By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker
Unless your adult dog has a bone disease such as an angular limb deformity, you probably don’t give his frame much thought. After all, it’s hidden under lots of skin and fur! But just as the rest of his body needs excellent care, it’s important to keep his skeletal system in good condition as well.
Fortunately, there are steps you can take to help your dog’s bones stay strong and resilient throughout his life. As an added bonus, each of the following recommendations will help keep his organs, muscles and joints in optimal condition as well.
5 Ways to Keep Your Dog’s Bones Strong and Resilient
1. Feed a nutritionally balanced, species-appropriate, fresh food diet
Just as your dog’s bones are the foundation for her body, her diet is the foundation for her overall health and well-being, from the tip of her nose to the tip of her tail. Optimal nutrition for dogs is a nutritionally balanced, fresh homemade diet served raw or gently cooked. I can’t overstate how important it is to insure homemade diets are balanced, especially for growing dogs.
Many homemade and commercially available prey model diets unfortunately are not. They fall far short in trace minerals, antioxidants including nutrients like manganese, magnesium, vitamin E and D, copper, zinc, iron, choline and essential fatty acids.
And if your dog’s diet doesn't have a proper fat or calcium to phosphorus balance or is deficient in vitamin D, it can cause a long list of health problems, including bone disorders, especially in growing animals. So, it's absolutely crucial your homemade diet is balanced.
I believe the European Pet Food Industry Federation (FEDIAF) has done a much better job of defining nutritional growth requirements for puppies than AAFCO because they have taken into account that a growing Chihuahua has very different metabolic requirements than a growing Great Dane.
FEDIAF has wisely instituted early and late growth phases for large breed puppies that are genetically predisposed to suffer from growth abnormalities (HOD, OCD and hip dysplasia) if dietary nutrients are not in correct balance.
If you’re not able to prepare nutritionally balanced homemade meals for your pet (which means following a recipe versus winging it), an alternative is a commercially available nutritionally balanced raw food diet. Again, it's critically important that the diet be balanced. Commercially available raw food diets are found in the freezer section of small or privately owned pet stores. If the bag says “for intermittent or supplemental feeding only” do not feed these foods to growing puppies.
Some big-box stores are now starting to carry a larger selection of balanced frozen raw diets, and you can also find an excellent selection online. Be sure to research the pet food manufacturer you're buying from to insure you're feeding the correct product for your dog’s specific nutritional and medical needs.
As the raw food market continues to heat up, the number of poor-quality, unbalanced commercial raw foods is also becoming apparent, so do your homework. In addition to nutrient dense, fresh, whole food nutrition, dogs also benefit from supplements that support their musculoskeletal system. I recommend you consult a holistic veterinarian about the right nutraceutical protocol for your pet's individual needs.
Some dogs need cartilage support, others synovial support, and still others need support for inflammation. Your integrative vet can give you the best guidance for your dog.
2. Don’t overfeed
A dog with an overweight or obese body is putting extra stress and strain on his musculoskeletal system, which includes his bones. And the inflammation caused by too much weight is the precursor to a long list of obesity-related diseases that can be devastating to his quality of life.
Estimates are that every pound of fat you help your dog lose takes 4 pounds of pressure off his knees. That’s a substantial amount of pressure over time!
Pet foods high in carbohydrates, especially kibble, are the biggest cause of obesity in dogs. Your dog needs food high in animal protein and moisture, with low to no grain content, and free of potatoes, corn, rice, soy and tapioca. Instead, his diet should consist of lean meats, healthy fats and fibrous vegetables and low-glycemic fruits as the only sources of carbohydrates.
It’s also extremely important to calculate kcal (kilocalorie) requirements for your dog's ideal weight. Then measure his food portions using an actual measuring cup and limit treats (be sure to include treats in his total daily calorie count).
3. Insure your dog gets plenty of appropriate exercise
The type and amount of exercise your dog needs to maintain healthy bones depends on her age, lifestyle, physical condition, breed and other factors. If she doesn’t get regular (daily) opportunities to run, play and exercise aerobically, she can end up with arthritis and other debilitating conditions that affect her bones, joints, muscles and internal organs.
Your dog should be getting an absolute bare bones minimum of 20 minutes of sustained heart-thumping exercise three times a week just to prevent overt degeneration. Thirty minutes is better than 20, and six or seven days a week is better than three. And it’s important to keep in mind that simply strolling with your dog isn’t an adequate workout.
She needs sessions of power walking — moving at a pace of 4 to 4.5 miles an hour (about a 15-minute mile) to achieve good cardiovascular intensity and caloric burn. Power walks can provide important health benefits not only for your dog, but also for you, including lowering your risk of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and joint disease. The fact is, you will not achieve outstanding skeletal health in your dog without a rigorous exercise plan. Period.
If you aren’t able to move at a power walk pace, you’ll need to involve your dog in other types of cardiovascular exercise like swimming, fetch, Frisbee, agility competition, flyball, dock jumping, etc. You might also consider a bike ride alongside your dog using a special dog bike leash.
If you are not physically able to exercise with your dog there are excellent dog walking/exercising companies out there, as well as lots of physical therapy centers for pets that offer wellness packages to get your dog moving.
4. Give careful thought to when and how your dog is sterilized
Especially in the case of large and giant breeds, removing your dog’s ability to produce important hormones while his skeleton is still developing can result in delayed closure of the growth plates at the end of each long bone. Many dogs are spayed or neutered at 6 months of age, which can compromise skeletal development.
This can cause his legs to grow longer than normal, as you can see in this example of two adult male Golden Retrievers. The big guy on the left is intact, with normal conformation for the breed. The leggier guy on the right was neutered at 5 months and has a quite noticeable longer-limbed conformation.
Sadly, even though the taller Golden on the right is certainly as handsome and fit-looking as the dog on the left, his longer limbs may put him a higher risk for orthopedic disease.
There are sterilization procedures that can render your dog unable to reproduce, while sparing the very important hormone-producing testes or ovaries. Sadly, at the current time veterinary schools in the U.S. only teach full spays and neuters, so unless your vet has obtained additional training in alternative sterilization techniques, you’ll have only one option available to sterilize your pet.
In that case, my suggestion would be to wait until your dog has reached full musculoskeletal maturity, and if you have a female, I’d also wait until she’s completed her first estrus cycle before scheduling the surgery.
5. Natural therapies to maintain your dog’s musculoskeletal integrity
In addition to regular (preferably daily) exercise, there are a variety of all-natural modalities that can be beneficial in keeping your dog’s bones, joints and ligaments strong and resilient throughout life.
Chiropractic care is centered on correcting subluxations (or improper alignment between two bones) in order to allow the nervous system to function optimally. It uses the body's own healing abilities and the relationship between the spine and the nervous system to restore and maintain good health. Adjustments may be made by hand or using instruments.
Chiropractic care can be used in cases of injury or disease, as well as for regular maintenance, especially involving large and giant breed dogs and canine athletes. I recommend maintenance chiropractic care proactively for all my patients to reduce the risk of injury and joint degeneration.
Acupuncture is typically used for pain relief and the treatment of specific veterinary conditions, but it can be valuable for healthy dogs as well. In fact, research shows acupuncture can trigger the release of beneficial hormones, increase blood circulation, stimulate nerves, relieve muscle spasms and more.
Stretching is another great natural tool to improve the well-being and longevity of your dog. Providing daily walks or other exercise followed by a short session of gentle stretching can do wonders for your dog both physically and mentally.
Therapeutic massage acts on the vagal nerve network, which affects almost every system in the body. Just as acupuncture stimulates body systems and alters function of the autonomic nervous system (ANS), the moderate pressure applied during massage can create similar changes inside the body.
Pressure massage of the skin that also reaches underlying subcutaneous tissue and myofascia (the fibrous tissue that encloses and separates layers of muscle) stimulates vagal nerve endings. These in turn send signals to the brain that improve homeostasis (equilibrium or balance) of the autonomic nervous system.
Balance between the activity of the two subsystems of the ANS — the sympathetic (fight-or-flight) and parasympathetic (calming) nervous systems — improves blood flow throughout the body and reduces inflammation, muscle tension, spinal cord wind-up (sensitization) and pain.