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Help for Achy Pets

It’s hard to watch beloved pets age. It’s harder still if they suffer from joint pain and stiffness, struggle to get up or lie down, and no longer enjoy playing and taking walks.

Like people, pets can suffer from degenerative joint disease, or osteoarthritis. Caused by trauma, infection, or developmental disorders such as hip dysplasia, osteoarthritis results in the loss of cartilage between the bones. It can also cause the formation of bone spurs as well as inflammation in and around the joints.

The good news is that there are many ways we can help our pets lead healthier, more active lives. Veterinarians advise making sure your pet eats a well-balanced diet and maintains a healthy weight. Gentle, controlled exercise is also recommended, as long as your pet does not appear to be in pain.

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDS) are often prescribed for arthritic pain in pets, but these can cause gastrointestinal problems and poor appetite. Newer-generation NSAIDS, such as carprofen and meloxicam, are reported to have fewer side-effects, but many pet owners would prefer to use “nutraceuticals” or food supplements. Several of these have been show to be effective.

What the Science Shows

A randomized, double-blind study (meaning neither the pet owners nor the experimenters knew which group received the supplement) of the efficacy of glucosamine hydrochloride and chondroitin sulfate in dogs found that pain, ability to bear weight, and overall condition improved significantly after they were treated for 70 days with the combination supplement. Compared to supplementing with carprofen, which was used as the positive control, it took longer for the glucosamine/chondroitin combination to be effective—so be patient and give treatments at least a two-month trial. Most studies have found few negative side effects with the use of glucosamine, but some dogs may show signs of gastrointestinal upset.

Studies also suggest that supplementing pets’ diets with omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil can be helpful in reducing pain and inflammation. Keep in mind, however, that dogs and cats don’t metabolize flax seed oil as efficiently as humans do, so vets recommend using fish oil to ensure pets get the omega 3s they need.

Other promising supplements for pet arthritis include a whole plant extract of BCD (Brachystemma calycinum D don), avocado/soybean unsaponifiables (ASUs), and powders made from New Zealand green-lipped mussels (GLM). GLM contain many of the nutrients thought to help with both cartilage repair and inflammation—including glycosaminoglycans, omega-3 fatty acids (DHA and EPA), amino acids (glutamine and methionine), vitamins (C and E), and minerals (zinc, copper, and manganese). In addition, GLM may help alleviate some of the gastrointestinal problems associated with long-term ingestion of some NSAIDS. When using GLM, make sure to obtain products made using low-temperature processing. 

Other Treatments

Many pet owners find they can avoid the use of medications altogether, relying instead on chiropractic treatment, acupuncture, and physical therapy. Susan Kelly, DVM, of Spruce Mountain Veterinary Acupuncture in West Halifax, Vermont, points out that “most arthritic dogs are older, with reduced kidney function and less tolerance for medication. But they’re never too old to handle acupuncture.”

She says acupuncture can both suppress pain and slow the progression of disease by increasing blood flow in a broad region around where the acupuncture needles are applied. Dr. Kelly says most dogs are completely relaxed during treatments and feel much better afterwards. She advises a diet high in both water-soluble and fat-soluble antioxidants. She also prescribes specific Chinese herbs that complement acupuncture treatment. To find a veterinarian who practices acupuncture, visit the website of the American Academy of Veterinary Acupuncture at www.aava.org. Above all, it’s important that animals with arthritis continue to enjoy as much activity as possible and, if their human companions join in, both reap the benefit!

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