Arthritis in Dogs: What You Need to Know

Arthritis in Dogs: What You Need to Know

Arthritis (also called osteoarthritis, degenerative joint disease) is a common condition in dogs affecting one or more joints. Underlying problems that may lead to arthritis include hip dysplasia, previous traumatic injury to the joint or congenital / inherited malformations. For most dogs, however, the underlying cause of arthritis is unknown.

Studies have found that as many as 20% of adult dogs may be affected with arthritis:

  • While most affected dogs are older, arthritis may occur at any age.
  • While many arthritic dogs are overweight, dogs of any body type may be affected.
  • While larger breeds are more commonly affected, any breed may develop arthritis.
  • While the hips and/or elbows may be most commonly affected, dogs may develop arthritis in any of their joints, including the spine.

What Is Arthritis?

Joints are the connections between the bones and function to allow fluid motion without friction. This is accomplished with the help of joint fluid and cartilage within the joint, which help to cushion the body from the stress that may occur with movement and prevent situations of one bone rubbing directly on another.

With the onset of arthritis, the structure and environment of the joint are changed. Defects in the cartilage may develop which lead to the exposure of bony tissue beneath it and / or the development of bony prominences within the joint.

Inflammatory changes may also occur in the synovial membrane tissues which line the joint and produce the joint fluid. While the underlying causes that bring about these changes may be many and varied, the end result is a decrease in joint motion and function and an increase in joint deformity, instability and pain.

How to Identify Arthritis?

Signs of arthritis in dogs may be obvious, such as constant limping, crying in pain when a certain spot is touched or having difficulty getting up or climbing stairs. Sometimes, however, general signs, such as a reluctance to go for long walks, changes in appetite or changes in personality may be all that you see.

Changes in the weather (e.g., a cold or rainy day) may make the signs more noticeable. As dogs vary in the level of pain that they will tolerate, signs of arthritis may not be readily apparent.

If you suspect that your dog may have arthritis, a physical exam is the best first step, as other diseases may cause signs similar to those described above. In some cases X-rays may be needed in order to confirm the diagnosis or to evaluate the severity of the condition.

While arthritis cannot be diagnosed with blood tests, bloodwork may be needed to rule out other causes of the dog’s clinical signs as a pre-anesthetic screen if X-rays need to be taken under sedation or evaluate the dog for adverse effects of medications used to treat arthritis.

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Glucosamine, Chondroitin and Arthritis in Dogs

Glucosamine and chondroitin have been used to treat arthritis in Europe for over twenty years. Recently, physicians and veterinarians in the United States have begun to prescribe this product for their patients and have been extremely happy with the results.

These products are proving to be one of the safest and best treatments for the crippling effects of arthritis that affects millions of aging dogs throughout the United States.

Despite the fact that the benefits of these glucosamine and chondroitin products have been known for over twenty years, many people question why they are just now being used in the United States. The answer lies in the fact that glucosamine and chondroitin are not products that can be patented and therefore offer little incentive to the large pharmaceutical companies to develop them into products. Pharmaceutical companies spend millions on research and development and need a patented product to guarantee sales and to recoup their investment.

Another issue is that glucosamine and chondroitin are considered nutraceuticals and are not strictly controlled by the FDA. They are naturally occurring substances in many food products and fall in the same class as vitamins. Despite the overwhelmingly positive studies done in Europe, American researchers still refused to perform controlled studies.

In fact, literature searches show that there are hardly any North American studies done on these products. But all this is quickly changing. Because of the huge number of humans and pets suffering from arthritis and the success in the treatment of this disease when using glucosamine and chondroitin, many companies are now producing a product line and several broad research studies are underway.

Using Glucosamine and Chondroitin to treat Arthritis in Dogs

Glucosamine products have been studied and used for the healing of skin wounds, stomach ailments and joint problems. Their use in the relief and healing of the symptoms of joint disease is currently their biggest use. Glucosamine and chondroitin have been successfully used in humans, horses, dogs and cats.

There are many different joints that can be affected by arthritis in the dog, but by far, the most common is the hip joints. Hip dysplasia is very common in many of the larger breeds of dogs. This condition greatly exacerbates the normal wear on the smooth cartilage protecting the bony surface of the joint.

When this cartilage wears away there is a bone to bone contact, which creates the pain seen with arthritis. Even dogs which do not have hip dysplasia may have a decrease in this cartilage as they age and will show signs of arthritis. Additionally, aging dogs may also have arthritis in their knees, elbows and shoulders and cartilage loss or damage that respond to glucosamine and chondroitin.

Glucosamine and chondroitin are also often used as an aid in the treatment of spinal disc injuries or post operatively in dogs that have undergone joint surgery. The typical patient that is placed on and responds to glucosamine and chondroitin therapy is a middle aged to older medium to large breed dog.

Dogs may show symptoms of limping or stiffness, particularly in the morning and during cold weather. They usually loosen up as they move around and exercise. Some dogs have difficulty climbing stairs or getting into or out of a vehicle.

Many dogs respond to treatment with buffered aspirin (do not give your cat aspirin unless prescribed by your veterinarian) or carprofen, but when the product is discontinued the pain and symptoms return. Arthritis also affects small dogs and cats and glucosamine and chondroitin have been used very effectively in relieving their symptoms.

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Where Are Glucosamine and Chondroitin found?

Glucosamine and chondroitin are natural substances found in the body of living animals. They are at their highest concentration in cartilage. However, through degradation during digestion and processing, almost all of the glucosamine in an animal’s diet is unavailable for use.

The body, therefore, synthesizes most of its own glucosamine through a biochemical reaction utilizing glucose. In normal, healthy animals the body is able to synthesize enough glucosamine to keep the existing cartilage healthy, but when the animal ages or there is damage to joint cartilage it cannot produce enough to keep up with the body’s needs. This is where a supplemental form of glucosamine is needed.

Supplemental glucosamine is a 2-amino derivative of glucose, which is obtained through the hydrolysis of chitin — a polysaccharide found in the shell of crustaceans. Crustaceans have a very high concentration of chitin and because the shells are often discarded, provide a reliable and cost effective source of glucosamine.

Chondroitin is also a naturally occurring product found in animal cartilage. Supplemental chondroitin is derived primarily from bovine (cattle) cartilage, particularly the cartilage rings of the trachea. It is also derived from shark and whale cartilage. The source does not appear to have any impact on its effect. Though for ecological reasons, many consumers prefer bovine sources.

How Do Glucosamine and Chondroitin Work?

The cartilage consists of several different cells, one of which is chondrocytes. Chondrocytes are responsible for synthesizing new cartilage. Through normal wear, cartilage is constantly being broken down and replaced. When a dog has hip dysplasia or ages, the chondrocytes do not have the building blocks available to them to build enough new cartilage to keep up with the breakdown of the old cartilage.

Glucosamine provides the building blocks to synthesize new cartilage. It is necessary for the production of the substances called glycosaminoglycans. The glycosaminoglycans are combined with hyaluronic acid to make the substance proteoglycans. The proteoglycans and collagen are the main structures of cartilage.

Chondroitin also is one of the products necessary for the synthesis of glycosaminoglycans. However, it probably plays a more important role by combating and neutralizing destructive enzymes in the joint. There is always a low level of destructive enzymes found in the joint, but when injury or abnormal wear occurs, the destructive enzymes and agents increase accelerating cartilage destruction. When chondroitin is added to the diet, it helps to reduce the level of these destructive enzymes.

Are There Any Side Effects?

Glucosamine and chondroitin have been used for more than 20 years in Europe without any complication or side effects. Occasionally, a dog will vomit or get diarrhea, but if the dose is reduced or given with food, the symptoms are usually alleviated.

Once a dog begins using the product, he or she must stay on it for the rest of their lives or the degeneration of the joint cartilage will return. The safety of supplemental glucosamine and chondroitin is well suited for long term use. It can also be used with most other drugs and vitamins without any complication. The owner of any animal that is taking a medication should always seek veterinary advice before adding any new product or drug.

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Where Can You Get Glucosamine and Chondroitin?

Glucosamine and chondroitin can be found in many different forms. Glucosamine in a pure form, or combined with chondroitin, can be purchased in health food stores, at veterinary clinics and online.

However, not all glucosamine and chondroitin products are created equal. The differences among the various products lies in the dosing, carriers, vitamins, minerals and the purity of the ingredients.

Products that contain human-grade glucosamine and chondroitin, like Nutrition Strength’s, are much more likely to be of high quality and in a purer form. In addition to the ingredients, the concentration of the actual glucosamine and chondroitin vary from product to product.

Products designed for dogs often have ascorbic acid or manganese to help aid in the uptake of glucosamine in the canine. Dog products may be flavored or fortified with other minerals. The most expensive product is not always the best and you should always compare the ingredients between products to ensure that you are getting what you pay for.

Furthermore, it would be a good idea to check whether a glucosamine product you are considering has been manufactured in an FDA-registered facility and is third-party certified for purity and potency. Doing so would automatically exclude supplements made in China, but you should not take it for granted that all U.S. manufactured supplements are FDA-approved.

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Image credit: Wikimedia.



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