Did you know that dogs won’t always limp or yelp if they have joint pain? Sometimes, it can be tough to pinpoint exactly what’s up with your pup, but you know they are not quite themselves. Joint pain can be caused by several different conditions, one of which is “osteoarthritis.” Let’s look at the possible reasons for joint discomfort, diagnosis, and treatment options to comfort your arthritic dog in the short and long term.
What Is Osteoarthritis?
Osteoarthritis (or OA) is not the only type of arthritis but is the most common type that dogs suffer from, affecting as many as 20% of dogs over one year of age, with this prevalence increasing as your dog ages.
Osteoarthritis is the medical term for degenerative wear and tear of the cartilage within the joints between the bones. Osteo- represents the medical term for bones, and arthritis is the medical term for joint inflammation. Cartilage is the protective structure that cushions our bone surfaces, allowing the bones to move comfortably past one another. As the cartilage begins to wear and become damaged, the bones no longer pass smoothly over each other, causing pain, further damage to the joint space, and even generating new bony pieces that can further increase discomfort.
What Causes Arthritis In Dogs?
OA in dogs often has an underlying cause, such as being born with hip, elbow, or knee cap issues, rupture of ligaments in the knee joint, hereditary problems with cartilage, or injuries to the joints. Other risk factors include being overweight, male gender, insufficient exercise, and poor diet.
What Are The Symptoms Of Arthritis In Dogs?
These signs can be very subtle or mistakenly attributed to old age in dogs. Here are some of the examples of symptoms your dog may be exhibiting:
- Stiffness when rising after lying down
- Slowing down on walks
- Sleeping more than expected or restlessness while sleeping
- Not as playful as usual
- Difficulty getting upstairs, onto the sofa, or into the car
- Reluctance or apparent fear when walking on slippery or tiled surfaces
- Stiff movement
- Male dogs may no longer lift their leg when peeing.
- Change in texture of poop, reduced frequency of going poop, or increased episodes of constipation (because it becomes painful to go, leading them to hold out for as long as possible).
- Accidents (pee or poop) in the house
- Becoming more grumpy or less interactive than usual
It is essential to note that dogs rarely yelp or cry out in pain, so pet parents are often surprised to learn their furry company has been sore when they see their veterinarian.
How Does A Veterinarian Diagnose Arthritis In Dogs?
If your veterinarian suspects OA based on your pet’s clinical signs, they will start the diagnostic investigations with a thorough physical examination. They will carefully feel and move all your pet’s limbs. Joints affected by OA are often thicker than usual, and the muscles that lie over the joint may be reduced in size – termed “atrophied” or wasted.
Your veterinarian is likely to recommend taking some X-rays of your pet’s affected limb(s). This is to rule out other possible causes of your pet’s signs, such as joint infections, immune system disorders, or cancers. Like with people, more advanced imaging, such as a CT or MRI scan, might be needed. Other tests that may be required include camera studies of the affected joints to look for damaged ligaments or cartilage or joint fluid sampling and analysis.
How Can We Help Pets With Arthritis?
Sadly, OA is not a condition that is curable with medicines. It may be an option to perform surgery to repair or even replace the joint, which can cure the issue, but this isn’t always the case or can be too expensive for many pet parents. Conservative (non-surgical) treatment is about removing or reducing pain and giving your dog the best possible quality of life while living with this condition.
Therefore, the first and most important step in helping your dog with OA is building a trusting, open relationship with your veterinarian. This way, you know that you are doing everything possible to maximize your dog’s quality of life while minimizing their pain. The management of OA isn’t just with drugs. There are many lifestyle interventions and complementary therapies that can help enormously.
Keeping a diary or notebook to document things you notice or questions that crop up along the way can be constructive. Take this to your appointments to ensure you don’t miss anything you want to ask. It is also helpful to write down your veterinarian’s advice in the consultation. It’s a medically documented fact that only a tiny amount of information you are told by any medical professional stays with you after your appointment, so taking notes will help jog your memory when you are home. Your veterinary clinic will likely have a fact sheet with the advice they can give you.
Medications & Supplements
In the early stages of OA, your veterinarian may recommend a joint supplement like Cosequin to help your dog’s joint health. Many different products on the market have varying efficacy, but your veterinarian can advise on one that has shown promising results in clinical studies.
However, as the disease progresses, your dog will need to start on some pain relief medication. The mainstay of therapy is a class of drugs called “Non-steroidal Anti-inflammatories,” or NSAIDs. These are in the same class as our ibuprofen. Notably, you should never give ibuprofen to dogs as it is toxic. NSAIDs leave the system via the kidneys, so blood and urine tests to provide a baseline of kidney function are recommended before starting on them long-term. These usually must be repeated every 3-6 months to check if the kidneys are coping well.
As OA progresses, NSAID drugs and joint supplements may not be enough to keep your pet comfortable. Your veterinarian can add additional medications, one at a time to keep the discomfort in check.
Physiotherapy & Hydrotherapy
Dogs with joint disease can benefit hugely from visiting a licensed canine physiotherapist who can tailor specific exercises to improve joint mobility and muscle strength. There is also a massive benefit of swimming therapy (hydrotherapy) to improve joint mobility. Your veterinarian can recommend a suitably qualified individual and nearby hydrotherapy facilities.
Acupuncture is growing in popularity, and there is increasing evidence supporting its efficacy in managing chronic pain. Only a qualified veterinary surgeon should undertake acupuncture as it risks causing damage to vital nerves and tissues with incorrect needle placement.
Supportive Care & Lifestyle Changes
An essential and often overlooked part of managing dogs suffering from joint disease is weight loss. Many dogs are overweight, and a controlled diet is vital to get your pet to a healthy body weight. Your veterinary clinic will be able to help advise you on a safe way to help your pet’s diet. If your pet is a healthy weight and has osteoarthritis, you must maintain this healthy weight. Dogs may be less active with OA, meaning you need to feed your dog less and be very cautious with treats to prevent weight gain.
Gentle regular exercise is best for pets with OA. High-impact exercises such as intense running or jumping can worsen the condition. Providing a comfortable orthopedic bed, non-slip flooring, and ramp access to cars or upstairs can hugely benefit affected dogs. Your veterinarian can provide you with comprehensive, tailored lifestyle recommendations for your dog.
Your veterinarian may advise injecting medications directly into the joint to help alleviate discomfort on a case-by-case basis.
Depending on the joint affected, how severe the disease is, and why the OA is developing, your veterinarian may recommend surgery to improve joint comfort. The types of surgery can include repair procedures to strengthen joint stability after ligament damage, removal of bits of the joint, fusion of the joint, or even total joint replacements. These are advanced procedures, and your veterinarian may need to refer you to a specialist “orthopedic” veterinarian (one specializing in bones and joints). This option is always available to you should you want a specialist opinion on your pet’s joint condition.
Keep A Mood Diary
I have already mentioned keeping notes on how your pet is daily at home, but an additional recommendation I make to all my clients with a chronically ill pet is to jot down their favorite things to do. This varies from dog to dog, but chasing a ball (or rabbit), swimming, going for hikes, or trips in the car. You get the idea.
As OA reaches its more severe stages (which can take years, and some dogs may never reach this point due to old age), having a record of whether your dog can still do these things and the proportion of good versus bad days in a diary or calendar can help you guide you and your vet in terms of treatment choices and treatment success.
Sadly, osteoarthritis is a progressive condition. This means that even with perfect conservative management, the disease will get worse. Surgery can be curative, and recovery from the various surgical procedures is usually very good. However, surgery isn’t an option in every case. With early, proactive, and dedicated conservative management, dogs with this condition can have an excellent quality of life for a long time, and the progression of the disease can be delayed.
Suppose you are worried your canine companion has slowed up a little lately. In that case, it is never the wrong thing to organize a consultation with your veterinarian, who can provide you with advice tailored to your dog to get that spring back in her step.