Arthritis is a common problem caused by cartilage breakdown in joints, resulting in the inflammation of joints, especially in older dogs. The cartilage acts as a cushion and as a smooth surface for the joining bones to move freely. When this layer breaks down the bones start touching and this causes pain. There is also fluid in the joints, synovial fluid, which helps with joint lubrication. This fluid is also lost with cartilage breakdown.
Younger dogs may also suffer from arthritis. It is common for large breed dogs suffering from joint problems, for example hip and elbow dysplasia, to develop arthritis earlier rather than later in their life, depending on the severity of the joint problem. Large breed puppies must be fed a balanced, good quality large-breed puppy diet to ensure controlled growth and to reduce the risk of developing joint problems. However, genetics sometimes also plays a role in causing joint problems, especially with poor breeding practices. Too much exercise, while larger breed puppies are growing, can also put too much stress on their joints and this can cause problems.
Other causes of arthritis are: infections, cancer, injury, being overweight or certain immune diseases.
Early arthritis often goes undetected as dogs often mask signs of pain by developing strong pain thresholds. It is only when the arthritis has progressed to a critical point that dogs show obvious signs of discomfort.
What are the symptoms?
- Limping: dogs may limp on one or more legs or perhaps lift a leg up. Often, this sign is first noticeable when they get up after lying down or sleeping, then the limp improves as they move around. It can also be worse during cold weather.
- Battling to get up: dogs may find it difficult to get up from sitting or lying down. They may find it challenging to get into the car when, before, it was easy. Sometimes stairs can become a test as well, up or down. Dogs may battle to squat or lift their leg when urinating or defecating.
- Muscle Wasting: This occurs as a result of dogs being inactive or less active than normal. They don’t use their muscles enough so they start to atrophy (waste away). This causes the affected leg to look thinner than normal. It’s always best to compare the left and right leg to try pick up early muscle wasting. It’s often missed in the early stages.
- Tiredness: dogs may sleep or rest more, may tire easily after walks or perhaps not be able to walk as far as they normally do.
- Behaviour changes: dogs sometimes get snappy when they are sore, especially if you touch them where they are painful. Some dogs may whimper or growl. They may not direct the aggression at you but rather direct it at other dogs, especially if they try to play too rough. Some dogs may not tolerate being groomed or washed.
- Biting/Licking: Some dogs lick, chew or bite at painful joints. In severe cases, this may result in hair loss of the area and even skin wounds.
Management of Arthritis
- Weight Control: Excess weight will place a huge amount of unnecessary strain on joints, causing more inflammation and irritation of the joint. This will cause arthritic changes to progress quicker.
- Exercise: Exercise is important, in moderation. Too little leads to further muscle wasting and too much can place further strain on joints. The aim is to prevent muscle wasting as best as possible. Building muscle supports the joints and will help with managing pain.
- Environment: Warm environments are best for painful joints. Try encouraging your dogs to sleep on a warm blanket and bed rather than a cold, hard floor. There are good orthopaedic beds for dogs, which contain memory foam. They offer good support while sleeping.
- Supplements: There are many supplements available to protect joints and slow down the progression of arthritis. Joint supplements contain glucosamine, chondroitin sulphate and some contain greenlipped muscle extract. These should be given throughout your dog’s life and may reduce the amount of pain medication your dog needs to feel comfortable. An alternative to supplements are prescription joint diets which contain these additive ingredients.
- Veterinary care: Once your veterinarian has confirmed the diagnosis of arthritis, different medication can be prescribed. There are dog specific, antiinflammatory medications which can help with managing pain. Please only use these as prescribed. Your dog may require a blood panel to check his/her kidneys and liver, especially if on a chronic prescription. This is to ensure the health of your pet. There are also other painrelieving drugs your veterinarian may prescribe your dog: every case is treated individually. It is best to work closely with your veterinarian so the pain can be managed effectively. It is important not to give human medication to your dogs as they can often be harmful to the kidneys and stomach lining.
Your veterinarian may recommend physiotherapy for your dog to strengthen muscles and to demonstrate what good, controlled exercises can be done at home with your dog.
Surgery may also be indicated, depending on what is causing the arthritis. This may help alleviate the pain in the long run.
Arthritis does not mean your dog will have to suffer pain for the rest of his/her life. If managed and controlled correctly, your dog can be pain free and live a high quality life.