Arthritis is the most common health problem in older dogs. So if you own a dog, you will probably have to deal with it some day. Arthritis comes on in many ways, but the most common cause is the simple wear and tear you’re pet’s joints undergo over the years – They simply wear out. Veterinarians and physicians sometimes call arthritis, osteoarthritis or degenerative joint disease.
Nature’s solution to motion are biological hinges – two slick, smooth surfaces coating the bones that form each joint. The ends of the bones that form all movable joints are formed of a cushiony layer of cartilage that is coated by a slick slippery membrane called the synovium. To reduce friction, the space in between is filled with an oily fluid; and the whole structure is bound together with a series of fibrous tissue and ligaments.
The secret to the long-term success of this wonderful apparatus is that its components are all living and capable of repair. But as we age, this repair process becomes less and less successful and makes errors. With years of repeated movement, several things begin to happen. The fibrous elastic sheets (fascia) and the ligaments begin to stretch, allowing the bones that form the joint to rattle slightly as they move. This in turn bruises and erodes the joints surfaces causing inflammation. And as these surfaces continue to move, the inflammation causes new bone to be laid down where it does not belong, causing pain, and bone to be reabsorbed from where it is critically needed. This is called remodeling and it is a vicious painful cycle. Taken all together, this is what arthritis is.
The problems that lead to arthritis begin early in your pet’s life. But because joints are tough and reparative, you probably will not notice pain or lameness in your pet during its younger years.
When a particular joint is damage through accident, or born misaligned, it may not be able to repair itself. That is the arthritis of car and other accidents. When the pet was born with abnormally shaped bones or abnormally lax joints (dysplasia) , arthritis may appear in its youth. But neither of those causes are the subject of this article.
Once arthritis is established in your pet, no mater what the cause, the treatment options available for your pet will be the same.
There are ways you can postpone or avoid arthritis when you make a decision to purchase a dog. Arthritis occurs sooner in certain breeds. Larger breeds and breeds that are called dysplastic, develop arthritis sooner. Arthritis also runs in families or lines of dogs. If the parents of your pet did not develop arthritis until a ripe old age, your pet probably won’t either.
If you allow your pup to grow too rapidly , it will also be prone to earlier onset of arthritis .
What Is Actually Happening In My Pet’s Joints That Is Causing Him Pain ?
Usually, veterinarians and pets benefit from studies conducted in animals that were designed to understand and treat health problems in people. However, when it comes to arthritis treatment, most veterinary knowledge has come from studies done in humans. That is because you can tell your doctor much better when his treatment relieves you from pain and debility, than your dog can tell your veterinarian. That, and a lack of Federal funding, is why so few significant, independent studies of arthritis have been done in dogs.
Luckily for our pets, there appears to be no difference in the processes that contribute or slow arthritis in pets and their owners. That is why most of the references I use in this article link to studies done in humans. But even those studies often have perplexing, contradictory, results. The US government invested 531.3 million dollars in arthritis research in 2010.
If you want a more detailed medical description of the changes that are occurring in your pet’s joints, you can read more about them here.
What Are The First Signs Of Arthritis That I Will See In My Pet ?
The telltale sign of arthritis in older dogs is a reluctance to move about. As your dogs joints age , it will become more reluctant to run or play for long periods. It won’t bound up and down stairs like it used to and, on rising in the morning, it may be stiff and even limping. These changes almost always come on very gradually. It is easy to ignore or not notice them at first. Slowing down isn’t only related to your pet’s joints.
Large dogs, the ones that usually develop arthritis earlier, were bred to be very pain-resistant and stoic. So they won’t let you know that they are in pain until their arthritis problem is quite advanced.
As pets guard their sore joints, muscles and ligaments contract, decreasing the joint’s range of motion. You may notice that your pet no longer jumps up on sofas and chairs as it once did. One common symptom of age-related arthritis is that joints tend to be stiffer and more painful after periods of rest and that pain tends to work out during the day. By evening, your pet may be its old self again.
Arthritis problems tend to be worse in overweight pets. Some of their panting after a long walk can be due to arthritis pain and not just the overheating and out-of-shape problems that obesity produce. Cold days and dampness tend to make the problem worse as well.
What Tests Will My Vet Suggest To Confirm An Arthritis Problem ?
Your veterinarian has learned to be a very good judge of the subtle signs that dogs give to tell us that they are in pain. It may be just a worried look in their eyes when the veterinarian overly flexes their joints. Or you pet may withdraw its leg, or even growl or snap. You veterinarian will probably ask you to lead your pet around the examination room so he/she can observe its gait and locomotion. Over their career, vets get very good at that.
The veterinarian may notice that the major muscle masses of your pet’s legs and spine have shrunken (atrophied) due to disuse. Your pet may wince when areas of it spine are palpated.
But the key tests your veterinarian will perform are x-rays. Depending on how subtle the changes are, it may take more than a single x-ray film. X-rays of advanced arthritic joints are very distinctive. If you look at the hip and spinal photos of Hannah, at the top of this page, you can understand the changes your vet will see. Most veterinarians will set these x-rays up in the exam room and point out to you the important bone changes that they are seeing.
Are There Things I can Do To Slow Arthritis In My Pet ?
Yes, and here are the important ones:
Diet And Nutrition
What your pet eats and how much it eats throughout its life will affect arthritis in its later years. If your pet is overweight, reducing its weight, slowly, to a healthy level is one of the most important things you can do to reduce its discomfort.
Pets love to eat, that, and your company, are its chief pleasures in life. So if it has too much food in front of it, or if its food is not healthy, it will likely over eat.
Rather than rob your pet of it’s pleasure, feed it a lower caloric diet. Many are available commercially and you can make wonderful ones at home. You will find more on home cooked diets here. If you don’t have the time or inclination to prepare them, at least add low caloric items like cooked cabbage, greens and carrots to your pet’s current diet to keep it satisfied while dieting.
All major pet food manufacturers offer “Senior” brands of food. They tend to be lower in calories, higher in fiber, with added glucosamine, calcium, omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants, they are all nutritious.
Canine athletes, such as sled dogs and working greyhounds, just like human athletes, tend to develop arthritis earlier in life. But a moderate amount of daily exercise, like taking walks and interactive play-time, is thought to delay arthritis.
Good Nail And Foot Care
Its important that you keep your pets toenails clipped properly so its normal walking and running gait is not distorted. Over grown toenails are a lot like uncomfortable and poorly designed shoes that can also lead to arthritis in humans. They place abnormal stress on the joints and ligaments of the feet. Never remove too much toenail at a time. Trim them off in multiple sessions over a period of weeks until they just touch the floor when your pet is standing.
Whirlpool, Heat Treatments And Hydrotherapy
Hot tubs, whirlpools and controlled swimming are great for pets with arthritis. Short periods of increased warmth , interspersed with cold, can decrease your pet’s aches and pains. Added heat from heating pads and soaks in heated water relax muscles, increase circulation in the affected areas and has a lessen pain. Those effects persist for many hours after the external heat source is removed. (just be sure not to scald or overheat your pet !)
Other Physical Therapies
Most dogs feel better and are more active after a good massage. It’s not only the increased circulation that helps, pets really love your touch and attention and they will feel better after it. Good sensations block bad sensations and you will see a difference in you dog when you have finished appreciate and respond positively the one-on-one attention this procedure provides.
Extra Padding For Comfort and Traction
Your pets balance and coordination are not what they once were. Old dogs do better on carpet or other soft surfaces. Not only are they more confident when they walk on padded surfaces, they are also less likely to form calluses and pressure-point sores so common in the elderly. The only drawback is that these pets, particularly female ones, are also often incontinent. So be sure there is a waterproof membrane below the carpet and that it can be removed for cleaning or replacement occasionally. Open cell foam pads are softer than closed cell products. But it is almost impossible to re sanitize open cell foams.
More Convenient Dish And Water Bowl Placement
Senior pets are often more comfortable eating and drinking from elevated containers. A low step stool works well for this because their rubber coating keeps the bowls from slipping around. Older, large breeds are more susceptible to gastric bloat. So feeding your elderly pet multiple small meals, rather than one or two large ones, is a wise idea.
A Warm Cozy Bed
All elderly pets appreciate a warm bed. Safe heating pads are available to ease the aches and pains that come with arthritis. I prefer electric mats that are encased in water proof plastic and have a chew-proof cord. Purchase one that can not rise above 102F. Make entry and exit from your pet’s bed as easy as possible with at least one low side. Be cautious if your pet can not move away from the pad, should it get too hot. Puppies and elderly dogs are more susceptible to heavy flea infestations because their immobility assures that they are always conveniently available to the fleas. Fleas can get out of hand rapidly in both the very old and the very young. If there is a possibility of a flea problem, be sure bed liners can be easily run through a dryer cycle and use one of the modern topical products to control fleas on your pet.
Wood ramps, covered with carpet are a real help for pets that can no longer climb stairs. Just be sure they are stable. Make the slope as gentle as possible. Keep one that hooks securely, in your car to help your pet get in and out. Canvas slings work well for this too.
Assisting Living Devices
If your pet is no longer able to get about, there are, slings, carts and other apparatus that you can purchase to return some of its mobility. There are online stores that specialize in meeting the needs of disabled pets. One of the largest is Handicappedpets.com. Discuss your pet’s specific needs with them.
My Dog Already Has An Arthritis Problem, What Can My Veterinarian Do ?
First, your veterinarian will want to be sure that your dog does not suffer from one of the health problems that commonly affect older dogs. Any health problem will make the debility of arthritis worse. We have no cure for aging, but we do have effective treatments for many of the health problems of older dogs.
Glucosamine / Chondroitin Products
Chondroitin is processed cartilage (proteoglycans). Glucosamine is one component of proteoglycans and glycosaminoglycan. A common source of glucosamine in supplements is processed shrimp and crab shells and livestock bones. Both form portions of your pets joint cartilage. It became widely used as a treatment for arthritis after a number of poorly designed studies conducted in the mid 1980s by the product’s Italian manufacturer, Rottapharm. (ref)
Sadly to report, more sophisticated recent studies, have found these products to be worthless in treating arthritis in human beings (ref). There are many manufactures, vets and physicians who will tell you that the glucosamine/chondroitin products they sell are better in some way than the ones that were tested. But none have been able to back up those statements with hard facts. One well-designed study that came out in 2016 on these supplements, when use in human knee arthritis, actually found that the dummy pills (placebos) gave better results. (ref#68)
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Cold-water fish oils are a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids. They appear to be helpful in reducing many forms of inflammation – joint inflammation included.(ref)
There are also pain management medications your veterinarian can offer, feel free to make an appointment for a consult!