Which dogs are at risk of canine osteoarthritis?
A chronic, degenerative joint disease that makes movement difficult and painful, osteoarthritis mainly strikes dogs in their middle and senior years. However, younger animals can also be affected. In fact, studies show that approximately 20% of dogs have the condition in some form and, even though they are less prone, cats can also suffer from it.
It can be heart-breaking to see your once lively, always active best friend begin to limp, or notice his or her obvious pain or stiffness when moving around. There is no cure for osteoarthritis. However, if it is treated promptly, there is a great deal that you and your veterinary surgeon can do to decrease your pet's discomfort and increase his or her mobility.
What are the early warning signs of osteoarthritis in dogs?
- An overall decrease in activity, especially play
- Difficulty in walking and climbing stairs
- Resting more than usual
- Reluctance to jump onto the sofa or into the car
- Slowness in getting up from a lying position
- Dogs that "bunny hop" with the hind legs, rather than running normally
- Slow or stiff movements upon waking, after a rest, or in cold weather which improves with continued movement
- Beginning to limp
- Swollen joint(s) that is/are warm to the touch and have a limited or painful range of movement
- Licking at a joint
If you notice any of the signs above, don't just think that your pet is "slowing down with age". Take him or her to see your vet. The faster osteoarthritis is first diagnosed and treated, the better your pet's quality of life will be.
What causes osteoarthritis?
1. Abnormal stress on normal joints
- An injury that damages a joint
- "Wear and tear" where joints are subjected to repeated loads or stress
- Obesity: an excessive load is put on joints
2. Normal stress on abnormal joints
- Developmental defects that alter the shape or stability of a joint
- Poor limb configuration: bow legs or knock knees can cause an uneven load on a joint
- Genetic predisposition: some breeds of dogs are just more prone to osteoarthritis than others
Hip dysplasia is as example where normal stresses are placed on an abnormal joint. Whatever the specific cause, stress on a joint can begin a destructive cycle of inflammation of the joint area and damage to the cartilage that leads to pain for your pet. Some breeds are more predisposed to this condition than others, for example the German Shepherd dog and Labrador.
What is the treatment for osteoarthritis in dogs?
- Weight control: Dogs that suffer from chronic pain caused by conditions like osteoarthritis often become inactive, which can result in obesity. Controlling your pet's weight will lighten the load on arthritic joints. Just as for humans, weight loss for animals involves both a well-balanced, calorie-reduced diet and regular exercise. Ask your veterinary surgeon for advice on the proper diet for your dog or contact Jo Waldron for a diet clinic appointment.
- Exercise: Exercise is essential because it contributes to strengthening the muscles that support joints. Daily moderate amounts of low-impact exercise also improves joint mobility and can help get a lethargic, arthritic pet active again. Dogs will benefit from such activities as walking and swimming. Consult your veterinary surgeon about what amount and type of exercise would be best for your pet. Also, be aware that your dog osteoarthritic pain may be more severe at certain times than others. If this is the case, let your pet take a break from his or her exercise routine for a few days, until the painful flare-up subsides.
- Anti-inflammatory drugs: These combat inflammation in the joints, thus relieving pain, and increasing mobility. As joint pain may vary according to the amount of exercise, the weather or other unknown factors, your veterinary surgeon may prescribe anti-inflammatory medication such as NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) as treatment. Newer NSAID drugs are proving to be especially effective in reducing inflammation and pain to improve mobility without the significant side effects - including gastrointestinal problems - previously associated with NSAID use. Ask your veterinary surgeon for more information. Never be tempted to medicate your dog with human painkillers.
- Physical therapy: In addition to the above, your veterinary surgeon may also suggest physical therapy: cold or hot packs and baths; massage; hydrotherapy or acupuncture as well as glucosamine/chondroitin and omega 3 and 6 diet supplements as an aid to maintaining joint health. Thick and supportive bedding in a warm environment helps to alleviate the pain and stiffness associated with arthritis. In occasional cases surgery may also be considered to be indicated to achieve the best outcome.
How will osteoarthritis affect my dog?
Osteoarthritis may progress very slowly (over several years) or very quickly (you might notice a major change in just a few weeks or months). It all depends on your pet's age, his or her activity level, the joints involved and the underlying cause. Some pets' pain and loss of mobility can be kept to a minimum for long periods of time with a simple regimen of weight control, regular exercise and the occasional use of anti-inflammatory drugs if flare-ups occur.
For others, severe damage to the joints may occur rapidly and require long-term medication and other therapy. In either case, your veterinary surgeon can determine the best course of treatment for your pet's particular condition.
There is no reason why, with your loving attention and committed care, as well as your veterinary surgeon's guidance, your osteoarthritic pet cannot have a happy, healthy and comfortable life for many years to come.