As the quality of life for our pets is constantly improving, pets are living longer and owners are confronted with the health problems that accompany old age. One of the most common health problems of geriatric dogs is osteoarthritis (Degenerative Arthritis).
While it may seem that your older dog is simply “slowing down” a bit, it may actually be suffering from significant pain and discomfort. Arthritis is one of the most common sources of chronic pain in dogs, so do not hesitate to see a vet if you suspect your dog may have joint disease.
What is osteoarthritis?
Osteoarthritis is a chronic, degenerative joint disease that is caused by the progressive inflammation and deterioration of the cartilage, bone, and soft tissue of one or more joints.
When the cartilage that lines the bones in a joint breaks down, the joint effectively loses its “cushion”. This causes friction between the bones, which leads to pain and decreased mobility in the affected joint(s). Inflammation of the cartilage can also stimulate bony growths (spurs) to form around the joints and thickening of soft tissue.
Although any joint in a dog’s body can be affected by arthritis, the most commonly affected joints are the hips, elbows, lower back, knees, and wrists.
What are the causes of canine osteoarthritis?
There are a number of factors that contribute to a dog developing arthritis in one or more joints:
• Aging: aging is probably the most common cause of osteoarthritis
• Congenital joint disorders: developmental disorders such as hip dysplasia, osteochondrosis (OCD), and elbow dysplasia can result in arthritis later in life.
• Trauma: old injuries or repeated trauma to joints can contribute to the development of arthritic changes
• Activity level: working dogs and athletic dogs tend to place more stress on their joints, and more likely to incur injuries and degenerative joint disease
• Obesity: overweight dogs have increased mechanical stress on their joints that leads to secondary arthritis
• Metabolic diseases: diseases such as diabetes and Cushing’s disease are associated with early wear of the cartilage and secondary osteoarthritis
What signs should I look for if I suspect my dog has arthritis?
Depending on the severity of the disease, an arthritic dog may show one or many of the symptoms listed below:
• Decreased activity
• Difficulty rising
• Muscle wastage
• Cracking sounds during joint movement
• Reduced ability to climb stairs or jump up into cars/onto furniture
If your dog has been showing any of the signs, make an appointment with a veterinarian to have your pet examined.
How is arthritis diagnosed?
A veterinarian will diagnose osteoarthritis based on your dog’s age, medical history, and a physical exam. X-rays of the joints may be necessary to determine the severity of disease.
Because of the side-effects associated with the use of anti-inflammatory drugs, many vets will choose to run a blood test to ensure that the liver and kidneys are in working order before initiating any treatments.
Can osteoarthritis be treated?
Although the damage to the joint(s) is generally irreversible, osteoarthritis can be managed in order to minimize any pain and discomfort your dog may suffer from. There are number of treatment options for controlling the signs of arthritis:
1. Weight Control: consult your vet about starting a weight control program or feeding a low-calorie diet. Dogs that carry excess weight are causing additional pain and increased damage to their joints.
2. Controlled Exercise: Joints that do not have regular movement will become stiff and inflexible. Controlled, gentle physical activity has a number of beneficial effects:
• Promotes weight loss
• Increases muscle mass
• Improves strength and mobility of joint
• Decreases the reliance on pain killers
3. Hydrotherapy: swimming is a low impact exercise that promotes joint movement without aggravating joint pain.
4. Anti-inflammatory Drugs: because of the wide range of side effects, anti-inflammatory drugs should be used for relatively short-term pain relief. Never initiate treatment with anti-inflammatory drugs without consulting a veterinarian first.
• Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs): NSAIDs such as aspirin, carprofen (Rimadyl), and meloxicam (Metacam) are commonly used to increase joint mobility and control pain in severe cases. Long-term use can result in side-effects such as kidney damage, ulcers, etc., so these drugs should be used with care.
• Corticosteroids: corticosteroids such as prednisolone have good anti-inflammatory effects, but are not a long-term solution because of the many side-effects.
5. Chondroprotective Agents: these are drugs that protect the cartilage.
• Polysulfated glycosaminoglycans (PSGAGs, Adequan): is gaining popularity for the use in dogs with chronic hip dysplasia
• Pentosan Polysulfate (Cartrophen): 4 injections are given by a vet subcutaneously (under the skin) over 4 weeks – some dogs show an increase in joint function and decrease in pain.
6. Nutraceuticals: are nutritional supplements designed to reduce pain and inflammation. There is a wide array of products available with variable efficacy, so ask a vet for advice about the best product for your pet.
• Hyaluronic acid
If there is an underlying joint problem that can be resolved, than surgery is a viable option. Otherwise conservative management (e.g. weight control, exercise, NSAIDs) is preferred before initiating any salvage procedures on the joints.
How can the occurrence of osteoarthritis be prevented?
In order to minimize the possibility of owning a pet with osteoarthritis, the first step is picking a reliable breeder. Breeders should have X-rays taken of hips and elbows to prevent dogs with poor joint conformation from breeding.
Furthermore, correct nutrition early in a dog’s life is essential to the prevention of osteoarthritis. Owners should ensure that their puppy does not eat too much and grow too much early in life. High energy foods (those with high fat content) and calcium supplementation should be avoided.
Lastly, owners should be careful not to over-exercise their puppies early on in life. By taking these preventative measures early on in your dog’s life, owners can reduce the incidence of degenerative disease later on in life.