Chondroprotective Supplementation for the Working Dog
Dr. Henry De Boer, Jr. DVM
Question: I am confused about the use of oral nutritional supplements for my dogs joint health. What is your opinion of these products?
Answer: Working dogs by virtue of their vigorous activity levels tend to tax joints far more than the average pet dog. Accordingly, the wear and tear on joint surfaces (cartilage) can be very significant, and ultimately lead to degenerative joint disease, better known as arthritis.
Arthritis can also develop as a result of a number of genetic and congenital disorders such as hip and elbow dysplasia. Many of our dogs are working with some level of arthritis present, as well as experiencing significant joint changes after being retired from work. The result of these changes can be manifest with pain, stiffness and a loss of normal joint range. Clearly, anything that we can do to minimize these changes will help our dogs to continue to work, play and enjoy retirement comfortably.
In recent years we have witnessed a relatively dramatic increase in the use of oral nutritional supplementation to help manage arthritis.
These oral nutritional supplements have been called chondroprotective agents. Any discussion about how these agents work or how effective they are has to be somewhat vague due to the fact that there is not a great deal of hard scientific information regarding their function or benefit. The majority of information available regarding how these agents may function is theoretical. The information concerning their benefits is predominantly non-scientific testimonials.
Articular cartilage is the surface between joints that provides for smooth low friction movement between bones. Transmission of mechanical forces from one bone to another is also accomplished by articular cartilage.
Arthritis is a disorder of joints that can be characterized by deterioration of the articular cartilage. Additionally we can see abnormal bone formation as well as changes to the soft tissue supportive structures around the joint. In most cases, arthritis in our dogs is caused by trauma within the joint. This trauma is most commonly the result of abnormal stresses within the joint due to joint laxity or instability, or confirmational flaws that lead to excessive wear within the joint.
Articular cartilage is not a static tissue. it is constantly remodeling itself to create the healthiest, most efficient and effective joint possible.
Cartilage consists of cells called chondrocytes which synthesize and deposit proteins around themselves to give the cartilage its desired properties. Theoretically, when there are insuffieient amounts of the raw materials necessary for this synthesis, the cartilage will deteriorate, and arthritis will develop.
The theory behind the use of chondroprotective agents is to provide increased amounts of those "raw materials" required for cartilage repair and regeneration. Two of the primary raw materials are glucosamine and chondroition sulfate.
Given the relative lack of scientific information available about these products my initial impression was that they were simply another way of separating dog owners from their money. However, after hearing a number of testimonials from owners who I felt were capable of evaluating
improvement (or lack of improvement) in a reasonably objective fashion, I decided to try them. I have ben using them now for a number of years, and while the results hardly constitute anything scientific, there is no doubt in my mind as to their benefit in dogs with known existing arthritic changes. Some dogs seem to benefit more than others, but the best results seem to be in dogs with arthritic changes in highly mobile joints such as hips, knees, elbows and shoulders. The effect of their use in low mobility joints appears to be minimal. I have not witnessed any meaningful side effects from the use of these agents, even when administered over a number of years.
There are three circumstances in which I typically use chondroprotective agents. If a dog has radiographic evidence of arthritic change in a highly mobile joint, I recommend using the product at the dosage suggested by the manufacturer. It is important to note that in many cases it will be at least six to eight weeks before any meaningful change will be noted in the dogs comfort level and movement. I will also use them subsequent to joint surgery. For example, if a dog tears an anterior cruciate ligament and requries surgical correction it is virtually inevitable that arthritis will ultimately develop in that joint. In this situation I typically recommend approximately one half the manufacturers suggested dosage. The theory behind the use of the product in this fashion is to slow the degredation of the joint that is bound to occur. Thirdly, in dogs that are truly abusive to joints by virtue of their work or activity levels I use approximately one quarter of a theraputic dose. In my opinion it is impossible to prove any benefit from the administration of these products when they are being used prophylactically. However, given their apparent effect in known arthritic cases as well as their lack of any consequential side effect in the majority of cases, it is difficult to make a case for not using them in such a fashion.
There are a number of these products available and distinguishing between them in terms of benefit is even more difficult than finding scientific evidence documenting their function. Some products are natually occuring, some are pharmaceutical grade extractions. Most have other agents added as well as glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate. I have witnessed apparent positive results with a number of products. As time goes on, more experience is gained, and more research done, we will probably be able to distingish between these products more confidently as well as seeing improvement in the product themselves. In the meantime we will all have to be comfortable with the ancedotal evidence that supports their benefit to our dogs.
Dr. Henry De Boer Jr. practices veterinary medicine at his Pioneer Valley Veterinary Hospital in western Massachusetts. An accomplished competitor in the sport of Schutzhund, his involvement with working dogs dates to the mid 1960's when he began training and handling hunting dogs. In 1984 he became involved with the sport of Schutzhund and has gradually risen to the level of national competitor. Known primarily as a motivational trainer, he also provides training assistance to others to help them achieve their training goals. His wide range of experience lends a unique understanding to the special veterinary problems of working canines and their handlers. Dr. De Boer provides specialized online veterinary services to working dogs and their owners on his innovative web site http://www.workingk-9vet.com Working K9 Veterinary Consultation Services.