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How Do Joint Supplements for Dogs Work?

As we age – dogs, cat and humans alike, our joints begin to deteriorate. This degeneration can lead to chronic inflammatory joint diseases such as osteoarthritis.

However, for humans, dogs, cats and horses, there are a variety of joint supplements available which claim to help us deal with these joint diseases. So how do they work?

To understand how these supplements can help, we first need to understand the diseases that they treat – the primary condition being osteoarthritis.


What is Osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis is a ‘degenerative joint disease’ that progresses over time – the symptoms becoming worse as we, or our pets age.

The joints in our pets’ bodies are protected by a layer of cartilage that is able to absorb shock – essentially like suspension for limbs! The shock absorbing ability is due to the high water content of cartilage.

The specific molecules that allow cartilage to store a large amount of water are called proteoglycans – these are bottle brushed shaped molecules that strongly attract water. The branches of proteoglycans (or the bristles in our bottle brush analogy) essentially act as a magnet towards water – pulling in as much as possible.

With age, the natural proteoglycan content of cartilage reduces. Because cartilage stops the bones at a joint rubbing, a reduction means increased friction – increased friction causes damage to the bones, pain and swelling.

We refer to this process as osteoarthritis.

So, How Do Joint Supplements Work?

The joint supplements we use to treat degenerative joint diseases, such as osteoarthritis, provide the body with the building blocks needed to form new proteoglycans – the molecules that give cartilage and joints their shock absorbing ability.

Simply, joint supplements make it easier for the body to produce proteoglycans, the molecules responsible for maintaining healthy cartilage.

Two important ingredients found in nearly all joint supplements are:

  1. Glucosamine
  2. Chondroitin Sulphate

But why are these ingredients important?

The branches of proteoglycans (the ‘bristles’ responsible for attracting water) are made up of short, repeating units such as chondroitin sulphate. Therefore, if the body is provided with enough of these repeating chondroitin sulphate units, it can build new proteoglycans with ease. The body doesn’t need to rely on making it’s own chondroitin sulphate as it is provided by the supplement.

Glucosamine is a ‘precursor’. A precursor is something the body uses to make something else. For example, in terms of cooking, bread is the tasty precursor of toast.

Glucosamine is the precursor of the molecules that make up the branches of the proteoglycans (these branches are referred to as GAG chains). This means that the body is able to produce water-attracting proteoglycans directly from the chondroitin sulphate provided by the supplement, or make it’s own from the glucosamine precursor.

Simply, joint supplements make it easier for the body to produce proteoglycans, the molecules responsible for maintaining healthy cartilage.

But Do They Work?

There is a lot of debate over whether-or-not joint supplements do actually work. Scientific papers have been written claiming that they don’t work any better than a placebo, but others have been produced showing a marked improvement in the symptoms associated with joint diseases (such as mobility).

If you are purchasing a joint supplement for your pet, leading brands such as Synoquin will include an ‘assessment score-card’ that lets you track how your pet is improving in areas such as activity, mobility and temperament. Users of such products say they do notice a marked improvement.

Is There a Pharmaceutical Alternative?

There is of course, a pharmaceutical alternative to these supplements in the form of NSAIDs (Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs). Whilst these drugs do provide rapid relief from the pain and inflammation associated with joint disease, they also require long-term use.

Long-term use of joint supplements is considered safe, using NSAIDs for a long period of time however, can upset the lining of the stomach – making it sensitive to strong stomach acids. This can lead to the formation of ulcers – a severe complication.

Your Thoughts

Does your dog, cat or horse suffer from joint problems? Do you use joint supplements to help? If so have you noticed any improvements?

We’d love to hear your experiences, so leave a comment below. If you are concerned about joint diseases such as osteoarthritis, consider consulting your vet or vet nurse for further guidance.

About James Watts

BSc Bioveterinary Science. Editor of PetSci. When I'm not writing, learning, discussing, or reading about animals, you know it's the weekend! Currently developing PetSci HealthTrak, the fast and easy way to monitor your pet's weight and calorie intake. HealthTrak offers a simple way to track your pet's progress, helping them achieve a healthy weight and a long, happy life.

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