Senior Golden Retriever

Osteoarthritis, or degenerative joint disease, is a painful, progressive and irreversible condition that’s estimated to affect 20 percent of all dogs. It can involve one or more joints, including the knees, hips, shoulders, elbows and spine. Although the condition is most commonly associated with older dogs, arthritis can affect puppies as young as six months of age.

In most cases, pain relief is the first step in improving the quality of life for dogs with arthritis, but controlling the inflammation associated with the condition can be just as important.

Causes of Canine Osteoarthritis

In a healthy joint, a smooth layer of cartilage protects the ends of the bones, enabling them to glide easily during movement. The cartilage is surrounded by a joint capsule that’s lined with a synovial membrane. This membrane produces fluid that lubricates the cartilage, enabling it to act as a shock absorber for the bones.

Trouble begins when the cartilage is damaged from infection, trauma, disease, injuries like ruptured ligaments or conditions that lead to joint instability, such as hip dysplasia. As a dog ages, the water content in the cartilage often decreases, making the cartilage less elastic, and more prone to injury from simple wear and tear or from added stress on the joint due to obesity.

When the cartilage breaks down, it causes inflammation in and around the joint. It can also expose the bones and nerves, leading to pain, lameness and decreased joint movement.

Inflammation Exacerbates the Problem

When the cartilage is damaged, inflammatory substances are released into the synovial fluid, including enzymes that can further harm the cartilage. Flakes of cartilage can also mix with the fluid and act like grains of sand, creating more irritation — and inflammation — during movement.

The inflammatory substances also affect other parts of the joint, including the synovial membrane, the ligaments inside and outside the joint, and the muscles surrounding the joint. When the nerve receptors on these tissues sense the inflammatory substances, this results in pain.

In acute pain (sudden and short-lived), inflammation may play a protective role by discouraging a dog from putting weight on a tender paw, giving the tissues some time to repair. Once the affected area recuperates, the inflammation subsides, along with the pain.

In the case of arthritis, however, the damage to the cartilage is progressive, so it worsens over time. As a result, inflammatory substances are continually released, and the dog is in chronic pain that does not serve to help the tissues repair. Over time, the nervous system may actually amplify the intensity of pain due to constant inflammation within and around the joint.

As a result of this pain, a dog is less likely to use the joint, causing the surrounding muscles to weaken and atrophy. This then contributes to weight gain, which adds more stress on the joints, leading to more inflammation.

Ways to Relieve Arthritis Pain and Inflammation

If you suspect that your dog may have osteoarthritis, it’s important to have him examined by your veterinarian. There are many steps that you can take to help your dog feel more comfortable, and even slow the progression of the condition.

In many cases, your vet may recommend a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID). These medications work quickly to not only relieve the pain associated with arthritis but to also reduce inflammation that can contribute to further cartilage damage and pain.

Some nutraceuticals, such as omega-3 fatty acids and glucosamine, can also benefit dogs with osteoarthritis. Talk to your vet before giving any supplements or nutraceuticals to your pet though. Most of these nutraceuticals are available in pill form, but there are also special "arthritis diets" that contain higher levels of these nutrients. However, the effects don’t happen overnight — it make take a few weeks before you notice a difference in your dog.

Your veterinarian may also recommend injectable cartilage protectants to help minimize cartilage damage and increase joint lubrication.

For dogs who are on the chubbier side, weight loss can significantly reduce the stress on joints and improve overall comfort. Veterinarian-monitored exercise and physical therapy can also help to rebuild muscle strength — and get an arthritic dog mobile again.

More on Vetstreet: