It is estimated that one in five dogs in Australia suffer from arthritis. It is the most common source of chronic pain that veterinarians treat. And not just older dogs. It can happen to any age, breed or size of dog.
Arthritis is a painful inflammatory condition in one or more joints. It is characterised by loss of cartilage, damage to the underlying bone, inflammation of the joint surface, formation of bone spurs (which look like coral) and significant changes to the joint fluid. It leads to painful swollen joints and an unhappy dog.
Arthritis comes in many forms, but all have a similar effect on your dog:
- osteoarthritis is the most common. It is caused by trauma, hip dysplasia, elbow dysplasia, obesity, osteochondrosis, joint surgery, dislocations, vigorous exercise, and wear and tear.
- septic arthritis is due to an infection in the joint, resulting in severe damage to the joint surface
- immune mediated, such as Rheumatoid arthritis and Lupus, both of which are rare in dogs.
As a dog owner you are well placed to identify the early signs of arthritis. In many cases the signs may be subtle, but you may recognise changes to their activity or their personality, or simply feel they are “getting old”. The common signs of arthritis include
- reduction in the amount of exercise they are willing to do
- limping on one or more legs
- very stiff in joints in the morning or after a sleep
- difficulty getting up after resting
- reluctance to climb stairs or jump into the car
- licking or biting joints
- a change in personality, the dog is less playful, or has become aggressive or irritable
- occasional whimpering or yelping
The common causes of arthritis are listed below, as many of these can be avoided or their effects can be minimised.
- Hip dysplasia is most commonly seen in large breed dogs. This highly inherited condition results in poorly developed hips that may dislocate, but most certainly causes severe pain and joint damage even from a young age.
- Elbow dysplasia is an inherited condition seen in rapidly growing large breed dogs. It causes moderate to severe pain and arthritis in one or both elbows in dogs from 9 months of age onwards.
- Dislocating patellas (kneecaps) is very common in small breed dogs, resulting in chronic pain and lameness.
- Obesity is a huge contributing factor to arthritis in dogs as well as us. The excessive weight causes severe trauma and wear on the joints. A “chubby” may be cute but should be avoided.
- Trauma, dislocations and fractures in joints will all result in some degree of arthritis.
- Anterior cruciate ligament rupture in the stifle (knee) leads to a very unstable joint, which if not repaired will lead to severe arthritis.
If you suspect your dog may have arthritis, please take it to your veterinarian for examination. In some dogs it is more obvious, but in many cases it is complicated and requires an involved work up. To establish a diagnosis of arthritis your dog may require the following:
- a complete history including exercise patterns, diet, any accidents, how long the problems has been present, and response to any medications
- a thorough examination, palpating joints, observing the dog walking
- ultrasound or CT scans
- joint fluid analysis
- blood tests
Your veterinarian will then determine if your dog has acute or chronic arthritis, and whether the condition is mild, moderate or severe. This classification is important to help establish a treatment plan.
As a dog owner your single biggest concern is that your dog is not in pain.
If your dog has early signs of arthritis which are mild the treatment will be very different from that for a dog with severe arthritis.
Dogs with arthritis can be managed very well now so that they can lead a happy and comfortable life. You will be amazed at the new lease of life your dog has after treatment.
Treatment for arthritis may involve the following:
- Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are the first choice for managing arthritis. The NSAIDs reduce pain and inflammation quickly, effectively and safely. The more recently developed medications can be given short term, but if required may be given for the rest of the life of your dog. They are available in a variety of forms, including meaty chewable tablets, or a flavoured liquid. (It is critically important that you do not give human arthritis medications to your dog as they become seriously ill from them).
- Mild to moderate exercise to maintain joint function, tone up muscles and lose weight. Initially your dog may only be permitted to do 5 to 10 minutes of slow walking daily. Once your dog improves, the exercise may be increased gently to say 30 minutes twice daily. Vigorous activity such as ball chasing or running on soft sand will aggravate the arthritis and must be avoided. In time you will be know how much exercise is right for your dog.
- Weight loss is vital. Your veterinarian will develop a diet plan, which can be implemented using specially formulated premium diets. Strict adherence to the diet will see your dog become active once again. Remember it will take 6 to 12 months to slim your dog, then it will be switched to a maintenance diet.
- Special joint diets containing omega 3 fatty acids are available from your veterinarian. These prescription diets improve the health of arthritic joints in up to 80% of dogs.
- Other medications to improve the health of the joint and the quality of the fluid in the joints may be given as a course of injections by your veterinarian every six months.
- Glucosamine and chondroitin which are derived from beef or shark cartilage are now widely used
- Acupuncture is being widely used by homeopathic veterinarians, with very good results. It is often given in conjuction with NSAIDs, diet and exercise.
- Physiotherapy is commonly used after joint surgery, dislocations or fracture repair and provides significant long term benefit
- Provide warm, dry and comfortable bedding. It is well accepted that people with arthritis feel so much more comfortable if they are warm.
- Aqua exercise and warm water swimming has been used by people for some time, and is becoming more widely used for dogs.
If your dog suffers from arthritis, it is important to be aware that options exist to provide life-long pain relief which are safe and effective, ensuring a good quality of life.