Joint Supplements in Cats and Dogs Improve Arthritis Symptoms

By: Mary Newell Sanders, DVM

TVMA Member
Bellville, TX

Published February 2016

Degenerative joint disease (DJD), or arthritis, is a common malady in our pets. In fact, 90 percent of geriatric cats have some level of arthritis, and many breeds of dogs are prone to hip, knee and elbow problems as they age. Cartilage is the substance that covers the end of each bone in a joint, allowing for a smooth, gliding surface when the joint is flexed or extended. In a normal joint, cartilage breakdown occurs at the same rate as cartilage production. In a joint with arthritis, there is much more breakdown than production. This leads to painful bone-on-bone contact and joint inflammation. Thus, veterinarians frequently prescribe pain-relieving anti-inflammatories like Rimadyl or Previcox to keep our pets comfortable and mobile. These medications are great for reducing inflammation and relieving pain but do not help in strengthening or rebuilding damaged cartilage. For that, we look to joint supplements. Supplements complement the pain-relieving properties of anti-inflammatories, help to rebuild cartilage and stimulate the production of joint fluid and collagen within the damaged joint(s).

Oral glucosamine and chondroitin sulfatea naturally occurring chemical found in the human body-containing products (Cosequin and Glycoflex) are among the most commonly recommended joint supplements. These products are often combined with avocado and soybean unsaponifiables (ASU)natural vegetable extract made from one-third avocado oil and two-thirds soybean oil and methylsulfonylmethane (MSM)chemical found in plants, animals, and humans, which amplify the effects of glucosamine and chondroitin. There are also injectable products like Adequan or Pentosan, which are polysulfated glycosaminoglycans (PSGAGs) inhibits the enzymes responsible for cartilage destructionand often used in conjunction with the oral glucosamine and chondroitin products. They can also be used as an alternative for those pets with joint disease that are difficult to pill.

Pain-Relieving Injections

Adequan and Pentosan are actually more effective than oral glucosamine supplements. PSGAGs are the final molecules that reach the joint and reduce inflammation. Glucosamine is the precursor to the PSGAGs and therefore must undergo many metabolic steps to reach the final, active product in the joint. This can take weeks, whereas the injectable PSGAGs are effective almost immediately. The PSGAGs are, however, only available in an injectable form. For maximum benefit, many veterinarians choose to do a loading series of injections with Adequan or Pentosan so the anti-inflammatory molecules reach the joints quickly. Veterinarians then follow the injections with the oral products as a long-term and user-friendly supplementation.

Fatty Acids

Although glucosamine and chondroitin are the most commonly recommended supplements, there are many other adjunctive therapies that can be combined with glucosamine and chondroitin for maximum joint protection. Omega-3 and -6 fatty acidsessential fatty acids that help build brain cells and other important bodily functions are useful in decreasing inflammation associated with arthritis. Look for fish or krill oil capsules that contain eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) in high levels; the most current dose for fatty acid supplementation is much higher than previously recommended. Turmeric and bromelain are another option for joint supplementation. Turmeric is a traditional spice that contains an important active compound called curcumin. Curcumin is anti-inflammatory, aids in the destruction of free radicals and provides antioxidant protection. Bromelain is a protein-digesting enzyme found in the stem of pineapples. It too is a powerful anti-inflammatory. These two supplements are often found in combination because bromelain increases the absorption of turmeric. Antioxidant supplements like Cell Advance 800 are a good source of vitamins A, C and E, and antioxidants like alpha-lipoic acid are useful in maintaining cartilage health and fighting free radical damage.

Weight Management

Finally, the most important joint supplement veterinarians recommend is not a supplement at all. It is weight management. If your pet is overweight, no amount of drug or oral supplement will make him or her comfortable. Extra weight puts undue strain on an already diseased joint, damaging it further and making your pet’s pain more intense. More pain means your pet is less likely to want to exercise, exacerbating weight gain. Exercise is essential in keeping your pet’s joints loose and lubricated and maintaining a healthy body weight. Ensure you are feeding your pet the correct amount of a high-quality, life-stage appropriate diet and slowly increase your pet’s amount of exercise. For dogs, this can be longer walks or swimming. For cats, place their food bowls on a counter or upstairs where they have to travel or climb in order to eat. In addition to improving joint health, your pet’s overall quality of life is improved when he or she is at a healthy weight.

Since supplements are not drugs, there is little risk of side effects or need for blood monitoring during use. Joint supplements can be used with anti-inflammatories and other pain medications, and in cases of early mild arthritis, it can be used as the sole therapy. Supplements often decrease the amount of drugs needed to control pain and inflammation, thus reducing the side effects associated with those drugs.

Proper Dosing

The biggest problems associated with joint supplements are product quality and correct dosing. The U.S. Federal Drug Administration does not regulate supplements, so product quality cannot be guaranteed. Many of the over-the-counter products have a lower dose of glucosamine and chondroitin in the product than what is printed on the label. Also, most products that contain a large number of different ingredients do not supply adequate levels of each of the ingredients at the labeled dose. Therefore, it is important to ask your veterinarian which products he or she recommends before starting your pet on any kind of supplement.

Arthritis is a common and complex disease in dogs and cats. Joint supplements play an important role in decreasing pain and maximizing quality of life in our pets as they age. There are many options and products available so you and your veterinarian can find the combination of supplements that benefit your pet most.

Dr. Mary Newell Sanders practices at Marek Veterinary Clinics in Bellville and Sealy, Texas.