Discomfort, pain, and stiffness, particularly in the leg joints are the common signs of arthritis in dogs - a fairly common ailment that typically affects aging canines. Do all dogs develop arthritis? What causes the disease and can it be prevented? How do you treat arthritis? Here’s your complete guide on dog arthritis and how you can improve your beloved pet’s quality of life.
What is arthritis?
Arthritis is inflammation of the joints caused by damage to the cartilage within the affected joints. The cartilage is a thin and smooth layer, lubricated with synovial fluid, that covers the ends of bones where they form a joint, and allows for the easy movement of the connected bones. Changes in the composition of the cartilage or damage to the cartilage can make it less smooth so that there is more friction when bone surfaces rub against each other during movement.
The friction causes discomfort and, eventually, inflammation of the cartilage. Over time, the increased friction results in the thickening around the ends of bones, which makes them stiffer and leads to chronic pain and progressively limited movement.
As a degenerative disease, arthritis usually affects middle-age to senior dogs and has been attributed to the normal wear and tear of bones. Other risk factors include:
- Being overweight or obese and not physically active; the excess weight puts more strain on the joints.
- Athletic activities that cause repetitive stress
- Type of breed, particularly large or giant breeds such as German Shepherds, Golden Retrievers, Great Danes, Labrador Retrievers, and St. Bernards.
- Injuries to the bones or ligaments
- Infections that affect the joints, such as Lyme disease
- Poor conformation
- Poor diet
- Genetic predisposition
New research also indicates that the presence of aberrant proteins in the synovial fluid - which coats the cartilage and joints and after comparison with healthy fluid - may be the main cause of joint inflammation.
If your dog has any of the above risk factors, it is even more important that you take him to the vet for regular check-ups. Some of these factors are easy enough to manage, such as your dog’s weight, diet, and level of physical activity. Keep an eye out for symptoms of arthritis in your dog so you and your vet can address the problem as early as possible.
How is arthritis in dogs diagnosed?
The symptoms of arthritis are easy to recognize and may include:
- Discomfort, pain, and/or stiffness when moving, especially after a period of rest
- Worsening of pain under cold and damp conditions
- Slower movements, particularly when getting up and taking the first few steps
- Difficulty posturing when he has to pee or defecate; having accidents in the house
- Unwillingness of your best bud to exercise or engage in active play
- Weight gain
- Mood changes, usually becoming more irritable
- Constant licking of the affected joint
- Pain when petted or touched
- Loss of muscle mass in the limbs and spine area
- Swollen joints or joints that are hot to the touch (a rare symptom)
If you suspect that your dog has arthritis, schedule a visit to your vet. The vet will examine your pet’s joints through palpation of the joints, joint flexion and extension, and x-rays to identify the affected joints and determine if there are underlying causes, such as a joint infection. Synovial fluid and blood samples may also be required for additional testing.
How is arthritis treated?
Arthritis is a progressive disease and has no cure. There are, however, a number of therapy options to help manage your dog’s symptoms so he can get pain relief and be more comfortable; the key is to find the right match to the underlying cause.
If your dog is overweight, for example, a combination of weight-management, regular low-impact exercise that focuses on range of movement, and anti-inflammatory and pain medications will help improve his condition.
When it comes to medications, there are three types of drugs that are used for arthritis treatment in canines.
- Cartilage protectors, such as hyaluronic acid, polysulphated glycosaminoglycans, and pentosan polysulphate, reduce cartilage degeneration, promote joint repair, and reduce pain and inflammation.
- Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDs, help manage the pain, swelling and stiffness associated with joint inflammation. These are only ideal for short-term use as they cause digestive problems and kidney and liver damage if used long-term. Common NSAIDs that are prescribed for dogs include carprofen, deracoxib, firocoxib, and meloxicam.
- Nutraceuticals or joint supplements are formulated to support healthy bone and joint function. Most of these supplements contain chondroitin and glucosamine, which are also naturally present in cartilage. Supplements are often given alongside your dog’s prescription medication, as recommended by your vet.
Arthritis in Dogs - Final Thoughts
Arthritis is an irreversible and painful condition. The damage to your dog’s cartilage and joints will only continue to worsen over time. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to manage your pet’s symptoms so that he doesn’t experience pain and discomfort and to slow down the progress of the disease.
In fact, with proper management and therapy, most dogs continue to live full, active, and happy lives even with arthritis. The type of treatment that is appropriate for your dog will depend on the severity of his condition and his overall health. His therapy can include lifestyle changes, medications and supplements, and/or surgical intervention. But if arthritis is left untreated, your dog will live in constant and increasing pain and suffer from progressive loss of mobility.
Whether or not your dog is at risk for arthritis, you should make sure that he maintains a healthy weight through a well-balanced diet and an active lifestyle. If your dog is overweight or obese, the excess weight often makes the pain of arthritis worse and also speeds up the deterioration of the cartilage. Any diet change for an overweight or obese dog should be done with the advice of your veterinarian.
Identifying the signs of arthritis early enough will significantly improve your best bud’s treatment outcome and ensure that he enjoys a good quality of life until his golden years.