For centuries, wolves—incredibly charismatic, highly social and extremely intelligent—have held a special place in our consciousness, starring in as many nightmares as they have in paintings and pop songs. With their bigger brains, stronger muscles, and teeth and jaws many times more powerful than any dog’s, they’re also quite dangerous, capable of killing an elk, a moose, even a bison.
It’s both understandable and surprising that people want to take a bit of that wildness home in the shape of a wolf/dog hybrid or wolfdog—which, at least in theory, represent the best of both worlds: a dog’s friendly companionship paired with a wolf’s good looks and untamed nature. Buy a wolfdog, the thinking goes, and you can live out your Jack London fantasies, even if you’re in Akron rather than Anchorage.
As with many things, reality is not so simple. Wolf hybrids are perhaps the most misunderstood—and, many would argue, mismanaged—animals in America. Advocates say they can be wonderful pets, while opponents argue that they’re unpredictable, untrainable and inherently dangerous. They’re permitted in some places, forbidden in others, and are beginning to show up on breed ban lists, along with Pits and other so-called “dangerous breeds.”
What’s more, there’s no approved rabies vaccination for hybrids; a wolfdog can be confiscated and destroyed whether he’s wearing a rabies tag or not. While the federal government officially sees wolfdogs as domestic pets (and leaves their regulation to individual states and municipalities), they’re treated as wild animals when it comes to rabies. Thus, the wolfdog who bites a person can be considered a rabies risk—even if he’s been vaccinated—because the USDA, which regulates veterinary medicines, does not extend approval for use of the standard rabies vaccine on “hybrids” (the same vaccine is approved for use on dogs, cats, ferrets, and horses, among others). And whenever a human is bitten by an animal that’s considered a rabies risk, euthanasia is necessary, the USDA says, because the only reliable test for rabies requires an examination of the animal’s brain.
Wolfdog owners are encouraged to vaccinate their animals, but to do so they’ve got to make a tough choice: Lie to their veterinarian about the animal’s lineage, or sign a waiver stating that they understand that the vaccine is being used “off-label” on a hybrid animal and thus cannot be relied upon to deliver full protection against rabies, and that their animal can be impounded and put down if he bites someone—a high-stakes gamble, and one for which the wolfdog could pay with his life.
When it comes to wolfdogs’ legal status, the regulations are literally all over the map. At the time of this article’s publication, it’s illegal to keep a wolfdog as a pet in Alaska, Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, North Dakota and Rhode Island. However, in some of these states—Alaska, Michigan and North Dakota—a wolfdog can be “grandfathered” in. Other states—Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Texas and Utah—don’t regulate ownership on a state level, instead leaving it up to individual counties. Among the states that allow wolfdogs, many require the owner to obtain a permit or mandate registration and/or confinement in specific kinds of cages. In some states (New York, for example), that means getting a “dangerous animal” permit—the same type needed to keep a lion.
And legal or not, hybrids pose significant challenges for owners, many of whom are unable or unwilling to meet them, creating a large population of unwanted animals who wind up chained in backyards, abandoned or euthanized. “These are beautiful animals, and a lot of people are attracted to something that’s exotic and different,” says Nicole Wilde, a wolfdog expert and author of Wolfdogs: A–Z (nicolewilde.com). “They want to own a piece of the wild, and they often say that the wolf is their spiritual sign or totem animal,” she says. “Unfortunately, they don’t realize that it’s not really the same thing as having a wolf in their living room.”
Like Pit Bulls and pornography, wolfdogs are tough to identify, regardless of laws are passed to limit them. Several years ago, the USDA released a report estimating that there were about 300,000 wolfdogs in the US; how they came to this metric is unclear, as the numbers are impossible to nail down. Some wolfdog owners deny their pets’ heritage, while others claim their 100-percent dogs are part wolf. In fact, experts say that the vast majority of animals sold (or bragged about) as hybrids actually possess very low wolf content, or none at all.
Part of the problem is that there’s no clear definition of what a wolfdog is, says Nancy Brown, director of Full Moon Farm (fullmoonfarm.org), a wolfdog rescue and sanctuary in Black Mountain, N.C. Most experts use the term to describe an animal with a pure wolf in its family, no more than four or five generations back. But there’s no way of proving any animal’s pedigree, as there is no breed registry (and no such thing as “papers” for a wolf or wolfdog, no matter what those who breed them contend).
Genetic testing is available, but currently, it’s reserved for wildlife management and law enforcement agencies. Technically speaking, it’s feasible—but it’s essentially unavailable. The key to these tests is having a huge database of genetic material from all the animals that you want to ID or eliminate. For example, a lab can determine with relative certainty that a certain dog is a beagle mix and not a lab mix because it’s got a lot of genetic markers on those breeds. But it probably can’t say for sure if an animal is a wolf cross because it’s got no wolf materials or only materials from one or two types of wolves, such as those from Alaska or Minnesota but not Idaho or Wyoming. The private labs that sell the tests to individual consumers don’t handle wolves or wolfdogs.
Phenotyping—having an expert evaluate an animal’s physical and behavioral characteristics—remains the most accessible way to identify a wolfdog. Unfortunately, few law enforcement agents or other dog experts are trained in phenotyping wolfdogs, and as a result, many dogs are erroneously labeled.
Even if you could draw its family tree, there’s no way to predict an animal’s “wolfiness,” says Stephen L. Zawistowski, PhD, executive vice president and science advisor for the ASPCA. “I’ve seen ads for animals that are ’98-percent pure wolf,’ but these are bogus numbers,” he says. “These claims are based on the misguided belief that genes blend together like food coloring: If you take half red and half blue, you get a nice, even purple.” In reality, he says, genes “blend” more like marbles. Say you have a dog, represented by 20 red marbles, and a wolf, represented by 20 blue ones. If you breed the two, you’ll get 10 marbles from each parent, so you’ll have half of each color; this is an F1 (Filial 1, or first filial generation) cross. But in subsequent generations, you’ll get a random assortment of red and blue from each parent. So the offspring of two F1, 50/50 wolfdogs (known as F2 crosses, as they’re a generation removed from full wolf) could be anything from three-quarter wolf genes and one-quarter dog genes to three-quarter dog and one-quarter wolf—yet all will be considered 50-percent wolf. Thus, he says, you see enormous variations among wolfdogs, even those who come from the same litter.
Knowing an individual animal’s filial number —the number of generations it is removed from a pure wolf — is probably the best way to guess at its future behavior (and potential problems), says Kim Miles, vice president of the Florida Lupine Association (floridalupine.org), a wolfdog advocacy group. “Wolfdogs aren’t easily pegged because they’re essentially a combination of wild and domesticated animals.” According to Miles, the biggest difference between a wild and a domestic animal is its tractability, or the ease with which it can be managed or controlled. “A dog is like a 12-year-old child, and a wolf is like a 35-year-old man,” she explains. “The dog will generally do what you want it to, but the wolf will do what you want only if he want to do it himself.”
Experts agree that the vast majority of wolfdog breeders are selling dogs with little or no wolf content, despite the fact that the animals fetch as much as $2,500 apiece. Moreover, the majority of “wolfdogs” being kept as pets—and being surrendered to shelters and sanctuaries—are all dog, too. “I’d say that about 70 percent of the so-called ‘wolfdogs’ out there are not wolfdogs at all,” says Ken Collings, director of Wolfdog Rescue Resources, Inc. (wrr-inc.org), a national rescue organization headquartered in Stafford, Va. “Breeders take Malamutes, Shepherds and other dogs and cross-breed them until they get an animal that looks like a wolf. And because most people [who want a wolfdog] are uneducated [about them] and have no idea what they’re looking at, they buy it.”
Unfortunately, people who like the idea of owning a fearsome predator as well as those with a misguided nature fetish often don’t understand what they’re getting into. In many cases, an owner will think that he has had experience with wolfdogs in the past—maybe he had or knew an animal that he thought was a hybrid but was, in fact, all dog—and decides to get a wolfdog puppy. “Only this time, he gets the real thing,” Collings says. “And by the time the pup is five or six months old, [she’s] eaten the couch or clawed [her] way through the drywall.”
Of course, not all wolfdogs behave the same way, and there’s probably more variety in behavior among wolfdogs than any other kind of dog—or among wolves. “You have to remember that a wolfdog is not a wolfdog is not a wolfdog,” says Brown. “There’s no such thing as typical.”
“A high-content animal is probably going to act a lot more ‘wolfie’ than a low-content animal,” adds Wilde. “With a high-content wolfdog, you might start out with the puppy in the house and then, as he hits adolescence, you’ll be building an enclosure outside. You’ll have to.” It’s for just these reasons that many experts, including Wilde, discourage people from breeding wolfdogs—or buying wolfdog pups from breeders.
“The average dog owner can’t deal with their Beagle, and they can’t handle an ordinary dog’s behavior problems,” says Wilde, who rescued a wolf and two wolfdogs several years ago. She can personally attest to the challenges of keeping these beautiful canines. “I’ve worked with them to the point that I can look between their paw pads and look at their teeth—and give them tummy rubs—but I never forget what they really are.”
Stroll down the aisle of almost any pet-supply store and you’re likely to see dog food that rivals the offerings of a high-end butcher shop: salmon, venison and duck, plus pheasant, bison, rabbit and ostrich. You’ll even find critters that aren’t on anyone’s menu, including beaver and Australian brushtail possum. Mmm-mmm good.
While the vast majority of dog owners stick to the basics—beef-, chicken- and lamb-based foods—a growing number are venturing into the exotics, despite the fact that they may cost substantially more than economy kibble. If an average dog owner spends about $227 a year on dog food, an owner who’s feeding the wild stuff will spend many times more, especially if the dog who’s eating it is one of the big guys.
Why are some of us going in this direction? “The most common reason an owner will switch to a food that’s made with a more exotic meat is that the dog has food allergies,” says Mark Newkirk, VMD, director of the Margate Animal Hospital in Margate, N.J. Owners also cite ethical reasons—for example, concerns over the “factory farming” system that generates the meat used in most pet foods—as well as a wish to simply improve their dogs’ diets. The food might be “better” because of what’s in it (higher-grade meat and other ingredients) as well as what isn’t (chemical additives, plus the hormones and pesticides to which the feed animal and/or plant-based ingredients were exposed).
The market for natural pet foods, which includes many products made with exotic or game meats as well as those containing certified organic or “natural” ingredients, had $1.3 billion in retail sales in 2007 and is expected to top $2 billion by 2012, according to the research firm Packaged Facts. Natural foods represent just 6 percent of total dog-food sales, but they’re growing about five times as fast as the pet-food market as a whole. And while U.S. consumers are increasingly interested in all manner of organic and environmentally friendly products, sales of organic dog food—roughly $84 million in 2008—have increased at almost twice the rate of organic food intended for human consumption, according to the Organic Trade Commission. Nearly half of all pet-owning households now look for “natural” or eco-friendly pet products, according to Packaged Facts.
Consider the Source
One way to avoid this issue is to skip meat altogether and feed our dogs a vegetarian diet, a strategy that’s fairly controversial (and not recommended by many veterinarians). Or, we can look for alternative meat sources for our dog—animals that don’t come from gigantic feedlots and slaughterhouses but rather, live and die on smaller farms or ranches, or even in the wild.
Unfortunately, there’s no guarantee that the animal that begat the food lived (or died) happily, says Jennifer Larsen, DVM, PhD, assistant professor of clinical nutrition at the William R. Pritchard Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital at the University of California, Davis. “These animals are either hunted or slaughtered on farms,” she says. “They didn’t die in their sleep.” On the other hand, research shows that animals in factory farms are generally subjected to overcrowded, unsanitary conditions; are routinely given hormones and antibiotics; and are consistently less healthy than animals that live on more traditional farms, or in the wild.
And while scientific evidence for the health benefits of naturally raised foods is still slim for people (and practically nonexistent for dogs), many experts contend that foods made from animals and plants raised in non-CAFO settings are inherently superior. “When you switch a dog to a better food, you definitely see benefits because you’re making the dog’s body healthier,” Newkirk says. “Any kind of debilitation or chronic disease or problem will respond, to one degree or another, to a diet that’s made from healthy ingredients and not full of chemicals. That only makes sense.”
Moreover, while the “big five” dog-food manufacturers have recently jumped on the natural bandwagon, the majority of foods made with game meats come from smaller companies, which tend to use higher-quality ingredients and produce their products in smaller plants. Some, such as Taste of the Wild, use only hormone- and antibiotic-free meats (and no synthetic preservatives). Others, such as Timberwolf Organics, rely on wild-caught, free-range and U.S.-sourced ingredients. The Canadian company Horizon Pet Nutrition says that none of its ingredients travel more than 100 km (or about 62 miles) to its Saskatchewan facilities. Champion Pet Foods, another Canadian company, uses regional ducks, free-range bison and wild-caught fish in its foods.
Food allergies are triggered by exposure to a particular food (or more specifically, to a protein in that food) or food additives, such as preservatives, Larsen says. And many dogs are allergic to more than one thing, which makes it that much harder to find the culprit(s) in the dog’s diet. According to Larsen, dogs will often develop an allergy to a food or substance they’ve eaten regularly.
Some of the most common allergens for dogs are beef, chicken and grains, which are also the most common ingredients in commercial dog foods, says Newkirk. “If we suspect that the dog has a food allergy, we’ll put her on venison or duck or rabbit because her body hasn’t seen that protein before and therefore shouldn’t be allergic to it.” He also advises owners of allergic dogs to switch to a food that’s grain-free (meaning no wheat, corn or rice). “Grains are mostly carbohydrate, but they do contain some protein, too, and that can trigger a reaction in some dogs,” he says.
Before we begin swapping dog foods, however, it’s important to evaluate our dogs’ current diet as well as their diet history, notes Larsen. “I’m constantly amazed at people who think they’ve got to start buying ostrich [even though] their dog has never been exposed to some more common ingredients, like beef,” she says. It’s also important that the new diet is both limited—incorporating a minimum number of ingredients—and based on a novel protein (something to which the dog has never been exposed). “Many diets with exotic meats also have a lot of other common ingredients, meaning there could be two dozen protein sources in a particular bag or can of dog food,” she says. There’s nothing magic about any one meat over another: “It’s really about exposure,” according to Larsen.
Identifying and eliminating a food allergen can be a lengthy process, and most vets advise an elimination trial of at least six weeks. Make sure that everything—kibble and wet food as well as treats and even chewable medications like heartworm preventives—containing potential allergens is removed from the dog’s diet. If the symptoms clear up after several weeks, re-introduce the food and watch for the symptoms to return.
Once the culprit determined and a viable substitute is found, a big improvement in the dog’s health is likely, Newkirk observes. “The results are fairly remarkable. Of course, this may not be the dog’s only allergy and you may have other detective work to do, but it will probably make a major difference.”
Look at the Label
Commercial dog foods are generally lumped into a few categories, including “premium,” “super premium,” “ultra premium” and “gourmet.” Although it’s safe to assume that foods containing exotic meats will be classified thus, these words don’t have any official meaning: dog foods that carry one of these terms on the label aren’t required to contain better ingredients or pass any more stringent nutritional requirements than ones that don’t.
Many dog foods, including exotic products, are labeled “natural” or “organic.” But this can be tricky, says Nancy K. Cook, vice president of the Pet Food Institute, a trade group representing pet-food manufacturers, and chair of the USDA’s Organic Pet Food Task Force. The task force recommended a set of standards for dog and cat foods similar to those used for food intended for humans, but as of today, none have been adopted. Nonetheless, some manufacturers tout their use of certified organic ingredients (or certified organic manufacturing facilities).
The term “natural” does have a definition, although it’s not exactly precise (or legally binding), Cook says. “Basically, a pet food is supposed to be made without artificial colors, flavors or preservatives in order to be called natural,” she says. That, at least, is the AAFCO definition. The FDA and USDA have no official definition of the term. The bottom line: If you’re thinking of venturing into the exotic aisle, be sure to read the labels carefully, says Larsen. Different—and more expensive—doesn’t always mean better.
If a member of your (human) family got sick or hurt or had a condition that demanded expert care, you’d ask your doctor for a referral to a specialist—someone who could offer treatments beyond what your GP could provide.
And now, if your dog needs care beyond the scope of your regular veterinarian’s practice, you can do the same thing for him.
Specialists can take over where standard veterinary care leaves off because they have specific education and hands-on experience over and above that of most general practice vets, says Nancy Kay, DVM, a board-certified specialist in small animal internal medicine in Rohnert Park, Calif., and author of Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life (2008). “Veterinary specialists have spent two or more years of in-depth residency training, often receiving one-on-one guidance from clinicians who are experts in their fields,” she says. “That’s where they learn how to deal with challenging cases.”
Veterinary specialists—experts in everything from anesthesia to zoological medicine—were all but unheard of when most of us were young (and romping with the dogs of our childhood). The first specialties were recognized by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) in the 1950s, when the association established the American Board of Veterinary Specialties (ABVS) to serve as an umbrella organization for all AVMA-recognized specialty groups.
Today, the ABVS represents 39 distinct specialties, which are practiced by members of 20 specialty organizations, some of which encompass several disciplines (for example, the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine, or ACVIM, covers large and small animal internal medicine, plus oncology, cardiology and neurology). More than 9,000 U.S. veterinarians—roughly 9 percent of all vets in the country—are card-carrying members, or board-certified diplomates, of these organizations. To obtain diplomate status, a vet must complete postgraduate coursework and residency and pass a certification exam. In some cases, that means several years of additional training after vet school.
In addition to the AVMA-recognized specialty groups, a few organizations offer specialized training and certification to vets who have added physical rehabilitation and various types of alternative medicine to their practices. (See sidebar for more information.)
The expertise demanded of specialty veterinarians is especially important in veterinary medicine, because vets—unlike human doctors—can legally perform any accepted procedure on your dog, says Mitch Robbins, DVM, a diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Surgeons (ACVS) who practices at the Veterinary Specialty Center in Buffalo Grove, Ill. “If you needed surgery, your doctor is required to refer you to a surgeon,” he says. “He can’t just operate on you himself. But if your dog needs surgery, your regular vet can do it himself. The question isn’t whether he can perform the procedure—it’s whether he is the best person to do it.”
Another issue is equipment—high-tech radiology, neurosurgery and diagnostic machines that specialists have (and general practice vets almost never do). Specialists have received training on this equipment and are well versed in the latest therapies and technologies, says Patty Khuly, VMD, a general-practice veterinarian in Miami, Fla. “They’ve invested in the kinds of equipment that I wouldn’t buy for my practice,” she says. “Of course, there are good and not-so-good specialists just like there are good and not-so-good general practitioners, but, generally speaking, specialists are at least four years ahead of everybody else. Veterinary medicine is advancing very quickly, so four years represents an awful lot.”
Specialization in veterinary medicine is definitely growing, as more pet owners are looking for advanced care and more veterinarians are choosing to tackle it: According to the AVMA, almost 40 percent of 2007’s veterinary school graduates enrolled in targeted post-graduate coursework, internships and residencies, up from just 15 percent in 1995. And despite the current economic situation—and the fact that a specialist will almost always cost more than a family veterinarian (generally about twice as much, says Dr. Robbins)—owners are keeping them busy. They can be found throughout the country, at major veterinary teaching hospitals as well as clinics, many of which offer a few different types of specialty care along with 24-hour emergency services.
When to See a Specialist
Most general practice veterinarians will readily suggest a specialist in cases that are beyond their area of expertise, says Dr. Khuly. “A few vets might want to do everything in-house, or they might feel that the client wouldn’t want to see a specialist for financial or other reasons, but most routinely make referrals,” she says. The phenomenon is much like the one in human medicine, she says. “The general practitioner is your go-to person for everyday issues, but the specialist is who you see for more complicated problems.”
For example, your family vet might suggest you see a specialist for treatment of a known disease or condition (such as heart rhythm abnormalities or diabetes), says Dr. Kay. You also might be sent to a specialist if your dog isn’t getting better—or is getting worse—despite the treatment he’s currently getting.
You also might want to consult a specialist if your dog needs diagnostic procedures beyond the run-of-the-mill temperature readings and blood work that your regular vet provides. For example, endoscopy—a nonsurgical method of evaluating a dog’s respiratory, gastrointestinal or urinary tract or removing growths or tissue for biopsy—is generally left to the specialists, says Dr. Kay. “Some general practitioners perform endoscopy procedures, but unless they’ve received extensive training, they won’t have nearly the experience that a specialist in internal medicine does.”
Seeking out Surgeons
If your veterinarian recommends taking your dog to a surgeon (or if you think you should see one for a second opinion), do your homework—on both the surgeon and the surgery that your vet has recommended—before the consultation, says Dr. Kay. Find out if he’s board certified, and ask about his experience in cases like your dog’s. Be sure to bring your dog’s medical records, including the latest x-rays, lab results and prescriptions, to the appointment.
When you meet with a surgeon, Dr. Robbins recommends asking the following questions:
“In my opinion, anytime you’re talking about a surgical procedure that’s got some complexity to it, the least you should do—at least, what I would do—is talk to a surgeon,” says Dr. Robbins. “The ‘second opinion’ is the basis of specialized medicine in humans, and it’s the best way for you to be an advocate for your dog. You always want to know if there’s something new or better that could be done to manage your dog’s condition and give him a better quality of life.”
Think of them as the silent sufferers: the millions of dogs who hobble among us, creaking away on swollen joints and dwindling cartilage. Most are older, but the years didn’t make them that way. Arthritis did.
Osteoarthritis is the biggest cause of chronic pain in U.S. dogs. According to most estimates, it affects more than 20 percent (that’s 10 to 12 million animals).
Technically speaking, osteoarthritis, or OA, is a degenerative disease involving one or more joints in a dog’s body. It most often shows up in middle-aged or older dogs, although there’s no standard age of onset, explains Jamie Gaynor, DVM, MS, director of the Animal Anesthesia and Pain Management Center in Colorado Springs, Colo. But OA isn’t just an old dog’s disease, nor is every dog destined to be arthritic.
OA is generally triggered by excessive wear in one or more joints, but dogs who have joint irregularities are more likely to develop arthritis in the affected joint. These irregularities can be caused by trauma—an accident or injury—or by a developmental deformity, such as hip or elbow dysplasia, which is a genetic condition that develops in a dog after birth. Other factors that can contribute to OA are obesity (see sidebar) and overuse. This is a problem for racing dogs as well as for many working breeds; they may not be herding sheep or pointing birds for a living, but many still feel compelled to run around as though they were.
Osteoarthritis is tough to manage, in part because it’s cyclical: Inflammation creates pain as well as physical changes that force the joint to move in an unnatural way, creating more pain and inflammation. Once it gets started, arthritis is difficult, if not impossible, to stop. What’s more, just controlling the pain of arthritis is anything but simple. Researchers have found that arthritis pain follows several different pathways and creates changes in the dog’s central nervous system, which means that keeping an arthritic dog comfortable most often requires more than one type of pain relief. There’s no cure for OA — treatment generally focuses on treating the discomfort and slowing the loss of cartilage and damage to the joints. And vets agree that there’s no silver bullet: No drug or therapy or supplement works on every dog, and no two dogs respond in exactly the same way to any treatment. But there are steps that you can take to slow the progression of arthritis and keep your dog as happy and active as possible.
Glucosamine and Chondroitin Sulfate. These substances provide the building blocks for polysulfated glycosaminoglycans, or PSGAGs, which are long-chain molecules that hold water and give cartilage its cushion. Research shows they can be very effective in both animals and humans. A recent study found that arthritic dogs given a supplement of glucosamine and chondroitin for 10 weeks had significantly less pain than dogs who didn’t get the supplement.
However, not all glucosamine is created equal. “There’s a huge range in quality of these supplements,” says Dr. Boothe. To be sure you’re getting your money’s worth, stick with products that have been proven effective in studies. Both Dr. Gaynor and Dr. Boothe recommend products from Nutramax Labs, which manufactures Cosequin and Dasuquin. Glyco-Flex III, from Vetri-Science Labs, is also well researched, says Dr. Gaynor.
Methylsulfonylmethane (MSM). Supplemental MSM appears to act as an analgesic (like aspirin). In a few small studies, it has improved pain and physical function in people with OA.
DL-phenylalanine (DLPA). DLPA is a synthetic amino acid that seems to relieve pain. One component of DLPA, D-phenylalanine (DPA), has been shown to decrease chronic pain and boost the pain-relieving benefits of some medications (and of acupuncture) in animals and humans.
Fish Oil. Extracts from cold-water fish contain omega-3 fatty acids, which reduce inflammation. Human studies show that fish oil helps alleviate pain, and a 2008 study found that fish oil improves the synovial fluid in dogs with inflammatory joint disease following a ligament injury.
Avocado/Soybean Unsaponifiables. (ASUs). ASUs (the leftovers from soap production) act as anti-inflammatories, and can inhibit the breakdown of cartilage and promote its repair.
Corticosteroids, or Glucocorticoids. Veterinary glucocorticoids, including prednisolone and methylated prednisolone (Cortisate-20, Depo-Medrol and Medrol), are steroidal medicines that attack inflammation. Unfortunately, they also attack the dog’s tissues.
Narcotics. Tramadol (Ultram) is a synthetic opiate. It’s strictly a pain reliever, says Dr. Gaynor, not an anti-inflammatory, so it can be safely combined with NSAIDs and many other drugs.
Medicines for Neuropathic Pain. Two drugs for humans, gabapentin (Neurontin) and amantadine (Symmetrel), also address the neurologic components of dogs’ pain—how the pain messages are carried to the dog’s spinal cord and brain. These drugs also reduce “windup,” a phenomenon in which a dog’s nerves become overly sensitized, leading her to feel pain from things that otherwise wouldn’t hurt at all.
Injectable PSGAGs. Adequan is a prescription PSGAG that works like glucosamine and chondroitin, only faster, says Dr. Boothe. Hyalauronic acid, or HLA, is natural source of PSGAGs (it’s found in connective tissue and synovial fluid).
Therapeutic Lasers. Low-level lasers have been shown to reduce pain and inflammation and to stimulate healing in humans and animals.
Electromedicine. Extracorporeal shock wave therapy (ESWT) uses powerful, high-energy sound waves to treat OA (it’s painful, so dogs are typically sedated). Pulsed signal therapy (PST) delivers small, imperceptible pulses of electromagnetic energy. A handful of studies have shown that both therapies can be effective in animals as well as humans.
Acupuncture. Studies suggest that this ancient Chinese treatment can reduce stress, pain and inflammation. “We’ve seen some great results in dogs with arthritis,” says Dr. Gaynor, who is also certified in veterinary acupuncture.
Regenerative Stem Cell Therapy. Arthritic dogs can be treated with stem cells harvested from the dog’s own fat stores (cells are harvested, re-engineered, then injected into the arthritic joint). A recent study found that treated dogs had significantly less lameness and pain and better range of motion. The stem cells seem to help regenerate cartilage and other tissue, providing pain relief in the process, says Dr. Gaynor.
“Now, we’re looking at ways to spot arthritis before it gets too advanced,” he says. Researchers are also looking for genetic biomarkers—factors in the dog’s blood or joint fluid that would show the likelihood of his developing OA in the future. He encourages owners to know their dog’s predisposition for inherited joint diseases (the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals publishes dysplasia statistics for various breeds: http://www.offa.org), then talk to a vet about how ways to minimize the OA that might occur. “Anything that you do early in the dog’s life will have much more impact than what you do after the problem has developed,” he says.