Otis was our big-hearted sleuth, whom we loved very much. He had an active life playing with our three other dogs and taking long walks every morning and evening with us. But when he was 8 years old, his way of life changed completely. He suffered a knee injury that required surgery, and he later developed osteoarthritis due to this injury.
As faculty members of the Mississippi State University College of Veterinary Medicine, we see approximately 100 dogs and cats at our hospital daily. Our job is to diagnose and treat the medical conditions of these animals and, if necessary, to operate on patients whose condition is serious.
Like Otis, many of our patients suffer from canine osteoarthritis – the most common orthopedic disorder we see in our clinic. More than 20% of dogs over one year old in North America are affected by osteoarthritis. Common activities like taking long walks, running, and playing often become more difficult for dogs with this condition.
How do you know if your dog has osteoarthritis?
Common signs of canine osteoarthritis include stiffness after resting, difficulty getting up, limping, or avoiding the use of one leg. Arthritic dogs may also be less active or reluctant to use stairs or get in or out of a vehicle. For pets with arthritis, just walking around or playing in the yard can lead to joint pain and muscle pain.
As in humans, arthritis is a degenerative process defined as inflammation of a joint. It can occur in young and old dogs, although it is more common as dogs get older. Sometimes, as in the case of Otis, arthritis develops following an injury. It can impact all components of the joint, but cartilage – the connective tissue covering the bones where a joint forms – is most affected.
Unfortunately, canine arthritis cannot be cured. Instead, the goal of treating arthritis in dogs is to reduce inflammation and increase comfort to improve a dog’s quality of life, regardless of age.
What causes arthritis in pets?
Arthritis develops in pets due to age-related changes in the joint similar to those that occur in humans. Very active pets can be prone to minor injuries which can then develop into arthritic joints as they age.
Other pets may be born with an inherited problem that develops into arthritis as they age. Certain breeds, including German Shepherds, Golden Retrievers, and Rottweilers, may be more prone to developing arthritis due to a condition like hip dysplasia, which causes loose hip joints.
When arthritis is suspected, a veterinarian can confirm it, often with x-rays of the affected joint. Once diagnosed, a veterinarian will suggest a treatment plan for each patient.
Veterinarians generally prefer non-surgical treatment. Although surgical options exist, including joint replacement, most dogs can be successfully managed with a combination of approaches including weight management, exercise, joint supplements, prescription anti-inflammatory medications – or NSAIDs – and physical therapy.
Here’s how each of these helps dogs with arthritis stay healthy and active.
Weight management is an essential aspect of managing arthritis in pets. When an animal is less physically active, it may lose muscle mass and gain weight as body fat. Associated with arthritis, this reduction in muscle tone and increased weight puts additional pressure on already painful joints.
Reducing a few treats and carefully monitoring calorie intake will go a long way in helping your dog shed a few pounds and reduce discomfort. As with humans, weight loss does not happen overnight. Ask your veterinarian for advice.
Exercise is another important aspect of maintaining healthy joints and weight control. Low-impact exercises such as leash walks, swimming, and light running are helpful as long as your dog doesn’t overdo it.
How will you know how much movement is too much? In general, walks and jogs should be of such a distance, duration or intensity that your dog will come home from this activity still feeling comfortable. This means that if your furry friend leads you at the start of your walk, they should still be able to stay ahead of you at the end of the walk.
If your pet is walking behind you as you approach the house, it may be because he is starting to feel tired and his joints hurt. It’s important to monitor the signals dogs send to their humans so owners know when to reduce the length or intensity of a walk or run.
It is possible to exaggerate the activity of an arthritic animal and cause discomfort. Just as we may not want to return to the gym the day after a hard workout, a pet may not be ready to exercise right away either. Rest is the best cure for muscle pain. A good day or two of rest, sometimes even longer for an arthritic animal, may be needed between periods of intense exercise. The key to knowing if your pet is ready to go again is if he can get up easily from a resting position and doesn’t seem sluggish or painful.
Just like in humans, joint supplements are available for pets with arthritis. These products, such as glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate, provide nutrients and building blocks for healthy joint function. Essential fatty acids, like those found in fish oils for dogs, may also help prevent certain inflammation in pets with arthritis. Some owners forgo joint supplements because they don’t immediately see dramatic improvement in their pets. However, these products work internally, just like the multivitamins people take, and their benefits can be gradual and subtle.
Other treatments such as polysulfated glycosaminoglycan injections, also known as Adequan, can be used to prevent further worsening of osteoarthritis early in the disease course.
Anti-inflammatory medications may be prescribed by a veterinarian when a dog is experiencing significant joint pain due to chronic inflammation. These medications are effective in reducing discomfort, but may have negative side effects, such as kidney or liver damage, which may limit long-term use. However, they can effectively provide comfort to a patient as long as a veterinarian carefully supervises their use.
Rehabilitation or physiotherapy
Canine rehabilitation and physiotherapy specialists work with dogs with arthritis or poor body condition to improve limb function, rebuild muscle and help with weight management. Specific exercises for arthritic animals, such as small jumps called “cavaletti”, can be adapted to improve limb movement while providing comfort. Helping an arthritic dog move better will allow him to exercise more and improve his muscle tone while helping him lose weight.
Healthy Joints, Happy Pets
Helping older or arthritic pets keep their joints healthy and their bodies in good shape can help them enjoy walks and playtime throughout their lives. Even pets with advanced arthritis can maintain a good quality of life and stay active with the help of a veterinarian and a good treatment plan.
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Unfortunately, we lost Otis a few years ago when he was 11 years old. But for three years after her surgery, we were able to manage her arthritis and keep her comfortable with a combination of weight management, exercise, NSAIDs, essential fatty acids, and joint supplements. He was able to resume the activities he loved and play with our three other dogs. It warmed our hearts to see his quality of life return to a happy and healthy life for his final years.