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As your best friend ages, it’s common to start to worry every time they’re slow to get up from the couch, or seem to enjoy running after their favorite ball less and less. One common ailment that often comes with age is dog arthritis. Read on for a vet’s comprehensive take on this common, treatable disease.
Yes, dogs can get arthritis. Arthritis is a broad term to describe inflammation and stiffness of the joints. Dogs can get the two types of arthritis that humans also get: inflammatory and degenerative.
The most common form of arthritis in dogs is osteoarthritis, which is a degenerative, complex, and progressive disease that affects the joints. It causes pain, lameness, and stiffness.
The cause of osteoarthritis is from enzymatic degradation of the joint cartilage but how this starts is not well known. Theories for what may cause this disease include inheritability of underlying joint diseases such as hip dysplasia, trauma, environmental causes such as exercise and body weight, or abnormal cartilage.
Inflammatory arthritis can occur from infection, crystals in the joints, or immune-mediated disease where the body’s immune system attacks the joints for no apparent reason. The same type of immune-mediated arthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, is similar to the autoimmune condition seen in humans and causes bone erosion, swelling of the joints and surrounding joint membrane called the synovium.
This can occur in relatively young to middle-aged dogs of many small and large breeds. There are also other immune-mediated forms that are specifically related to certain syndromes and breeds (ex. drug-induced, lupus, Akita and shar-pei arthritis etc.).
For the purposes of this article, we will focus on osteoarthritis and simply refer to it as arthritis.
Age as a factor
While age is not the cause of this disease, the prevalence of arthritis does increase with age but is also dependent on genetics. A pet that is relatively young can still have signs of osteoarthritis due to genetics, injury, or environmental factors.
Breeds at risk for dog arthritis
Breeds most often affected are large or giant breeds because their joints have more load to bear, such as German shepherds, Labrador retrievers, and golden retrievers. Some small dogs, however, like dachshunds, are also at risk.
Dogs that are overweight or athletic, despite their standard breed size, are also more at risk for development of osteoarthritis due to the abnormal wear and tear on the joints.
Some common dog arthritis symptoms include:
- Lameness (Limping, favoring a leg, etc.)
- Reluctance to get up quickly
- Tiring easily while exercising
- Stiffness from rising from a restful position (Like laying down.)
The most frequent symptom or sign of arthritis in dogs is lameness. This is characterized by favoring a leg, holding it up, or limping. Reluctance to get up quickly, jump up onto furniture, or tiring easily when exercising are also symptoms of joint disease.
If the lameness occurs after a minor injury or excessive exercise with a pre-existing condition (ex. cranial cruciate ligament repair), then this can cause a flare-up of arthritis signs.
The earliest sign to look out for, however, is stiffness upon rising from a restful position. You may see the stiffness occur during cold rainy days or after a long exercise activity. The stiffness is usually short-lived but if prolonged and continuing, is a sign of inflammatory joint disease or advanced osteoarthritis.
These signs can be your clue to get more information from your veterinarian about diagnostic and treatment options.
Canine arthritis is such a common problem that there are a variety of treatments to relieve the pain and symptoms associated with the disease.
These include prescription medications, nutritional supplements, synthesized compounds, holistic treatments, rehabilitation medicine, and at-home support by you, the owner.
Dog Arthritis Medication and Supplements
There are many effective and relatively safe prescription medications available to help our pets afflicted with arthritis. Your veterinarian will discuss using oral medications (pills) such as Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs) or Corticosteroids to reduce pain and inflammation.
NSAIDs are among the most popular prescription medications for osteoarthritis. Drugs like Carpofen are specifically marketed for this purpose.
Other medications can be injected into the joint for more immediate relief or under the skin for long-term relief. Many veterinarians find that a combination of medications work best for individual pets, as there is no magic bullet for this complex disease.
If the arthritis is due to an underlying condition, your vet will treat the condition first. For example, surgery may be indicated if there is an underlying orthopedic issue like hip dysplasia where joint replacement may be needed.
When the joint is stabilized and put into a more normal position, there is less abnormal wear, less new bone formation, and reduced inflammation, all of which can lead to more mobility and less pain for your dog.
Surgery is a good option for dogs whose quality of life can be greatly improved with surgical intervention and can’t be helped by medication alone.
Therapies such as acupuncture, laser therapy, and acupressure are becoming more popular for the pain and inflammation associated with dog arthritis.
It’s a good idea to talk to a veterinarian with experience or special focus in Veterinary Holistic Medicine to get a realistic expectation of improvement in arthritis signs. You can find a vet who specializes in Holistic Medicine here.
Nutritional supplements, also known as Nutraceuticals, are a more natural way to reduce inflammation and joint pain. Examples include Chondroitin Sulphate and Glucosamine, which are thought to be anti-inflammatory and can be either used alone or in combination.
Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs), specifically Omega-3 Fatty Acids, can also help. These are found in prescription diets for osteoarthritis in dogs, such as Royal Canin or Hills, and in supplement form, such as fish oil for dogs.
These supplements are often helpful but may be more effective when used in combination with other therapies mentioned in this article and under the guidance of your veterinarian.
Cannabinoid or CBD oil
Cannabinoid or CBD oil is also becoming very popular among owners for treatment of arthritis symptoms in dogs. Promising clinical trials are underway to test its efficacy and safety in dogs with osteoarthritis.
However, CBD oil is derived from the marijuana plant, which is currently considered a Schedule I Controlled Substance by the Federal Government and cannot be professionally recommended nor prescribed by your licensed veterinarian.
You can learn more about CBD oil in our guide to CBD oil for dogs.
Outside of providing medical care for your pet, you can support your animal’s recovery, delay disease progression, and ease pain signs at home in the following ways.
Weight loss: Less weight = less pain and pressure on joints. If your dog is over 20% of their ideal body weight, he or she is considered obese. Many dogs have reversed the signs of arthritis when they achieve their ideal body weight.
Tips for weight loss include:
- Feeding your dog less under your vet’s supervision
- Limiting treats
- Increasing activity safely
- Speaking to your vet about specific diets and medications to increase satiety
Passive movement activities: Under the direction of your veterinarian, you can learn how to safely move your pet’s legs through full ranges of motion that require no exertion from your pet.
These exercises mostly entail slowly extending and flexing each joint 10-15 times with repeats of 3 per day. The goal for passive movement of the joints is to maintain the flexibility that can be lost due to natural stiffening.
Exercise: This may seem like a contradiction but studies have shown that reduction in activity leads to muscle atrophy and weakness of soft tissue support of joints.
Keeping your dog active is key to managing osteoarthritis as long as the exercise itself does not cause the animal pain or stiffness during or after the injury.
Examples of good exercises include short walks spaced evenly throughout the day that are of consistent duration. A dedicated dog walker can help if this is difficult for your schedule.
Whatever you choose, keep an eye on your dog’s response. It’s important to not over-exercise your dog so as to exacerbate injury or signs of arthritis.
Physical therapy: While this isn’t mandatory to ease signs of arthritis, physical therapy is a great way to increase strength and flexibility to support your pet’s joints.
Physical therapists for dogs are often located in rehabilitation centers for pets and have specialized equipment to minimize the impact on joints while also increasing strength.
Underwater treadmill therapy, or hydrotherapy, is a popular approach for arthritic dogs. In hydrotherapy, buoyancy is used to counteract the painful effects of gravity. Dogs often enjoy this type of therapy since they are finally able to move without the pain.
This is recommended if your pet has pain upon exercising, is post-surgical, obese, or has limited mobility otherwise.
Comfortable home environment: Minimizing areas where your dog has to put extra load on their joints is something that you can easily provide by using a soft orthopedic bed with memory foam as the dog bed, placing ramps in areas where the pet normally has to jump or take stairs, and keeping them in a warm environment to prevent joint stiffening.
Arthritis is a treatable, complex disease that can affect dogs of all ages. Noticing signs of stiffness and lameness early on can allow you to intervene and prevent progression of worsening clinical signs.
In the end, the most recommended approach for alleviating signs of arthritis is combining medical and holistic treatments with at home lifestyle changes.