Arthritis in Dogs, What is it?
Arthritis in dogs, also known as osteoarthritis or degenerative joint disease (DJD), is a very common degenerative condition of the joints in dogs. There are actually a few different types of arthritis, but the focus of this article is osteoarthritis. It tends to occur most commonly in the hip, elbow, stifle (knee), carpus (wrist), and intervertebral joints (spine), although it can raise it’s ugly head any place in the body where you have a joint and some cartilage.
The most common sites of arthritis in dogs
Arthritis can occur for a variety of reasons, including trauma, abnormal loads on joints, and congenital abnormalities like dysplasia. Commonly it is simply due to wear and tear of the cartilage within the joints. For this reason it tends to strike older dogs most frequently. Cats are also afflicted, but tend to be better at hiding their discomfort. I will discuss our feline friends in another post.
So cartilage is a lovely shock absorber, and when it’s damaged or absent, we end up with bones rubbing against each other, which is seriously painful (it makes me shudder just thinking about it!) and creates inflammation.
Osteoarthritis in canine hips
Of the four hips pictured above, only the one with the red arrow is normal. See how the ball is lovely and round and sits nicely in the socket? That dog’s other (left) hip is subluxated, which means it’s not sitting all the way in the socket. Hopefully anyone can see that both of the hips in the right hand photo are flipping awful. This is severe DJD. The balls are no longer round at all and don’t sit in their sockets. There are a lot of changes to the bone as a result of chronic instability and abnormal loads. Interestingly (or frustratingly!) the changes we see on xray don’t always correlate well with the degree of discomfort the patient is in. Sometimes fairly normal looking hips are painful, and while occasionally dogs with atrocious radiographs seem to get around pretty well.
Elbow osteoarthritis in a dog
Elbows tend to be a little more subtle than hips. The one on the left is normal. The one on the right is showing signs of arthritis, the most obvious of which I’ve pointed at with the red arrows. It sort of looks like fluffy bone where there should be a nice smooth surface, and the easiest way to appreciate it is to compare to the normal one.
What are the Signs of Arthritis in Dogs?
There are a lot of possible signs that your dog’s joints are causing pain. Some of them are often mistakenly attributed to inevitable old age changes by owners. If your dog is showing any of the signs listed below, make an appointment with your vet so you can work together to improve your 4-legged friend’s quality of life.
So here is my overview of the seven things I discuss with pet owners for helping their arthritic dogs. Don’t forget that even though I’m very awesome and mostly know what I’m on about, my written advice is general and is no substitute for your own vet.
Maintain Appropriate Body Weight
Say NO to Portly Pups and Hefty Hounds!
If there is just one thing you can do for the well being and comfort of your dog, keep those numbers on the scales in the healthy range. It’s just common sense that the greater the load on the joints, the harder they have to work, and therefore the more painful life is for the arthritic dog. Work out the healthy weight range for your dog then get to work on achieving it. Some very caring pet owners simply don’t realise that their dog is a little tubby, so here is a great body condition score chart from WSAVA that provides a general guide.
My rule of thumb when examining a dog is that I want to be able to feel their ribs, but generally not see them protruding, and when looking down from above I want to see a nice waistline rather than a barrel shape! A great resource for keeping dogs at a healthy weight is the fantastic Slim Doggy, where you will find dog food data, a calorie tracking app, and loads of helpful tips about feeding and exercise. I highly recommend it. You don’t have to be cruel to be kind, its just a matter of taking responsibility for your dog’s nutrition and getting everyone in the household on board. It’s well worth the effort - remember, food does not equal love.
Pull on Those Walking Shoes!
As you can imagine, lying around all day is not great for stiff, sore joints. Moderate exercise is critically important. The question is, what does ‘moderate exercise’ mean? Well the answer varies depending on the dog. For my Border Collie, Anika, it’s a fairly brisk 40 minute walk every day. During this time she happily trots along in front of me, baby and toddler, but if I ask her to do much more she starts to lag behind. Not bad given it’s her 12th birthday today! (Excuse me while I go and ugly cry for a bit, my baby’s getting old!)
She doesn’t look a day over 5, right?…
Ok, tissues away, where was I.. For many other dogs, that sort of walk would be WAAAY too much. Some may benefit just from ambling down to the mail box and back. If you have access to hydrotherapy, some dogs (particularly those recovering from surgery) may really benefit from swimming or walking on an underwater treadmill. The key is to watch them and recognize what they can do comfortably without overdoing it and ending up much more sore. If you need some guidance with this your vet can help. If you have a couple of steps your dog needs to navigate regularly and they are having trouble with, it’s pretty easy for someone handy to knock together a little ramp.
Keep ’em Cosy: Provide Shelter from Wind, Rain and Cold
Particularly during cold weather, it’s so important to protect your dog from the elements. Here in Melbourne we don’t get snow, but I know I wouldn’t want to be lying out in the open overnight during winter, even if I did have a nice thick fur coat. Protection from rain is important, but we also need to realise that if the wind is blowing straight into the dog house, it’s going to be freezing in there. Obviously the best place for a furry family member to be sleeping is inside, but if your dog sleeps outside, it’s up to you to ensure they are warm enough. Check kennels regularly to ensure they are clean, dry and comfortable.
A Comfortable, Padded Place to Sleep!
I don’t mean a cell, although I do question Ani’s sanity on a pretty regular basis!
This one is pretty straightforward. A bit of padding under stiff, sore joints can make things a lot more comfortable. Memory foam beds are a good option as they mold and contour to your dog’s body, reducing pressure on those arthritic joints. It’s also helpful if the bed is easy to get in and out of. Sounds obvious, but it’s important that it’s not too high, too soft, or has sides that make it difficult to climb onto.
Consider Dietary Supplements
So we’re mainly talking glucosamine and chondroitin sulphate. You may have heard of them if you yourself or someone you know has arthritis, as many humans use these products too. They are extracted from sea molluscs (such as New Zealand Green-lipped mussel), from shark skeleton, and from cattle. They support that all important cartilage structure, reducing further deterioration, suppressing inflammation, and reducing free radical damage. An example of a veterinary product is Cosequin. Products designed for humans can be bought over the counter, but are not all created equal, so it is worth discussing this with your veterinarian.
Omega-3 fatty acid (OFA) supplements may also be beneficial. Rather than adding several fish oil capsules to your dogs meal every day, another way to get a great dose of OFAs into your dog is to feed a diet that already has them built into it, such as Hills j/d.
A Big Word for a Little Injection: Glycosaminoglycans
A name many will be familiar with is Adequan. Others here in Australia include Cartrophen, Pentosan, and Synovin. These drugs are described as ‘disease modifying osteoarthritis drugs’ but are actually more like ‘nutriceuticals’ than drugs. They are very safe and pets are very unlikely to experience any side effects. They’re also relatively inexpensive. Interestingly, the exact way that they work has yet to be elucidated. There are also no big, well designed clinical trials that confirm their effectiveness (that I have been able to find). Having said that, there is loads and loads of anecdotal evidence amongst vets and dog owners, and I believe I have seen great results in many patients. The usual course of injections with the products I use in practice are one injection a week for four weeks, then one injection every three to six months, depending on the patient.
Anti-Inflammatories and Pain Relief
Drugs are available that can reduce inflammation and suppress pain in dogs with more advanced disease. The main category is a group called non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS). They are very effective, but not without potential side effects. If used improperly or in the wrong patient, they can cause stomach ulceration or damage the kidneys. Side effects can be minimized by monitoring your dog’s blood work regularly. Other forms of pain relief that may be beneficial include Tramadol, Gabapentin and Amantadine. It’s super important not to give human drugs to our pets, as they can cause illness or even death.
So Here’s the recap
For info on another very common disease in older dogs, check out my article on canine cognitive dysfunction syndrome.
Do you have any other tips or techniques for helping an arthritic dog? I’d love to hear what has and has not worked for you!