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Degenerative joint disease, or arthritis, is a very common condition in senior pets but is often overlooked. As dogs age, you may notice it’s harder for them to get out of a lying-down position or to climb the stairs. Slowing down is a part of the aging process, but often what you’re seeing are joint issues, which can be addressed with a wide range of safe medications and alternative treatment plans.
As soon as you notice stiffness, schedule an appointment with your veterinarian to determine the best way to proceed. And don’t forget that our animals mask their pain, so even small indications are worth the trip. Osteoarthritis is the number one cause of chronic pain in dogs, affecting one in five adult dogs, with the incidence more than doubling in dogs seven years and older.
My senior dog Bruiser had a back injury many years ago, and while he hasn’t been diagnosed with arthritis yet it’s highly likely he experiences some joint pain in his short front legs. He has regular acupuncture appointments, which is just one modality that can help with joint pain. The options are wide-ranging: one solution is as easy as adding a ramp up to your couch and increasing padding in your dog’s bed.
Veterinary experts explain that over time the bone beneath cartilage starts to deteriorate. “As dogs get older, the cartilage surfaces of their joints begin to thin,” writes Kathy Davieds, DVM. She explains that when the cells die, “they release enzymes that cause inflammation of the joint capsule and release of excessive joint fluid.”
Extra bony growths (osteophytes) are another possible outcome, along with narrowing of the normal joint space. A lot of this can be seen on X-rays, which your veterinarian will recommend for a proper diagnosis.
Animals that are overweight tend to be more severely affected because excess weight leads to increased stress on joints. So maintaining an optimal lean body weight is important—and can be a factor in why arthritis happens.
Caring for a Senior Dog talks about the major symptoms to look out for, which may help determine when to schedule an appointment with a veterinarian.
5 Symptoms to Look Out For
- Stiffness when getting up in the morning or after a nap
- Difficulty lying down
- Reluctance to move around as much as he used to
- Stopped jumping onto the couch
- Prefers shorter walks
Making sure the animal is comfortable is the top priority. If weight management is the source of the issue, start there.
Non-weight-bearing exercise like swimming is an excellent step if not contraindicated by other medical conditions. Look for a Certified Canine Rehabilitation Practitioner (CCRP) for help with designing a program that involves activities like swimming, which is known to help overweight dogs lose those extra calories. A veterinary hospice explains, “studies have shown that 80% of Labrador retrievers develop osteoarthritis when fed generous calorie meals. However, when their study counterparts were fed a reduced-calorie diet, only 50% … developed osteoarthritis.”
Tammy Weatherly, a Veterinary Technician on the Norfolk SPCA’s veterinary surgical team, massages dogs that suffer from a joint issue and finds that they benefit. “Just like (for) people, massage can increase muscle flexibility, reduce pain in stiff joints and muscles, relieve stress, improve circulation and boost the performance of a competitive animal,” adds Weatherly.
There is a wide range of joint supplements available that promote canine joint health. These contain varying combinations of glucosamine, chondroitin, MSM, and green-lipped mussel.
The anti-inflammatory effects of omega-3 fatty acids (EPA, DHA) have also been documented to help in dogs with arthritis. We add salmon oil to our dog’s meals, which is one way to incorporate these important fatty acids into their diet.
Non-steroidal anti-inflammatories are the “known” medical treatment for arthritis pain. These medications treat the inflammation at the root of arthritis pain. Commonly prescribed NSAIDs include carprofen (Rimadyl, etc), deracoxib (Deramaxx), and meloxicam (Metacam). Be sure to consult with your vet before giving your dog any medications.
Often as arthritis progresses, anti-inflammatory medication is not enough to control the pain. Utilizing multiple medications that each have different ways of interrupting the body’s inflammatory and pain responses can make a big difference in your pet’s overall comfort. Commonly used adjunctive medications for arthritis pain control can include Chinese herbal medications, gabapentin, Amantadine, and tramadol.
Again, these are given by your vet, by prescription.
Veterinary lasers are now fairly mainstream. In fact, our holistic veterinarian uses a low-level laser on our dog Bruiser to help with his interdigital cysts. Whole Dog Journal recently reported findings that laser therapy is helpful for dogs that have arthritis.
Be sure to consult with your vet before moving forward with treatment options, as it’s important to pursue diagnostics or X-rays to get a full picture of your dog’s joint health.