Pets are part of the family and exciting advancements in pet food options, veterinary care and physical activities are helping them live long healthy lives. But pets, just like people, experience a variety of wellness challenges as they age. The most obvious degenerative concern we see in our aging animals is joint disease.
Anatomy of the Joint
A joint is any place in the body where two bones come together to allow for motion. The ends of the bones are covered in a shock-absorbing cushion called cartilage and a membrane filled with lubricating fluid encapsulates most types of joints. Ligaments are the connective tissue outside of the joint that connect the bones to each other. The purpose of all of these cushioning tissues and fluid is to protect the bones at these delicate junctures. As animals & humans age, the cartilage can deteriorate and the fluid can thin. When that happens, we call it Degenerative Joint Disease (DJD) or Osteoarthritis. As DJD progresses it can cause the joint to wear down, change shape, create bone spurs or even broken chips of bone / cartilage can get into the joint. All of these complications are very painful!
How can I tell if my pet is experiencing signs of Degenerative Joint Disease (DJD)?
Look out for these kinds of changes in behavior:
- Difficulty jumping up into the car or on the bed
- Less enthusiasm for play time
- Slower to get up from a laying position
- Stiffness or lameness in their movements
- Joint swelling
- Grumpy or disinterested attitude
Pet parents typically begin to notice these changes after their pets have had a busy day of exercise or when the weather gets cold. You may spot early signs of stiffness in horses when they first start to exercise before they warm up. Subtle changes in movement can be tricky to catch if you’re not keeping an eye out for it in dogs and horses, but cats are even more difficult to diagnose because they are very good at hiding their pain. Cats are more likely to exhibit signs of DJD while grooming or by slowing down their usual activity. Look out for signs that your cat is not grooming as well as usual or having difficulty climbing in and out of the litter box.
What causes Degenerative Joint Disease?
DJD is very common and can be brought on by a variety of causes so the root cause is not always well understood. Some breeds of animal (particularly large breeds such as German Shepherd dogs, Maine Coon cats and Warmblood horses) are predisposed to joint conditions because their heavy bones put a lot of stress on the joints. Exercise is important for pets’ physical and mental health, but abnormally high amounts of wear and tear can lead to injuries or deterioration of the cartilage. Some diseases such as diabetes or long term use of medications like steroids can increase likelihood of DJD.
What can I do if I think my pet has Degenerative Joint Disease?
If you start noticing changes in behavior mentioned above the best place to start is to see your veterinarian so they can assess the severity of the condition. Your vet will examine the joints, feel the range of motion and may even take some radiographs (x-rays) to look for changes in the joint shape.
Depending on the severity of the degradation, the vet could recommend a variety of options. Pets in a lot of pain may require anti-inflammatory drugs and extreme cases may even need surgery to reconstruct / replace parts of the joint or repair ligaments. But do not fear! Those are extreme cases!
Most cases can be caught early enough when less invasive (and less expensive!) options are available. The easiest thing you can do to help take care of your pets’ joints is to add a joint support nutraceutical to their daily routine. Hip and Joint is the largest category of natural supplements because joint disease is so prevalent in pets and because the symptoms are much more visible than other conditions such as with the heart or liver. There are dozens (if not hundreds) of natural products on the market to help support and maintain healthy joint function for pets.
How do Joint Nutraceuticals work?
Glycosaminoglycans (GAGs) are a type of molecule that help make up cartilage and provide that cushioning / lubricating property. As with all tissues in the body, cartilage is continuously broken down, repaired, and rebuilt, but only if the components it needs are present. When taken orally, the body can use these nutrients as building blocks to keep cartilage healthy. Types of Glycosaminoglycans include hyaluronan, chondroitin, dermatan, heparin, and keratin. The most commonly used GAG oral supplements are chondroitin sulfate and hyaluronic acid. Doctors and scientists continue to debate whether or not oral joint support products actually allow the GAGs to get to the joint and make a difference or not. The data may still be inconclusive (we are talking about Animal Health Products – not drugs after all!), but the fact remains that thousands of people and pets around the world are getting great results from natural joint products. If a safe, natural product that will not harm your pet could significantly improve the quality of their life, why not give it a shot?
What are the ingredients out there that help support joints?
With such a large variety of joint support ingredient options to chose from, let us start by breaking the options down into two major groups: those that provide GAGs to actually support the structure of the cartilage and those that provide comfort.
Ingredient Sources of Glycosaminoglycans (GAGs)
The most commonly known nutrient for joint support is, of course, glucosamine. Glucosamine is a great big molecule that is a precursor for GAGs. That means when you give it to your pet, their body can break it down and turn it into the building blocks it needs for cartilage. There are several forms of glucosamine, but the best options for joint support are glucosamine hydrochloride and glucosamine sulfate. Glucosamine alone can provide great results to support joints, but combining it with other GAGs typically leads to a faster or stronger response. Glucosamine comes from chitin (the exoskeleton of shrimp and crab) or can be produced by fermenting grains like corn.
As mentioned, chondroitin is one of the basic classes of GAGs that acts as a building block for cartilage. Companies often combine glucosamine with chondroitin sulfate because providing straight chondroitin allows the body to skip the step of breaking the glucosamine down into chondroitin making the nutrient more readily accessible. (Then the glucosamine can be broken down into whatever other GAGs are needed.) Chondroitin used in supplements comes from the cartilage of animals. Common sources are usually cows, pigs, chickens or sharks.
Hyaluronic Acid (HA)
Hyaluronan is the GAG that helps make the synovial fluid within the joint thick and lubricating in addition to supporting the elasticity of cartilage and ligaments. HA became popular in the horse industry because pharmaceutical grade HA can be injected directly into the joint. Injections are expensive and not much fun, so fortunately HA can be taken orally as well. Other parts of the body including ligaments, skin, hair follicles, gums and eyes can all benefit from extra HA. Collagen is the fiberous tissue that gives these body parts their firmness, but HA is the thick gel that keeps them moisturized and flexible. HA is derived from rooster combs or can be produced by fermenting potatoes. Even though liquid HA is very thick and slimy, it does not have much flavor so it is easy to get even the pickiest animals to take it.
Whole Food Sources of GAGs
Because GAGs are naturally occurring the body and vital for body function, there are a lot of natural sources of them.
- Perna Caniculus Sea Mussel
- Elk Velvet Antler
- Sea Cucumber
- Chicken / Fish Collagen
- Shark Cartilage
These materials are naturally rich in GAGs. They can be great natural options for joint care because all of the nutrients needed for cartilage are already found in balanced ratios, created by nature! Many joint support products include these types of ingredients combined with or in place of glucosamine or chondroitin. So if you see a label that lists perna or collagen on their label, but do not see chondroitin specifically called out – that’s okay because it is naturally occurring in these materials.
Ingredient Sources of Comfort
GAGs can make a big difference for pets with joint issues, but they take anywhere from 2 to 8 weeks to really make a difference because cartilage and connective tissue take time to absorb the benefits. Formulators often combine sources of GAGs with ingredients that help with pain and inflammation so that pets will feel better faster. The main goal of joint support products is to make your pet feel better by easing their pain so ingredients in this category can be the fastest natural way to do that.
MSM does actually help support joint structure because it is a source of sulfur, which is necessary for collagen production, but its main role is to help the body maintain a healthy inflammatory response.
Cetyl Myristoleate (CMO)
CMO is an esterified fatty acid that can help with pain, swelling and stiffness in joints.
Omega 3 Fatty Acids
Omega 3 fatty acids such as Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA) and Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA) that come from fish, algae or other marine sources like krill, are also commonly used for inflammation. Another source of omega 3 fatty acids is flaxseed. Flax is rich in Alpha Linolenic Acid (ALA) which is an omega 3, but dogs and cats cannot efficiently convert short chain fatty acids (like ALA) into long-chain DHA or EPA the way horses and humans can.
There are a variety of herbal ingredients that can be taken as whole herbs, extracts or tinctures that help with pain and inflammation.
- Turmeric / Curcumin
- Boswellia Serrata
- White Willow Bark (for dogs only)
- Corydalis Yanhusuo
- Devil’s Claw
Other Ingredients for Joint Health
While Manganese does not directly contribute to joint health it is commonly used in formulas that contain glucosamine because it is necessary to form connective tissue.
Any time the body has inflammation or injury, free radicals are released into the bloodstream. Degenerative Joint Disease is basically long term inflammation of the joints and produces a lot of free radicals. Antioxidants such as Vitamin E, Vitamin C, grape seed extract, green tea extract and dimethylglycine (DMG) can help neutralize free radicals to speed up recovery.
Creatine does not directly effect joints either, but it does help support muscle tone. Aging pets tend to lose muscle mass in addition to the joint cushioning. If you can help build and strengthen muscles, the muscles will take some of the pressure off of the joints and provide extra structural support.
Tips for Using Joint Supplements
Joint Support products work best when you start them early. Once the damage is done, it can be very difficult to repair the joint without surgery. Animals predisposed to DJD because of their size or breed may benefit from natural joint support before they show any signs of having a problem. It is easier to keep pets’ joints healthy if they have a good supply GAGs from the time they become adults.
Use with Drugs
In many cases, pets’ DJD is so severe that they experience a great deal of pain so your vet may prescribe a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) such as carprofen, deracoxib, or meloxicam. These drugs will help your pet feel better very quickly, but it is important to keep in mind that they are pain-killers and are not doing anything to heal the condition. In fact, but masking the pain your pet could maintain their normal activity, which will continue to degrade their joints. In many cases natural joint support products can be given with the pain meds and the combined treatment will combat the pain while the GAGs are helping the joint itself.
Pay Attention to the Levels of Active Ingredients
Because DJD is so common, lots of companies are making foods, treats and jerky that contain glucosamine or other joint support ingredients. Using these types of products can be helpful to add another layer of support to your pet’s joint care protocol, but be aware that these treats often contain very low levels of the active ingredients. There are some cool products out there that are worth checking out, but they are not a replacement for a solid joint support product with therapeutic levels of GAGs. Be careful of baked products because many of these nutrients are sensitive to heat so the baking process can degrade the potency. Be sure to check out our Product Testing page to see how your favorites score when put to the test!
Try Different Ingredients
Every animal (including people!) has their own biochemical individuality and will respond to different ingredients in different ways. One dog may have a great response to glucosamine alone, while another dog of the same age and breed may not see results unless it is combine with other GAGs or comes from a whole food source. Do not feel discouraged if you try one product and do not see a dramatic improvement. With the plethora of ingredients and products for sale you’re sure to find one that will work for you.
Depending on the severity of the DJD, some pets may take time to feel better. Remember that those GAG molecules need to be absorbed, metabolized and go to work repairing the cartilage, connective tissue and joint capsule. Healing takes time. Some pets can experience what we call a “healing crisis” and appear to get worse before they get better. When you suddenly add GAGs to their diet the joint is flooded with a great deal of nutrients that it did not have before, all of the activity going on to repair the joint can be uncomfortable. That’s why including ingredients for pain and inflammation are helpful, especially while you’re waiting for the GAGs to work. Most products recommend a “loading dose” which is to double the Directions for Use for the first 4 to 6 weeks.
Find a Routine that Works for You
Again, the sky is the limit when it comes to options for joint support products. For some animals it is as easy as giving them a chewable tablet or hiding a pill in a treat. Other pets are picky so flavored powders, liquids or pellets hidden in their food or water may be a better option. Lots of treat-like products are available too including soft chews for dogs & cats or cookies for horses. Gels that can be applied to cats’ paws are a good option because cats will lick up the gel to keep clean. Various flavors and low allergen options are available to meet the needs of nearly any pet!
Finding out that your pet has some joint disease is not a death sentence. You may need to modify some of your exercise routines and be more careful not to over-do it, but it does not mean you cannot play with or exercise your animal. If your pet likes the water, swimming is a great activity that will keep their heart and muscles strong while taking the gravity off the joints.
Now that you’re armed with some knowledge of what is actually going on with your pets’ joints, you can navigate the variety of product options, know what questions you want to discuss with your veterinarian and hopefully find a solution to help your pet. Good luck!