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Arthritis in Dogs

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What is arthritis?

Arthritis is the painful inflammation of one or more joints.  It is also known as degenerative joint disease (DJD) and osteoarthritis (OA).  Arthritis causes stiffness, lameness and, in severe cases, can be completely debilitating, causing permeant loss of normal joint function and deformities.

What are the symptoms of arthritis in dogs?

As arthritis is a progressive disease you may not notice the initial mild symptoms.  Arthritis often develops in older dogs so you may find yourself putting symptoms, such as sleeping more and weight gain, down to old age. Signs that may indicate arthritis are:-

  • Occasional lameness
  • Sleeping more
  • Reluctant to get up or move
  • Reluctance to go up or down stairs, or jump up onto furniture or into the car
  • Disinterest in exercise
  • Weight gain
  • Lethargy
  • Stiffness
  • Change in walking/running posture
  • Swollen joints (warm to touch)
  • Aggression or flinching when joints touched
  • Depression
  • Licking and chewing painful joints

What are the causes of arthritis in dogs?

The most common cause of arthritis in dogs is degenerative joint disease (DJD), also know as osteoarthritis (OA).  DJD is progressive and irreversible and can be the primary cause of arthritis but is more commonly secondary to an earlier injury or condition.  Injury to a joint will cause a number of chemicals to be released, known as inflammatory mediators. These chemicals breakdown the connective cartilage quicker that it can be rebuilt.  As the joint degenerates, small bony growths develop causing the dog increasingly more pain. Such a reaction can be caused by abnormal forces placed on a normal joint (ie, fractures, sprains, direct trauma, obesity) or normal forces placed on abnormal joints (ie congenital and genetic abnormalities). Other causes are joint infections and immune-mediated arthritis.  Immune-mediated arthritis results in the dog’s own immune system making antibodies which attack the joint surface and destroy articular cartilage causing joint deformities.

What are the risk factors of a dog developing arthritis?

Breeds of dogs which are inclined to suffer with certain congenital or genetic joint abnormalities such a dysplasia (including German Shepherds, Rottweilers, Great Danes, Golden Retrievers, Bull Dogs, Newfoundlands) or patella luxation (commom in small toy breeds) are more likely to go on and develop arthritis, secondary to such conditions.  Athletic and working dogs are more likely to suffer injuries, and wear and tear, increasing the possibility of developing arthritis in old age.  Overweight dogs, as well as large and heavy breeds also appear to be predisposed to the disease.

Diagnosis

Your vet will take details of your dog’s symptoms and undertake a physical examination which will involve flexing and extending your dog’s joints to help assess the extent of the areas affected.  He is also likely to take blood and urine samples for analysis in order to rule out any other medical conditions.  X-rays may be suggested as they can often show changes in the cartilage, bone and soft tissue that are associated with arthritis.  If an infection of the joint is suspected, your vet may choose to take a fluid sample from inside the joint.

What treatment is there for arthritis?

In almost all cases, arthritis is progressive and irreversible.  The main aim of treatment will be to reduce pain, increase mobility and slow the progression of the disease as much as possible. In cases where it is believed the disease can be reversed, treatment will be given to stimulate repair and recovery.

Your vet will medicate your pet based on the underlying cause of the arthritis. This is likely to include anti-inflammatory therapy for a few weeks or months, together with painkillers.   If your dog is overweight, expect to be advised on an appropriate weight control diet and a low impact exercise routine.  Weight loss will help alleviate the pressure on joints and exercise will help maximise the range of movement and strength of the muscles surrounding those joints. In addition to anti-inflammatories and pain killers, drugs and food supplements can be given. Nutritional supplements such as glucosamine and chondroitin will promote healthy cartilage repair and reduce further damage, whereas dietary supplements of omega 3 and 6 fatty acids, vitamins E and C can help reduce inflammation.

Other less traditional treatments such as hydrotherapy, laser treatment, massage and acupuncture are also used to stimulate blood flow to the muscles and improve arthritic symptoms.

Surgical options may be considered as a last resort in cases where joint damage is so severe that other options do not relieve or resolve the problem.  Surgery is unlikely to be recommended for overweight or very old dogs.

At home you can help alleviate symptoms by providing your dog with a well-padded bed away from cold or damp areas. Specially designed beds for arthritic dogs are available which are made from orthopaedic foam and can even be heated to provide greater comfort and relief to arthritic joints. It is a good idea to place mats or non-skid flooring down on surfaces where your pet is likely to be unsteady and slip. If you have steps into your home and your pet is not easy to lift, look at providing him with a ramp.

Take you dog for a couple of short walks each day, as one long walk may cause them discomfort and further damage.  Ensure their claws are kept short as long claws can affect the way your dog walks, putting unnecessary pressure on his joints.

Ask your vet about physical therapy (massage) which you can perform on your dog at home. This will not only help relax stiff muscles and joints, but your dog will probably enjoy the attention. If your dog likes water, a hot bath can also provide relief and improve circulation.

How can arthritis be prevented?

Keeping your dog at a healthy weight can greatly help by not putting unnecessary pressure on joints. Where possible, restrict your pet from jumping from high places and avoid activities that might lead to joint injuries.  However, many dogs do go on to develop arthritis as there are so many potential causes.  If your pet is showing early signs of arthritis, early treatment is the best way of slowing or even preventing further damage.  With careful treatment and management of the condition your dog can maintain a good quality of life.

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