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Essentials of Bone, Muscle and Joint Health for Dogs and Cats (Part 1)

shutterstock494799898.jpgBy Sarah Griffiths, DCH and Inna Shekhtman

JUNE 21, 2018

Our pets love to move and often inspire us to be more active. And when our animal companions struggle with muscle or joint issues, it affects our ability to enjoy activities together.

No matter what your pet’s age, bone, muscle and joint health are important aspects of ensuring that they have a happy and healthy life. If your pet already suffers from an orthopedic malady, there are likely holistic methods for managing and even improving their condition. We will cover these topics over the next several weeks. However, the best strategy for ensuring musculoskeletal health is to take proactive steps to prevent disease.

In this Joint Health Blog Series, we will explore:

  • How to get started off on the right foot with your puppy or kitten to ensure optimal musculoskeletal development

  • Disease management, specific to musculoskeletal health

  • Orthopedic-specific nutrition

  • Supporting your pet’s joints and muscles in their senior years

  • Additional joint and muscle support for working dogs

This week, we’re exploring the basics of orthopedic health and ways you can ensure correct growth in young animals, prevent musculoskeletal disease, and keep your pet thriving and mobile during their adult life.

The Importance of Fresh Foods for Joint Health

Diet is an integral part of keeping your pet sound, well into old age. Feeding a raw diet consisting of fresh, minimally processed foods can vastly improve overall health and can build the foundation for healthy bones, muscles and joints.

Eliminating processed foods can transform our health and it can do the same for dogs and cats. Fresh, raw foods provide valuable nutrition in a form and quality not found in any other type of diet available. Some of the unique nutrients found in a raw diet include unaltered, high-quality energy sources (protein, fats and carbohydrates), naturally occurring vitamins and minerals, live enzymes and unaltered antioxidants and phytonutrients. These nutrients, their quality, digestibility and the ability of the body to utilize them naturally, are critical for the development and maintenance of bones, muscles and joints. We really can’t do this better than nature.

Dr. Anna Heilm-Bjorkman from the Dogrisk Project at the University of Helsinki has completed a recent study on the positive effects of raw food diets for protecting against canine hip dysplasia in German Shepherd puppies, a breed well-known for its high risk in developing orthopedic disease. Click here to see her study.

Before we look at specific diseases (Part 2) and nutrition (Part 3), it’s important to be aware that when we talk about diet, “balanced and complete” is a relative term. Most claims of “complete and balanced” refer  to standards set by AAFCO (the American Association of Feed Control Officials who set the nutrient guidelines for animal feed) for minimum levels of nutrients in a diet based on the nutritional analysis of the diet. There are several issues with this approach:

  1. AAFCO nutrient guidelines are minimums - not what’s necessary for optimal health. They are necessary to avoid nutritional deficiency. In other words, the bare minimum.

  2. There are nutrients that are not recognized by AAFCO as essential (e.g. live dietary enzymes and DHA - an important omega 3 fatty acid).

  3. AAFCO does not recognize the differences between synthetic and naturally occuring vitamins and minerals.

With our own diet, we get balance by eating a variety of minimally processed whole foods and the same principle applies to our pets. Eating a variety of quality foods ensures an optimal, balanced level of nutrients that works synergistically to provide maximum nutritional levels.  Keep this in mind as we explore this subject. To learn more about what “balanced and complete” actually means, check out our blogs:

Complete and Balanced Part 1: What Does It Really Mean?

Complete and Balanced Part 2: Building a Balanced Raw Diet

Structures of the musculoskeletal system

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Let’s start at the beginning and work outwards towards optimal nutrition. There are three main structures that make up the musculoskeletal system: bones, joints/ligaments (soft tissue) and muscles.

Bones

Bones are largely made up of calcium, phosphorus and magnesium. They provide the structure and framework of your pet. They also act to provide protection to the vital organs and are the main storage area for calcium in the body. Inside the bone, soft marrow tissue stores and makes blood cells.

When puppies and kittens are growing up, they require unaltered dietary energy sources, vitamins and minerals to form healthy bones. In the absence of correct nutrition, developmental deformities are likely to occur and this can affect your pet’s mobility and comfort, sometimes for the rest of their life.

Adults and seniors need a fresh food diet to maintain bone density and to maintain healthy blood cell formation.

Joints and LIgaments

Joints are the ball and socket structures of the skeleton that allow for advanced movement. There are 3 types: synovial (articulating joints that are separated by a fluid-filled cavity and bound by a synovial membrane), cartilaginous (articulating bones surrounded by fibrous tissue), and fibrous joints (occurring only in the skull and are largely immobile). Each type has specific functions in the body including rotation, flexion, extension and more.

In order for joints to form correctly during the early stages of life, pups and kittens require a naturally occurring, species-appropriate food. Malformation of joints and/or sockets can be devastating and can cause lifelong discomfort and immobility. And big vet bills! This is especially important to note for giant breed puppies. It’s precisely why we emphasize feeding a balanced diet through a variety of fresh foods. Dr. Ian Billinghurst, DVM feels that many developmental bone and joint diseases can be prevented with a balanced raw food diet because it provides minerals, vitamins and other nutrients in a form that can be used by dogs and cats.

Adults also need a balanced diet to maintain joint integrity and to ensure that  joints stay lubricated and free of inflammation.

Ligaments are short, flexible bands of collagenous tissue that connect bones and cartilage and that secure joints in their place. Their elasticity and strength requires appropriate nutrition and correct exercise management during all life stages.

Muscles

Muscles allow for movements of the limbs, head, neck and tail, as well as other body parts. They also provide support to the skeletal system. Muscle fibers receive impulses from the brain and central nervous system which results in a contraction, creating movement. 

Unaltered dietary energy, mineral and vitamin sources are key aspects to maintaining healthy muscle condition, especially for puppies, kittens, giant breeds and working dogs. Seniors tend to lose muscle mass if they are suffering from mobility issues.

shutterstock319985324.jpgLife Stages

Puppies and Kittens

During growth stages (approximately the first 18 months of life), bones and joints are growing. Special nutrients that need to be included in adequate amounts for healthy growth include protein, fats, calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, vitamins A, D, E and more. A raw diet provides all of these in a natural form so that your young pet can utilize them efficiently for healthy bone and joint formation. If you’re not sure how to provide a balanced fresh food diet for your puppy or kitten, contact us or consult your holistic veterinarian.

Another important part of raising your young pet is to be aware of potential injury risk. Over-running your puppy at a young age isn’t recommended and can lead to impact injuries during growth, especially in giant breeds. Be sure to warm up by walking on-leash and even by learning how to stretch your pets legs effectively before more vigorous exercise begins (recommended this be done with a trained canine physiotherapist). Limiting rough play, stairs and jumping is also recommended until your puppy is finished all major growth spurts (usually the first 12-24 months).

Additionally, there is evidence that spaying and neutering puppies and kittens can greatly affect musculoskeletal health by altering hormone output, muscle development and bone and joint growth. Be sure to discuss the best options for you and your pet when it comes to spaying and neutering, especially for giant breed puppies who grow for a very long time. If you spay or neuter your dog or cat, you can provide them with additional hormonal support with flax supplements that contain lignans (like Lignan Works).

Adults

In adults, fresh food supports the maintenance of bones, joints and muscles. They require a steady, high-quality supply of energy, minerals and vitamins to stay strong, even as they begin their senior years. Wear and tear can be reduced through a responsible exercise regime, high-quality foods that prevent inflammation of joint and ligament tissue, and a wide variety of antioxidants that will further prevent the inflammation of all body tissues. Fresh food provides the largest variety of unaltered, natural-source antioxidants around. We’ll explore this in detail in part 3.

Seniors

As your pet reaches the golden years, their bodies begin to change and become less efficient in the areas of digestion and the absorption of nutrients which can affect all of the body systems, including muscle, joint, bone and ligament tissue. To ensure a happy, mobile senior pet, include lots of omega 3 fatty acids and antioxidant-containing fruits, veggies and organ meats. There are a number of supportive food supplements that can also be used for specific senior-related issues. A live probiotic is a great place to start to ensure healthy gut function.

unnamed.jpgWhat Do i need to know to start heAling my pet with joint health?

The one thing you can start with, regardless of your pet’s age, is to add a variety of high-quality Omega-3 fatty sources and a live probiotic. Balancing the omega 3 and 6 fat ratio is one of the most important things you can do for your pet’s joint health. Most diets are too high in omega 6 and/or they contain fatty acid sources that have already expired or could even be rancid. Some great sources include canned sardines packed in water, raw fish such as salmon and herring, flax oil and flax seed, and refrigerated sources of cold-pressed fish oil including sardine, herring, salmon, cod liver and krill oils (preferably stored in a glass amber bottle). Omega 3’s help with musculoskeletal wellness and a number of other body systems including the nervous, digestive and urinary systems.

Probiotics support healthy gut function which can, in turn, improve digestion and the absorption of important joint-protective nutrients. They even synthesize vitamins such as folate, vitamin B12, niacin, thiamine and biotin which all contribute to joint health. (1) (2) (3) (4)

In part 2, we’ll be looking at diseases  that affect musculoskeletal health and wellness. Part 3 will discuss nutrition for orthopedic health and wellness for all life stages. Stay tuned!