Canine Arthritis Management: Spotting the Signs and Offering Relief
Many of us start to suffer from joint pain as we get older, particularly in cold, damp weather, and our furry friends are no different. As pets have longer lifespans these days, compared to as little as 20 years ago thanks to better nutrition and veterinary care, signs of old-age conditions such as arthritis as seen more frequently, and it is important to recognise the signs early on, as the sooner treatment can be initiated, the less discomfort your pet will feel.
Although this blog concentrates on canine arthritis, many of the points are also applicable to other small creatures such as cats and rabbits, although licensed medications do vary from species to species.
What is canine arthritis?
Osteoarthritis (OA) is the most common cause of chronic pain in dogs affecting 80% of dogs over 8 years of age, and up to 35% in dogs of all ages. Whilst mostly affecting older dogs, it can occur in dogs of any age due to developmental joint disease which results in joints which don’t fit together as they should. This inevitably leads to premature degenerative changes of those joints, progressing to arthritis in the form of painful, swollen and abnormal joints with a limited range of movement.
The simple definition of arthritis is “inflammation of the joints” but this is rather over-simplifying things. Cartilage within the joints is worn down or destroyed and the inner lining of the joint capsule becomes inflamed, whilst the outer, more fibrous layer, becomes thickened and restrictive. The joint fluid (providing lubrication in the joint to help movement) becomes less viscous, and hence normal joint motion is affected.
The body reacts by producing new bone around the margins of the affected joint and the bone underlying the cartilage in the joints remodels and loses its ability to absorb “shock” forces (think of it as a shock absorber). The supportive structures such as ligaments weaken, leaving the joint weak and unstable.
During the degenerative process described above, nerve receptors in the bone and joints convey messages of inflammation and tissue damage to the brain and left untreated, the disease process will eventually arrive at a stage whereby the brain becomes increasingly aware of the pain signals coming from the affected joints and magnifies them, so what initially felt like a low-level of pain is now causing the animal much more discomfort.
There are types of arthritis other than OA, such as immune-mediated arthritis and septic arthritis, but this blog shall concentrate on OA as this is the most prevalent form seen in our pets.
Video overview: How To Recognise And Manage Arthritis In Your Pets
The PDSA has put together a helpful video to outline how to recognise arthritis or osteoarthritis in your pets and how it can best be managed to alleviate the pain. You can watch it below:
What are the signs of Canine Osteoarthritis?
Arthritis is a progressive disease meaning that symptoms gradually develop and worsen over time. In the early stages, you may notice that your dog is reluctant to climb stairs, is slow to get up after lying down or not so keen to go out for “walkies”.
Other signs include:
A stiff gait - usually worse after lying down or after exercise
Limping or lameness
groaning/ unable to get comfortable
Licking or chewing at particular joints of the body
Weight loss (due to a decreased ability to exercise, there may well be some muscle loss)
If any of the above signs are noticed, a check-up with a vet is a good idea to try and identify the source of the problem, and therefore what we can do to help it.
How is Canine Arthritis diagnosed?
Your vet may be able to diagnose OA by taking a thorough history of your dog, including any progression of clinical signs, followed by a hands-on examination, paying particular attention to your dog’s joints and identifying any swelling, pain, or reduced range of motion of those joints.
In younger dogs, x-rays or scans are usually recommended to identify the nature of the arthritis and to determine whether any corrective surgery may help.
Day-to-day management of Canine Arthritis
Weight control is very important - the heavier a dog is, the more stress is placed on the joints, making inflammation and therefore pain, worse
Exercise should be regular but adjusted depending on the dog’s physical abilities. “Little and often” can be better for them rather than one long walk a day as this allows the joints to rest in between walks. Walking on low-impact surfaces such as grass puts less strain on the joints than hard-impact surfaces such as pavements, and swimming can be great as a low-impact exercise, which allows the muscles to be used in a protective, buoyant atmosphere. This can also help to minimise muscle loss, which in turn, will help to support those failing joints.
Environmental Modifications- simple changes can make a big difference. Consider a well-padded, orthopaedic bed, and ramps to get into cars or up onto the sofa (if allowed!).
Medication- Your vet may prescribe anti-inflammatories or pain killers which tend to be dosed daily, and many of them come in either an oral solution, or palatable tablet form, and so are pretty easy to use. Licensed drugs of this type are legally classified as POM-V, meaning that they can only be obtained with a prescription from your vet. Recent advances in the treatment of Canine OA include the use of Monoclonal Antibody injections, which are given by your vet once monthly and can work very well.
Supplements - Joint supplements containing glucosamine, chondroitin and green-lipped mussel have all been shown to be a useful addition to the treatment of canine OA, particularly when used in combination with specific anti-inflammatories/pain killers. There are also specific diets available containing these additives, to make dosing them easier.
Alternative therapies- may help, such as acupuncture, hydrotherapy, laser therapy, physiotherapy
Surgery- Surgery may be advised in some cases, particularly where there is arthritic change in a young dog. Stem Cell Therapies are also being looked at and are starting to become more available.
Can Canine Arthritis be prevented?
OA is a condition of old age and therefore cannot be prevented totally, but ensuring your dog remains at his or her ideal weight throughout their life, will help greatly, as will a good amount of exercise daily to keep muscle strength and fitness up, and a decent, well-balanced diet.
When considering the sorts of arthritis seen in much younger dogs, as a result of hip dysplasia, for example, good breeding is the key here….if you are thinking about getting a new puppy, try to source one from a reputable breeder, who has had their dogs hip and elbow-scored as owners should only be breeding from dogs with good scores, thus helping to minimise the risk of having a puppy with genetic orthopaedic problems.
What is the prognosis for my dog with arthritis?
The sooner the condition is identified and treated, the better the prognosis - not only in terms of lifespan but in terms of quality of life as we do not want our animals to be suffering or in discomfort.
We also need to be mindful of our dog’s condition and make adjustments as necessary in terms of providing ramps, or multiple shorter walks a day, etc.
Inevitably, there will come a time when as the condition progresses, we may be unable to keep the dog comfortable, as they may stop responding to medication. As the dog’s quality of life would be much reduced at this point, euthanasia may have to be considered.