"What does arthritis mean for my older dog?

"What does arthritis mean for my older dog?

Health & Safety

Arthritis can affect dogs of any age, but most commonly it is older pets that can be affected by this condition. If your older dog has been properly diagnosed by a vet to have arthritis (there are other conditions which can cause a dog to be lame, for example cruciate ligament damage, tendon damage and sadly some cancers); there are so many questions that can go through your mind, these can include:

  • What caused it in the first place?
  • What do I need to look for, to see if they have a problem?
  • Can it be managed or cured?

And one of the most important questions often asked by dog owners, does it mean that I can no longer walk my elderly dog? This Pets4Homes article looks thoroughly into every one of these questions and more, helping you understand the condition and giving you the options on how to manage this debilitating disease in your older dog.

Let’s start at the beginning and look at what is meant by arthritis

Many people do not realise there is more than one type of arthritis, they simply think that if a dog has arthritis it is just a joint disease, which in one respect is correct, however there are several types. The main types of arthritis that can affect dogs are:

Immune-mediated arthritis – in this type of arthritis, the dog’s own immune system can start to damage the its joints. The reason behind this is normally due to an overactive immune system where their functions start work incorrectly and of the whole system starts attacking itself. In this case, the healthy tissues around the joints. It can even be a bit of a side effect from the immune system doing its own proper job in attacking a bacteria or virus. The vets may class this immune-mediated arthritis as an autoimmune disease in the joints.

If we were to compare this to the human version, you may have heard of rheumatoid arthritis – this is almost the same condition as immune-mediated arthritis. In dogs, it is not called rheumatoid arthritis, this type is often classed as polyarthritis.

Septic arthritis – this is much less common in dogs, but it does happen. Not surprisingly it is where a joint gets infected and becomes septic. This does not happen usually in older dogs – that is unless they have an injury over joint, such as a very deep wound that has become infected. Vets can see it more in young puppies – especially if the conditions they were born into were dirty, such as an unscrupulous puppy farm.

Osteoarthritis – this is probably the best-known and most common form of arthritis that affects both pets and humans. It is also the most seen joint condition in dogs of an older age, this is generally because of the wear and tear that they have had over their lifetime in their joints. Osteoarthritis can also affect dogs that have pre-existing joint conditions, and arthritis can set in as a side-effect from these conditions. Because this is the most common type of disease of the joint, we will concentrate on this class of arthritis through the rest of the article, by drilling down further into the subject.

So, osteoarthritis is common, but what causes it?

It can develop at any age, and the very basic cause of it is wearing of the joint. Joints in pets and humans have a special lining on the inside of them which allows the bones to move freely over each other without friction. This lining is actually made of cartilage and can be considered like a nonstick coating!

As long as the lining is in place and doing its job, the bones can glide and not grate or catch. The problem comes when the lining becomes worn and ineffective. Friction in the joints can cause the fluid contained in it (which is a lubricant called synovial fluid) to change its consistency. Joint damage can also cause inflammation around the joint, meaning pain in the area and greatly reducing the movement of the joint.

Joints often become worn quicker due to 3 main reasons – but they are all concerned with the amount of work and load the joint has to do.

So, what are the reasons that osteoarthritis starts in the first place?

As mentioned above the main reason is the pressure put on the joints and the load they take. Think of the suspension of a loaded lorry, it has a reduced ‘bounce’ because of the weight on the vehicle. Loading of a joint in a dog is much the same, in fact, the load on the dog’s joint can be normal and still cause problems!

Abnormal joint and a normal load – this can start in very young puppies and is seen in certain breeds more than others (although all breeds can be affected). It is due to the joints being abnormal through conditions such as hip dysplasia or elbow dysplasia. Because the joints are not formed properly, even a normal load such as the dogs weight (which could be an ideal weight) is still putting pressure on those joints, resulting in wear and tear much faster than normal.

A normal joint with abnormal loading – look at the lorry scenario again, if it was overloaded then the suspension would not cope properly. Flip this over to a dog and the joints can be affected by excess weight being carried. It is well documented that pet obesity is a big problem in the UK, one of the reasons arthritis in overweight dogs is prominent, is because of the loads that are put on their joints mean they get worn down much quicker.

A normal joint with normal loading – you may think that this is wrong and cannot cause arthritis, however, if the joint is normal and the load the same, time will play a factor. This is where old age comes in! Even in healthy joints, over time the cartilage can be worn down to the point of osteoarthritis starting. Dogs are living longer thanks to veterinary medicine and surgical advances, but with this means their joints are also being worn down, so vets often see hobbling older dogs coming into the surgery!

So what things do look for if I think my dog has arthritis?

It’s important not to put everything down to old age! Many owners say that their dog is just slowing down or is looking at their age because they are have become stiff when moving. The dog could actually be suffering from osteoarthritis and the associated pain is causing them to slow down on walks. Dog owners that have started their pets on medication to help relieve the symptoms often remark on how younger the dog seems to act.

Signs of arthritis are often prominent in the morning or when the dog has woken from a sleep – this is because the joints are cold and have not warmed up properly yet. Throughout the day you may see a bit of an improvement in your dog's mobility, but it will be short lived if not managed correctly. Other symptoms to look out for other than stiffness in their walking are:

  • Reluctance to do any exercise.
  • Taking more time to get moving, especially in the morning.
  • Reluctant to jump up into a car, onto a sofa or bed, or even up at visitors. They may also be unhappy to try and climb the stairs.
  • Unusual shuffling, again due to joint pain this can often be seen. If the pain is in the hip area you may even see your dog trying to bunnyhop – amusing to see, but painful to experience and it needs veterinary attention.
  • Limited range of movement – because of the pain and inflammation around the joint, many dogs will find it hard to bend the joint as much as they would like.
  • Tiredness – this is a common effect of arthritis, almost as if the dog feels tired so it does not have to go for a walk and therefore not getting pain.
  • Lameness – in cases that are quite advanced, rather than load the joint anymore and receive more pain, the dog tries to take their own weight off of it and they end up limping – in some instances quite badly.

Some of these symptoms above may also flare up even worse for a couple of days, following a long walk or other strenuous activity.

So how can osteoarthritis be managed in my dog?

To help a dog with osteoarthritis can mean a few lifestyle changes, however, it doesn’t mean the dog’s life is over! Osteoarthritis cannot be cured, but it can be managed to help the dog have a much happier and comfortable life. Each case of arthritis is different, and what suits one dog may not suit another, but the three main areas that are often implemented to help this condition are:

Environmental changes – this is a fairly simple and straightforward management technique in arthritis. By using a heated blanket or padding where they prefer to sleep can reduce inflammation in their joints. Keeping their bed out of draughts and off of cold floors can help, some owners have even been known to get their pet their own small sofa, as long as the pet can manage to climb onto it!

Another environmental change that can be made is by using ramps – especially up to the car where they can walk and get in comfortably. Even low cars (not a 4x4 type of vehicle) that have a lower height that is very easy for a standard dog to jump can cause a lot of problems.

One of the most important changes you can do for your dog is to ensure they are that their ideal weight, and not carrying too much of a load! Having a dog that is on a weight loss program has been found to be just as effective for joint discomfort as a dose of painkillers. Of course, this has other added benefits as well including reducing the risk of diabetes and other health-related conditions.

Supplements – the use of supplements – sometimes termed nutraceuticals as they are natural and do not contain an actual drug – is becoming more and more common. Supplements are normally well understood by owners, as us humans have the same sort of medication to help joints, such as products found in a health food shop.

Supplements fall into two main categories, those that help maintain and build good cartilage, and those that are designed to help as anti-inflammatories.

  • **The cartilage builders -**Most of these products contain two main ingredients called glucosamine and chondroitin. These have been found to be effective in animals. Some owners may find that these supplements do not work properly, that is because before they are absorbed, the big complex molecules end up being digested.
  • The anti-inflammatories - These are often found in dog food, with the main products being omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids. Whilst these are a good supplement to have in a diet (or even tablets) if your dog has them and eats a lot of other food, it will almost dilute the good that the anti-inflammatories are trying to do.

For all supplements, it is worth remembering that it can take from six weeks before you see any signs of improvement. This is due to the way the drugs work and the effects they have on the body. They need to build up to sufficient levels to have an effect. Also never give human supplements to animals as the dosages are completely different – these can be detrimental to the animal’s health, especially if they have other underlying conditions such as heart problems.

Medication – even with environmental changes and joint supplements, most dogs that have osteoarthritis will go on to medication at some point.

The first type of medication will be used to reduce inflammation in the joint and decrease the discomfort and pain. These are often termed non-steroidal drugs as they don’t contain steroid-based ingredients. Any pet presenting with arthritis will usually be medicated with these drugs. Unlike joint supplements, these drugs have an immediate effect.

If the osteoarthritis is severe, top up drugs that are stronger may be used by the vet – and can include some unlicensed drugs in dogs such as tramadol (which is morphine-based).

Next on the medication list would be a family of drugs that work much in the same way as glucosamine and help build up the cartilage. These are different because they are injected rather than taken orally, so the main drug is not damaged by the digestive system.

If dogs aren’t responding to any of these types of medication vets do have the choice of using extremely powerful steroids that will reduce inflammation, however, these types of drugs can have some very unpleasant side-effects.

So, can they still be exercised?

Yes, they can! It is a common myth that exercising a dog with arthritis will make the condition even worse, it is the complete opposite! Exercising your dog, even if they have a condition such as arthritis can help in several ways and benefit their general overall health. The main benefits of exercising them are:

Helping to keep their joints supple. Inside the joint, as mentioned before is joint fluid, by moving the joints regularly keeps the joint fluid working properly and helps the joint tissues get nutrition. This is probably the main reason for keeping your dog exercised as it can help maximise the health of the joints.

Helping to keep weight at an optimum level – naturally, if a dog does not exercise (the same as us humans) they can put on weight. If their calorie intake is not burnt off through gentle regular exercise, and weight does increase, it can cause more strain on already inflamed joints. It’s a bit of a vicious circle, so gentle exercise is always recommended!

Helping with their mental health – if a dog has osteoarthritis they may be quite an unhappy pet – if they are not exercised and are stuck indoors all day, they can become very unhappy indeed. Exercise is a great mental stimulator, both for pets and humans, so it is a good excuse for both to get out in the fresh air for a gentle stroll.

As with any exercise – especially in dogs with arthritis, gentle is the key word. Being sensible about their exercise is vitally important and a general rule of thumb is controlling it, so they don’t overdo it, but so they get enough – little and often! As pet owners, you know your animal better than anyone, so being able to help them pace themselves should be quite straightforward.

In conclusion arthritis in dogs can be managed, it is not a life ending disease and with a sensible approach and by talking to your own vet, your dog’s quality-of-life can be maintained. If you have any concerns over your dog's mobility, or have noticed any of the symptoms that have been listed above, please contact your veterinary practice for further advice.

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