Osteoarthritis (OA) is common in dogs and cats, especially as they age. It is reasonable to assume that most senior pets have some degree of OA which can cause chronic pain, restrict movement and lower quality of life.
Treatment is multi-modal and includes reducing joint inflammation (and therefore pain), weight loss if the pet is overweight, physical therapy and gentle exercise; the aim being to enable the pet increased comfort and freedom of movement.
The human and veterinary markets are awash with nutraceuticals; their manufacturers claim we will enjoy longer, healthier and happier lives if we use their product on a regular basis. There is a common misconception that “more is better”; that if we hoe into the vitamins and minerals, we will be better off. Sometimes the opposite is the case, with excesses causing disease as frequently as deficiencies (this also occurs in lower-quality pet diets).
Many companies claim their products are better for us than traditional medicine because they are “natural” remedies. While there is certainly evidence that some of these products can be useful in the right circumstances and with the right patient, there is a lot of unwarranted hype in advertising, and sound evidence for some products is weak at best and in some cases non-existent.
There are many vitamins and other supplements available which purport to reduce joint pain. These include, but are not limited to, glucosamine +/- chondroitin, green-lipped mussel, omega 3 & 6 fatty acids, turmeric/curcumin, CBD/cannabinoids, boswelia and devil’s claw. Of these mentioned, only the omega 3 fatty acids DHA and EPA have strong evidence for use in dogs, with some evidence that green-lipped mussel is beneficial.
Evidence for the use of glucosamine and chondroitin (together or separately) in dogs is contradictory and questionable, with some evidence that the two together is beneficial in cats. There is a suggestion that CBD might be useful, however there is little research on dosing, side effects or benefits, and additional legal considerations.
A lack of evidence doesn’t always mean a product definitely doesn’t work (although in many cases this is true); rather that the appropriate studies have not yet been conducted to show any evidence of its proposed benefit or evaluation of side effects. Evidence for OA supplements in dogs is sometimes stronger than in cats because fewer studies in cats have been conducted.
Things to think about if your pet has OA and you are wondering whether a supplement will help them:
Consideration #1: Supplements are NOT a replacement for traditional analgesia (pain relief) and veterinary treatment in OA. Any supplement should be used in conjunction with a veterinary-prescribed, holistic pain management plan.
Consideration #2: Just because a product has evidence in humans, this evidence does not automatically transfer to other species such as dogs and cats. Efficacy, safety, appropriate doses, side effects and bioavailability of any product varies between species.
Consideration #3: Learn how to critically evaluate the “evidence” for any product you are considering, do your homework and ask your veterinary professional for advice. Don’t rely solely on the manufacturer’s claims and emotionally-based advertising. For example: what studies have been conducted for this product (ie: for dogs or cats), what was the methodology of these studies, who ran them and when, how many animals were involved?
Consideration #4: Were studies conducted in vivo (using live animals) or in vitro(in a test tube or other artificial setting)? In vitro evidence does not automatically support in vivo use. For example, if a dog or cat swallows an oral supplement, how do we know it is absorbed and that an appropriate level of that supplement gets to the part of the body (in this case the joints) where it’s needed? How is that product metabolised and what effect of metabolism is there on organs such as the liver and kidneys? How does the supplement interact with other drugs and what is the effect in animals with various health conditions? This is very different from introducing a supplement directly onto a piece of tissue in a laboratory setting.
Consideration #5: Beware of the placebo effect!!! Whether they work or not, there is a high placebo effect in most medications and nutraceuticals, ie: we assume that when we take them, they do what they claim they’ll do and we believe we feel better. Many pet owners pass this placebo effect onto their pets (the difference is the pet does not feel better with placebos because it does not understand the placebo effect!) One study evaluating pet owners’ perceptions of their dogs in a clinical trial of a supplement for OA found a placebo rate of just under 40%! This means that in this study, 40% of pet owners whose dogs were receiving the placebo, believed that signs of OA improved in their dog. The sad reality is that many of us are not able to accurately assess the true effects of OA (and other conditions) in our pets, although it’s definitely possible for us to learn and improve in this area (ask your vet or vet nurse for advice regarding this).
To put all this advice into context, consider the various covid-19 vaccines and emerging data about their side-effects. These are relatively new products and it’s reasonable to expect we don’t yet have all available information. As more people are vaccinated, we get further information about their effects in people of varying ages and health conditions. This results in changes to the recommendations made by health professionals. As a result, some people are choosing to not be vaccinated with a particular product because they are worried about the negative effects (both short- and long-term) and don’t want to be “guinea pigs”.
The best action we can take is to discuss the vaccines with our medical professional to ensure we’ve balanced the pros and cons and made a decision that’s best for us based on current evidence and our individual circumstances. This is the approach we should also take with our pets.
In conclusion, there is a place for specific supplements in combination with other elements of treatment for OA. Any recommended supplement should be evaluated over several weeks at least, allowing the product to build to a therapeutic level in your pet (this time varies between products and species). The best course of action is to discuss products with your veterinarian first and determine whether the supplement might truly help your pet, or if you are wasting your efforts and money on a fad which either has no effect at all or causes more harm than good.
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