Arthritis in Dogs
WHAT IS ARTHRITIS?
Arthritis is quite a broad term but is basically a condition where joints have become chronically sore and inflamed. You might also hear people talk about osteoarthritis or degenerative joint disease, they are all forms of arthritis and they all involve joints. Dogs, like us, have lots of joints in their bodies; a place where two bones meet and move against each other but some joints are more prone to arthritis than others. The joints which tend to develop arthritis are also quite similar in people and dogs, the hips, knees and spine are often affected, and because dogs walk on four legs, elbows too.
There are many reasons why your dog might develop arthritis. Some joints are not shaped in the best or most efficient way to stand up to a lifetime of use. There might have been a problem during the adolescent growth period or a weakness in the way the bones were formed. This means that early on in life the joint won’t be able to function as well as it should and will be prone to damage and stress. Some breeds are known to have a tendency towards this problem and despite efforts to reduce breed related joint problems its not uncommon for these dogs to develop arthritis as a result of their early bone growth. Hip dysplasia, for example, is where the hip joints are poorly formed and is more commonly seen in larger breeds like Labradors, Golden Retrievers, German Shepherd Dogs, Rottweilers and Bernese Mountain Dogs.
Over a lifetime of use all joints can become worn and somewhat damaged. Dogs come in all shapes and sizes, sometimes the shape of the dog predisposes certain joints to become even more worn out. Maybe their legs are a little bit bowed or bent, maybe their proportions are a little off. Maybe they are a large breed who’s joints are carrying 40 kgs of dog. All joints will experience some wear and tear throughout life and the joints of some dogs are particularly prone. The end result of all this wear and tear will be arthritis. The bone surfaces within the joint become less smooth and the supporting tissues around the joint become inflamed and thickened.
You can try and prevent or delay the onset of arthritis by keeping your dog as fit and healthy as possible. This means, most importantly, making sure your dog is not overweight. If the legs and spine are having to carry around more weight than they are designed for then they will get worn and damaged faster. Joints also need support from strong muscles around them so keeping your dog active and well exercised will help. Since it can be hard sometimes to look at our own dogs and decide if they are carrying too much weight, it can be helpful to get your vet to assess them and tell you. Your dog’s perfect weight can only be judged on the way they, individually, look and feel.
TREATING ARTHRITIS IN DOGS
There is no cure for arthritis. Once joints have become physically changed this cannot be reversed. But arthritis is not, in itself, a life threatening condition and there are things we can do to minimize the problems it causes.
Just as being overweight can contribute to the development of arthritis, being too heavy will make the pain of arthritis worse. If joints which are already sore and stiff have to carry extra weight the discomfort will be exacerbated. So if your dog is heavier than they should be and has arthritis some weight loss will definitely help.
Its also important to keep your dog as active as you can within the limits of their condition. Strong muscles will help support joints and using, but not overusing, arthritic joints will help them to keep as full a range of movement as possible. Small, frequent bouts of exercise are more beneficial, and less likely to cause pain, than infrequent but long walks. An arthritic dog may well not be able to cope well with that energetic trek at the weekend even if they seem keen at the start. Older dogs should be encouraged to get up during the day to take a turn around the block or the garden rather than lying down for long periods. Swimming for dogs, as for people, is great exercise but it needs to be in a place they can get in and out of easily.
Arthritis is a painful condition and can be very sore not only when moving about but also when just lying still. You won’t know when your dog is experiencing this type of pain but will probably want to make sure any pain they have is adequately controlled. The standard pain relieving medication used in dogs is a family of drugs called Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAID’s). These drugs have been around for some time and new types are being developed all the time. They are very good at treating joint pain but, as with most drugs, can cause side effects. The commonest side effects are on the gut and some dogs will get vomiting or diarrhoea. There is also the possibility of damage to the kidneys or liver. Newer NSAID’s aim to maximise the beneficial pain killing action of the drug and minimise the harmful side effects. Many dogs do tolerate these drugs well for quite some time and live a much better quality of life because of them.
Other medications are also sometimes used to alleviate arthritic pain. This might be in addition to NSAID’s or for those situations when your dog can’t take them. Some studies have shown that supplementing the diet with chondroitin and glucosamine, or receiving a course of cartilage protecting injections from a vet, will help promote healthy joint cartilage repair. Some pain killers work in a different way to NSAID’s and so may avoid some of the negative side effects associated with them. Your vet might suggest gabapentin, paracetamol or tramadol and can advise you on the best option, or combination for your dog.
Veterinary physiotherapists are available and they will be able to assess your dog’s mobility and level of pain. They may offer your dog a course of treatment aimed at relieving pain and facilitating movement. There are also canine hydrotherapy centres which facilitate controlled and therapeutic exercise though swimming. You may need to investigate what is available in your area.
DOES MY DOG HAVE ARTHRITIS?
Arthritis is diagnosed by a combination of physical examination, the signs and behauvior that you see and x-rays or imaging. Sometimes your vet may be confident from the observations you report, the age and type of your dog and a physical exam that your dog has arthritis. X-rays or other types of imaging may also be indicated and these are the only way to actually see what changes are going on inside and around the joints but your dog will need to be sedated or anaesthetized for these.
The commonest sign people report is that dogs seem less quick to stand up and will appear to be slow or stiff for a while after they have been lying down. This might well ease off once they get going. Some dogs will limp on a particular leg, others start hesitating before jumping into the car or on to the sofa. They might seem to get tired at the end of a walk or be less inclined to play. A previously sociable and cheerful dog might become a little more withdrawn or grumpy.
The one thing you cannot rely on an arthritic dog doing is showing you their leg and saying ‘Ouch!’. Most dogs will not cry out or vocalise their pain, especially when its long term and always grumbling away in the background. Usually dogs will just try to make the necessary adjustments to keep going as best they can and soldier on. Our job as their carers is to notice when behaviour might be changing and be sensitive to the signs that they are showing. If your dog is limping, hesitates before doing a familiar activity, takes a while to get up or get going you can safely assume they have pain.
CARING FOR A DOG WITH ARTHRITIS
Watching a dog, especially one you love, struggling with arthritis can be difficult. In the early stages, medication and lifestyle changes may be enough to keep your dog happy and life can continue as usual. Eventually, however, the disease may prevent your dog from doing the things they enjoy or cause them increasing amounts of pain despite our best efforts. In their head your dog may be full of life and energy but their legs may be letting them down. This combination of a dog who is still the same on the inside but unable to be their old self on the outside is particularly heartbreaking.
When dogs are suffering from something life threatening and feel terrible the decision to request dog euthanasia is hard but usually one we know we must make. There may come a time when we are faced with this decision in a dog who has painful and debilitating arthritis, which is causing them distress without reasonable periods of relief, yet in them self is not unwell. Arthritis is not a fatal condition but it may be life limiting because it can so significantly affect your dogs quality of life and ability to live pain free. Because we can’t ever know, definitively, how great an animals pain is we must sometimes use our best guess and utilise that strong bond we are able to make with dogs to make that assessment.