Arthritis and joint problems develop slowly, making it easy to miss the early symptoms. Unfortunately your dog's natural lust for life makes it even harder, because they love being active and will continue to walk, run and play despite being in pain.
Our Dogs Can’t Tell Us When Something’s Wrong!
It’s up to us to spot the symptoms:
- Stiffness, particularly when getting up from rest?
- Appears reluctant to walk, jump or play?
- Sleeping and resting more?
- Lagging behind on walks?
- Taking longer to settle?
- Licking or chewing a particular joint?
- Limping or protecting certain joints?
It’s easy to assume these symptoms are the normal signs of ageing, but that risks causing more damage to your dog’s joints.
As soon as you notice any of these symptoms in your dog, it’s time to get your veterinarian to evaluate your dog’s joints.
If your dog has any of the following risk factors, then we recommend asking your veterinarian to examine your dog’s joints once a year.
- aged 7+
- belongs to a breed prone to joint problems (link to blog post)
- had a joint infection
- had a ligament, tendon or muscle injury
- suffered a dislocation, trauma or fracture involving a joint
Always involve your veterinarian as soon as possible.
As James Cook DVM PhD, the director of the Comparative Orthopedic Laboratory at the University of Missouri-Columbia states:
"Have your veterinarian evaluate your dog’s joints at least every year to see what’s going on. A lot of these things we can prevent from becoming a big problem if we catch it early enough. We can work on strengthening the body and avoid surgery altogether".
How Are Dogs Diagnosed With Arthritis?
Your veterinarian will examine your dog’s joints looking for signs of pain as they test joint flexion and extension.
They usually suggest x-rays to confirm their diagnosis, and to better understand the extent of arthritic damage.
If they suspect a joint infection they may recommend taking a fluid sample from inside the joint.
Some medical conditions, for example Lyme disease, cause swelling in the joints. Your veterinarian will need to take a blood sample to discover if this is the reason for your dog’s joint discomfort.
Can Arthritis Be Cured?
Unfortunately dogs that suffer with deterioration of their joint cartilage, need life-long treatment.
The good news is that a lot can be done to relieve the painful symptoms and help to prevent further damage.
Treatment plans vary depending on the severity of the joint damage. Many dogs can lead full and active lives with changes to their diet, supplement intake and exercise.
Others may need long-term medication to manage the pain caused by joint damage.
In severe cases, veterinarians may recommend surgery. However they recognize the high cost of surgery and can usually suggest alternatives.
Veterinarians will agree a plan for each individual dog, usually involving a combination of the following:
52.6% of US dogs are overweight or obese according to a study carried out by the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention.
Overweight dogs suffer from joint problems at an earlier age. Their extra weight increases the stress on their joints, accelerating their decline and causing more intense pain.
Veterinarians know that dogs at the correct body weight live longer and significantly delay the onset and severity of aged related conditions, particularly osteoarthritis. If your dog is overweight your veterinarian will recommend a diet plan.
Dogs suffering with joint problems should follow an exercise plan agreed upon with their vet. The plan will aim to protect the joints from further damage, but also maintain muscle mass and joint elasticity.
Veterinarians encourage activities like swimming and hill walking that help strengthen the joints and hips. At the same time they will seek to limit activities like running and rough play that cause pain. This isn’t about stopping all the activities your dog loves, but sensibly moderating them to minimize the damage and pain they cause. Your veterinarian will recommend the best exercise plan for you to follow with your dog.
Senior dogs should remain active. It helps to prevent weight gain, keeps their heart healthy and stimulates their immune system. Regular exercise maintains their flexibility and muscle tone, which is essential to support healthy joints.
Most veterinarians recommend nutritional supplementation for dogs with osteoarthritis and joint problems. They also encourage the pre-emptive use of supplements in breeds that are more likely to develop joint disorders.
Two supplements are particularly effective:
1. Glucosamine and Chondroitin
Glucosamine and Chondroitin supplements have become the most popular for treating both humans and pets suffering with arthritis and joint pain. Their popularity is due to their overwhelming success in naturally relieving the painful symptoms and improving mobility.
A healthy dog's joints are protected by cartilage which acts like a cushion between the bones in a joint. Dogs' joints take a pounding as they run, jump and play and their cartilage constantly needs to be repaired and replaced. Glucosamine and Chondroitin are essential building blocks for healthy cartilage.
Dogs make Glucosamine and chondroitin naturally, but as they get older they produce less and their cartilage begins to wear out faster than it is replaced. It becomes thinner, giving less protection as the bones move in a joint. Further wear or damage to the cartilage causes the bones to begin to rub against each other resulting in inflammation and pain.
Glucosamine supplements give dogs the extra cartilage they need to maintain healthy joints. The best glucosamine supplements have additional ingredients like Chondroitin Sulfate, Methylsulfonylmethane (MSM) and Hyaluronic Acid. These multiply the benefits of glucosamine.
2. Omega Fatty Acids
More than 27,000 published studies have shown omega-rich fish oil to have an almost miraculous range of benefits for dogs (and their owners!).
The Omega-3 fatty acid, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), is a proven natural anti-inflammatory, which relieves the painful swelling caused by arthritis.
Many large veterinary practices employ certified rehabilitationists, who deliver an almost bewildering range of therapies for dogs who have suffered injury or disease affecting the muscles, bones, ligaments, or tendons of the body.
Discuss these scientifically based programs with your veterinarian to see which may benefit your dog.
The therapies include:
- Chiropractic Treatments
- Therapeutic Exercises
- Passive Range of Motion Exercises
Dr McCoy from Star Trek would be impressed with the technology veterinarians may use to help their patients recovery:
- Therapeutic ultrasound
- Neuromuscular electronic stimulation
- Transcutaneous neuromuscular stimulation
- Laser therapy
- Heat or cold therapy
- Magnetic Field Therapy
- Pulsed Signal Therapy
Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID) medications like Rimadyl, Deramaxx and Metacam can help to maintain a dog’s quality of life. They have a bad reputation because they can have serious side effects, but in prescribing them your veterinarian will carefully evaluate the benefits and risks. They will often recommend blood work before and during their use to check for liver or kidney disorders.
They will alert you to watch for side effects like stomach upsets, vomiting, diarrhea, difficulty swallowing and increased drinking and urination.
Sometimes they may recommend the use of other medications like the synthetic opioid painkiller, tramadol (Ultram), joint protective agents (Adequan) or intra-articular cortisone injections.
Veterinarians only consider surgical procedures for severe arthritis and conditions like hip dysplasia when the medical management options fail to maintain a dog’s quality of life.
Surgery can involve minimally invasive procedures, such as arthroscopic repairs, cartilage grafts, or intensive (and expensive) surgeries to replace elbows and hips.
With overweight and elderly dogs it’s important for veterinarians to discuss the risks of surgery, an assessment of the outcome and the recovery period.