Arthritis is a relatively common condition in dogs, as the joints gradually wear out over the course of a lifetime. It can be painful and debilitating, but the good news is that there are ways to ensure your pet maintains good quality of life in spite of the disease, especially if it’s diagnosed at an early stage. Here are the key facts you need to know about identifying and treating arthritis in your dog.
Which dogs get arthritis?
Any dog can develop arthritis, especially in older age (after many years of play and adventure!). However, certain breeds appear to be more likely to suffer from this condition. In particular, large dogs like Great Danes and mastiffs are more commonly diagnosed than smaller breeds. Weight can also play a role, so if you work to keep your young and healthy dog in good shape then you’ll help to preserve his joints and reduce the chances of a diagnosis in later life. It’s also important to be aware that arthritis can develop after trauma or joint infection, though aging is by far the most frequently identified cause.
Most owners first notice the warning signs of arthritis when their dog starts to struggling with activities that used to be easy or enjoyable. For example, you might find your dog slowly and carefully walking up the stairs instead of running, or he might no longer be keen to fetch a ball or seem able hop up into the back seat of your car. You may even find that tenderness or pain causes him to flinch or pull back if you touch him in a particular place. Meanwhile, behavioral changes (such as tiredness or irritability) can also be seen as a result of pain and stiffness, though these signs alone are hardly conclusive of arthritis and may be caused by a huge range of different canine health problems. In some cases, the first sign of arthritis might be outright lameness–your dog might hold one front leg up, or seem to wobble on one of his back legs.
If you notice these changes, see your vet as soon as possible, and cut back on physical activity while you wait. However, once you receive a diagnosis, keeping your dog active (without causing pain) is actually a key part of managing the condition.
If your dog is overweight, your vet will likely suggest that the main symptoms of arthritis could be improved by shedding that excess weight and therefore placing less stress on the damaged joints. It’s also worth noting that carrying extra fat may be associated with higher levels of inflammation in joints. A calorie-controlled diet and gentle exercise can slowly but steadily ensure your dog is in good shape to fight the disease.
Meanwhile, it’s great if you can work with your dog to build his physical strength, improving his body condition. When the muscles become stronger and start functioning more effectively, these changes afford some joint protection. Low-impact activities like walking and swimming can also help to maintain mobility and reduce joint stiffness. Swimming is particularly good because it provides an excellent workout while preventing the joints from bearing the dog’s full bod weight.
Your dog might be prescribed painkillers. If these painkillers are steroidal anti-inflammatories, it’s important to note that protracted use is associated with tissue degeneration, live problems and gastric upset. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatories are also to be used with caution and only after a thorough blood workup, as they frequently cause serious side effects like organ failure and seizures. However, dogs who don’t develop side effects may experience significant pain relief and enjoy dramatically increased mobility.
One alternative to anti-inflammatory drugs is the opioid painkiller tramadol, which generally causes only very mild side effects (such as slight sedation and an increased need for water to compensate for potential constipation).
Some vets will also recommend shots of PSGAG (polysufated glycosaminoglycan), which provides your dog with materials that the body can use to repair damaged tissues. This treatment (often marketed under the brand name of Adequan) may be effective and has received many positive reviews, but not all owners will be able to afford the cost associated with continued shots.
If your dog has arthritis in the neck or spine, you can reduce strain by putting the food and water bowls on a low table. In addition, there are special diets that are designed to promote joint health and may help to improve an arthritic dog’s condition. For example, some contain anti-inflammatory fish oils, and others are a source of glucosamine, which may work to slow the progression of arthritis. Glucosamine is also available in supplement form, but always check with your vet before adding any supplement to your pet’s diet. The appropriateness of supplements and doses can depend on your dog’s breed, weight and other medications.
Just like arthritic humans, arthritic dogs can benefit from physical therapy programs. If your vet doesn’t have a physical therapist in the practice, they may nonetheless be able to provide you with a recommendation. A fascinating range of physical therapy treatments, ranging from ultrasound therapy to underwater treadmill use. Some dogs also seem to benefit from massages, which help to boost circulation to muscles that may be atrophying, and your dog’s physical therapist may be able to teach you techniques to use at home.
Finally, surgical options are also available and may be suggested in extreme cases of arthritis. Some vets will perform an arthroscopy–this is a minimally invasive procedure that allows joint damage assessment and facilitates joint repair measures.
In addition, joint replacement is a possibility, with elbow and hip replacements being the most common surgical procedures performed on dogs with arthritis. These require open surgery, and are expensive procedures that require several months of recovery. However, after the recovery period, there is more than a 90% chance that your pet will no longer display the previously familiar symptoms of joint damage and pain.