Arthritis in Dogs

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Arthritis can be caused by injury, infection, the body’s own immune system, or developmental/hereditary abnormalities, and the treatments –– ranging from weight loss to medication to surgery –– are equally varied. But the most common form of arthritis is a degenerative process related to advancing age. But growing older doesn’t have to equal arthritis for your dog, and if you notice that your pet seems stiff when he walks or otherwise has trouble moving around, don’t assume it’s normal.

Overview

Arthritis is an abnormal, destructive joint process that can reduce a dog’s mobility and elicit pain. It is more typically seen in older dogs but is more than capable of affecting even very young dogs. By far the most common form of arthritis is referred to in scientific circles as “osteoarthritis” or “degenerative joint disease.” Normally, joints form smooth connections between bones. Osteoarthritis involves the thinning of joint cartilage (a protective cushioning between bones), buildup of fluid within the joint, and the formation of bony growths within the joint. Over time, this process leads to reduced joint mobility and pain.

Osteoarthritis can affect any joint in the body, including the hips, knees, elbows, shoulders, neck, and back. Shockingly, osteoarthritis affects one out of every five dogs, yet the condition is often under-recognized by owners who assume the symptoms of arthritis are an inevitable part of their dogs’ normal aging process. (Not necessarily so!)

Other less common disease processes involving inflammation within the joint also go by the name “arthritis." These can be caused by a variety of infectious organisms (like Lyme disease), immune-mediated diseases, or certain congenital conditions. These versions of arthritis will not be treated here.

Signs and Identification

Signs of arthritis include the following:

  • Stiffness after exercise
  • Wasting away of muscle
  • Limited movement
  • Joint swelling
  • Trouble getting up, lying down, walking, climbing stairs, or jumping
  • A grating sound in a joint (“crepitus’)

Recognizing arthritis in dogs can be difficult in many cases because the condition can progress slowly and dogs don't complain about their aching joints. Also, because some owners assume that signs of arthritis are “normal” in older animals and/or fail to recognize the subtle signs of pain our stoic dogs offer us.

Radiography (X-rays) can reveal bony growths and some joint abnormalities. Some very specific radiographic studies can even predict the possibility of osteoarthritis in the future (PennHIP, for example, which is an X-ray technique used successfully to help identify future problems as a result of hip dysplasia).

Affected Breeds

Arthritis can affect dogs of any breed. It is common in large to giant breeds and breeds predisposed to hip dysplasia, elbow dysplasia, and other common hereditary diseases that affect the joints.

Treatment

Osteoarthritis is not considered a curable condition. For most pets, it is a chronic illness that can be managed through a combination of therapies. Treatment options will differ depending on the cause of the arthritis and the severity of the pet’s condition. These options are likely to change over time as the condition progresses. The following recommendations are typically offered by veterinarians:

  • Getting/keeping a dog slim throughout his or her lifetime can help immeasurably by decreasing the load on his or her joints over time.
  • Feeding a dog the right amount of high-quality food should help with weight control.
  • Carefully monitored exercise on soft surfaces can assist affected dogs.
  • Because arthritis may be aggravated by cold and damp environments, keeping dogs warm and dry is always helpful. Padded dog beds (orthopedic foam or water-bedding) can help, too.
  • Warm compresses can soothe affected joints.
  • Massage can increase a dog’s flexibility, circulation, and sense of well-being. Professional animal massage therapists are available.
  • Medication, including dog-approved, non-steroidal, anti-inflammatory drugs (commonly called NSAIDs), may help relieve pain and inflammation. But you should never give your dog a drug without your veterinarian’s recommendation.
  • Corticosteroids can be used to suppress inflammation, but they are usually used for short periods due to their side effects.
  • Disease-modifying osteoarthritis drugs (DMOADs) can be an important part of managing osteoarthritis.
  • Glucosamine, chondroitin, and some other nutraceuticals have been used to help manage arthritis in dogs and other animals.
  • Acupuncture isn’t just for people. It’s painless and has been shown to offer some relief for animals.
  • Surgery may be a good choice in certain cases of canine arthritis –– for example, some dogs with hip dysplasia are candidates for surgical correction.
  • A low-stress environment, plenty of affection, and supportive care can help improve any dog’s quality of life.

Prevention

Regular, moderate exercise and a high-quality diet can help reduce the likelihood of developing arthritis by managing body weight and keeping a dog’s musculoskeletal system in good shape.

Identifying at-risk dogs early so that any special care –– such as surgery or drug therapy –– can be taken is undeniably helpful.

This article has been reviewed by a Veterinarian.

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