Chasing a ball becomes a stiff walk; jumping up to your bed no longer happens, and getting up from the floor brings on a groan. Dogs are living longer with advanced veterinary medicine and excellent nutrition, but as they age, things that were once easy now become an effort. And with their increased longevity comes the increased chance that they'll suffer from arthritis.
What Is Arthritis?
Arthritis (more specifically, osteoarthritis) is a disease that can affect any joint, causing pain and discomfort. The joints most commonly affected in dogs include:
- Stifle (knee joint)
- Carpus (wrist)
- Hock (ankle)
- Intervertebral joints (spine or backbone)
Dogs suffering from arthritis experience pain resulting from the damage within the joint. The symptoms seen are a direct result of the pain but may be subtle, especially in the early stages.
Signs of Arthritis in Dogs
- Abnormal gait
- Reluctance to rise or difficulty rising
- Reluctance to go up and down stairs or jump onto furniture or into the car
- Abnormal behaviors such as irritability, withdrawal or aggression
- Pain when handled
- Licking or chewing at the painful joint
Causes of Arthritis in Dogs
Arthritis starts with damage to the cartilage within the affected joint. The damage occurs because of wear and tear on the joint from aging, congenital abnormalities, obesity, athletic injuries or traumatic injuries.
In a normal joint, the cartilage acts as a shock absorber, providing a cushion between the bones which form the joint. When the cartilage in a joint is damaged, the cells die and release enzymes that cause inflammation within the joint and the production of excessive, low quality joint fluid. Extra bony growths called osteophytes can develop. When the cartilage thins severely, the joint space becomes narrow and the bone beneath the cartilage deteriorates. Without cartilage in place to absorb shock, the bones and other structures within your pet's joint become damaged.
Diagnosis of Arthritis
A physical examination coupled with radiographs (x-rays) that show changes within the joint is the most common means of diagnosing canine arthritis, but early signs can be hard to detect on x-rays. In some cases, an analysis of the joint fluid or other tests may be recommended to rule out other conditions like infectious or immune-related disease.
Helping a Dog With Arthritis
There are several things you can do to help alleviate the symptoms:
- In the house: Provide well-padded bedding, like a special dog bed for arthritic pets. Keep sleeping spots away from cold and damp areas or drafts. Use padded steps or a ramp for your dog to get on or off the couch and bed. Non-skid flooring is helpful over slippery surfaces, or place yoga mats down. Outside, a sloped ramp is easier than dealing with steps.
- Massage: Muscle massage stimulates blood flow to muscles. Once you learn the techniques from a canine massage therapist, you can continue them on your own. Warm compresses placed on sore joints can also help loosen and soothe tight tissues.
- Laser: Cold laser treatment helps to stimulate blood flow which can improve arthritis symptoms.
- Supplements: Glucosamine, chondroitin, MSM, omega-3 fatty acids, boswellia and curcumin are all used to treat arthritis. Talk to your vet about the best combination and dosage.
- Prescription medications: Your veterinarian can prescribe medications designed to ease symptoms of arthritis in dogs. Many are available and the right ones for your dog will depend on the specifics of the case.
- Weight loss: Extra body fat puts a strain on painful joints and secretes substances that increase inflammation in the body.
- Physical therapy: A veterinary rehabilitation specialist can design a program that helps your dog maintain strength and flexibility.
- Complementary treatments: Acupuncture, regenerative techniques like stem cell therapy, herbal therapies, chiropractic techniques, and more can all play important roles in treating a dog’s arthritis.
- Surgery: In some cases, surgery to repair, replace, or remove an affected joint may be needed.
Anderson, Katharine L et al. Risk Factors for Canine Osteoarthritis and Its Predisposing Arthropathies: A Systematic Review. Frontiers in veterinary science vol. 7 220. 28 Apr. 2020, doi:10.3389/fvets.2020.00220
Osteoarthritis in Dogs. American College of Veterinary Surgeons