has a radical effect on joint health compared to dogs fed regular rations.

Benefits of restricted diets included

  • At age two, 42% of non-restricted Labradors had signs of early-onset osteoarthritis (OA) in their hips, compared to 4% of those on restricted diets.
  • By the end of the study, 83% of normally fed dogs had developed OA, while only 50% of calorie-restricted Labs had developed it.
  • There was a slight decrease in mineral bone density in dogs who were not on a restricted diet.

In short, if a pet parent simply restricts their pet’s diet to keep slim, their pet’s joints will be much healthier.

But what about the diet itself? Can imbalances and deficiencies be possible causes of bad joints in dogs?

Certain dog diet deficiencies can undoubtedly cause severe musculoskeletal problems in dogs, especially in growing puppies.

Vitamin D deficiencies can cause severe bone deformities. Too much or too little calcium, especially if it is in the wrong proportion with phosphorus and magnesium, can cause even more damage.

However, as far as specific nutrients that may correlate with degenerative or developmental joint problems, the science is still lacking. Weight control is certainly key. After that, a high nutrient and professionally balanced diet are just as essential.

What we know about nutrition and joint health:

  • Feeding carbohydrates has no effect that we know of on issues such as dysplasia. The only point to keep in mind is that too many carbs can push up the number of calories and your dog's weight.
  • Studies don't show that a high-content or completely meat diet helps avoid dysplasia. It seems that as long as a dog is getting enough quality protein to meet its amino profile, then the proportion of carbs to protein and fat is less significant than the overall amount of calories—in terms of joint health. But as we become more aware of how proteins influence hormones, this view may change.
  • Vitamin C is often overlooked, but a study in 1976 suggested that a vitamin C supplement fed to pregnant German Shepherds and their puppies for up to two years prevented them from developing hip dysplasia. Unfortunately, this study has not been replicated, so its results cannot be confirmed. Still, it is something to keep in mind for owners of large dogs.
  • A crucial risk in diet is overnutrition. Well-meaning pet parents may give their giant dogs too much of certain supplements such as calcium, which can be both toxic and cause significant bone and growth defects. We'll discuss this in more detail under the risks of joint supplements.

Exercise and joint health for dogs

a running Golden Retriever
Exercise can be both good and bad for a dog’s joints

Part of lifelong preventative care for our pets is ensuring they receive adequate exercise to take care of their joints as they age.

When it comes to what exercise is good and what exercise is bad, this is what we know at the moment:

  • Puppies should not exercise intensely until their growth plates are closed. For giant breeds, this can be up to and even after eighteen months of age. Giant breeds, in particular, need to be discouraged from excessive running or jumping or any high-impact activity, even after they are fully grown.
  • For adult dogs, running and walking on soft ground and inclines such as hills is beneficial as it strengthens the muscles around the joints.
  • Exercise that includes jumping, such as leaping to catch a frisbee, takes a greater toll on their joints.
  • Puppies, especially those with long backs like Dachshunds, should not be allowed to climb stairs or leap off furniture.
  • If your dog has hip dysplasia or arthritis, stick to low-impact walking and try swimming as much as possible.
  • Slippery surfaces should be avoided for growing dogs, especially large and giant breeds.

The risks of joint supplements

As you can see, supplementing your dog's diet is only part of the picture when doing our best for our dog's joint health.

Understanding our dog's diet, genetics, and exercise needs all play a role. However, there is still strong evidence that many joint supplements are beneficial, and we all want our pets to live long and pain-free lives.

Unfortunately, as we try to do our best for our pets, many companies emerge to take advantage of us and even put our beloved pets at risk. This is why we need to be educated on the topic before we dish out anything we find on the internet.

The first problem with nutraceuticals is that they are not regulated by the FDA and do not require approval of their safety or efficacy to be on the market. As opposed to FDA-regulated drugs, quality control of nutraceuticals like pet joint supplements is terrible.

Adequately conducted studies on these nutrients or "natural ingredients" are also few and far between.

An excellent example of the dangers that come with supplements can be seen in the use of glucosamine.

Problems surrounding glucosamine joint supplements:

  • There is little data available about the exact correct and safe dosages for our pets.
  • Glucosamine Supplements can contain too much lead, especially when sourced from China.
  • Too much glucosamine in a product can lead to lead poisoning.
  • The supplement may not be truthful about other additives in the bottle.
  • The amount of glucosamine specified on the label may not actually be in the bottle since there is so little oversight.
  • There is some evidence linking glucosamine to dehydration and glaucoma.
  • It appears that glucosamine and chondroitin may actually be harmful to some dogs. In a 2015 study on Dachshunds, dogs given these supplements were at an increased risk of Intervertebral Disc Disease(IVDD).

So, how do you pick a safe joint supplements for your pet?

Be aware, a healthy dog that is eating a balanced diet should not need supplements. Still, 90% of vets stock nutraceuticals of some kind, and it is generally agreed that good quality joint supplements can help dogs prone to dysplasia and arthritis.

But before getting a supplement, make sure to do your research. Good guidelines to follow are:

  1. Find out where the product is manufactured, and avoid any ingredients from China.
  2. Stick to brands that specialize in one area. Avoid brands that seem to have supplements for everything.
  3. Ask for the results of clinical trials that back up any health claims.
  4. Look for products with lot numbers. This indicates quality control checks.
  5. Call the company and request details over how the supplement was formulated, where the ingredients come from, and any trials that went into the process.
  6. Be skeptical of cure-all claims.
  7. Look for certification from an independent body.
  8. Do not give human supplements to dogs.
  9. Read the label and know what to look for.

Reading labels on joint supplements: what works and what doesn't

Glucosamine and chondroitin are common ingredients in joint supplements
Glucosamine and chondroitin are common ingredients in joint supplements

Assuming what's on the label is actually what's in the supplement, let's have a look at common pet joint supplements and give a brief overview of what we know about their efficacy.

Glucosamine & Chondroitin

Despite the concerns over glucosamine, studies show an improvement in dogs with osteoarthritis given glucosamine and chondroitin.

Glucosamine hydrochloride is preferable to glucosamine Sulphate, while chondroitin sulfate is fine. Although the two supplements can take up to 70 days to begin working, doses of 500 mg - 1000 mg per 75-pound dog have been proven effective.

Dogs need to be given a loading dose for the first four to six weeks, which is about double the amount. Many vets will recommend giving glucosamine and chondroitin from a young age to help slow signs of dysplasia or osteoarthritis as the dog ages.

Omega-3s

According to CanineArthritis.org, Omega-3 fatty acids can massively improve a dog's quality of life. ALA, or the fat found in fish oil, massively reduces inflammation, and diets rich in omega-3s have been proven to increase weight-bearing activity in dogs.

MSM

There have been limited studies on MSM use for companion animals, although it's commonly used as an anti-inflammatory for humans.

Avocado Soybean Unsaponifiables (ASU)

ASUs appear to be among the most effective nutraceuticals, although they take a while to build up in the system. They protect against cartilage damage and enable healing. If giving ASUs, a dog will need less chondroitin.

Green-lipped mussel extract

Some studies show that Green-lipped mussel extracts do have some therapeutic effects for dogs with arthritis. But beware, there are questions about how sustainable green-lipped mussels are as a source and how effective they really are.

Vitamin C

As mentioned above, there was a promising study in the 70s concerning canine hip dysplasia and vitamin C. However, control studies have not yet verified the results. Since vitamin C is needed to form collagen in the joints, it stands to reason that it can be beneficial for your dog.

Eggshell membrane

Some studies show that eggshell membranes are highly beneficial for humans because of their natural glucosamine, collagen, and chondroitin. However, there are no studies that show the same for dogs.

Collagen

Research into collagen as a possible preventative supplement is still pretty new and inconclusive. In general, there are some signs that feeding collagen can have a small preventive effect against dysplasia.

Other Joint Supplements

Various other natural products are touted to help joint health, but beware since the science doesn't seem to back up most of these claims.

Boswellia Serrata

In a 2004 study, dogs with OA given 40mg/kg of this tree extract did show a statistically significant improvement. However, more studies will be needed to determine proper dosages and possible side effects.

Curcumin/Turmeric

Information about Curcumin and turmeric is conflicting. Some point to it having some anti-inflammatory properties, but not being safe or bioavailable for dogs. On the other hand, it appears that more studies need to be done for this to be conclusive.

Elk/Deer antler

A 2004 study shows that dogs with OA given powdered Elk antler showed improvement, but the correct and proper dosage has not been determined.

Hyper-immune milk factor

While this appears to help inflammation in humans, no known studies have supported it in dogs.

Creatine

Marketed as a way for humans to build muscle, creatine has no known benefits for dogs. Since dogs aren't lifting weights, it's likely that giving them creatine will only make them fat rather than help them build muscle.

Whey protein

A milk product, no study supports that whey protein is helpful for canines.

Chromium

No research has been done to support the medicinal benefits of chromium supplements for dogs.

Dimethylglycine

Another marketing gimmick that has no proven benefits for canines.

Lecithin

This is marketed to improve athletic performance, but there is no research that suggests it is helpful for dogs.

Treatments in place of Joint supplements

1. NSAIDS

If your pet has developed a joint issue such as arthritis or hip dysplasia, the most commonly used veterinary treatment—outside of invasive surgical procedures—is to manage the pain with non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS). NSAIDs help reduce and manage pain and inflammation, which can go a long way to making your pet more comfortable.

Unfortunately, they also come with some extreme side effects if used over a long period. These include,

  • Vomiting;
  • Diarrhea.
  • Decreased activity level; and
  • Reduced appetite.

They can also have a severe effect on the kidneys and liver. Therefore, any prolonged use of NSAIDs will need to be closely monitored by your veterinarian.

2. CBD Oil

A Pit Bull-type dog being offered a dropper of CBD oil
CBD oil may have benefits for dogs suffering from joint pain

Another emerging treatment option is CBD oil. Unfortunately, CBD oil is currently being hyped as a panacea or cure-all for all doggy ailments, ranging from anxiety to cancer. However, for the most part, there is little science to back these claims. That is, until it comes to osteoarthritis.

A 2018 study showed a significant decrease in pain for dogs with osteoarthritis who were given CBD oil, with no noticeable side effects during this study. The dogs also become much more active.

Final thoughts

We all want our pets to live long and pain-free lives. Unfortunately, this can make us prey to many marketing ploys that don't always live up to the hype. Taking care of our pet's joints is a lifelong process and should be looked at holistically.

Everything should be taken into account. From controlled exercise to strengthen your dog's bones and muscles to a complete and balanced, nutritious diet, weight control, and careful supplementation, we can do the best we can for our fur friends.

NutritionPet healthSupplements