Whether winter comes as a swirling snow storm, a nose-biting blast of cold on a bright blue day, or in the form of a wet, gray fogbank that robs any body of its fire, it will likely bring a reminder of our age and old injuries as well.
For me it is an aching lower back and a stiff right shoulder. Almost every morning I awaken to think that I should have listened to my elders when I was young. You’ll feel that later! they would say.
Yes, I really should have done things slower in my youth and I should have doubled up on my glucosamine many winters ago!
Perhaps the same rings true for my best friend Willow, a 13-year-old Shepherd-mix. The earliest sign of cold or wet weather comes to her as a stiff back leg, the one she had reconnective cruciate ligament surgery on four years ago. She gets out of her bed more slowly these days, and I can hear her groan at night, as she repositions herself on her sofa (yes, her sofa!).
Indeed, I owe my girl some special seasonal comforting a good, loving massage and perhaps another chiropractic adjustment.
The big picture
But Willow also needs me to make some changes in her lifestyle. It’s easy to blame the seasonal aches and pains in life to weather changes and the inevitable effects of aging, but these discomforts usually stem from deeper issues. And while it is true that chronic arthritis, joint stiffness, and other forms of degenerative joint disease can often be linked to old injuries, genetic predisposition, or immune mediated disease, it is important to know that all cases of joint discomfort will likely be compounded by one thing: a poor or inappropriate diet.
In fact, much of the chronic arthritis suffered by dogs could have been completely prevented by providing a wholesome, natural diet together with a few critical supplements and the right exercise.
Diet is key
Good quality protein based on its digestibility and completeness of its amino acid composition is at the nutritional core of arthritis prevention. However, many commercial dog foods (especially the inexpensive ones) are made with poor quality or inappropriate protein ingredients.
Whether you care for an arthritic elder or are planning long-term prevention strategies for a new puppy, start feeding the best food you can afford right now food that is made with top quality, whole meat protein ingredients. At the very least, avoid foods that utilize by-products (meat and grain) as their main ingredients, and those with chemical preservatives or artificial flavorings. If possible, feed a home-prepared or commercially produced raw or cooked diet.
Enzymes and probiotics
It is also important to optimize the digestion and final elimination of the good food you feed. This is easily accomplished with a sprinkle or two of a digestive enzyme and probiotic supplement with each meal.
Probiotics (i.e., bifidus, acidophilus, etc.) are types of bacteria that are beneficial to the body. They work in concert with digestive flora in the intestines to break down food and eliminate waste, enhance the absorption of the nutrients (vitamins, minerals, fats, and proteins) in the food a dog eats, and even stimulate the body’s production of immune-boosting substances such as immunoglobulin antibodies (IgA).
Digestive enzymes are produced in the salivary glands, stomach, and small intestine and are available in supplement form. They immediately begin the chemical breakdown of foods they come into contact with. Certain enzymes, called proteases, break down proteins; amylases break down carbohydrates; lipases break down fats; and cellulases break down fiber.
Digestive enzymes also assist with transport of nutrients throughout the body and help dissolve and remove accumulations of crystallized waste in the joints. Many enzymes, such as bromelain (derived from pineapple) and papain (found in papaya) also have anti-inflammatory activities, and reduce arthritis pain in humans and animals.
Essential fatty acids
It is also important to supplement each meal with an essential fatty acid (EFA) supplement that is balanced to meet the nutritional needs of dogs. The best will contain a combination of both vegetable oils (i.e., borage, evening primrose, black currant, wheat germ, or flax oils) and whole body fish oils.
The Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids contained in these oils serve to regulate the body’s inflammatory responses, and are essential to the process of building and maintaining healthy joint tissues. In other words, if EFAs are deficient in the diet, so will be the body’s effectiveness toward dealing with injuries and post-traumatic joint irritation. EFAs are also critical elements of skin and coat health and strong resistance to flea infestation .
Numerous studies have demonstrated the benefits of fatty acid supplementation for improving the symptoms of arthritis, allergic skin disease, and chronic pruritus (itchiness) in dogs. However, firm answers regarding the ideal dosage of fatty acids, ratio of Omega-6 to Omega-3, and complementary dosage of other vitamins and trace minerals are still elusive or contradictory.
It’s possible that no ratio or combination of fatty acids is best for all dogs, because each individual is different, with different needs. Some dogs do best with one oil, while others do better with another, just like humans. The best way to take advantage of the positive effects of these supplements is to provide as broad a diversity of EFA sources as possible, so the individuals body can match its unique needs with its personal metabolic abilities. (That said, I think most dogs do better with meat/fish-source Omega-3 supplements over plant-sourced Omega-3s.)
I encourage all dog owners to try one of the several excellent EFA oil supplements available in their local pet supply stores. Follow the manufacturers recommendations of how much to feed even if your dog seems perfectly healthy and observe him carefully for signs of improved vitality and health. Try another brand or type of fatty acid supplement if the first one fails to produce noticeable enhancement.
Going with glucosamine
If, like my dear Willow, your companion is already experiencing the effects of old injuries or chronic arthritis, you should consider a few other supplements as well. At the top of my list of must use supplements is glucosamine.
Derived primarily from bovine cartilage and shellfish, glucosamine sulfate and N-acetyl glucosamine are amino sugars that work within the body to lubricate, protect, and help rebuild damaged joint tissues. The amount and frequency of glucosamine you will need to feed your dog to see appreciable results will be gauged by your dog’s size, activity level, and his physical condition.
As a bare minimum, most dogs will need at least 350 mg of glucosamine per day to realize the benefits of the supplement, but those with preexisting joint problems may need considerably more. A 65-pound dog with early symptoms of degenerative joint disease may require 1,500 mg or more each day. Discuss the appropriate dosage for your dog with your holistic veterinarian.
Chondroitin sulfate, a component of glucosamine that is often sold as a standalone joint supplement, may serve similar purposes. However, I share the opinions of many of my peers and teachers that the larger molecule of chondroitin may not be absorbed as efficiently in the intestinal tracts of dogs. Therefore, my choice is straight glucosamine, preferably in liquid form, which I suspect is more efficiently absorbed in the short canine digestive tract.
Chances are that if your dog benefits from glucosamine, he will respond favorably to a vitamin C supplement, too. Although the canine body produces its own vitamin C, supplements of this vitamin will help with assimilation of lipids (including the EFA oils you feed), optimize the body’s use of the glucosamine supplement, and support collagen synthesis, which is critical to bone and connective tissue repair. Supplemental vitamin C may even help slow progression of hip dysplasia in predisposed dogs.
Vitamin C is available in many forms, and veterinarians and nutritionists have varying opinions regarding which form is best utilized by dogs. Ascorbic acid, the type most commonly used in supplements for humans, is not well-tolerated by dogs, and may cause diarrhea or stomach upset.
Many holistic veterinarians swear by calcium ascorbate, especially in the relief of arthritic symptoms. This pH-neutral mineral salt will not upset your dogs stomach, causing diarrhea or heartburn. Ester-C is a patented form of calcium ascorbate favored by many holistic vets. It contains additional metabolites (including a substance known as threonate) thought to offer additional benefits.
Still other holistic veterinarians swear by sodium ascorbate, another readily available and easily absorbed pH-neutral salt. Wendell Belfield, DVM, the earliest advocate of vitamin C supplements for dogs, vastly prefers using this form of the vitamin for dogs.
Herbs and joint repair
You might also consider adding a few herbs to the mix, to help your canine pal heal and find relief from his aching.
Yucca root (Yucca schidigera), alfalfa (Medicago satvia), licorice root, and other herbs that contain rich concentrations of phytosterols and other anti-inflammatory compounds are among the most popular of the herbal anti-arthritics. Boswellia serrata is also a popular choice for bringing relief.
It is important to remember that when used as stand-alone anti-inflammatory remedies, herbs can remedy only the symptoms of your companion’s joint problems. However, when used as part of a holistic approach that incorporates diet and exercise in the program, herbs can offer some clear advantages over conventional arthritis drugs.
First, herbs are relatively safe especially as compared to the likes of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as carprofen (better known by its trade name, Rimadyl), etodolac (EtoGesic), and deracoxib (Deramaxx). NSAIDs remain by far the most popular veterinary prescriptions for canine arthritis. They can bring rapid relief, but their critics say they may be responsible for the deaths of many dogs each year.
It’s up to caring dog guardians to decide what is best for their companions. Just understand that safer alternatives may be as close as your kitchen cabinet.
Although nowhere near as fast-acting as pharmaceutical NSAIDs, common turmeric (Curcuma longa) can be very effective at reducing arthritic inflammation. And instead of presenting new risks of physical harm, it offers stimulatory and protective support to the liver. In other words, as turmeric assists in relieving pain and inflammation, it will also help with elimination of systemic waste an issue that might actually be contributing to the real cause of your dog’s arthritis.
Turmeric also adds the advantage of being a peripheral vasodilator, meaning that it helps warm the body and increase circulation to the joints, where added fluid circulation is needed for healing.
Studies suggest turmeric is most effective when standardized to contain a 95 percent concentration of its active curcuminoid constituents. Further, its anti-inflammatory effects seem to be amplified when the herb is fed in conjunction with digestive enzymes (specifically, bromelain).
A conservative therapeutic dose for a dog over 30 pounds is 100 mg of standardized turmeric (available in capsules at health food stores), added to food once daily, along with a digestive enzyme supplement containing bromelain. For the right dosage for your dog, ask your holistic veterinarian.
Horsetail (Equisetum arvense) is another fantastic herb for arthritic, achy dogs. It’s a hairy-looking plant that contains so much abrasive silica it was once used to polish metal (hence its old common name, pewter wort). The magic of horsetail is contained within this silica, in the form of silicon. Silicon is an essential building block in the repair of joint tissue, but despite its abundant occurrence in the sands of the world’s beaches, it is difficult to find in forms that can be digested and utilized efficiently by the mammalian body.
Enter horsetail. The silicon contained in the cell tissues of horsetail exists in a form that can be more readily absorbed by the body. In raw form, the fresh or dried plant is gritty, indigestible, and may cause irritation to urinary or digestive membranes. Therefore you should only opt for liquid extracts of the plant that have been filtered to remove gritty plant particles. One to two milliliters daily of an alcohol-free extract is a common dose range for dogs, but again, talk to your vet.
The right exercise
The next thing to bring into action in the prevention or treatment of arthritis is the proper type and amount of exercise. In the case of my old sweetie Willow, it is very important that like any athlete, she needs to stretch and warm up her muscles and joints before any strenuous exercise. Stiff joints and sleepy muscles are easily injured. Have your dog walk around a while before throwing a toy, especially during cold, damp weather or if playtime follows shortly after a long nap.
Also, dont let your elder dog convince you that she is just a big puppy who can take on whatever challenges you dish out. Feeling good and having fire in her eyes doesn’t mean she should still leap after flying toys or race around on steep, slippery slopes, especially if she has old joint injuries. Keep the exercise low-impact. Running or swimming after a warm-up walk is fine, but cliff diving and scrambling over river rocks is not.
Don’t forget that just because your well-nourished, properly loved companion may still act like puppy, her body is aging. Father Time demands respect. Right now he is telling Willow and me that it’s time to get up and put another log on the fire.
My bones are aching.
Come on, girl!
-Greg Tilford is a well-known expert in the field of veterinary herblism. An international lecturer and teacher of veterinarians and pet owners alike, Greg has written four books on herbs, including All You Ever Wanted to Know About Herbs for Pets (Bowie Press, 1999), which he coauthored with his wife, Mary.