There’s a new study out on moose arthritis and nutrition. Researchers from Michigan have discovered a window into the potential connection between moose and other species when it comes to degenerative joint disease.

Turns out, poorly nourished moose seem to be be suffering increased rates of arthritis. Interesting, right?

It may sound like an odd, arcane thing to study — moose nutrition isn’t exactly a hotbed of academic interest — but somehow, I find that this is the kind of research that rocks my world!

After all, animals are excellent sentinels for all kinds of disease conditions. This, I internalized in my fourth year of veterinary school during an epidemiology rotation at the CDC (in which some cancers and respiratory diseases were first ID’d in pets before their nearby human counterparts). So is it any wonder that I gravitate to this vein of study?

So it was that when this article from Tuesday’s New York Times landed in my inbox, I knew I’d be addressing it in short order. Here’s an excerpt with the lowdown:

In the 100 years since the first moose swam into Lake Superior and set up shop on an island, they have mostly minded their moosely business, munching balsam fir and trying to evade hungry gray wolves.

But now the moose of Isle Royale have something to say — well, their bones do. Many of the moose, it turns out, have arthritis. And scientists believe their condition’s origin can help explain human osteoarthritis — by far the most common type of arthritis, affecting one of every seven adults 25 and older and becoming increasingly prevalent.

The arthritic Bullwinkles got that way because of poor nutrition early in life, an extraordinary 50-year research project has discovered. That could mean, scientists say, that some people’s arthritis can be linked in part to nutritional deficits, in the womb and possibly throughout childhood.

Now, to my veterinary way of seeing things, moose, humans, and our pets are pretty darn similar in how we/they respond orthopedically/developmentally to environmental manipulation. It stands to reason that moose whose sub-par nutrition has led to arthritis offer interesting clues into veterinary nutrition. In light of this kind of research, it’s a no-brainer that how we feed ourselves and our pets — especially early on — almost certainly affects our/their long-term comfort and orthopedic longevity. Again, from the Times:

Osteoarthritis’s exact cause remains unknown, but it is generally thought to stem from aging and wear and tear on joints, exacerbated for some by genes. Overweight or obese people have a greater arthritis risk, usually attributed to the load their joints carry, and the number of cases is increasing as people live longer and weigh more.

But the moose work, along with some human research, suggests that the origins of arthritis are more complex, probably influenced by early exposures to nutrients and other factors while our bodies are developing. Even obesity’s link to arthritis probably goes beyond extra pounds, experts say, to include the impact on the body of eating the wrong things.

Nutrients, experts say, might influence composition or shape of bones, joints or cartilage. Nutrition might also affect hormones, the likelihood of later inflammation or oxidative stress, even how a genetic predisposition for arthritis is expressed or suppressed.

Human and animal studies, the Times article goes on to explain, have already determined that early nutrition — in tandem with genetic predispositions — influence ideal bone and joint developement. For example:

  • Low infant birth weight in the U.K. has been linked to arthritis in men’s hands
  • Chinese adults who were in-utero during the great famine had disproportionately high rates of disability
  • An orthopedist at Cornell's College of Veterinary Medicine reports that even too much food is detrimental, as overfed pregnant mares’ babies suffered more "abnormal joint and tendon development from excessive nutrition"
  • Overfeeding has been tied to joint trouble in humans in more ways than just having excess pounds to lug around

Like the others, this study offers no smoking guns on causation, merely an additional insight into the degree to which environmental factors like nutrition undoubtedly corellate with the kind of joint pathology so common to humans and our pets.

The article’s ultimate conclusion is that "much is unknown about nutrition’s relevance," which leaves us all in the same kind of lurch we started in.

Still, can you blame me for assuming that this study recommends the obvious: to urge my clients to feed their pets the most balanced/varied/high quality diet possible — especially early on in life?

Sigh … if we only knew what that was.

Dr. Patty Khuly

Pic of the day:  "moose eats cat brain" by kennakenai