Dog years: Age, arthritis and the joint supplement controversy

JointSupplements
A mere sample of the products that claim to benefit canine joint health.

Glucosamine-chondroitin supplements generate billions of dollars in sales each year, despite a lack of clinical evidence that they can actually help restore joint health and rebuild cartilage in people and pets. As such, like blood pooling in a placid ocean, they have attracted the attention of the human sharks known as attorneys.

The recent LawyersandSettlements.com article “The Glucosamine Game” details lawsuits over manufacturers’ alleged label misrepresentations and false statements regarding joint-pain relief and cartilage rebuilding. That article quotes Dr. David Ramey, a veterinarian who specializes in equine care; glucosamine-based supplements are largely marketed for humans, dogs and horses suffering from joint pain and arthritis.

Even at the ripe, old age of 10, Reese still likes to tromp through frigid creeks with his bros.
Even at the ripe, old age of 10, Reese still likes to tromp through frigid creeks with his bros.

Dr. Ramey has written extensively on glucosamine-chondroitin supplements; his science is accurate, his reasoning is sound, his comments about the supplement industry are true, and his skepticism is honorably motivated. If you’re the human companion of an animal who suffers from hip dysplasia, arthritis or other joint condition, I recommend considering his opinions on the matter.

I also recommend talking with your veterinarian and researching individual supplements; not all are just crushed crab shells (glucosamine) and cow windpipes (chondroitin). Many owners—the best observers of their pets—have reported long-term improvement in their pets’ mobility with the consistent use of some supplements; likewise, the results of some limited tests at least warrant additional study.

It’s All in the Hips

One late-spring day, when Reese was 4, we returned home from a relatively mild hike. I ventured to the top floor of our two-story townhouse to shower. A piercing howl of pain from behind stopped me in my tracks.

I turned to see Reese backing down the lower two steps. He refused the stairs for days, and he halted his typical behavior of launching himself at me upon my return home from work (and, much to the relief of the neighborhood, at passers-by during walks). Weary of sleeping on the couch—for Reese would lay at the bottom of the steps and howl mournfully when left downstairs alone—I decided it was time for veterinary intervention.

The diagnosis of hip dysplasia should not have been a surprise. On one of Reese’s first veterinary visits, I remarked that he had an odd gait, especially in the use of his rear legs; the vet even noted “walks funny” in his medical records and advised me to monitor it.

reese door
Reese has long known the benefits of sleeping on a comfortable bed.

The treatment options for hip dysplasia and the osteoarthritis to which it leads are limited. They are generally managed with an appropriate diet and routine exercise to maintain muscle tone and healthy weight; a supportive bed to sleep on as opposed to a hard floor (Reese had long since claimed mine); and medication to control discomfort (alas, Reese had proven allergic to Rimadyl, one of the most popular choices for canine arthritis).

Our veterinarian noted an additional alternative: supplements containing glucosamine, chondroitin, and other ingredients purported to have anti-inflammatory qualities and help support joint health.

Supplemental Assurance?

If I am leery of drugs that actually meet our nation’s sketchy medication approval standards, I am downright dubious of over-the-counter supplements. Just this week, the respected medical journal the Annals of Internal Medicine published an editorial saying vitamins and mineral supplements for humans are a waste of money.

Our vet was forthright about the lack of clinical evidence proving such supplements are effective at achieving their marketing claims. She also explained that a couple of products in particular had developed a good observational track record among veterinarians and dog owners alike.

Over the following few days, I bought Reese a dog bed made with orthopedic foam (which he has only now, six years later, begun to occasionally sleep on); attempted to make our daily walks feel less like Iditarod training (hip dysplasia or no, the dog’s inner husky cannot grasp the concept of heeling); dosed him with an occasional aspirin; and researched joint supplements and other treatments. Meanwhile, Reese continued to resist stairs, withdrew from play with his adopted brothers, and was showing other signs of his ailment. The sudden change in his mobility and his obvious discomfort were jarring; I was willing to try literal snake oil.

Seeing and Believing

Due to local availability and positive reviews, I settled on Joint Max Triple-Strength Soft Chews, chewable tabs that look like brownie bits and are packed with glucosamine, chondroitin, creatine, and a host of antioxidants and vitamins. Within a week, Reese ventured up and down the stairs regularly and showed a renewed interest in wrestling with his bros.

We progressively resumed hiking, and Reese was his youthful, rambunctious self again. He was no longer leaping over downed trees, but he seemed to move naturally, effortlessly. He has been on some form of glucosamine-based supplement since, and the improvement in his mobility and his lack of noticeable pain have been largely sustained.

Now 10, Reese has, for the past few months, begun to move a little slowly in the mornings and after hikes. A bunny-hop occasionally replaces a sprint. He takes the time to smell thoroughly around the counter to ensure the presence of cheese or green pepper before leaping up indiscriminately.

Maybe Reese’s initial discomfort was just a temporary flare-up that would have diminished in a few more days. Maybe Reese has been sucking it up, putting on a good show and masking his discomfort. Maybe I have been throwing money away all these years. Maybe I have projected my desire to see Reese well on others, and they too have falsely seen a happy, mobile, pain-free dog for more than a half-decade. Maybe all of the other pet owners who have noted positive results are as delusional as me.

Or maybe further research into specific supplements will reveal that they have situational effectiveness. I have faith in science. But science is more often a marathon than a sprint, and sometimes it laps itself. Seeing is a powerful foundation for belief, and I don’t believe Reese and I would have shared half the adventures we’ve had in the six years he’s been on supplements without them.

Reese does not yet feel that he is getting too old for this shit.
Reese does not yet feel that he is getting too old for this shit.
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4 thoughts on “Dog years: Age, arthritis and the joint supplement controversy

Add yours

  1. Great thought provoking article. I believe the old adage you get what you pay for comes into play with some supplements. My 12 year old Labrador is still enjoying his walks even though when he was 8 I thought I would have to take him to be pts. I put him on a liquid formula of chrondroitin and glucosomine with added msm. He really has gone from strength to strength.
    Prior to this discovery he was on strong pain killers that had a bad effect on him and he lost weight due to vomiting all the time as a side effect of the drug. I was at my wits end and I gave him one last chance. The results were slow in coming and it was a few weeks before I started to see an improvement. From then until present day I can honestly say that the improvement has been miraculous. The supplement I use is from a company called pet-plicity

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  2. My friends had a cat who had gc supplements. They called them his naughty pills, as when he had them he was able to access areas he had been in too much pain to try for. Such as sitting on the china mugs on the kitchen shelf.
    My own cat had things prescribed by the vet that put his bounce back and relieved the pain of his arthritis.Worth every penny.

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  3. Nice, thoughtful piece. We also had success with supplements and our older dog, and you’re right that they’re not all created equal. Even if the research hasn’t yet caught up with what people are seeing with their dogs and the right supplements, we owe it to our dogs to at least try whatever options are available.

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    1. Hey. Thanks for reading. Yeah, some of these supplements are developing good observational track records, and I don’t feel like we projected the results we saw in Reese’s case (like people are prone to doing with vitamins and nutritional supplements to themselves). At the very least, some of them are worthy of further study and at least a brief trial by humans to watch for sustained changes.

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