Glucosamine for dogs has become a popular way for pet owners to support their pets' joint health, and you'll see this ingredient on many joint supplements labels. Dog supplements that include this ingredient claim it can provide joint pain relief and improve mobility.
As pet owners, we don't want to see our best friends struggle with daily activities — like the walk or game of fetch they once loved. However, dog supplements can be expensive, they often include synthetic ingredients, and they're not always backed by strong science.
We'll take a look at the science behind glucosamine supplements to help you decide whether they're worth the investment. Plus, we'll recommend other natural ways you can support your dog's joint health.
Why Do Dogs Need Joint Support?
A healthy dog's joints work like this: Two bones meet to form a joint. They're separated by a very thin space and protected by a joint capsule, an air-tight envelope that surrounds the cartilage and synovial fluid in the joint. The outer layer of the joint capsule is made up of ligaments, a connective tissue that holds the bones together and helps keep them stable. Each bone has a thin layer of cartilage over its surface with a layer of synovial fluid between the two bones.
The cartilage keeps the bones from rubbing against each other, and the synovial fluid nourishes the cartilage and allows the joint to glide smoothly.
As our dogs age, the cartilage that protects their joints begins to break down. This process can be triggered by a traumatic injury, like a joint dislocation, or by an inherited condition, like hip dysplasia or osteoarthritis (also called degenerative joint disease). But even normal wear and tear can slowly degrade our dog's joint function and lead to joint problems like pain, inflammation, decreased mobility, and lameness.
Much of this is part of the normal aging process — you'll notice these issues most frequently in senior dogs. They're also more common in large breed dogs (their increased weight puts increased strain on their joints) and in certain dog breeds (Labrador retrievers and German shepherds are prone to both arthritis and hip dysplasia).
While joint problems aren't always preventable, we can take steps to support our dogs' long-term wellness and keep their joints healthy for as long as possible. Glucosamine is one option for supporting our dog's joints.
What Is Glucosamine?
Glucosamine is a natural compound found in the cartilage of many healthy animals. It's in our cartilage, it's in our dog's cartilage, and it's even in the outer shells of shellfish. That last bit is important because glucosamine supplements are made by extracting the glucosamine from shellfish shells.
Glucosamine allows the body to make glycosaminoglycans and proteoglycans, which are the building blocks of cartilage. Because of its role in the body, many scientists and medical researchers believe glucosamine has chondroprotective qualities, meaning that it protects against joint degeneration and osteoarthritis.
The theory goes something like this: Glucosamine helps build cartilage in our body, so glucosamine supplementation could help protect, rebuild, or repair cartilage. We'll get into whether or not the research supports this theory below.
So, Does Glucosamine for Dogs Work?
There's very little published veterinary medicine research into whether or not glucosamine can treat joint pain or offer meaningful joint support. The debate is still ongoing, and a recent meta-analysis of the existing veterinary research stated, "the clinical benefits of using these agents remains questionable."
The studies researchers reviewed in the meta-analysis used varying research methods and formulations of glucosamine extract — some studies used glucosamine sulfate while others used glucosamine hydrochloride. These differences made it even more difficult to draw meaningful conclusions about the efficacy of glucosamine for dogs.
In one study on glucosamine supplements in humans, patients taking the glucosamine actually reported worse joint pain than the group taking a placebo.
A meta-analysis of the research in humans had similar issues to the meta-analysis of canine research — the studies were designed too differently to be easily compared. But, this meta-analysis stated that overall, they didn't see much improvement in bone changes or inflammation with glucosamine. However, they saw some positive responses in cartilage in around half of the studies they reviewed.
Researchers and DVMs do agree on one thing: Glucosamine is safe for dogs, as this dietary supplement has very few side effects. Although in rare cases, it can cause allergies.
However, glucosamine supplements can vary widely. The FDA doesn't regulate supplements under strict guidelines, and there currently aren't any dosing guidelines (from the FDA or from veterinary research) that outline how much glucosamine these supplements should include.
It's also much more common to find glucosamine for dogs as part of a comprehensive joint supplement rather than as a standalone supplement. In these blends, glucosamine is mixed with other active ingredients to offer multiple joint health benefits.
Here are some other common active ingredients in joint supplements and their potential efficacy:
- Chondroitin sulfate: another chemical that occurs naturally in cartilage. Chondroitin supplements can be derived naturally from animal cartilage or made synthetically in a lab. You'll rarely see glucosamine supplements that don’t include chondroitin. So, these compounds are typically studied simultaneously — you see this in all the studies mentioned above. The efficacy of chondroitin is just as questionable as glucosamine.
- MSM: another compound that occurs naturally in the body — both ours and our dogs — MSM supplements are typically made synthetically in a lab. There is even less research about MSM for dogs than glucosamine, and a review of MSM studies on humans with osteoarthritis indicates there isn't enough evidence to draw conclusions.
- Hyaluronic acid: occurs naturally in the body and helps lubricate the joints and skin. The hyaluronic acid in supplements is usually extracted from rooster combs — the red crown on top of a rooster's head — or made in a lab. The FDA has approved hyaluronic acid injections as a treatment for knee pain in human patients, and scientific evidence shows this treatment is also effective for dogs. However, we couldn't find scientific evidence to show that taking hyaluronic acid via an oral supplement improves dogs' joint health.
While there isn't convincing evidence to support the efficacy of most of the ingredients in a typical dog joint supplement, there also isn't enough evidence to say that they aren't effective.
These ingredients won't hurt your dog, so you're safe to try them as part of your dog's wellness plan. There are also other steps you can take to naturally support your dog's joint health.
Other Ways to Support Your Dog's Joints
From low-impact exercise to healthy ingredients to look for in your dog food and treats, these natural remedies can provide joint support that's backed by research.
If your dog is having mobility issues, it may seem counterintuitive to take them for a walk. However, continued exercise will help your dog remain mobile. High-impact exercise, like running or jumping, may exacerbate the problem, but low-impact exercise, like walking or swimming, can help.
If your dog appears to be in pain during walks, talk to your vet about non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and other options for treating their pain.
When your dog is overweight, it puts more pressure on their joints and decreases their mobility. Although an exercise regime can help with weight management, overeating is the primary cause of pet obesity.
Talk to your vet to make sure your dog is a healthy weight, and ask about changing or restricting your dog's diet if necessary.
In a meta-analysis of clinical trials on canine osteoarthritis, green-lipped mussels were the only all-natural, whole food that showed promise for easing arthritis symptoms.
Green-lipped mussels are a whole-food source of glucosamine and chondroitin, but the true source of their joint support powers is likely their omega-3 content. In one study, dogs with arthritis who ate a diet high in omega-3s showed improvement in their mobility and ability to perform daily activities.
You can add green-lipped mussels to your dog's diet with these all-natural Hip & Joint Chicken Chews. These soft chew dog treats are also enriched with polyphenol antioxidants to offer anti-inflammatory benefits.
To give your dog even more omega-3 fatty acids, add a high-quality fish oil — like this Omega Oil made from wild-caught pollock and salmon — to their dog food.
Oil from fatty fish is one of the best natural sources of omega-3s, and omega-3s are one of the best supplements for canine joint support. An analysis of studies on osteoarthritis in dogs, cats, and horses found that omega-3s were the only effective supplement used in any of the studies they reviewed.
There are many benefits of turmeric for dogs, but for dogs with joint problems, the primary benefit is pain relief. This all-natural spice has anti-inflammatory properties, and in studies that compared turmeric to over-the-counter NSAIDS, turmeric provided equally or more effective pain relief than ibuprofen or acetaminophen.
Healthy Joints Start With a Healthy Lifestyle
Ultimately, there isn't enough evidence to say whether or not glucosamine for dogs can provide meaningful joint support. However, these supplements won't harm your dog, so you can take a try-and-see approach. You can also turn to other promising remedies to keep your pet happy and healthy.
A diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil or from treats made with green-lipped mussels can support your dog's healthy joints. It's also important to ensure your dog gets plenty of exercise and stays active into their golden years.
For more information on your pet's health and nutrition, visit the Native Pet blog.