What exactly is arthritis?
Arthritis is now the usual term for osteoarthritis, as it’s a condition that affects the bones and joints. It’s very common in dogs, with around one in five adult dogs having the condition to some degree. It’s especially common in dogs as they get older, and medium to large breeds are more susceptible due to the extra weight and stress on their joints.
But why do dogs get it?
- Bad Luck – down to wear and tear over time
It is a degenerative condition meaning it can come on relatively slowly and then worsen over a long period of time. Barbecue of this it can be quite hard to see the changes in your dog, until there are very obvious symptoms to see.
It develops when the cartilage wears away from inside the joints, and the usual lubricating fluid becomes watery and thin. In layman’s terms the cartilage is a shock absorber and the synovial fluid is the oil that keeps the joint moving smoothly and freely. So, it’s quite understandable that without these two protection mechanisms, it can become a case of bone rubbing on bone – ouch! So once they fail, there is friction in the joint which leads to swelling and quite often heat in the joint.
2. Bad Luck – a dog was born to get it
Some dogs are born with genetic conditions which predispose them to getting arthritis. Many dog owners dread the dysplasia conditions – whether it be hips, elbows or both, it’s bad news!
These dogs have differences in the structure of their joints, which are there from birth. The joint sockets are too shallow, and the ball of the joints don’t sit properly within them. It can be described as a partial dislocation, but the muscles and ligaments grow and develop around this feature, which keeps the joint “off balance”.
The X-ray below shows the hips of a Labrador Retriever puppy, where both hips are affected by dysplasia. You can clearly see the ball joints are not centered into the socket.
As a result, the joints themselves are under a lot more pressure and stress and arthritis is likely to develop as a result. Large breed dogs are particularly prone to having dysplasia, and it’s likely there will be early lameness and pain symptoms as a result.
There are things that can make it worse
Winter is a bit of a curse for dogs with arthritis. Damp and cold weather can increase the severity and discomfort quite a lot. Lying in a draft, or having a kennel that is exposed to wet and wind are both number one enemies.
Beware of extra weight! A dog that is overweight for it’s breed and size has extra pressure on its joints. Their joints were not designed to take the extra weight, so one of the first things a vet will look at is diet control if your dog falls into this category.
Also, the longer it takes to get treatment and get on top of it, the better it is for your dog. Especially if they need surgery – the more the joint wears away, the less options there are for repair surgery and the less chance of success.
How does it affect my dog?
There’s no doubt about it – arthritis is a painful condition. If left untreated, it will in fact lead to chronic pain for your dog.
There are tell-tale signs a dog is suffering with pain from arthritis, and your dog might only have one or two, or even more:
- stiffness and difficulty getting up, particularly after a period of sleep. It’s also likely the longer the rest period, the more stiffness will be apparent.
- reluctance to go for walks or play as much as usual. And if they do go out walking, their pace is slower than normal to the point they could even lag behind
- it’s a struggle to climb stairs or cope with steep slopes, including jumping in and out of the car. Jumping out is even worse – think of the pressure on a painful joint when a dog jumps down from a height, their full body weight is behind the jump, and their is no cushioning in the joint – ouch again!
- limping – can be hard to tell if more than one leg is affected and it develops slowly!
- licking or chewing at the joint areas
- reacting to touch – for example, a sharp yelp, or licking of the lips
- a reduced appetite – this was our dog, and his eyes also dulled whenever the pain got too much for him. These signs were helpful, as our vet gave us additional pain medication to give on top of his daily routine, for temporary use.
- changes in personality, which unfortunately when in pain, can manifest as aggression. Think how bad tempered you feel if you have a toothache or backache that just won’t go away.
The joints commonly affected are the hips, elbows, knees and shoulders. It can progress into the spine, but this is less common.
Treatment of Canine Arthritis
Osteoarthritis is not curable, but if can be successfully managed to help further progression and to relieve your dog’s pain.
Speaking from my own experience – please make sure your dog is insured, BEFORE you go and get any kind of diagnosis and/or vet treatment. If you don’t and arthritis is diagnosed, it’s likely pet insurers will exclude your dog from the policy and they won’t be covered. Arthritis is a lifelong condition, and it’s great if you can take advantage of all the options available through an insurance policy.
Next stop is the vet. It’s important to get a correct diagnosis, but also much of the pain medication is by prescription and will need to be matched to your individual dog.
Surgery for severe cases
It could be a scraping out of the joint, to clear build up of materials from the constant friction. This is for milder cases, but can take away a lot of discomfort and pain.
Joint replacement, which is a very common operation these days, but is still quite a big deal. It usually involves replacing both the ball and socket part of the joint, using combinations of metal and plastic substances to create a new, and very smooth, surface area. The operation itself is likely to be quite short, but the recovery time afterwards is long and there is a lot of onus on the dog owner to ensure there are no mis-haps with the new joint. For example, no stairs, or jumping in and out of cars!
Pain management with drugs
There are lots of drugs available, and some vets surmise that the options for dogs are greater then for humans!
There are non-steriodal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDs for short. A very common one is Metacam, which our German Shepherd had every day of his life from about aged 2 onward. As it was a liquid, it was really easy to measure out in a plastic syringe provided and squirt onto his dinner!
There are other over the counter supplements that can also give added benefit, but also check with your vet to make sure there are no contra-indications with any prescribed diet or drugs.
Physio can also help, with exercises that can be done at home. This didn’t work well for us, as our dog had hip and elbow dysplasia and physio can’t fix the structural bone problem that is at the root of it all. However, I firmly believe that physiotherapy can really help after surgery, or if there has been muscle wastage.
In later life we took Rocky (our German Shepherd) to Hydrotherapy. We managed to get 10 sessions on insurance, but it gave him such huge benefits we carried on with right up to the end of his life.
It definitely improved his quality of life, giving him greater mobility through better muscle strength around his hip joints. The warm water also gave him a lot of pain relief. We had to coax him in with treats the first time, but after that he couldn’t wait to get in!
Some dogs may also benefit from this ancient Chinese procedure. It’s more about relief from the pain symptoms, rather than improving the structural problem. Some insurance companies allow it, and for others it’s still viewed as an alternative therapy and is not covers.
Is there anything I can do for my dog?
Yes, there is!
There are lots of things you can do to help your dog at home as well.
- Diet & supplements
Your vet may have prescribed a diet, either for weight control or to help with the arthritis. If not, you can keep an eye on their body weight and condition yourself over time. As mentioned above, there are dietary supplements that are known to help, but check with your vet first.
2. Get an orthopedic bed
Good, quality bedding is a huge must for arthritic dogs. The more support their joints can have while they are resting or sleeping, the better it is for them. A good bed can help reduce stiffness and pain, through proper support. Keep it out of any drafts in your house as well.
Equally important if they lay down outside, is considering where they do that. It’s not so bad if it’s a warm day, but if the ground is damp or cold, a raised bed is a good idea. This prevents the cold from seeping up into their bones from underneath.
3. Adjust your dog’s exercise regime
It’s a balancing act with an arthritic dog. If they do too much, the symptoms can flare up – for example, an obvious period of lameness, which will increase the pain as well. If they don’t do enough, joint stiffness can set in or over time, muscle wastage can occur.
Think of the expression “If you don’t use it, you’ll lose it” – which applies perfectly to your dog’s muscles in this case.
Therefore, they need gentle exercise on a regular basis. Your vet will be able to give you guidance on this as well, so be sure to ask. It may be suggested you walk them on a short leash to help.
4. Watch slippy floors
There is nothing worse than wrenching an already sore joint, through an accidental trip or slip. Laminate flooring can be tricky for some dogs, so consider non-slip rugs if your dog is slipping on your floors.
5. Avoid stairs, jumping into cars – if possible!
If they are struggling with the stairs or getting in and out of the car, then try and minimize what they do on their own. It’s realistic you won’t stop it all the time – especially if you have a big dog! Sometimes their excitement takes over and they temporarily forget it might hurt, and do it anyway. But if you can carry them, or keep them downstairs at night, it will benefit them in the long run.
This is really nice for sore joints, especially for older dogs and in the winter time. It could be used on top of the bed, or disguised inside the bed lining if they like their existing bed the way it is!
Are you already dealing with a dog that has arthritis? If so, it would be great to know what sort of things you do to help. Or perhaps to share your feedback on pet insurance for arthritis, or a particular supplement.
Please leave a comment below – it’s sure to help other dog owners out there 🙂